Abstract: "We Need Protocols": Racialized Experiences of Activism in an Organizational Context (Society for Social Work and Research 27th Annual Conference - Social Work Science and Complex Problems: Battling Inequities + Building Solutions)

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"We Need Protocols": Racialized Experiences of Activism in an Organizational Context

Sunday, January 15, 2023
Valley of the Sun A, 2nd Level (Sheraton Phoenix Downtown)
* noted as presenting author
Samantha Guz, MSSW, Doctoral Student, University of Chicago, Chicago, IL
David Orta, Senior Research Analyst, University of Chicago Consortium of School Research
David W. Johnson, MSW, MDiv
Vincent Liu, Masters Student, University of Chicago

The processes through which staff in human service organizations take up racial justice activism in their workplace remains under examined. Particularly how white staff pursue racial justice activism within racialized organizations and what racialized politics are reproduced by their pursuit. To better explore these dynamics we used qualitative data from a single case study to answer the question, “How are white staffs’ pursuit of racial justice activism in their workplace influenced by preexisting racialized dynamics within the school and what is the implication of these processes for organizational change?” Our analysis extends social work scholarship on Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) efforts within human service organizations by identifying the role of emotions and gendered whiteness in racial schemas and tracing how these schemas pattern the distribution of power within an organization.


Findings derive from eight interviews with staff collected at one public high school. Across the interviews, school leadership and staff expressed that racial justice activism shaped how they, as individuals, as well as how the school as an organization, engaged with students. After investigating this finding more closely using the flexible coding method, we recognized that staffs’ experience and engagement with racial justice activism in the school were differentiated along respondents’ racial and gender identities. In this paper, we approached this finding as a unique case that could extend existing theoretical insights as well as describe dimensions of a generalizable phenomenon.


Three findings emerged: 1) emotional agency within the school was racialized, 2) gendered whiteness was a credential in racial justice activism, and 3) decoupling of racial justice activism from school policy was racialized. We found that that the emotions of white female staff were considered a more legitimate catalyst and guidepost for organizational change than colleagues of color. As a result, though white women did not threaten to complain, the knowledge that white female staff could complain about being dissatisfied primed the principal’s response to them. Ultimately, white female staff were enabled to attach organizational resources to their emotions and were insulated from workplace consequences when their activist efforts caused harm or poorly used resources. In addition to being regarded as inherit expertise, white female staffs’ emotions were considered evidence of “doing the work” by district and school leadership. As a result, racial justice activism was decoupled from school policy or practice.


Our analysis has salience beyond the interpersonal dynamics of a single public high school. We build on the theory of racialized organizations and scholarship on racialized emotions in racial justice activism and gendered whiteness in public education to illuminate a phenomenon that may be occurring across schools and other human service organizations where racial injustice, highly visible social movements, and organizational operations are in the foreground of staffs’ minds. It is not surprising that social movements may influence organizational actors to take up a particular activist agenda in their workplace, but how those processes may be racialized and engendered at the organizational level is an important contribution for social work to consider.