On Thursday, March 16, the AB1 Dining Hall at Medgar Evers College (MEC) was the site of the 16th Annual Social Work Conference. Sponsored by the Medgar Evers Transition Academy and the school’s department of social work, this event found upwards of 200 social work professionals, students, and faculty attending remotely and in-person. For Dr. Waleek Boone, who heads up the Transition Academy, acquiring knowledge is the key to the importance of this yearly event.
“Social work conferences allow all participants to learn and grow whether you are or are not a social worker,” he explained. “It is a place to gather and share best practices and resources to improve individuals, families, and communities’ conditions.”
“Social Work Breaks Barriers: Addressing Mental Health Disparities Within Black and Brown Communities” was this year’s theme. Medgar Evers College Department of Social Work Chair Dr. Edward Hernandez gave the opening remarks followed by conference facilitator Jenea Roberts reiterating the conference theme and purpose. MEC President Dr. Patricia Ramsey greeted attendees and was followed by MEC student Jennifer Searles, who read a poem and bereavement chaplain author Carol Jones whose own presentation was “Herbal Remedies for Mental Health.”
Dr. Tyson Boudreaux, the clinical director of the New York State Office of Mental Health and an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, was the keynote speaker. Among the topics he touched in his presentation were structural racism in the United States, the health effects of racism, triggers of racial trauma and equity versus equality.
Two panels were conducted—“Normalizing Mental Health by Releasing Stigma and Shame” and “Eradicating Disparities Within the Mental Health System.” The first was moderated by Dr. Shari Richardson, an assistant professor in the MEC Department of Social Work and featured panelists John McQueen (adjunct professor at MEC Department of Social Work), Shirell Roeback (professor at York College Department of Social Work) and Christopher Rodgers (director of the Adult Home Initiative program for Baltic Street AEH, Inc.).
Themes touched on by this panel included meeting potential patients where they are be it at a barbershop or church, practicing cultural sensitivity and focusing on someone’s inner life versus the manifestation of their behavior. McQueen, who is president/owner of the Crown Heights-based Center for Psychotherapy, is an advocate for “Helping people see themselves in their own story” while Rodgers, who is in recovery himself, leans into his own lived experience to connect with those he’s trying to help. It’s an approach Roeback agrees with.
“As a professional you are taught to use the theories and the research, which I am doing,” she said. “But the lived experience sometimes meets people in a place where research can’t help you meet that person.”
The day’s second panel was moderated by MEC Department of Social Work Assistant Professor Dr. Fabienne Snowden. Her panelists were MEC Professor Dr. Makeba Pinder (Director of the Office of Counseling and Psychological Services) and social workers Monika C. Estrada Guzman (Nido de Esperanza Program Director), Patricia D. Fraser (DREAM Foundation Program Committee Chairperson) and Olga Preciado (Strategic Relationship Manager for Erica Sandoval).
The quartet agreed that while lessening disparities versus eradicating them within the mental health care system was a more achievable goal, keys towards achieving this involved establishing trust and increasing accessibility to treatment for an overlooked and undertreated demographic that far too often isn’t being helped by people that look like them.
“There are not enough people of color, specifically men, who are going into clinical work,” Pinder said. Estrada Guzman added, “We need to create pathways for people to come into our profession. Mental health services should not be a privilege.”
The day ended with Hernandez serving as master of ceremonies for a student awards presentation featuring Deon Claxton (Dr. Eda Harris-Hastick Academic Achievement Award) and Michal Williams (Professor Elaine Reid Spirit Award). Like many who were in attendance, panelist Roeback saw it as an ongoing education about the development of social work.
“This is a place where people come together to learn best practice and share their ideas,” she explained. “Even the keynote speaker today said he wasn’t teaching us anything new, but it allows you to realize what you’ve been doing and what you already know does work. Sometimes when you do something in isolation, you may not see the actual benefits. But when you have other professions treat the same populations we treat, we may understand that we’re doing the right thing when we’re in our own little individual practices.”