Field Practice Institute Summit on Emerging Issues in Social Work Practice

January 4, 2017 / By: Sharon Rolenc, St. Catherine University, for Fall 2016 Perspectives newsletter
The Fifth Annual Field Practice Institute Summit on Emerging Issues in Social Work Practice focused on Engaging the Profession in Dialogue and Action on Racial Justice
Panelists: Carmeann Foster, Marika Pfefferkorn, Larry E. Davis and Jessica Toft


Hosted by the St. Catherine University — University of St. Thomas School of Social Work, the Fifth Annual Field Practice Institute Summit on Emerging Issues in Social Work Practice was held on August 16, 2016

Dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, and director of the Center on Race and Social Problems, Dr. Davis is considered a leading scholar on race and social justice, and is the author of Why Are They Angry With Us? Essays on Race.

During his remarks, Davis painted a stark picture of income and racial disparities in the United States. The top one-tenth of 1 percent owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. The bottom 40 percent combine for a paltry 0.3 percent. Factor in race, and the disparity grows.

“Black Americans earn only 60 percent of the income of whites, and hold approximately one-twentieth of the net worth of whites,” Davis said. By 2050, non-whites will outnumber whites. Now more than ever, it’s critical to address racial disparities and work toward solutions. “Racism is America’s defining social problem. By not addressing this, social workers are ignoring the elephant in the room,” Davis said.

“The good news is that the profession has the greatest capacity to impact change. We have more boots on the ground than any other profession. As social workers, we are committed,  more than any other profession, to work with low-income people and fight for social justice. But we must not be afraid to talk about race and class.”


As a mother of four African-American boys ranging in age from 2 to 6, racial justice is a deeply personal issue to Carmeann Foster MSW/JD ’12. “My life’s work is devoted to making the world a better place for my sons,” she said.

Foster founded and leads Rebound, Inc., a nonprofit serving young African-American males involved in the juvenile justice system. She spoke at the summit about the  over-representation of African-American youth in the criminal justice system.

Nationally, African-American youth make up 60 percent of those incarcerated in the juvenile justice system. In Minnesota, the story is much worse. In Hennepin County, where Foster  lives and focuses her work, 71 percent of youth in the juvenile justice system are African-American.

“That’s not including other ethnic groups. That’s just African-American youth,” said Foster. “So, ask yourself: In a state where African-Americans make up less than 10 percent of the population, how does this happen?”

Some thought leaders believe this is a result of school policies like zero tolerance, but Foster argues that the deep disparities started far earlier. “In the era following slavery, we needed to redefine race relations in this country and, as a result, ended up with racialized policing strategies,” she said.

The more our nation’s power structures and systems are threatened by a growing minority population, the more we avoid making real and lasting change. Foster attributes this to integrated or symbolic threat theory.

“We’ve been holding on tight to the status quo for so long, and the subconscious of our systems have become so racialized that it’s no longer a matter of conscious decision-making.  It’s in the DNA of our systems,” explained Foster.

With this in mind, she challenged summit attendees to critically examine the effectiveness of common social service approaches and how they impact communities of color.

Addressing racial disparities is also deeply personal work for Marika Pfefferkorn, the second panelist at the summit. She and her older brother come from an ethnically mixed family — American Indian and African-American. She is very light skinned, or “ambiguously ethnic,” while her brother presents as “black.”

From the time he was young and “chubby cheeked,” Pfefferkorn watched as her brother was labeled a troublemaker. “I took the path to college while my brother took the school-to-prison pipeline,” she said.

Today, Pfefferkorn serves as director for the Minnesota Educational Equity Partnership, where she leads the Minnesota Black Male Achievement Network. She works with school districts to develop policies, address interventions, measure progress and adapt approaches to improve outcomes for students of color.

Like Foster, she has seen firsthand the systemic resistance to change — specifically, the refusal to accept the realities of the school-to-prison pipeline.

“For so long we were told ‘If only we had the data, we need the data to confirm this story.’ So, we brought the data, and it was ugly, but that data still could not compel people to  change the way they operate.”

Currently, she’s building a coalition of lawyers, parents and students to advocate for a shift in education funding from school resources officers (SROs) and school-based police officers, to social workers.

“I invite you to join me in taking that risk in finding ways, both personally and systemically, to interrupt the system and school-to-prison pipeline,” Pfefferkorn told summit attendees.


“Racial justice should be at the heart of social work practice,” said Jessica Toft, associate professor of social work and president of NASW-MN, during her remarks at the summit.

Toft described the tenets of citizenship and its four universal rights and obligations: civil, political, social and economic. However, the racial underpinnings of mass incarceration have resulted in a significant percentage of African-American people losing these rights.

“Once you are involved in the correctional system, you are permanently, for the rest of your life, relegated to second-class citizenship status as an African-American,” Toft quoted Michelle Alexander. “We need to understand this [phenomenon], not as a psychological issue, not as a behavioral issue, but as a political issue.”

Part of the challenge in restoring rights is access to appropriate social services. While there are numerous social services that respond to social and economic rights via food security, housing, mental health and labor support, very few work to restore civil or political rights.

“We do a good job of addressing social and economic rights through access to services,” she said. “But as social workers who focus on enfranchising people in a democracy, we cannot just focus on social and economic rights; we have to focus on civil and political rights also.”

Social justice requires civil and political rights, Toft underscored, challenging summit attendees to get involved, engage with lawmakers, show up at Social Work Day at the Capitol and face the tough questions.

“Address personal and organizational forces that limit citizenship,” she said. “Are we unknowingly building a system of injustice? How are we complicit?"


As a part of the event evaluation, participants were asked to share one action step that they would take as a result of their experience that day. Here are some of the commitments made:

  • “Push myself to be uncomfortable in situations; to learn and experience more.”
  • “Focus some staff responsibility on systems advocacy and awareness of systems issues experienced by clients.”
  • “Take the step to encourage conversations about racism and disparities in my work setting.”system of injustice? How are we complicit?”


The following agency partners participated in the Summit Resource Fair to educate attendees about their programs and initiatives:

  • Catholic Charities – Office for Social Justice Generation Next
  • Amherst H. Wilder Foundation – Racial Equity Action Support Network
  • Sisters of St. Joseph of Carondelet Justice Commission
  • Minnesota Chapter of the Association of Black Social Workers
  • Rebound, Inc.
  • TRIO Program – North Hennepin Community College
  • Jewish Community Action


Grounded in the integration of theory and practice, the mission of the Field Practice Institute is to foster student development and professional identity; enhance supervision skills of  field instructors; and promote community engagement, best practices and lifelong learning, through providing critical programming to students, field instructors and agencies.


  • Carey Winkler, Director of BSW Field Education
  • Lisa Richardson, Director of MSW Field Education
  • Kathy Caron, MSW Weekend Cohort Field Coordinator

This article was published in the Fall 2016 School of Social Work Perspectives newsletter