How one professor successfully created an “Africentric” course

0 9498 Leslie HIn part two of our interview with the winners of the SAGE/CSWE Award for Innovative Teaching in Social Education, we had a quick chat with Leslie Hollingsworth, associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work.

Her “africentric” approach to teaching was both thought-provoking and inspiring. Read what she had to say below.

1.       Why did you originally decide to become a professor of social work?

As a social work practitioner in Indianapolis some years ago, I was recruited for a one-year clinical faculty position in the Indiana University School of Social Work in Indianapolis during a search for individuals to fill tenure track positions there. The experience of teaching practice along with the exposure to candidates who presented their scholarly work stimulated my interest in the full-time profession of social work education.

2.       What does the term “Africentricity” mean?

Africentricity refers to the conceptualization of life and living from the perspective of traditional African values, principles and practices. It is a collectivist concept in that the interests of the group supersede the interests of the individual and in which the personalization of the relationship is of utmost importance. It is a spiritual concept in that meaning derives from the experiencing of life and creation in all its many forms. It is an affective concept in that knowledge is acquired through emotion and feeling as well as through cognition.

Research by African American scholars has demonstrated that the experience of slavery did not eradicate traditional African values, principles, and practices among black Americans and that these values, principles, and practices were instead passed along through socialization. From an Africentric perspective, the social ills surrounding many black Americans are explained by spiritual alienation that arises from being deprived of support for traditional values, principles, and practices while being deprived of the opportunity to succeed according to the values, principles, and practices of the larger society. Dr. W. E. B. Du Bois referred to this dichotomy as requiring an effort to function from a double consciousness. All that is African and African American is depicted in negative ways while oppression, negative stereotyping, and social injustice prevent many from succeeding according to an alternate perspective.

3.       What was your inspiration for creating the course “An Africentric Approach to Interpersonal Practice with African American Families”?

I was motivated to create the course by two occurrences. First, I observed that in our School of Social Work ( and I would say in social work education more broadly), being African American was synonymous with such labels as ‘marginalized,’ ‘oppressed,’ ‘disadvantaged,’ ‘impoverished,’ ‘victimized,’ and ‘diverse.’ I remembered that Michel Foucault had called attention to the fact that it is the powerful that get to label the less powerful and that not only do the labels take on a reality of their own but the labeled begin to label themselves and to perceive themselves accordingly. When I came across research that indicated that having a Master of Social Work degree did not always make a difference in achieving positive outcomes for African American families in systems in which social workers, even African American social workers, practiced, I wanted to make an effort to at least prepare the students who graduated from our School of Social Work, to have a more accurate, complete, and culturally specific perception and understanding of the African American clients they served. As one community member pointed out recently: “We were more than slaves!”

Second, black students in our School of Social Work had recently voiced complaints of a climate that was not culturally responsive to, or supportive of black students. I felt motivated to be part of the solution because to do nothing made me part of the problem. Creating the Africentric practice course gave black students an opportunity to have an experience of being members of a majority (the only such experience they have in a School of Social Work with a predominantly white majority enrollment in a university with a predominantly white majority enrollment). It also provided them the experience of being able to express culturally specific viewpoints that may have differed from the majority view (which actually put them in the position of being the experts in their own culture) and to have culturally specific values and principles presented in a positive way.

4.       How was your idea for the course received by the University of Michigan’s School of Social Work?

Actually the idea was received quite positively, particularly by our Associate Dean for Student Services, Dr. Michael Spencer, who had the responsibility of making course assignments. The School values providing faculty members with opportunities to teach in their areas of interest and preparation and the proposal for this course was one of many similar ones in that regard. Since it was designed as an interpersonal practice course, students concentrating in interpersonal practice who qualified otherwise had the opportunity to use the course toward satisfying the requirements of that concentration. After teaching the course over several terms, it became apparent that one course was insufficient to cover all that was needed to meet the goals of the course. The idea of creating a specialization or certificate arrangement met with more difficulty, particularly given the limited number of credit hours for completing all that is necessary for a Master of Social Work degree.

5.       How was it received in practice by students?

Overall, the course has been received positively by all students although this may at least partially be associated with the fact that because of its nature, students who take the course are a self-selected group. Occasionally, both white students and black students have struggled for a time with what may seem to be the prioritization of the values and practices of African people in contrast to what are considered the broader American values and practices. On occasion, white students have struggled with the concept of self-determination for black Americans and the implications for a role for white people. Overall, however, students have accepted the content of the course quite openly. In all semesters, black students have been in the majority although there have been white students, biracial, Latino, and Asian students as well. Among black students, I have particularly observed an increased presentation of black cultural identity, demonstrated in increased activism in the Association of Black Social Work Students, in creation of global special studies course experiences in African countries, and in increased activism, commitment to social causes associated with black communities, and practice in black communities. Each time I’ve taught the course, I’ve observed the evolution of a group cohesion and identity among all members of the class.

6.       What tips might you give to other professors interested in incorporating Africentric perspectives to teaching social work?

I’d encourage the creation of courses dedicated specifically to teaching content on Africentricity as it relates to social work practice with African American clients (who, by the way, continue to constitute a large proportion of the individuals and families receiving social work services in the United States). Attempts at incorporating Africentric perspectives in a single course with a multicultural perspective or in a course in which the emphasis is on the intersectionality of social identities, necessarily meet with limited success given the objectives presented here.

Dr. Hollingsworth holds an MSW from Syracuse University and a Ph.D. in Child Development and Family Studies from Purdue University. She conducts research on the experiencing of transracial adoption across the lifespan and on the preparation of social workers for culturally-specific practice with African American families. Her teaching emphasis is in the area of interpersonal practice. Although her service extends throughout the social work, university, and broader community, her passion and commitment are most obvious in her affiliation with the Association of Black Social Workers, where she holds office in local and state chapters and is active in the national organization.

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