Following along the lines of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) 2023 theme that “Social Work Breaks Barriers,” Medgar Evers College (MEC) held its 16th annual Social Work Conference on Thursday, Mar. 16. The event was put together by college committee members under the leadership of Dr. Waleek Boone, director of the Transition Academy at Medgar Evers, and facilitated by Jenea Roberts, LMSW, MDCP-Office of Family Team Conference, NYC Administration for Children’s Services.

This was the second year in a row the college was able to hold the conference in person, after the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. Boone, an alumni of the Medgar Evers’s social work program, had studied under Dr. Eda Harris-Hastick who initiated the school’s social work bachelor’s degree program. “Being a mentee of hers,” he said, “I picked up the baton and wanted to keep it going because I know how very important it is to not only the students here, but the community, to keep them informed about some of the social issues that are impacting our community.” 

Boone said he and his committee members thought about which barriers they wanted their future social workers to understand, be empowered by, and be able to break. The stigma in Black and brown communities about not wanting to seek mental health services was a major topic, and

the conference featured panels that dealt with matters of mental health, including “Normalizing Mental Health by Releasing Stigma and Shame” and “Eradicating Disparities Within the Mental Health System.” 

“Mental health has been impacting our community for so long and there’s a lot of disparities that go on within Black and brown communities, whether it be a long waitlist, not having the proper insurance,” Boone said. “the list goes on.”

Dr. Edward Hernandez, chair of the MEC Department of Social Work, agreed: “There are several barriers that we’re dealing with. One is access to services and [another] is culturally competent services. We need to have people providing adequate services to people of color because this isn’t getting properly addressed within the service system.”

According to Hernandez, social worker barriers when dealing with mental health include understanding––“Social workers try to understand and put their values aside and accept people for who they are,” he said. “That’s one aspect, especially at Medgar Evers College, which is a predominately Black institution—what we’re doing is turning out social workers who understand the needs of our multicultural community. 

“The other issue, besides culture, is language barriers: trying to have adequate services for people whose non-dominant language is English.” 

After breaking down those outside barriers, facing any internal qualms about seeking help for mental health issues is another major hurdle. The MEC conference urged participants to foster the idea that it’s all right to seek services, even if doing so is not normal in a family’s culture. 

Boone said too often, people hear things like, “‘Look at this crazy person seeing a social worker’ or ‘whatever happens in the household, stays in the household’ or ‘man up and don’t cry,’ or ‘you’re not supposed to feel anything.’ We wanted to break that stigma,” he said. “This is why we brought very informed and knowledgeable panelists to discuss those issues.”

Estimates are that MEC’s 16th annual Social Work Conference had 90 people attend virtually and 160 who came to the campus and joined the event in person.

“I thought this was our best conference ever,” Hernandez told the AmNews

MEC’s social work students tend to go right into graduate-level programs to get their master of social work degree, Hernandez noted. “Our students are all over once they graduate: They’re at not-for-profits; we have a graduate who’s the executive director of an agency, another graduate who is a dean of students; a lot of them are supervisors, so they’re going out there and working their way up in organizations where they can make a difference firsthand. 

“Part of it is making the system work. But the other part of it is being inside the system.”

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