Microaggressions, or messages that demean, insult, and invalidate the backgrounds and lived-experiences of persons from marginalized groups, are inherent in the undergraduate experience for low-income and students of color enrolled at predominantly white colleges and universities. Microaffirmations counterbalance the deleterious effects of microaggressions, through communicating appreciation and recognition of underrepresented groups, and promote positive campus climates. Microaffirmations are defined in the literature as ephemeral messages, actions and behaviors that communicate inclusion, belonging, welcoming and affirmation of marginalized and minoritized groups. Studies identify how microaffirmations promotes positive identity, academic success, and persistence on campus.
Microaffirmations align with the values of the social work profession around challenging social injustice, ending racism, and elevating the dignity and worth of persons who are systematically marginalized in society. Social work education programs play a unique role in socializing and training students to espouse these social work values. Yet, social work educational programs are devoid of antiracist pedagogies, curriculum, and learning environments. Understanding how programs potentially convey microaffirmations through curriculum, instruction, and activities may be key to advancing antiracist pedagogies, curriculum, and learning environments.
This qualitative study examined how components of a social work academic minor program promoted microaffirmations and shaped the undergraduate experience of participants. Through student accounts, we offer an ecological perspective for exploring how microaffirmations are expressed, manifested, and encountered, within a social work education program at a predominantly white university.
The study implemented a single case study design to answer its research questions. Data were gathered from background surveys, program documents, student focus groups, and semi-structured interviews with program faculty and staff. Graduating seniors and alumni were recruited through email correspondence. Seventy students consented to participate in the study of which, twenty were identified for focus group participation. The study sample represented a larger proportion of women (77 percent) and consisted of White (58 percent) and racial-ethnic minority (42 percent ) students. Focus groups were conducted and arranged by study participants self-reported racial-ethnic identity. Focus groups were transcribed and analyzed using a priori and inductive coding procedures. Secondary data includes semi structured interviews with program staff and faculty. Program documents and other surveys were used to triangulate primary data sources to bolster the study’s validity.
Preliminary Findings, Implications, and Conclusions
Findings revealed several themes characterizing how the academic program promoted microaffirmations for student participants such as providing malleable and accessible administration of program requirements, fostering critical learning experiences, encouraging students to take a bold stance on contentious social issues, and facilitating diverse representation among staff and faculty. Overall, study participants described the minor as a “container of experiences'' that fostered community engagement skill development and critical self-reflection about social identity. Our findings have important implications for how social work education programs with explicit social justice missions implement practices, policies, and structures that provide transformative learning environments that affirm the identities and lived experiences of persons from marginalized groups in society. This study advances empirical studies on microaffirmations and promotes antiracism and social justice education in the social work profession.