From platitudes to plans: School of Social Work professor seeks to create actionable change in preventing police violence and social injustices within Black and Brown communities

February 13, 2023 - Brandon Drain

Anna Maria Santiago is releasing a new book on February 28, 2023, titled, “Beyond Lip Service: Bringing Justice to Black and Brown Communities.” This book serves to examine the complicity within the field of social work has had in systemic racism and to propose new strategies to dismantle institutionalized racism. 

 The landscape of the social work field is changing. As more social injustices and atrocities come to light, more advocates and social justice warriors step out from the shadows – determined to take action towards systemic change. 

 One such person is Anna Maria Santiago, a professor at Michigan State University, whose research and advocacy focus on racial and social inequalities, among other things. Santiago’s breaking-point came in May of 2020, after the unfortunate and untimely death of George Floyd at the hands of the police.  

 “The death of George Floyd really prompted me to use my position as a journal editor to come out and say something forcefully about what had happened,” Santiago said.  “And also, what’s been happening for generations in Black and Brown communities.” 

 Santiago recognized a gap within the field of social work and the helping professions as a whole. She believed the field had been saturated with platitudes, pleasantries and lip-service, devoid of real, actionable initiatives to instill meaningful change on any level. Even worse, Santiago saw the field as being complicit with systemic racism by emphasizing the status quo, “…emphasizing individual adaptation, personal change and compliance while de-emphasizing resistance, social action, and social solidarity against oppressive institutional structures…” Kelly Patterson, Anna Maria Santiago & Robert Mark Silverman (2021). 

 To better examine complicity within the profession and to develop community-driven initiatives towards eliminating it and redefining social worker’s roles in change, Santiago partnered with interdisciplinary colleagues and began a process of exploration. 

 “We were interested in looking at studies, programs and approaches that might be better at addressing community issues,” Santiago said. “It’s not just what we think, but what the community really cares about, and the things that would make them feel safe.” 

 This community-based approach looks to create tangible outcomes by amplifying concrete policies that will lead to meaningful social change. Advancing studies and initiatives that “look to strengthen communities by focusing on the community’s strengths, not their weaknesses.” To look beyond just advocating for new laws to be passed, and instead to develop new, innovative and structurally sound pilot programs – at the local, state and federal levels with models that can be replicated. 

 “It’s one thing to say, ‘we condemn these actions,’” Santiago said. “It’s another thing to really move into actions that stop this unnecessary violence. This isn’t some pipe dream or esoteric practice; this is a reality for us.” 

 Santiago’s children are of Latinx descent, something that plays in the background of Santiago’s mind, setting the foundation for her work. 

 “I have colleagues that never have to give ‘the talk’ to their children,” Santiago said. “And yet I had to do that – and you have to do that at a very young age. How you have to be careful to conduct yourself to avoid having someone misinterpret your language, body language and movements to keep you safe.” 

 In addition to Santiago’s forthcoming book, the College of Social Science recently awarded a Strategic Partnership grant to Drs. Cobbina-Dungy, Gibbs (Co-PIs) and School of Social Work Dean’s research associate Kendall Morris. The study is entitled: Working in Community: Toward an Improved Understanding of Community-Based Violence Reduction and Neighborhood Safety. 

 “As we navigate these unchartered waters or social change, may we remind one another that Black lives will not truly matter until we act in tangible ways to ensure that they do,” Anna Maria Santiago & Jan Ivery (2020).