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How Will SWHPN Change in Response to the Killings of Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, Riah Milton, Dominique Fells, and Innumerable Others?

As social workers in this pivotal moment, there are key lessons from the field of social work, and particularly the field of palliative and hospice social work, that we at SWHPN can apply to help some of us become better both in our work and our day-to-day lives.

1: listen more than you speak. 
It is very easy for those of us who have any privilege to think that we can speak on an issue, but this is often where we misstep. The opportunity for people in positions of privilege to speak and write with words that contain microaggressions is frequent, especially if those of us who have privilege do not acknowledge that privilege. Acknowledging out own biases can be difficult, but doing so without a defensive response is one way to help in this moment.

2: do not expect those who would be hurt by your questions to respond to them.
Just as you would not ask extremely vulnerable patients such as those who are in extreme pain, those experiencing extreme existential suffering, or those who are vulnerable in other ways to participate in a research study, do not expect black, indigenous, and people of color to teach you about diversity, equity, and inclusion if you are a white person. As one person put it: “That is the oppressed teaching the oppressor." While there may be opportunities to learn in webinars and other formal settings, for white social workers, it’s important to remember that some of our friends and acquaintances may be emotionally exhausted right now, beyond what you are feeling, and you will need to respect that when reaching out to them.

3 (this one’s a challenge from our Vice Chair, Karen Bullock): think outside the box.
During the last SWHPN Summit we had an open networking session where Karen made an excellent point about language and how she does not like to be put in a box. She didn’t suggest that anyone else follow her lead particularly, she just suggested that we all think critically about the language that we use for ourselves and for others. As we know in this field, language can be fraught. A “difficult family” can be code for many things, particularly when race or ethnicity are applied. When we’re talking about language such as "cultural competency", "white fragility", "anti-racist", it is important for us to explore what these terms mean to us, as well as to unpack what they may mean to others and to examine why we may want to use them, if at all. Before the last SWHPN Summit, a SWHPN member reached out to ask if “Cultural Competence” was the name we wanted to use for the Summit right now and my honest answer was, “I don’t know." Being open to discussion without defensiveness and without taking things personally but recognizing that there are deeply emotional issues around these issues is an important part of how we face up to making changes in our organization.

4: keep your ethics in check
I have seen several posts now on NASW discussion boards, Twitter, and various listservs where social workers have harkened back to our professional ethics and values. Recently, social workers Lauren Schmidt, MSW, LICSW, APHSW-C, Daphne Lindsey, LICSW, Elizabeth Julian, LICSW from Seattle Children's reached out to express their disappointment that SWHPN had not posted any resources exploring the intersection of racial inequity and COVID-19. This was after their colleague Arika Patneaude, MSW, LICSW, APHSW-C, EMMHS had reached out to express a similar disappointment a few weeks back. All of this is to say that we should be doing better, and they are right: this is in our bones as social workers. Here are just two of our core values that we should be turning to right now (and really, always) as we engage in conversations about inequities across all intersections:
  • Value: Social Justice
  • Ethical Principle: Social workers challenge social injustice.
  • Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social workers' social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. 
  • Value: Dignity and Worth of the Person
  • Ethical Principle: Social workers respect the inherent dignity and worth of the person.
  • Social workers treat each person in a caring and respectful fashion, mindful of individual differences and cultural and ethnic diversity (National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 2008).
SWHPN is ethically obligated to educate about social justice and to speak on the dignity and worth of each and every one of our members, as well as each and every one of the patients and families that we serve, as well as those who we do not yet serve but who are eligible for our service. In truth, we recognize the dignity and worth of all persons, and we would like to work together with our members to highlight the work we are doing to improve our work in showing that we do care about these ethics, as well as in highlighting the incredible resources that are out in the world.

With that in mind, below are the steps we have taken so far to change the organization and the steps we plan to make in the coming months:

  1. At the July board meeting, we are discussing our strategic Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) plan. This will include embedding EDI strategic plans within each committee (rather than creating a new committee specifically for EDI). 
  2. We will be asking all educational presenters to include EDI materials in their presentations. 
  3. We will start an Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Special Interest Group (SIG) within the next few months, while also asking all SIGs to embed EDI within their goals and action planning.
  4. We will share new crowdsourced resources every Friday about 3 topics: Grief and Bereavement, COVID-19, and EDI. If you have read a great article, listened to a thought-provoking podcast, or watched an illuminating webinar on one of these topics, we want to hear about it! You can submit these on this form until 5:00 p.m. EST to include it in that week’s SWHPN Shares post.
Here are a few recent resources we're drawing some learning from; we know there are many more and hope you'll submit those here.

  • Code Switch: Why Now White People: in this episode, hosts Gene Demby and Shereen Marisol Meraji discuss theories for why the country, and specifically white people, appear to have responded to George Floyd’s killing when so many others have gone unanswered.
  • Income emerges as major indicator of coronavirus infection, along with race: this Washington Post article describes who is getting sick in the pandemic. This won't be surprising information to medical social workers, as poverty is a social determinant of health and a lever of power, but it will be important to note, especially for our patients who live in places of intersectionality.
  • Suggested by social workers Lauren Schmidt, MSW, LICSW, APHSW-C, Daphne Lindsey, LICSW, and Elizabeth Julian, LICSW at Seattle Children's:

To our members, we ask that you make a commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion both with your colleagues and with your patients. If you’re white, commit to listening to colleagues and patients who are hurting. Tell us when we make a misstep (and when it doesn’t take too much energy). This is going to be a difficult period of change and I can’t promise we will be perfect; but I can promise we will try as hard as we can, and that we will try to apply the above principles.

Allie Shukraft, MSW, MAT, APHSW-C | SWHPN Board Chair

A Way to Respond: Learn and Share Your Voice

We know there is a lot going on. In just the past twelve weeks, we’ve seen the COVID-19 pandemic blaze through our communities, resulting in more than 100,000 deaths. We’re seeing the related economic downturn affect workers, businesses, housing, food security, and more interrelated systems. We’re sharing the righteous anger from thousands of people across the country as they protest the impunity with which racial, ethnic, and xenophobic hatred and violence has been allowed to flourish. We echo the statement cried out on the streets and emblazoned across social media that Black Lives Matter.

Through it all, hospice and palliative care social workers have faced changing norms and practices head-on. We’ve grappled with determining who is considered an “essential” worker eligible for PPE. We’ve learned how to conduct family meetings in our living rooms and parking garages via videoconferencing and new apps. We’ve figured out how to show a smile behind a mask, how to show concern without being able to hug, and how to record memories and share presence for loved ones who couldn’t be physically present. 

AND we’ve done all of that while also grappling with the social justice issues that, due to hundreds of years building up layers upon layers of structural racism and inequities, are suddenly split open for all to see. Of the COVID deaths, we see the disproportionate impact it has had on Black people, Native Americans, Latinos, LGBTQ+ people, incarcerated people, and other marginalized communities, due directly to historical factors including redlining, unequal access to  to jobs, healthcare, and insurance, and stigma from healthcare providers. In the economic downturn, we see the same factors at play again, affecting those already struggling; and again in the police and judicial systems that overwhelmingly harm communities of color. It has been a lot to take in and process, even more for our social workers who are living it as a reality.

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It Starts With Us: SWHPN Statement on Racism and Structural Inequities in Hospice and Palliative Social Work

The Social Work Hospice and Palliative Care Network (SWHPN) wholeheartedly rejects the killings of black and brown people by police. As social workers helping ease suffering at end-of-life, we cannot let racism and disparities in care go unchecked. We are here to support a more just, equitable system for all.

Our organization is comprised of nearly 1,000 hospice and palliative care social workers throughout the country. Our core work focuses on providing professional development, amplifying evidence-informed best practices, and advocating for improved policies and increased funding, so that all patients and families experiencing serious illness receive expert psychosocial care which alleviates their suffering, improves their quality of life, and facilitates their dying in accordance with their wishes.

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