Race, gender and trauma were the focus of a detailed panel discussion Wednesday night hosted by William Woods University.
The university gathered a virtual panel of Black male social workers to conclude its "Bridging Differences Symposium: Conversations on Gender, Race, and Equality." Each speaker is a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity Inc.
The goal of the annual symposium is to help foster a diverse, inclusive and respectful environment on campus, while addressing the important social issues occurring in this country.
In Minneapolis, former police officer Derek Chauvin is currently on trial for murder and manslaughter in the death of George Floyd. The death of Floyd, along with the deaths of other Black men and women at the hands of law enforcement, has inspired protests across the country, including in Fulton.
Morgan State University associate professor Anthony Estreet said those incidents are sources of trauma. He said there is a need for more Black male social workers.
"This certainly has been on my mind more as we see the trial of George Floyd and how it's affecting people," Estreet said. "We're talking about social justice, we're talking about gender, we're talking about trauma. If you've watched any part of that trial, you've certainly seen that trauma in the way that it impacted people that witnessed and experienced that, but not only that — the larger community in general."
Estreet also said living in areas where there is violence or drug use can be traumatizing in how it impacts how people see the world and form relationships.
"If I wake up every morning and I feel like I'm constantly on edge because I have to constantly keep looking over my shoulder to make sure nothing happens to me, that does something to your development — that does something to your worldview and how you see the world," he said.
David Cephus — a social worker and career counselor at New York Foundling — works to provide career resources to youths in the foster system. Cephus noted trauma is unique and does not impact everyone the same way.
The panel was moderated by retired Maj. Gen. Byron Bagby, a William Woods University Board of Trustees member and Fulton native.
"I'm not a social worker, but I'll tell you, in the past 35 minutes I have learned a lot about trauma, listening to these professionals talk about it," Bagby said after hearing the discussion. "A couple of comments that were made that resonated with me is that trauma can be real or imagined and if the individual is experiencing it, real or not, that individual is suffering from whatever the impacts and effects are of that trauma."
Illinois State University assistant professor and Columbia native Nathan Stephens examines the impact of racism, racial stress and complex trauma among Black men and boys.
Stephens said he was inspired by the community leaders and activists in Columbia's Black community, including Wynna Faye Elbert and Almeta Crayton.
"I remember when I first came into social work as a profession, I had this sense of what has been termed 'John Henryism,'" Stephens said.
John Henry is a figure from American folklore. In the stories, Henry, a Black man, races against a machine, hammering holes into mountain rock as a part of the process for constructing a railroad tunnel. Henry beats the machine at the cost of his life — in trying to save his job, he worked himself to death.
"As a Black man in America we're supposed to work twice as hard to be perceived just as good — but that's a misnomer," Stephens said. "If someone has formed an opinion about you, it's not likely that you're going to change that opinion by working extra, extra hard."
Cephus made a similar point, noting he was told he'd have to be better than his white counterparts. Because he struggled in school, Cephus was encouraged to pursue blue-collar work instead of academics.
"I remember being conditioned," Cephus said. "I remember being conditioned to think that particular way — that I have to prove myself and at the same time, I have to also assimilate. I have to also be a part of the majority. I can't stand out but so much."
Cephus attributes his career in social work to his mom.
"My mom, she never went to school, but she wanted to help people," Cephus said. "She wanted to help people. Her way of helping and supporting people was cooking meals, taking people in and referring them to services. Now she wasn't a social worker, but these were all social-work-kind-of-things."
All of the men noted many social workers are white women. Donald Chamberlain, who works at Lone Star College and is interested in mentorship as a tool for developing Black leaders in higher education, said he realized he could have an impact because there aren't many Black men in the field.
"When you look at the Black community and you look at the African American community, a lot of youth in the community in lower-income households experience environmental trauma and they experience chronic trauma where they're constantly experiencing, constantly witnessing trauma, witnessing violence," Chamberlain said.
Chamberlain said that as a Black man, he has to be careful in his work.
"I have to be mindful as an African American male of my body language, of how I'm perceived, because we have these narratives — the angry black man or the the angry black woman, the aggressive black male," Chamberlain said. "I'm always going to be perceived if I'm expressing an opinion, if I'm going against the grain, I can potentially be seen as aggressive."
Cephus described the feeling as like being under a magnifying glass. As a professor, Stephens teaches students from different backgrounds than himself.
"Part of me being able to keep my job and keep tenure is contingent upon these white female students liking me and my white colleagues liking me," Stephens said. "Well, yeah, my scholarship's important. That's a piece of it, but it's only a piece of it."
Morgan State, where Estreet teaches, is a historically black university. Because of that, when he's at work, Estreet said there is a protective and empowering environment. But other experiences, like the possibility of being pulled over while driving, leaves him anxious.
"My son asked me, are police officers bad? Are they going to hurt me?" Estreet said. "You know, that's a very tough question, right? Because traditionally, we want to tell our kids, if you're in trouble, talk to a police officer. Now, the conversation for me with my kids is if you're in trouble, find a black mom. That's the reality of the situation. Because I don't know what that's going to turn into."
Estreet said that bias can be unconscious.
"And a form of that would be, you're walking down the street, you see a Black man on the street and you collect your purse, right?" Estreet said. "You don't know why you did that. You just did it. But the fact of the matter is, in order for us to even begin to alleviate racial trauma, or racism in and of itself, we've got to at first start individually and recognize where we are with race as individuals."
Cephus said individuals can have power.
"Your voice, your presence has power," he said.
Stephens recommended self-examination.
"Ask yourself, what is it that I believe about race, gender, socioeconomic status, ability, sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, religion, all of those other things?" Stephens said.
Stephens observed that many factors of identity are viewed on a binary with one side viewed as the norm.
"Where does that come from for you?" Stephens said. "Who taught you that? Why is it that way? What can I do as an individual to make it better?"