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Episode 1: Martell Teasley on the Grand Challenge to Eliminate Racism

November 2, 2023
Guest: Martell Teasley

During this episode, Martell Teasley, the University of Utah’s associate provost for strategic academic initiatives, discusses a few of the ideas covered in his new book, Social Work and the Grand Challenge to Eliminate Racism: Concepts, Theory, and Evidence Based Approaches, which he co-edited with Michael Spencer and Melissa Bartholomew.


Philip Osteen: Welcome to Big Ideas in Social Work, a new podcast series of the University of Utah College of Social Work.

Thank you for joining. I'm Philip Osteen, dean of the College of Social Work at the University of Utah and your host. Today, I'm so pleased to welcome Dr. Martell Teasley. Dr. Teasley has a long history of service to this country and to the field of social work. He has served as dean of the University of Utah College of Social Work and former department chair of social work at the College of Public Policy at the University of Texas at San Antonio. He also served two terms as president of the National Association of Deans and Directors in Social Work from 2017 to 2023. He served in the US Army for 10 years and participated in the first Persian Gulf War as a licensed practical nurse. He received his doctorate in social work in 2002 from Howard University. Dr. Teasley's research interests include African-American adolescent development, cultural diversity, social welfare policy, and Black studies. He's a nationally known researcher for his work with school-aged children and youth. Welcome Martell. Thanks for joining us today.

Martell Teasley: Thank you, Dr. Osteen.

Philip Osteen: So, Martell, you have a new book out called Social Work and the Grand Challenge to Eliminate Racism, which you co-edited with Dr. Michael Spencer at the University of Washington and Dr. Melissa Bartholomew at Harvard Divinity School. I know this is a huge project and it involved more than 60 well-respected authors. So let's get into talking about it. Just tell me, off the bat, what is this book about?

Photo of Martell TeasleyMartell Teasley: Well, the book is about the Grand Challenge to Eliminate Racism, as the title reflects. The subtitle is Concepts, Theory, and Evidence-based Approaches. And so there's a long history, well, not so long history, about five or six years, of the social work grand challenges, and me and my two co-editors as well as others started to advocate for racism to be a grand challenge for social work. What people were saying, that is the executive committee of the grand challenges, is that racism is embedded within the grand challenges with them themselves. And there were people like myself and my editors, co-editors, basically saying that racism also deserves standalone attention. And so while I do understand that it's embedded in the other grand challenges, also it needed particular attention because of what I refer to as the centralization of race. And so that is about the grand challenges that we have and racism and the ability to attempt to eliminate racism, particularly within social work before we try to go out to the wider world and tackle some of the problems.

Inevitably, social work is not isolated in a bubble where it ends racism by itself, but there are some things we need to take on within the profession as well as our understanding of what racism is and how it works. And that's what this book is essentially about; how racism works within our society. And there are actually over 80 authors in the book and we tackled it from a variety of ways. It's not exhaustive, but there is a lot of information there that will give one an ideal of the veracity of ways in which racism impacts our society.

Philip Osteen: Yeah, I'm very, very much looking forward to reading the book. The provost here at the University of Utah has encouraged all the deans to get a copy of the book and read it so that we can begin discussing it as part of a larger conversation in higher education around racism, which I think speaks to the testament of the quality and the importance of your work. I want to step back and just ask you about one thing you mentioned. So you said the book really talks about concepts, theories and evidence-based approaches. And I do know we've had many conversations in the field around concepts and theories, but the idea of evidence-based approaches is really interesting to me and really appealing. Can you say a little bit about some of those approaches that authors contributed to the book?

Martell Teasley: Sure. We know that the grand challenges are about evidence-based approaches to research in terms of solving social welfare problems that we know, with funding and the appropriate approach, can be solved. Racism, we don't necessarily see as something that has an evidence-based approach, but when people think of it in that way, they're not thinking about the multitude of ways in which racism impacts our society. So let's just think about voting rights and the challenge that people have in terms of structural problems of racism. We know that the courts have dealt with that more recently, they've dealt with the case in North Carolina as well as Alabama in terms of their redistricting of voting precincts, which would disadvantage African-Americans. And so through research, what they found is that those voting districts need to be withdrawn and the court ordered both states redraw those voting districts so that they would be more inclusive of African-Americans and representative of their votes. That's just one example in a cornucopia of ways in which racist problems can be solved.

Philip Osteen: I've been reading fairly extensively about the redistricting issue in Alabama and came across an interesting article yesterday which essentially said, let's call this what it is. The refusal of the legislature in the state of Alabama to actually redraw a court ordered map speaks to racism alive and well across the country, as you know. But this seems to be one of the most visible examples I've seen in recent times.

Martell Teasley: Yes. And as I say in the book, one thing we don't understand about racism is its fluid and its flexibility. It morphs over time. And so in [2013], the Supreme Court with the honorable John Roberts said, Hey, this Voting Rights Act is outdated. The research on this is about 50 years old and some of these problems have been eradicated, so let's throw that section of the Voting Rights Act out. Well, we're seeing what's happening now. Racism has morphed, it shows up in different forms, and now the court is having to deal with cases such as the one in Alabama and North Carolina.

Philip Osteen: Absolutely. I want to step back and address this idea in the field and maybe even outside the field of social work, that social work and social workers are in some ways uniquely qualified to take on the issue of racism in America. And I'm curious your thoughts about that, both why that might be the case and do you actually agree with that statement?

Martell Teasley: Somewhat. I think we have challenges with, for one, I think social workers are uniquely qualified to do that, but not all. And we need some redefinement within social work education programs. There's a couple of chapters in the book that talk about how we kind of lost our way in terms of dealing with racism.

Racism is one of the nastiest things in society that we would want to talk about. People really don't want to talk about racism, and we had a emphasis on diversity and cultural competency and the DEI initiatives, diversity, equity and inclusion, which are fine, but that obfuscated the centrality of race and how it's impacting people. And so we got away from that as a profession. I think chapter two of the book deals with that. And so what we really need to do and what we have done through the educational policy and accreditation standards through the Council on Social Work Education has looked at anti-racist practices and social work is dealing with that as well as when I was president of the National Association of Deans and Directors, we changed our strategic plan within NADD, that's the acronym, to make it reflect anti-racist practices as well as we changed some of the objectives of our leadership programs within that to address anti-racist practices.

So while we are uniquely qualified, we still have work to do because as I said before, racism morphs and it changes. And we need our colleagues and younger students to understand how racism works within our society.

Philip Osteen: I recently gave a presentation where I was talking about, from my perspective, sort of the origins of some of the issues that we do face around EDI. I think we all agree there's no hierarchy of oppression or marginalization or violence against groups, so many groups experience it. And it's not that one experiences more or less than another group. But the reality is all of this oppression and marginalization is deeply rooted in issues of race and gender. Those form the basis of pretty much every other act of violence against another group.

Martell Teasley: Yes. And so there's intersectional approaches and problems and the kind of double whammy of having gender problems, say being a black woman or Latinx woman as well as being racialized.

Philip Osteen: So let me ask you this, what do you think in this book, among all these incredible scholars, what are one or two things that might surprise the average reader? Or do you think there may be things in this book that sort of rock the boat a little bit?

Martell Teasley: I think the average reader will be surprised at the veracity of racism and the multiplicity of ways in which it works. There's 21 chapters in the book and they're not rhetorical. They're all not saying the same thing. They get at different problems. It has a lot of information on structural inequalities and institutional inequalities. And so if anyone really wants to understand what structural inequalities are and how they work, you would read this book.

Philip Osteen: So what are some of the action steps social workers and others might take away? If you were to break it down in concrete steps, what might the average reader do or could do after they read this?

Martell Teasley: One of the first things we all need to do is take a look at ourselves as individuals and our contribution to a racist society. And I firmly believe that racism is alive and well in our society. People see things like what happened in Virginia and they say that's a one-off, that's one person. But they keep happening over and over and they show patterns and we have a long history of racism in our society. So some part of what we talk about, and there's several places in the book, and I'm particularly thinking about chapter five, which was written by Harold Briggs and myself. One thing we need to do is self-reflection.

And that reminds me of the work of Howard Thurman, who was the spiritual advisor to Dr. Martin Luther King. One of the things that Howard Thurman said, which really struck me is, have you ever sat down and watched yourself walk by? Now, that's physically impossible to do, but that's a metaphor for have we ever really taken a look at ourselves, how we talk, how we interact with people, our thought processes, and I had to do that myself. I've done that several times in life. How do I sound to people? How do I come across and how do I treat people from different racial, ethnic and genderized groups? I consistently have to engage in self-reflection on that because no one wants to be accused of racism outright, but silence also makes people complicit in racism. And so when we have knowledge of things, then we need to act upon it. What's happening in our everyday ordinary lives that may make us contribute to racist processes and racist actions? What's happening at the table in terms of the conversations and how we take that on? And it's one thing about self-reflection, but the other thing is how do we prepare ourselves to deal with problems that are racialized?

Because there has to be a study of race. Just living in a society where racism exists doesn't mean that we totally understand it. We live in a society where cancer exists, but everybody doesn't understand how cancer works. And so medical doctors and oncologists study it over time to understand how it works and how to develop a cure. And so we need to study race and the centrality of race and how it impacts people. I have an opening statement in the book that I wrote and it says this, and this came from me. "Racism is a grand challenge for the social work profession because the profession has never tackled the centrality of racism as a causal factor, precipitating problem formation in the lives of people." And that's what's missing. That's what social work needs to do. That's what we all need to do when we engage in that self-reflection about who we are.

There are people that hear things such as, well, we have a color blind society and I don't see color. Well, I would challenge that. When we describe people, we not only describe them in terms of height, weight, and other physical features, but we describe them in terms of skin tone and intonation as well as what racial and ethnic and gender groups they belong to. So all those are part of that description in terms of who we are. And then we keep seeing things that happen in our society that are based on racialized practices. So there's no way in which we have a colorblind society. And then that gets to the challenge of whiteness. There's nothing wrong with being a white person. There is something about whiteness that's problematic in terms of how it was created in terms of white supremacy, which is a set aside category that means that people of other skin tones are subordinate to me. And at the end of that are the darkest people in the world who have the most melanin in their skin. And what we know through research is that the poorest people in the world, not just in the United States, are the people with the most melanin in their skin. The darker people are the poorest. We can go on any continent and find that, and that is a product of racism.

Philip Osteen: So much there to unpack Martell, which I really appreciate. And let me just start, I think that was a great analogy, talking about cancer and putting that in a different way for people to sort of engage in the topic, engage in the thinking process that maybe feels, just for the moment, slightly safer. I did want to note too, where we were talking about when we describe other people, my observation is, and I have fallen into this trap myself, is that we often talk about the race of the other person, but only if their race is different than our own.

Martell Teasley: Yes. Which is why I really don't like the term "people of color." The social problem of separating whites from other people and calling them people of color really is problematic. And that is one of the central problems that we have to address is this whole notion of people of color. Because from my perspective, the folks we call white are also part of that diaspora of people of color. And so we don't describe whites as Anglo-Americans, which is who they are, of European descent. But we have, to your point, we have African-Americans, people of African descent, we have European Americans of European descent, we have Italian-Americans of Italian descent. And it's okay to do that in terms of where people come [from] because we always have to locate people in terms of who they are. And that tells us something about them in terms of their cultural understanding just a little bit. But we need to know them personally. But it tells us something about the group that they belong to and how they interact in our environment. So it's important for us to dispel these notions of people of color and really break down this whole category of whiteness and what that really means. And that is something we kind of take for granted. Even those of us who understand racism well continue to use that terminology. I try to stay away from it as much as possible.

Philip Osteen: Yeah, I mean fascinating thoughts. I test a little bit, the idea that maybe internally and externally to the field, the sense that social work is in this space of combating racism and that somehow this is our space. But I'm curious your thoughts about how do we engage others in this process? Because not that I believe that racism can be eradicated, but I believe it can be addressed, but we can't do that on our own as social workers.

Martell Teasley: No, and oncologists can't be the only people that solve cancer. That has to do with the everyday ordinary individual in terms of their diet and their other interactions and things that may help prevent cancer. And so racism belongs to all of us, and it's a problem for all of us. And if we look at social sciences across the board, mostly all of them have a social justice mission. And so that just doesn't belong to social work. It belongs to all the social sciences, it belongs to all of us. Social work has uniquely said that it is a profession that works with the poor and people who are disenfranchised, and that's how we've gotten that label. And the most disenfranchised people in this country that we know through research are those people with the most West African DNA in them. I say that with a caveat because I must also think of our Native American brothers and sisters who've also been disenfranchised, who had actually all of this country, and over about a 200 year period, they went from 2000 tribes to roughly about 200 now. And so that was a really horrific thing that happened there.

We must deal with race in terms of its centrality and the problem formation that it has, and it is a problem for all of us. That is why the whole notion of what's happening in K through 12 education right now, and this gets back to my point about racism morphing, because now it is the notion that in many school systems, they won't talk about race or they'll water it down. And the whole notion, particularly in the state of Florida, is that racism was beneficial to Black folk. That is extremely problematic. For one, they had no agency, they were considered property, and Black people didn't get to go to trade school and say, I want to be a blacksmith. No. They actually were told to do these things. And if we look critically at the record in states, those people who had those skills actually died poor and engaged in indentured servitude. And so that is particularly problematic. We all need to understand racism and what is meant by the centrality of race, and it's impact on our lives and what it means to us. None of us want bad weather. None of us want poor health. We all must engage in those types of things within our society that helps us with our environment, that helps us to have better health in terms of health equity outcomes. We also need to engage in anti-racism, anti-racist practices for the health and wellbeing of who we are as people.

Philip Osteen: Yeah, absolutely. And I'm going to call myself out here for a moment. Even as we're talking, I want to reflect back on the comment I just made about I don't think we can eradicate racism, which in and of itself feels like it's starting from a place of defeat, and that's not what your book is about. Your book is about how do we eliminate racism? It seems like such an almost unattainable goal. Can we do this? How do we do this?

Martell Teasley: Well, that's a very good question, and I often have to deal with that even in my home. My wife says, how do you have a title of a book that says eliminating racism? How you gonna do that? Let me go back to my cancer analogy again. If the American Medical Association or the American Oncology Association came out and had a press conference and said, we've been at this over a hundred years and we've poured possibly trillions of dollars into research on cancer, and while we've made some headway, there's some just tough problems out there that we can't solve. So we're giving up. People would be outraged. They would call for their resignation and they would call for different people to take up the research. Racism is the same way. We seem to be fatigued by this social ill that we have. And what cancer researchers understand is that the advancements that they make in research today will help out researchers tomorrow. And so the good that we do in terms of anti-racist practice today will help out society tomorrow. So I'm under no disillusion that racism will probably be solved in my time. But then what is my contribution to anti-racist practices and what will the records show that I did with my time and how will other people who looked at me in terms of what I did use that for motivation in terms of what they may do in the future? And that's what it's all about. Eliminating racism is a vision, just like eliminating cancer is a vision that we both want to turn into reality.

Philip Osteen: That is so very well said, Martell. I greatly appreciate that. I think it recognizes the challenge, the history, but there also is in there that kernel of hope that, although I may not see it today, the work that I do today may lead to it happening in the future.

So as we come to the end of our time, what are some of the final thoughts you might want to share with our audience today?

Martell Teasley: Well, I would just say this is a very good book. This is not a diatribe about race. Prior to writing any of the chapters, I said to all the authors, I need solutions to these problems you're going to talk about. I sent chapters back to people saying, "Hey, this has no solution focus at all." Because there are plenty, there's a wide variety of diatribes about race and structural inequalities and gender problems, et cetera, and other isms. But what will we do; what are the solutions, and that's what this book is about. It is solution focused, and that's why I think it's so important to the profession and readers in general in terms of getting some idea about what an individual can do in terms of helping other groups to solve the problem of racism in our society and what people can do individually to work on themselves to self-reflect, to improve ourselves in terms of our approach as humans and dealing with other people and to de-racialize who we are as people so that we can engage in this utopia that we all want and want to live in.

Philip Osteen: We can always have hope. Martell, thank you so much for joining us today and sharing some of your time and truly talking about some of the biggest ideas in social work. As we know, racism is deeply rooted throughout so many of our systems, and I am so compelled by the thought that there is hope, that there is an achievable goal here, and that each of us has to contribute in our own way to bring that about. For our audience, I want to let you know that we will have a link to the book on our website at So I hope that you will reach out and get a copy of the book for yourself and think about how you can contribute to this goal of eliminating racism and addressing this grand challenge.

Thank you to our audience for listening to Big IDEAS in Social Work. If you would like to get in touch with us, please email This podcast is a production of the University of Utah College of Social Work. My co-executive producer is Jennifer Nozawa, manager of marketing and communications. We hope that you'll join us next time to talk about more big ideas in social work.

Last Updated: 11/2/23