2022 Professors Discuss Abolition at Annual Social Work Conference - University of Houston
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Professors Discuss Abolition at Annual Social Work Conference



Pictured Above (Left to Right): Assistant Professor Reiko Boyd and Associate Professor Jodi Berger Cardoso

February 16, 2022

(HOUSTON, TX) - Associate Professor Jodi Berger Cardoso and Assistant Professor Reiko Boyd participated in a panel discussion at the Society for Social Work Research's (SSWR) annual conference titled "Perspectives on Abolition: Social Work's Role in and Response to the Abolitionist Movement."

The discussion focused on how "abolitionist approaches to sociopolitical problems" can "promote people and communities by imagining an alternative to punishment, policing, regulation, and control."

We spoke with Reiko Boyd to get her perspective on why abolition has been both embraced and questioned by many within the social work community and how we can better understand the role of abolition in our everyday lives. 


Name: Reiko Boyd
Current Title:
Assistant Professor 

The abolition movement within the social work field has quickly picked up steam within the last few years. What do you believe are some of the reasons and why? 

Abolition is definitely on the radar of social work, and perhaps in a new way that is more central than ever before. Why now? This question is essential for us to ask ourselves. The abolition movement is not new, but it is gaining further traction in mainstream discourse and inspiring new waves of activism.

Many are searching for answers and finding meaning, power, and direction in abolition within social work. Given the global events that have transpired over recent years, many are now looking with new eyes and listening with open ears. The global pandemic laid bare disparities and injustices that we knew were there, but being forced to stand still with the regular functioning of society at a halt made us focus distinctly. Together, the world watched the atrocious and needless loss of precious Black lives taken at the hands of police. In addition, we have all been touched by the ravages of Covid-19, but the devastation of the disparate impact on vulnerable populations has been made clear. These contexts contributed to an unprecedented global awakening and reckoning, raising concerns over social and racial injustice issues. For many of us, what we have witnessed and experienced collectively as a society has fundamentally changed us and removed the option of going back to the way we did things before.

Social work has had to reckon with all of this, and I think we are in a period of self-examination. Awareness is building in the field because many in the profession understand that social work has been complicit in creating and reproducing systems of oppression. There is more recognition that we have to grapple with this sad truth. This recognition ultimately raises many questions about how to proceed as a profession: What do we need to do to move forward? What do we need to stop doing? What do we need to do instead?

Since the turn of the decade, there has been a growing focus and questioning of the efficacy and biases within current systems. Social workers often work within these systems. What role do you envision social workers playing within these systems, and why are social workers critical to the abolition movement? 

As social workers, we have much to gain by learning about and connecting with legacies of resistance to systems of oppression. Much of what I was taught was that social workers work simultaneously within systems and upon systems as agents of change. I now understand that social workers can also work to dismantle oppressive systems.

Many of the valid critiques of social work take aim at the profession's entanglement within deficit-based paradigms of providing "help" and rescuing. Much of this professional culture continues at the expense of ignoring the harms that we commit as part of carceral systems. When we understand better, we can do better.

In terms of what I envision, it would start with social workers individually and collectively critically examining our roles and the byproducts of the systems that currently form our space of professional action.

Social workers can be valuable contributors to the movement because our professional values and ethics should make us uniquely positioned and prepared to do the work. For example, we believe in the dignity and worth of the individual, we believe in the value of self-determination, and we apply a person-in-environment perspective. Given our stated mission and purpose, we should be equipped and prepared with the essential tools to do the building that it would take to make the "need" for carceral systems obsolete. Because of our strengths-based perspective, we should be ready to be radical and audacious in our imagining to envision a society where all people can be healthy holistically and thrive. We can propel our strength-based focus light years ahead and break out of boxes by suspending disbelief in impossibilities. We should include new perspectives, consider what we currently do in our professional capacities, and imagine what we could do instead to help without further hurting or harming marginalized communities.

Since 2020 the GCSW has been dedicated to exploring abolition as a critical framework for change. Why should institutions of social work education embrace abolition within their curriculum and practices?

A more pertinent question is how social work institutions cannot embrace abolition within our curriculum and practices? Why would we choose to relegate the works of abolitionists to the margins of our formal knowledge base or to silence them all together? Students in our college have made their position clear on this matter. We should listen.

For social work educators, formally integrating abolition into curriculum and practices can facilitate necessary truth-telling and breaking free from the white supremacy culture that has primarily dictated what information is considered valuable to the profession. I have heard some activists express that abolition shouldn't or can't truly be integrated into the formal social work curriculum. This concept is an urgent topic that deserves more attention and robust dialogue. Again, I think it is essential to critically analyze why most social work education institutions have not embraced abolition within their curriculum to date. This question has become especially crucial when considering the unlocking of cultural and educational possibilities from embracing abolition.

Your experience within the family policing system (also referred to as the child welfare system) played a significant role in continuing your education and honing your research focus on addressing systemic causes and discrepancies faced by children of color within said system. What recommendations would you give to those who might be apprehensive of abolition within the family policing system? 

The first recommendation I would give to someone apprehensive of abolition is to ask yourself why. What is the emotion evoked and the logic applied when you think about abolition? What knowledge base are you relying upon to inform your thinking around why abolition as a goal for the current system as we know it is or is not justified?

In my view, the first and foundational form of work comes from understanding what it means to work toward abolition. Abolition is not new— even in the "child welfare" context. Many have been doing this work, and as Angela Davis has said, "the language of abolition evokes historical continuity."

In the "child welfare" space, even the word abolition can touch a nerve. Sometimes, people respond with gut and knee-jerk reactions to the utterance of the word abolition. I have read recent formal publications that deem abolition dangerous, misguided, irresponsible, or impossible. Frequently, I find the basis of these characterizations rests upon false narratives, ahistorical views of abolition, and fear and perceived threats to power and control.

It will always be essential to engage with a range of competing perspectives regarding complex social problems, but for social work, the gaps in understanding regarding what abolition is and what it isn't are problematic. Again, the key is to remember that abolition is not new. The disparaging reactions to it are not new. My encouragement to social workers struggling with the idea of abolition is to learn more about what it is and about history. In particular, as social workers, we need a firmer grasp of the history of racist laws, policies, and practices in this country and narratives of resistance. If we don't know history, we can't trace the past into the present. Without historical knowledge, we can't explain current conditions in transformative ways rather than victim-blaming. Without context, we won't fully understand the detriment of continuing to justify doing things that unnecessarily cause immense harm.

By gaining a greater understanding of these histories, social workers will discern and navigate contentious professional landscapes with clarity. We will be able to move from ambivalence to ask what abolition steps can I take? Understanding abolition will enable us to set a more meaningful scope to our questions, understand how to target advocacy effectively, engage in the essential coalition building, come alongside others by joining existing activism, and create new avenues where needed.

For those struggling, I would ask them to lean into the dissonance and discomfort. I would ask, what are you holding on to and why? Is it holding on to a notion of evidence? Is it because of what has been deemed possible or practical? The past few years have taught us by making us witnesses of things we could never have imagined our eyes would see. We have lived out an unreal reality. History teaches us the same lesson: what we could never even imagine is possible. So what are we holding on to and why? What shapes our understanding of help and harm? My encouragement is to revisit this.

Who are some speakers/educators/community leaders you believe would be appropriate for those who wish to learn more about abolition? 

There are many, but one I recommend is the The Abolition Journal, the first resource that was shared with me.