Racial Justice: Moving From Macro to Micro and Back Again by Melinda Hohman, Ph.D.

I always find myself amused when writing or talking about macro social work, as I am definitely more of a micro kind of person, having studied, taught, and researched Motivational Interviewing (MI) (an interpersonal communication method) for the past 15 or so years.  Becoming the Director of the School of Social Work has certainly moved me more into the macro realm. I am realizing how much micro and macro social work are intertwined and to be effective in either one, one must have the knowledge and skills of both.

I have always had a strong interest in social justice, which is fairly common among social workers, and a reason that many go into the profession. I have been particularly interested in racial justice and have read widely, both the fiction and non-fiction works of African American writers especially. As a white female, this has been a way for me to enter the world and experiences of these authors. I have also talked about racial injustice with African American friends and colleagues. White privilege can keep me from thinking about or experiencing racial discrimination in everyday life thus it is important to understand these things that are easy for me to be oblivious to.

Why do we need to know about the daily experiences of others? There are professional and personal reasons. As social work practitioners, we need to enter the world of our clients using a non-expert stance and curiosity—what some are now calling cultural humility (Ortega & Faller, 2011; see this blog, 9/10/13).  We don’t want to make assumptions about our clients but we must learn how they see and experience the world, especially if they are minority persons in a society that still gives preference to white people. While every person is different, of course, reading and talking to others about their experiences can help us understand the contexts of our clients as well. Beyond that, we live in a multicultural society where we interact with friends, colleagues, and family members every day. Understanding their perspectives as well as society-based racism is important to being a global citizen.

I recently read the new book by Dr. Larry Davis, Dean of the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, called Why Are They Angry with Us? Essays on Race. Dr. Davis interweaves much of his own story through this book as well as describes important aspects and concepts in understanding race and the experiences of African Americans over their 350+ years in the United States. He made several points that I found compelling. One is that racial justice tends to get lost in the umbrella term of social justice and it is important to not take our eyes off the continual issue of racial injustice.

The second aspect that struck me, as a micro practitioner, is his challenge of the resiliency or strengths-based approach. While important concepts, in micro work, Davis contends that they tend to put the focus on the individual to the neglect of racial injustice in our society and structural racism.  As micro practitioners, it is easy to focus on the lives of our clients and their immediate needs, while losing the bigger picture. Davis (2016) asks, “Why do people need to be resilient in the first place?” (p. 110). We must ask ourselves that as well.

Macro practice methods to address racial injustice include advocacy, social media activism (e.g., #BlackLivesMatter), political activism, and organizational analysis of potentially racist policies and practices. Micro/mezzo methods include personal and professional development and collaboration with other social workers (NASW, 2007). William Miller, a psychologist who founded MI, spoke about MI and social justice on our campus earlier this fall. He writes that while MI is a micro method, he believes it embraces something larger, that he calls “humane values”. These values include compassion, respect for others, justice (equal treatment and access to resources), human potential, acceptance, and collaboration (Miller, 2013). These values/attitudes are not just meant for the clinical/practice setting but are “realized as we practice them” (p. 2) in our daily lives.

What are we to do? How can we be both micro and macro in addressing racial injustice? There is no one right answer or choice.  Some ideas are to continue to read, dialogue among ourselves, and create safes place to discuss experienced racism. We can look at our agency policies and practices and advocate for change if it is needed. We can attend community meetings and forums like the one coming up on December 1 (https://www.eventbrite.com/e/racism-let-the-cure-begin-a-health-equity-town-hall-meeting-tickets-19157653056). We can write our representatives.  There are many other ways that can be added to this list.

With all the recent events in our world, nation, and now locally, I challenge you to take these macro problems and make them micro. Use cultural humility (humbleness, openness, curiosity) to simply listen. Remember, people must feel safe in order to open up. You have to create that safety by demonstrating that you will not argue, challenge, question, or even make “suggestions.” Just listen. Do you wonder how your Muslim classmates/friends feel when they hear about assaults and discussions of creating a “registry” or limiting immigration to the US based on religion? Ask them and then listen. Do you wonder why African American students are so angry on the different college campuses? Why is #BlackLivesMatter so important? Ask your classmates/friends and then listen. Do you wonder why your classmate who is LGBT states that he/she feels unsafe (physically or emotionally) at times? Ask about it and then listen.

Listening helps us learn. Writing in turn can be one way of processing what we learn, experience, feel.  As we do this, we can then move back into the macro realm and use the social work skills described above.  To our students, faculty, staff, field instructors, and alumni: How are you experiencing/learning about/ addressing racial injustice?  Anyone can write his or her own “race essay”—please feel free to submit your story to this blog as one way to continue the discussion. #NoHate #WeStandUp


Davis, L. E. (2016). Why do they hate us? Essays on Race. Chicago: Lyceum Books, Inc.

Miller, W. R. (2013). Motivational interviewing and social justice. Motivational Interviewing: Training, Research, Implementation, and Practice, 1 (2), 1-4).

NASW (2007). Institutional racism and the social work profession: A call to action. Washington, D. C.: Authors. Retrieved from: http://www.naswdc.org/diversity/InstitutionalRacism.pdf

Ortega, R. M., & Faller, K. C. (2011). Training child welfare workers from an intersectional cultural humility perspective: A paradigm shift. Child Welfare, 90 (5), 27