I began teaching in the Social Work Department at North Carolina State University in 2011. As a faculty member teaching the anti-oppression social justice course, I sought to use the lessons of Hurricane Katrina to talk about the history of systemic oppression in the United States.
Every year, my students were horrified to learn about the political and social inequality in New Orleans that initially made the levees so vulnerable. They felt betrayed that they were just learning about how widespread and egregious racial inequality is in our culture. We set out to have difficult, yet courageous conversations about race, identity, power, and privilege.
It wasn’t easy as a black woman teaching this topic in the bible-belt south, in a mixed-raced classroom with a group a students from all over the state and around the country. At times it was scary. I encouraged students to take risks and to make mistakes by modeling my own vulnerability. I used my own identity as a cis-straight black woman who grew up poor working class in New York City to help them think about how we live in the intersections of our identity, and what this means for doing racial justice work. It’s tricky, because as I learned in my own classroom, there is no safety for black women who do this work. Race permeates everything. It was gut checking for all of us. When students pushed back, I felt a mixture of excitement and heartache.
I worked hard to design classroom spaces for critical consciousness that respected and honored our differences. Yet, our class often, though not always, mirrored the race problem in America: many refused to believe it. This was all despite Katrina and every racial inequity within the education, criminal justice, and healthcare systems we covered in class. It was heartbreaking for me, but I always remained committed to challenging students’ assumptions and beliefs, and, in many ways, Katrina was our ground zero.
To be sure, talking about racial terror is messy for anyone, and, as a country, we’re really bad at it. And the increasing anti-black racism and misogynistic norms of our culture made my job extremely tough.
I frequently went home in tears. I spent several weekends so physically and emotionally spent that I often forgot to eat, let alone teach. Yet, despite all of my training, the truth is, I got it wrong a lot. I failed a lot. I made a lot of mistakes trying to overcompensate as a black educator and woman. I tried being informal. I tried making deadly serious conversations extremely light-hearted.
At times, I intentionally exposed my flaws and vulnerabilities believing it would free my students to do the same. Other times I got angry. I allowed myself to be triggered and often betrayed my own commitment to self-care. Then there were other times that I over-prepared so much that I left little room for students to sit with the ambiguous, the messy, the ugly stuff. I pretended to be okay when I wasn’t.
I have been a social justice worker for more than 20 years, and I discovered from teaching that class that we never truly get rid of what we call “our stuff.” We just become really good at masking it. I was good at hiding my fears from myself, but my students reminded me that if I am going to really do this work, and stand in my own power and truth, that I have to be open to revisiting those tough, tender spots as often as possible. I am grateful for this renewed awareness and Katrina, 10 years later, offers me an opportunity to reflect on my experiences and renew my commitment to this work.
Ultimately, I believe social workers are uniquely positioned to do this work of helping us, of helping our nation, understand and heal. We’ve been on the front lines, historically and politically, advocating on behalf of marginalized and oppressed populations since the early 2oth century. It’s our mandate.
Social workers are at the vanguard of racial justice work, too. The devastation Katrina wrought, the history of social policies indifferent to black life in New Orleans that led to the failure of the levees, and the subsequent events that followed, is the world we train and work in every day.
It’s a world that remains unconcerned with black life, even now as we continue to march, protest, and mourn the lives of black men, women, and children killed by police violence and white vigilantes, and the murders of trans people of color, particularly trans women of color, who are murdered with little media attention.
And on the anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, I am reminded that there is still work to be done.
Guided by our Social Work Professional Code of Ethics, Hurricane Katrina teaches us that we must do more. We need to use the lessons of Katrina to help us deal with institutional racism throughout our culture, particularly as it relates to members in helping professions. We need to ensure that the work is always rooted in an anti-oppression, anti-racist, trauma-informed lens that influences our advocacy, leadership, and practice. Being a “good” social worker is never enough. Not too long ago, good social workers helped the North Carolina Eugenics Board sterilize thousands of people against their will. They believed this was the best course of action for those without access to other forms of birth control.
Thus, it is the work of social workers and teachers to mend what others neglect. Like many of us, I’m thankful for the hashtags. I’m thankful for a new movement affirming our work by declaring the humanity of black people. But in New Orleans, like in most of our black cities and towns, black suffering and fragility persists. In and outside the classroom, on the ten-year anniversary of some of most catastrophic American suffering we’ve ever experienced, we must recommit to the hard messy and work of freedom. We need to be mindful of how “our stuff” and how internalized biases work to undermine the good we want to do in the world, particularly as members of the helping profession. This is what Audre Lorde taught us when she said, “The true focus of revolutionary change is never the oppressive situations which we seek to escape, but that piece of the oppressor which is planted deep within us.”
Crystal Hayes is an intersectional activist who lives by the Audre Lorde quote, “Silence will not protect you.” Crystal has a M.A. in social work from Smith College and is currently a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Connecticut.
[Illustration by Tara Jacoby]