Social Worker Spotlight: Sarah Frazell on A Social Worker’s Role in Addressing Racism

Conversations about racism and racial trauma can be difficult – even for professionals in the social work field, who work with communities that are acutely impacted by racism in so many facets of their lives.

Sarah Frazell, LCSW-C, works full time as a director at a nonprofit organization that helps coordinate health services for uninsured and low-income patients in Maryland. For the past three years, she has also co-chaired the Social Workers Unraveling Racism committee at the Maryland Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). talked with Frazell about the importance of discussing race in social work to better address social justice issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion.

How did you develop your interest in social justice issues related to diversity, equity and inclusion?

When I was getting my BSW, I did an internship at an organization in Denver working with women in the criminal justice system. I would go to court and do some work with court-mandated and voluntary groups. That’s where I saw inequities and the way systems were failing people.

In my field practicum in my master’s program, I worked in a domestic violence program. Again, I saw race and equity issues played into every facet of people’s lives – not just in individual work with clients, but also in program decisions and how policies are made at the federal, state, and local levels.

Race really permeated so much of the work, but people were not often talking about it openly. And by “people,” I mean staff or people actually in the field. I think that clients were noticing things happening and wanting to have these conversations (about race), but agencies weren’t because maybe they didn’t know how to do it and (didn’t realize) that there was a gap.

How did you get involved in Social Workers Unraveling Racism?

With Social Workers Unraveling Racism, a Maryland NASW chapter committee, I was interested in learning more about it while I was doing clinical social work with clients and considering moving to more mezzo- or macro-level social work. In that process, I learned again that a lot of social workers were interested in the topic of racism and were unsure of how to start having those conversations.

We’ve hosted some dialogs across the state of Maryland. The first one we did was after the Charlottesville incidents in 2017 (when a white nationalist rally turned violent with supporters and protesters). People were just horrified and ready to talk. That really gave us an “in” to talk about some of the things that have been going on for centuries, an opportunity especially for white social workers or people who don’t have the subject on their radar.

When really terrible events come up in the news, it does sometimes open the door for people ready to have that conversation. I feel like what can we do about this is to start to unpack the tough topics of privilege and look at implicit bias and what specifically can social workers do in themselves through self-exploration.

How do social workers start the conversation about race and racism?

A planned format often is an easier way to go about it. The impetus we’ve used in those is dissecting a current event. In that process, we ask about the event during discussions: “What do you see the role of social workers as in that?” And then we dig deeper: “What would you do as a social worker if one of your coworkers makes a racist comment?” “What is your responsibility?” “What is your role in that?” Not that we have all the right answers for how that should be answered, but that opens the door to have that conversation. I think a big thing is just normalizing talking about race. It’s really important that we do it.

Exploring the power that social workers have is also important. We talk a lot about social workers as gatekeepers. A lot of times, we’re the ones writing the policies for how someone can get access to a resource. Or we can decide when to sort of wave someone through or not wave them through if they don’t have all the right paperwork done. We’re looking at implicit bias and how that could come into play there, because it’s about providing opportunities.

We’ve also done movie screenings. People watch the movie together then discuss (race themes) afterwards. That can be a way that’s not as intimidating for some people.

How are you received as a white woman talking about racism?

I think that’s something that I’ve had to navigate, be strategic about and be honest in saying, “This is something that I struggle with and that I still deal with all the time, too.” I am framing it as: “We’re in this together. I’m certainly not perfect.”

I think it also is helpful as much as possible not to be one white social worker in that space because my perspective is kind of limited. I have my blind spots, so I try to partner in doing the work.

Have you had any experiences that were particularly rewarding in your role talking about racism?

Seeing people have these conversations is really rewarding in itself. I think that what I’ve learned in doing this work (and from colleagues that are people of color) is that oftentimes, those are conversations that are already being had, but it’s the white people who have not been having those conversations because there’s a privilege not to.

Sometimes when we’ve done trainings, people will come up afterward, particularly people of color, and say: “Thank you. This is awesome to be able to talk about this in this professional setting.”

Sometimes, white social workers as well or other staff (learn) to think about something in a new way. When you hear someone say, “I hadn’t thought about it that way,” I think it’s really cool.

We usually will ask what somebody will take away. At one training somebody said: “Well, what I’m going to do is I’m going to start being open and talking about race with my clients.” And that’s because we talked about the power of the social worker normalizing and opening the door to have that conversation.

Who are some of the key people social workers can collaborate with in advocating for diversity, equity and inclusion?

The organization where I work at has a mix of different types of professionals, in the health care sector, but not all social workers. I think that there are social workers out in the field trying to do some organizing and training with, for example, police. That’s not something that I’ve personally done yet. There certainly have been opportunities at the social work trainings we’ll hold, where non-social workers come as well. I think that other key people to partner with, if doing it on an agency level, is human resources. But police, teachers, and legislators (are potential partners).

Those are the big ones that come to mind, but I found it really helpful just to connect with different types of professionals doing this work and bouncing ideas off each other. I’ve found people are usually very open with sharing what techniques they use that worked or haven’t worked. The community of people of doing diversity, equity, and inclusion work are really welcoming and good. It’s a good support system.

What advice would you give someone who is thinking about becoming a social worker?

I would have a couple of pieces of advice. One is: Take a wide variety of classes because you never know what you might end up doing. Even if you have a practicum that’s not a great fit, you can still learn a ton about that sector. I now am in a director role, and I never imagined that when I was in school, so I took mostly clinical courses. I wish I had done a wide breadth of things and shadowed or did different types of social work.

The other advice is to understand that doing any type of social work, but especially around diversity, equity and inclusion, can be really draining. It can be really hard so building a practice of self-care right away is important. Self-care is not just about going to get a massage, which is great, but also learning how to set boundaries.

I think a lot of new social workers come in and would work 10- or 12-hour days because they are helping people and it’s important. I know. I was like this. That can lead to burnout really quickly, so go to therapy and learn ways to balance. We take a lot of pride in our identities as social workers. But remember that you’re not just a social worker. You’re also a friend or a spouse or a daughter, etc.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.