School of Social Work Offers Free Online Course for Understanding Structural Racism
Self-paced noncredit module is designed for social workers, health and human services providers
Social workers often find themselves on the front lines of the ongoing battle against racism in this country. The lives of their clients are frequently shaped by institutional and structural oppression that can affect their finances, their health, and their futures, and many social workers are trying to better understand how and why that happens and what they can do about it.
A new free online course from the BU School of Social Work aims to fill the gap, digitally.
“We live in a world where there is systemic oppression, and unless you were raised in a bubble, you’re affected by it,” says Dawn Belkin Martinez, a School of Social Work clinical associate professor and associate dean for equity and inclusion.
“Understanding how that system works is very liberating for people, because you’re able to think about how to change that,” she says. “The whole third part of the module is about activism.”
Belkin Martinez is the driving force behind Understanding Structural & Institutional Racism, a new free online self-paced noncredit course intended to give social workers and other health and human service providers a grounding in the basics of those fundamental factors in the lives of many clients.
SSW has a required 10-week course called The Dynamics of Racial Justice and Cultural Oppression, but students can take it whenever they want, even their last semester. “And when they took it, they’d say, “Oh my God, why didn’t we know this earlier,” Belkin Martinez says.
She also heard feedback from students doing required fieldwork who were running into the practical consequences of systemic racism, but didn’t have the theoretical framework to make sense of it. They wanted access to that information right away.
“We didn’t want to create this thing, it was a lot of work, but we looked around and couldn’t find anything for free that we could borrow,” she says.
More than 1,150 people have registered for the class since it first became available in January 2022, but the school is not tracking how many complete it. The module is now available via Blackboard and the Network for Professional Education, and through the latter has begun attracting learners from all over the globe.
The course is divided into three sections, each taking about an hour to complete. The first introduces core concepts like political economy and racial capitalism that set the stage for the rest of the curriculum. Part two takes a deeper look at white supremacy and its influence on American society. The third section examines antiracist activism in the United States and the role social workers can play.
Working alongside Belkin Martinez to create the course were two PhD candidates, Greer Hamilton (SSW’24) and Noor Toraif (CAS’16, SSW’23), who came into SSW from different academic directions, but with similar intent.
Toraif earned a BA in neuroscience, psychology, and philosophy from the College of Arts & Science and a master’s in child studies and human development from Tufts University before returning to the Charles River Campus to pursue her doctorate.
“I came back to BU for the social work program because I kind of went from neuroscience to developmental neuroscience to thinking about the systems that influence kids’ lives and the social and political context,” Toraif says, adding that SSW is a good place to research that.
“Dawn is amazing. She always is pushing the envelope on these conversations about structural and institutional racism,” Toraif says. “A lot of institutions are talking about interpersonal racism and bias and prejudice. But I think this is the stuff that really matters, the institutional, the structural, how it’s kind of baked into our social, political, and economic systems. And Dawn is always trying to push that conversation.
“She mentioned [this course] last summer and asked if I would be interested. And I was like, yeah, absolutely.”
Understanding how that system works is very liberating for people, because you’re able to think about how to change that.
Greer got her bachelor’s in health and human services: community mental health and a master’s in social work from SUNY Buffalo before coming to SSW for her doctorate.
“I’m really interested in thinking about how racism affects people’s health and sense of belonging and how it has been embedded into how we build cities,” Greer says. “What we know is that affordable housing that has been for lower income people and people of color has typically been built near busy roadways, and so their air quality is poor. There are a lot of other places where luxury housing has been built, right?
“I also do drug policy research,” she says. “And we know that in Massachusetts, for example, that Black and Hispanic communities have historically not been able to access the same types of addiction treatment and it’s literally because of where clinics have been placed, where hospitals have been placed. Racism has determined where those things are, has an effect on how communities are able to access them.
“I don’t know that the profession always does a really good job at naming systems of oppression and naming our roles specifically as this profession in combating that. And so I think the module is our attempt to do that,” Greer says.
The course offers an overview of the topic in a way that is digestible, Belkin Martinez, Toraif, and Greer say, so students and others who study it can put some of the relevant ideas into practice.
“While this module doesn’t provide the final word on these difficult and challenging issues,” the course site says, “we hope that it will expand our knowledge base, introduce new concepts and approaches, and help us work together to build a better, more antiracist world.”