Dean Martell Teasley setting national path for social work on anti-racism

On the "U Rising" podcast, President Ruth V. Watkins engages in insightful conversations with students, staff, faculty, alumni and community stakeholders who are at the center of the state's flagship research university. President Watkins also connects with other leaders to give listeners a fresh take on top issues and innovations in higher education in Utah and across the country. You can subscribe to U Rising via iTunes, Spotify, Stitcher and other podcast streaming services.


Martell Teasley is the dean of the College of Social Work and he is co-chairing the Grand Challenge to Eliminate Racism—a new challenge put forth to the profession by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare. Dean Teasley talks about his anti-racism work at the national level, within the college and also the college’s upcoming social justice programs. Recorded on Thursday, Aug. 27, 2020. Thanks to Brooke Adams and Dave White for technical assistance. Music by Taylor Hartley.


President Ruth Watkins: Welcome to the U Rising podcast, where you get to meet some of the people who are helping us achieve great things at the University of Utah. I'm Ruth Watkins, the president of the U, and my guest today is Martell Teasley. Martell is the dean of the College of Social Work. Warmest welcome to you, Martell.

Martell Teasley: Why thank you, President Watkins. And welcome to you. And I thank you for your time. I'm really glad to be here with everyone. I want to say hello to all of the new and returning students, particularly the students in the College of Social Work. And a big shout out goes to the awesome faculty and staff in the College of Social Work who really make it happen.

President Watkins: That is so great. And of course, here we are at the beginning of a new academic year, and a very unusual one at that. I'd love to hear a little bit about what you are doing in Social Work to connect with both new and returning students, and, of course, your faculty and staff.

Martell Teasley: Well, we basically started at the beginning of the summer semester in terms of preparation, kind of anticipating where we would be as well as remaining very flexible. So, we can do online, in-face, hybrid, or hybrid flex, whatever we need to convert our classroom to. So, we're ready for that. We're also continuing to offer emergency funding for our students that support keeping them informed. We've had a couple of information sessions and town halls over the summer, and we'll continue to do that. We continue to offer really excellent educational forums for our students and faculty. Dr. Emily Salisbury, the new director of the Utah Center for Criminal Justice here at the College of Social Work, hit the ground running. She's had three presentations already and just started July 1. So, we'll continue those things. Last but not least, we actually have increased funding for scholarships for our students. And that's extremely important. So that is exciting.

President Watkins: Dean Teasley, I'm so grateful to you and your whole community for the creative and flexible way you've approached this, and the priority that you've placed on scholarships and emergency support for students. That makes so much difference. Talk a little bit about the Grand Challenges in Social Work. I know from our time working together that social work as a field has had a grand challenge lens of saying the biggest issues in society, really all of them in one way or another, need social work as a discipline to solve. And I think that's been a long tradition in the field, as I understand it. Now, I've learned that you are co-chairing the Grand Challenge in the field to eliminate racism. And what a timely challenge and such an important one for the future of our country and all of our people. Tell us a little bit about the Grand Challenge history and what specifically you see happening with the Grand Challenge to Eliminate Racism.

Martell Teasley: Thank you, President Watkins. Of course, you know that the Grand Challenges started in mathematics and it's these long-term problems in mathematics that seemed insolvable, but over time could be solved. And they're in engineering and social work. So they're really for us in social work long-standing social problems that, backed by science and effort, of course, in collaboration with one another, we can solve such as homelessness, social isolation, helping students get through school, et cetera. So just a cornucopia of those.

So, social work started this about five years ago, started on the Grand Challenge Initiative. And they had some broad areas. Let me just talk about those. Individual and family well-being, stronger social fabric and a just society, and under each of those three domains, those broad domains, there are categories, four categories. There was a lot of snickering going on in the profession about really what were the grand challenges, but race was not seen as one.

And of course, a social worker, as the profession goes, we are advocates for social justice. And so ending racism and all -isms are near and dear in terms of who we are, and continuing to work on them. So, given that there wasn't a Grand Challenge on race, the executive committee basically stated that it would be woven into all the existing Grand Challenges. And that just was not enough for some of us. So, we started to advocate, including myself. Initially, I wrote a letter to the executive committee with some of my other colleagues about the lack of inclusion in terms of racism as a Grand Challenge. We were written back saying, "Okay, why don't you write one of the papers?" I did write a paper and it is on the website for the Grand Challenges, but that still was not enough.

We continued to advocate for that. And that took about a five-year period. So, while it may look like we announced that right after COVID-19 and the racial unrest, because this announcement just took place in July of this year, we have been working on that for some time. And earlier this year, I think April or May, the executive committee voted unanimously to make racism a Grand Challenge for the profession. So, the Grand Challenge is eliminating racism. And I'm the co-chairs with my colleague from the University of Washington, Mike Spencer. And so right now that's where we're at with that. I'm sure there's more questions you may have.

President Watkins: Certainly. I think we have been so fortunate here at the University of Utah to have you as our dean of Social Work, given the role you've played at the national level. And this Grand Challenge effort is a great example of that. We are at a moment in our country, and certainly at the U as well, and in our own community, where there is heightened awareness of what you have long been working on. And that is the harm of systemic racism and the problem that institutions face when they have policies or long-standing practices that perpetuate white privilege. Tell me about what you hope you will be able to work on with this Grand Challenge initiative. How does the work get carried out, both kind of at the vision level and then operationalized in institutions around the country?

Martell Teasley: Well, that's a very good question. We started talking about this and people will say, "Well, how can you eliminate racism?" Couple of things there first. One is that there are problems that are beyond us and that we continue to work on, for example, cancer. We may think we can't cure cancer, but some cancers have been cured over time and we continue to stay at that. We have several Alzheimer's societies and we're trying to find challenges there and there are other certain disease processes we work on.

And racism is a social disease that we can continue to work on. It's bigger than any of our lifetimes and so we need to stay with it. And one thing I've learned to say is, never say never because things can happen over time. What we really want to do, though, in terms of developing this Grand Challenge is at the national level. Social work, like many professional degrees, is a practice-based profession, based on interaction with people. And so most of what we do in terms of advocating for anti-racism is at the individual level.

We don't want microaggressions and we want to change attitudes. And that's fine. And we talk a lot about that within social work education and we do a fine job on that. At the same time, there are many structural barriers that are out there that we haven't focused on. So, it's one thing about the notion of cultural competency. Then there's something called structural competency, in terms of how we negotiate organizations and institutions in terms of program and policy. The other thing is that we have talked a lot about diversity and inclusion, multiculturalism, and that's all fine and well, those are things we should continue to work on because we are a multicultural society. But we really haven't focused on the centrality of racism itself, because racism is something that effects all of us.

And as I've heard it said so many times before, we live in a racist society, but no one wants to claim that they're racist. So, I meet people from all walks of life, no one claims to be racist, but we live in a racist society. And so therefore there must be some racist people. And one of our tenets in terms of who we are and our beliefs and values is that we're individuals. And so we're alright with living in a racist society, but we don't want to individually be called racist. And so the whole notion of anti-racism is the belief that racial groups are equal and always different. So, we live in a multicultural society, but people of different stripes and different backgrounds are just as equal as anyone else. And so that whole philosophy on the great chain of beings with leanings to go and rank all your people. And while we think we've rid ourselves of that, there's just a lot that still takes place that turns people out that way in terms of the socialization process. And we really could talk more about K through 12 education there.

Anti-racism also is geared towards reducing racial inequalities and creating equal opportunity for people. And anti-racists no longer speak through the mask of racial neutrality so that people are racist. Racism impacts all of us. I always joke that I want to start a support group like Alcoholics Anonymous, where we all stand up and say, "I am a racist." Because I was born in America and America has many racial elements to its society, and it has affected me and impacted me and my way of thinking. And one of my goals in life is to get rid of that as much as possible. Anti-racism is also focused on power and policies. So, if we just think it is people, if we don't focus on policies, then we may think that people are the problem. It's policies that really set the tone and conditioning context, how people live within communities and society. Finally, an anti-racist is basically full and free in terms of celebrating our humanity. And that's important because people will say, "Well, you are concentrating on racism, but why aren't you concentrating on social justice and inequality?" Anti-racists basically say, "We really need to take a time out and focused on the centrality of race as a way of getting to a full humanity." And so we're really for equality. It's not just about racialized thinking, but racialized thinking, as you said, to interrupt the process of being fully human. And I'll stop right there.

President Watkins: Very powerful. And I think one of the efforts that is underway broadly on campus this year really links closely with what you're talking about. And that is we have done many things in past years to recruit faculty, for example, and staff, and students from diverse backgrounds, without doing the heavy lifting of looking at our own policies and practices in the institution that make it difficult for people to stay, to succeed and to thrive in our institution. The opportunity to actually take an anti-racist look at ourselves and some institutional policies and practices that have perpetuated racism, it's going to be an important effort for us throughout this year.

I know whenever we have issues that relate to racism, white privilege, systemic or individual, we often hear first from people in social work. Our faculty, our staff, our students. There's a strong social justice commitment and a commitment to equity, diversity and inclusion that comes from your field. I'm interested in how you see this national work that you're doing translate to the work that is happening in our own College of Social Work.

Martell Teasley: Well, let me thank you. And I'll certainly answer that. One thing I did forget, I am the president of the National Association of Deans and Directors of Social Work. And so while I was giddy about becoming a dean in 2017, I was extremely excited when my colleagues elected me the president of our national association. In fact, I'm the first two-time president. I'm not sure what I got into sometimes. And so that's one thing that we're doing now at the national level is making an anti-racist statement. And we're going to develop metrics to that and hold ourselves responsible about that. And I'm working with other social work organizations in terms of doing the same. So that's at the national level.

Here at the U, we really want to do something very similar in terms of assessing ourselves and our framework. We want to create within the College of Social Work a framework for assessment and inclusion within the college. And that will take a look at our curriculum in terms of what we're teaching people. Do we have an array of our views on particular topics from different cultural perspectives? Right, wrong, good or bad? And then in terms of our faculty and staff, how we recruit them and how we retain them. And we're actually thinking about requesting a diversity statement within letters from new applicants who are applying for a job.

We also want to look at, you know, we are a practice agency and we work with organizations and agencies within the greater Salt Lake community. We want to actually take a look at what agencies we're going to. We often work with clients from a diverse array of backgrounds, but we don't put our students inside of the organizations and agencies in those communities. And so they need interns also, and the assistance in the wealth of help and information that those interns brings. So we need to look at that also. We also need to look at what we're doing in terms of what presentations we have.

In social work, one of the things that happens is that when we go through our re-affirmation programs scramble for what we've done in terms of diversion and inclusion. And we don't want to do that, we want to be proud and very upfront and intentional about what we're doing. So, one example I give there is that every unit on campus has guidelines and policies for promotion and retention. And so if the people change, the policy may not change. They may tinker with it a bit. So, what we're doing in the College of Social Work is developing a framework for assessment and inclusion that will be a standard within the college, and maybe tinkered with every now and then, but it will be the process which all of our programming goes through. And then finally, I'll just say, we really want to get more student involvement and community involvement in terms of projects, in terms of diversity and inclusion.

President Watkins: I think that we've all been through that accreditation scramble. What you're doing is very powerful. You want to make real and lasting and sustainable change and the way you're going about it has a much better hope of success. I've heard that you're going to have a second year of a lecture series around the Grand Challenges in social work. Tell me about what you've planned. And can listeners participate, if there are lectures ahead?

Martell Teasley: Well, they certainly can. And right now, we have four events planned. We put out a call for proposals to our faculty right before the end of the Spring 2020 Semester. And so this fall, we'll have a piece in September. I think the date is the 16th. There's a piece on homelessness and the title is Homelessness in Utah: Partnering to Develop Strategy. And there we're looking for innovative and evidence-based approaches. And our colleague, Dr. Sarah Cannon, and others will engage in that. And then there'll be a piece in November—November or October—on mass incarceration. One of the initial Grand Challenges for the profession was something called “Smart Decarceration.”

And so what are the things that we can do, one, to stop people from going to jail? And then two, once they are out of jail, then what do we do to reduce recidivism? And so those are things we need to talk to. And then are two more events in the spring—An Evening of Art and Research. So getting away from the heavy stuff, we'll be talking a little bit about art and how it impacts research. And then we also have one called Survival of the Wealthiest. And it's about how COVID-19 impacts economic inequality and the health of populations of color. In the great recession that we had around 2008-2009, African Americans and Hispanics lost about $400 billion, nearly $400 billion worth of wealth, that they have not recovered because a lot of that was in housing.

And so there are many things that we are having happen based on COVID-19 that we must be mindful of. One of them has to do with even K through 12 education. I was speaking to my wife the other day and saying to her that there'll be a period where lots of students will fall hopelessly behind. And then we'll be saying, "Wow, during COVID-19, some students didn't get what they should in terms of competencies and proficiencies and education. But the affluent and those people that are in what we may be referred to as the “no-touch society." I have a friend that just put this young person in an online private school, $25,000 a year. So, we'll have those people who will continue to accelerate, but a massive amount of poor people will fall behind. We need to be mindful of those things. But those are four things that we'll be talking about in our Grand Challenge series in the College of Social Work.

President Watkins: It will be an exciting and important year in the College of Social Work. I hope our listeners can go to your website through the U and find out about these opportunities to be part of connecting with a better and a more just future for everyone. We are so privileged and honored, Dean Teasley, to have you, the leader of the National Associations of Deans and Directors, as our leader in social work here, our dean of the college. So, thank you so much for your time and your insights today.

Martell Teasley: Thank you for your time, President Watkins.

President Watkins: And listeners, I appreciate you joining us today and I hope you'll join again for the next edition of the U Rising podcast.