Our Social Justice Journey: School of Social Work Updates and Reflections

By: Dr. Peter Allen Lee

The School of Social Work at San José State University recently marked its 50th anniversary. One original goal of the School was to prepare professional social workers to serve Spanish-speaking communities: marginalized and in particular need. So serious was this intention, that working-fluency in Spanish was required to earn the Masters of Social Work degree at this school. Over the decades, the School has experienced significant transitions: broadening the commitment to marginalized communities. Social work’s instrumental role in social justice remains paramount.

Juneteenth rally participants gather at SJSU’s “Victory Salute” sculpture of Tommie Smith and John Carlos June 19, 2020.
(Photo: Robert C. Bain, university photographer)

Our School is still on its social justice journey. We envision a just and equitable world in which diverse individuals, families, and communities thrive. Where are we in pursuing this vision? Have we done enough to denounce anti-Black racism and support Black Lives Matter? Have we denounced Anti-Asian violence? Has the School updated its curriculum? Are students and faculty engaging in needed discourse to create lasting change?

The murder of George Floyd and killing of other Black/Africans by law enforcement, recent escalation of anti-Asian violence, and the COVID-19 pandemic compounding problems of inequity affecting the well-being of marginalized communities deeply affects us all. Many of us are experiencing personal tragedy. And while the School has not yet published an anti-racism stance, we remain active. This includes the efforts of our dedicated faculty and inspired students who hold the School accountable for action and change.

While considering “where we stand,” the School’s leadership decided first that intentional, regular, and genuine consultation with our Black/African American colleagues is vital. From their advice, the faculty has committed to three goals: (1) to discuss at every faculty meeting Black Lives Matter and the strategy to combat racism; (2) to update our culture and diversity model, the Transcultural Perspective, and clarify of how racism and anti-racism are addressed through concepts such as positionality and power, privilege and oppression; (3) to have all members of the faculty engage

in developing a curriculum that describes cultural tenets, values, norms of their heritage. The goals of this process are to be able to participate in difficult discussions among ourselves and have experiential exercises, to eventually extend these discussions beyond the context of their self-identified ethnic groups, and to be able to model these types of discussions within classes. The School has also reshaped new student orientation, sponsored financially School-wide attendance at anti-racism conferences, and supported student-led initiatives.

Students are advocating for updated curriculum to include overlooked significant contributions by scholars and professionals of color. Our undergraduate and graduate student organizations sponsor or co-sponsor regular events such as our monthly School-wide forum about racism and social justice topics including “India’s Farmers Protest: What’s Happening in India,” “Working with Individuals Who Have Experienced Human Trafficking,” and “Da Real Anti-Racist.”

Our faculty members, students, and staff are at different places on this social justice journey; some are well-equipped and already immersed, and some early in discovery. Many have divergent views. But, we as a School are purposely preparing to have authentic conversations; specifically including conversations about race and systemic racism, and to be more deliberate in this work.  As with most journeys, we encounter milestones, detours, barriers, and even “destination not found” warnings along the way. This is a difficult and messy journey, and yet very worthwhile. No matter where we are, we can always do better as we gain from experiences, mistakes, and the people we meet along the way. The ultimate goal of all these efforts is for the entire School to pursue anti-racism at every level of our interactions: within and beyond our university community, with our students, our colleagues, and within the curriculum. Staying this course is the main call to action and our commitment.

“The trauma of racism is a public health crisis” (Kendi, I., April 6, 2021), and the practice of social work requires that we and our practice are trauma-informed at every level in order to be effective.

Dr. Meekyung Han, Professor, School of Social Work Receives Momentum for Mental Health “Shining Stars Award of Excellence”

In recognition of her diligent work to eliminate the stigma of mental illness and to improve access to effective mental health treatment around the world, Momentum for Mental Health presented Dr. Meekyung Han, professor, School of Social Works, the “Shining Stars Award of Excellence” at the 22nd annual Shining Stars Benefit event, which recognizes “extraordinary people and organizations doing extraordinary things in the name of advancing mental health services and reducing the stigma that prevents so many from seeking recovery services.” The event was held on October 4th, 2019 at the Rotary Summit Center in San Jose.

At this event, Dr. Han also received the City of San Jose Commendation from the mayor of San Jose, Sam Liccardo. and his colleagues on the San Jose City Council, which recognizes and commends Dr. Han’s professional achievements and contributions.

Dr. Meekyung Han’s primary research interests focus on mental health issues, the general wellbeing of Asian Americans, and the enhancement of culturally sensitive practices among ethnic minority populations.  She has established a strong research agenda with which she secured multiple external and internal grants and significantly engaged in interdisciplinary research with faculty, community-based agencies, and international scholars.

When delivering her speech at the podium, Dr. Han emphasized the importance of advancing mental health services and reducing the stigma as a community by stating that “tonight, we are here to reaffirm our commitment to working together to combat stigma and enhance the quality of life of those with mental health conditions…. With this encouragement, I am more determined than ever to continue advocating for stigma reduction; to enhance, advance, disseminate, and transform research addressing social issues that include mental health disparity; and to foster and promote a more diverse, equitable, and just society.”

This award is evidence of Dr. Han’s passion for and commitment to expanding her professional and academic contribution to the behavioral health field through research and collaboration with domestic and international partners.

Congratulations Dr. Han on your fine work in the behavioral health field!

Spring 2017 Blog Series 4 of 10: School of Social Work – Masters of Social Work Student Assists Syrian Refugees

When Masters of Social Work student, Shabnam Sharifi, was reading and hearing about the Syrian refugee crisis in Fall, 2015, she immediately wanted to help. “I happened to search the Internet to see what I could do and I came upon sktwusa.org, a United Kingdom organization that was planning a trip to supply families with winter gear and clothing,” says Ms. Sharifi.

Ms. Sharifi learned that many children of refugees had not survived the past winter because it was very cold and they did not have the proper clothing and winter gear. “I decided to sign up. However, in order to go on this excursion, I not only had to pay my own airfare but raise $4500 to contribute to purchasing winter gear and clothing.”

Setting up a Go Fund Me account allowed Ms. Sharifi to raise the needed funds. “I remember expressing my concern to my sister about raising this amount of money in a short amount of time.” Within four days, Ms. Sharifi raised $4500 and in just a few short weeks, raised $20,000 for the cause.

With the power of social media, Ms. Sharifi utilized her Facebook page to spread her story. “I asked all of my friends to share my post,” recalls Ms. Sharifi. “People are amazing, I couldn’t have done this without everyone sharing my story and I was amazed at how giving people were.”

In preparation for her journey, Ms. Sharifi even visited an Islamic School in Milpitas and presented a power point presentation to the students to educate them about the Syrian refugees.

Ms. Sharifi, as the last child in her family and the only one born in the United States, grew up listening to the stories of her parents and siblings. “My parents are refugees who fled Afghanistan when they were at war with Russia in 1990,” recalls Ms. Sharifi. “As I grew up I was fascinated with my parent’s stories. When my family left Afghanistan, my mom was pregnant with my older sister, plus had three other children in tow. They first settled in Pakistan and then decided they could not stay there. They had family in the Bay Area and here we are.”

In October, 2015, Ms. Sharifi flew to Istanbul where she spent the night and met about 19 others at the Ataturk Airport, Istanbul. “My travel mates included people from the Middle East, Chicago and the Bay Area, the rest were from the United Kingdom,” recalls Ms. Sharifi.

Spending a week in Reyhanli, which is on the border of Turkey and Syria, Ms. Sharifi had the opportunity of visiting an orphanage for children and widows. “This experience changed my life and has put my life in perspective,” says Ms. Sharifi. “I have more appreciation for my parents and what they have gone through. The children were so happy, even with scars on their bodies from being near bombs going off.”

Shabnam Sharifi is graduating in May, 2017 with a Masters in Social Work. Currently, she is working with foster children in Alameda County. She feels growing up in a family of refugees drew her to a career in social work.


SJSU’s Center For Healthy Aging in Multicultural Populations (CHAMP) Offers San Jose’s Seniors Health Screenings and Information

On Thursday, September 29, the 24th Annual Senior Resource & Wellness Fair, presented by the County of Santa Clara Department of Aging and Adult Services (DAAS), in partnership with the City of San Jose Parks & Recreation Department, and SJSU’s Center for Healthy Aging in Multicultural Populations (CHAMP), took place at the Mexican Heritage Plaza in San Jose.

Approximately 400 people in the community came out to the Wellness Fair to receive information from 85 different programs that provide information and services to the senior population.  There were about 70 vendors from community agencies. Participants were able to receive a multitude of health screenings – flu shots, blood pressure, glucose, dental, spine alignment, skin, mood, cognitive function, falls prevention, fitness, biofeedback, and hearing tests which were provided by Walgreens, SJSU students and other agencies.  Several workshops and fitness demonstrations were also held throughout the day, including Laughter Yoga, Fair Housing Rights, Cal Medi-Connect, and Nutrition.

More than 40 students, led by faculty from six San Jose State departments, participated in offering screenings or healthy living advice to older adults at the event. Students from the following departments offered information/screenings on the following topics:

  • Social work – Mood and wellness screening
  • Nursing – Blood pressure screening
  • Kinesiology – Information on evidence-based exercise
  • Occupational Therapy – Falls and balance
  • Recreation Therapy – Biofeedback to improve breathing and managing stress
  • Communicative Disorders – Ear inspections; and Cognitive wellness screening

“The Wellness fair offers SJSU students a wonderful opportunity to practice their communications skills, learn how to engage seniors in screenings and health education, and learn about the role of multiple disciplines and the array of community services available to promote wellness and healthy aging,” says Sadhna Diwan, Ph.D.,Professor, School of Social Work, Director, Center for Healthy Aging in Multicultural Populations.

Photos by Lauren Chun, Megan Dejan and Mickie Lau, students from Dwight Bentel & Hall Student Advertising and Public Relations Agency, School of Journalism and Mass Communications:

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Associate Professor Mike Gorman, School of Social Work, Appointed to National Committee for the Council on International Exchange of Scholars

Associate Professor Mike Gorman, School of Social Work was appointed to the national review committee for the Council on International Exchange of Scholars (CIES) to review applications in social work and allied health. Professor Gorman was also named to the roster of Fulbright Scholars eligible for Fulbright special projects around the world.

“I have been the recipient of two core Fulbright awards during my tenure at San Jose State University,” says Professor Gorman, “Tunisia in 2005, a Fulbright-Hays award to Jordan and Oman in 2009 and Argentina in 2012.”