USC’s School of Social Work Must Stop Acting Like A Bureaucracy And Take Up Community Activism

We claim to fight against social injustice in urban L.A. but turn a blind eye to the labor struggles on our own campus.

By Stephanie Jo Marchese and Breanna Davidson

Social work students cannot allow our voices to be lost. (Neon Tommy)

Living wage rights are one of the largest obstacles to equity in this country. Not only does wage stagnation perpetuate intergenerational cycles of poverty, it disproportionately affects communities of color and women and has led to a vicious pattern of employers demanding more work for the same pay.

Due to increased urgency and activism in various cities and universities across the country, the Living Wage Movement is finally securing slow and steady victories. Both the City of Los Angeles and L.A. County passed ordinances this summer to raise the minimum wage to $15.00 per hour by 2020. The University of California system also committed to the same minimum wage increase, to take place the next three years for both direct and contracted-service workers. Progressive victories surround the USC campus, yet its administration, as well as a largely disinterested student body and faculty remains on the sidelines.

USC is the largest employer in L.A. County. It actively supports inequity in four main ways: low hourly pay rates (currently stagnated around $9 an hour), outsourced jobs previously held by USC workers, misclassification of adjunct positions (adjunct professors make on average 53 percent less than full-time employees engaged in the same activity), and theft of middle management wages due to lack of overtime pay.

On September 9, 2015, the campaign of USC workers continued. Two hundred members of the janitorial staff and their supporters, including the Student Coalition Against Labor Exploitation (SCALE) picketed on Trousdale Parkway. Currently, SCALE acts in isolation. These activists have and continue to shoulder the burden of student-led activism. SCALE is the largest proponent for USC’s extended family — those that keep our campus beautiful, feed us, help house us, etc. Where is the USC School of Social Work in all this?

Breanna Davidson came into our Policy and Advocacy in Professional Social Work class one afternoon asking if anyone knew about the protests. Everyone sat there dumbfounded. We realized at that moment how sequestered we are. In our entire incoming cohort of almost 600 graduate students, not one of us was present at the protest. Not one of us was involved or allied with SCALE (which we might add shames those of us who are non-traditional students in allowing movements for justice to become the responsibility of the young).

In our profession, there is a powerful warning often given: “do not become a rubber stamp.” Bluntly stated, a social worker should never become a cog in the machine. To do so is to dishonor the history of social work and to violate our own code of ethics. Therefore, not only do we house innate sympathies with fights for justice, we are ethically bound to act. This call reaches to the top of the School of Social Work’s administration and tenured faculty all the way down to its newly admitted students.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) pinpoints six core values: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. NASW promotes the self-determination of every human being, the idea of “meaningful access” to resources, and cultural and social competency.

USC’s very own Dr. Bruce Jansson is a nationally renowned interventionist. His policy intervention techniques have enabled thousands of activists to continue work that serves vulnerable populations. He clearly states that every social worker must understand that this work requires advocacy. Social workers should engage in both social and political action, consciously act to create choice and opportunity for every person. They should promote environments of sociocultural respect and diversity and most importantly in the context of USC, they must act to prevent or reduce exploitation and discrimination against any person or group.

Our Social Work program sends us a conflicting message: be an advocate (1100+ MSW candidates provide a myriad of services all over the L.A. area) but not on campus or with University Park residents. The School of Social Work needs a wake up call. We need to actively recommit to our code of ethics. We must start showing up to provide both support and protection to change agents, such as our undergraduate colleagues at SCALE who have been threatened by USC Office of the President with suspension, retaliation by way of reduced financial aid, and expulsion. We must start advocating for policy changes that will alleviate poverty in our surrounding community.

In fact, 45 percent of individuals in University Park live below the federal poverty line and over 50 percent of children here live in homes that receive public assistance. We need to demonstrate to this community that we notice, as USC’s tuition skyrockets and this university grows more affluent that they continue to struggle. We as the School of Social Work can directly and overtly oppose the privatization of the janitorial staff and the loss of family benefits such as full scholarships for their children. We can hold university policy accountable for the continued poverty and exploitation of University Park residents. We must show solidarity with activists in our department whose ideas go unheard, such as Dr. Alice Cepeda. She has been pushing for a community clinic staffed by our student interns but so far has been unable to access a meeting to pitch this idea to the Dean.

We need to realize that the issue of living wages has the power to enact sweeping social justice reform. Hundreds of lives could immediately be improved if we flex our social worker muscles. Echoing Dr. Cepeda’s sentiment: “The topic of living wages is not an economic issue but the right to live with dignity. It becomes a community issue because our friends, mothers, fathers, sisters and brothers are employed by USC.” Joining in solidarity with reform movements in L.A. is how we can show USC’s executives that we will act strongly and collectively in concurrence with our field. We are not afraid to bite the hand that feeds us when that hand strikes struggling people.

USC Social Work students, faculty, and staff — please join your colleagues as well as the dedicated members of SCALE in taking back our campus. We encourage you to engage in these next steps: attend SCALE meetings, held Wednesdays at 8pm in VKC 161, connect with the USC SCALE Chapter — USAS Local 13 on Facebook, petition the Social Work Student Organization Board and Graduate Student Government to create formal alliances with SCALE, and contact Dr. Alice Cepeda to lend support for the creation of an on-campus community clinic.

Stephanie Jo Marchese and Breanna Davidson are both Master’s candidates at USC’s School of Social Work. Reach Stephanie here and Breanna here.