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Educating the Next Generation of Human Rights Advocates and Defenders: An Interprofessional Partnership

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Abstract

Defending human rights requires professionals to be unrelenting in the pursuit of systemic change. It requires the collaboration of varied professions bringing together their expertise to challenge the system of domination that has led to subjugation. Interprofessional education and collaborative practice (IPE) is a powerful tool where human rights defenders and advocates from different disciplines can learn from each other and advocate for change. This is an overview of an innovative collaboration between Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Human Rights and Stony Brook University School of Social Welfare (SBUSSW) BSW Program. It will illustrate the way the RFK Human Rights' human rights education program, Speak Truth To Power (STTP) is being adapted to baccalaureate social work education. Included is the method that the SBUSSW incorporates the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and Interprofessional Education Collaborative (IPEC) competencies in a human rights context through the partnership with RFK Human Rights.
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Robin Deluca-Acconi, PhD, LCSW, Assistant Dean, RFK Human Rights Lead Educator and Research Scientist; Suzanne
L. Velázquez, PhD, LCSW, Director of the Undergraduate Program and Clinical Associate Professor; Stephen Rabeno,
PhD, LCSW-R, Clinical Assistant Professor; Warren K. Graham, LMSW, ACSW, CASAC, Director of Field Education
and Clinical Assistant Professor, Stony Brook University School of Social Welfare, Stony Brook, NY.
Copyright © 2020 Authors, Vol. 20 No. 2 (Summer 2020), 371-393, 10.18060/23686
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.
Educating the Next Generation of Human Rights Advocates and Defenders:
An Interprofessional Partnership
Robin Deluca-Acconi
Suzanne L. Velázquez
Stephen Rabeno
Warren Graham
Abstract: Defending human rights requires professionals to be unrelenting in the pursuit
of systemic change. It requires the collaboration of varied professions bringing together
their expertise to challenge the system of domination that has led to subjugation.
Interprofessional education and collaborative practice (IPE) is a powerful tool where
human rights defenders and advocates from different disciplines can learn from each other
and advocate for change. This is an overview of an innovative collaboration between
Robert F. Kennedy (RFK) Human Rights and Stony Brook University School of Social
Welfare (SBUSSW) BSW Program. It will illustrate the way the RFK Human Rightshuman
rights education program, Speak Truth To Power (STTP) is being adapted to
baccalaureate social work education. Included is the method that the SBUSSW
incorporates the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and Interprofessional
Education Collaborative (IPEC) competencies in a human rights context through the
partnership with RFK Human Rights.
Keywords: Human Rights, social work education, interprofessional partnership, social
work & law, rights-based practice
Social Work and Human Rights
Recent sociopolitical changes have made it an imperative for social workers to
advocate for human rights and advance a human rights agenda as a core competency of
U.S. social work education. The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE; 2015)
requires that social work students achieve competence in Advancing Human Rights and
Social, Economic, and Environmental Justice. Human rights have become a significant part
of the social work mission as social work broadens its reach in a cross-national perspective
(McPherson & Abell, 2012). To address the need for educating future practitioners to
contribute to a human rights agenda, there are concerted efforts to formalize the
incorporation of human rights approaches into social work education (Allensworth
Hawkins & Knox, 2014; Healy & Wairier, 2014).
The “three generations” or “waves” of human rights practice provide context for
addressing social issues. Civil rights have been identified as the first wave, economic,
social, and cultural rights, social justice and freedom in the second wave, and collective
rights for positive development and a universal stand against oppression in the third (Ife,
2012; Lombard & Twikirize, 2014). While the profession of social work has addressed all
three generations of human rights, the second-generation rights of special populations have
Deluca-Acconi et al./INTERPROFESSIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS PARTNERSHIP 372
received particular attention by practitioners. However, it is concerted efforts of the third-
generation of rights, namely opposing universal oppression, building positive social and
economic systems, and fostering healthy environments that social workers should engage
in that may yield the most noticeable results for creating sustainable change. “Social Work
can become a significant role player in promoting social and economic equality through its
commitment to social justice and human rights” (Lombard & Twikirize, 2014, p. 313).
Supporting the universality of the third-generation human rights is a particular imperative
for our interconnected global society.
The history of human rights parallels social work’s efforts to promote social justice
within a human rights context. In the 1994 United Nations document, Human Rights and
Social Work, the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) acknowledged that
from “inception social work has been a human rights profession” (UN Centre for Human
Rights, International Federation of Social Workers & International Association of Schools
of Social Work, 1994, p. 13). The relationship between social work and human rights can
be seen in two ways: with social workers joining broader human rights campaigns, as well
as their achieving human rights through social work practice (Ife, 2016).
There exists a strong connection between fighting for human rights and social justice
(Burke, 2017; Grant & Gibson, 2013; Reichert, 2003, 2011). According to the Social Work
Dictionary, social justice is an ideal condition in which all members of a society have the
same rights, protections, opportunities, obligations, and social benefits…” (Barker, 2014,
p. 398), while Healy (2008) recognizes that At the most basic level, human rights are those
rights that belong to all just because we are human” (p. 736). As we strive to strengthen
human rights, social work’s focus must integrate proactive responses while simultaneously
addressing active violations. Addressing social justice, as a subcategory of human rights,
requires varied skills that necessitate interprofessional collaboration. Social workers and
human rights defenders lead allied lives, both working for equality, and against oppression.
Social Workers and Lawyers Coming Together as Human Rights Defenders
Current violations of human rights, occurring on both the domestic and global fronts
and associated with tumultuous political climates, have underscored the importance for
social workers to work interprofessionally against these abuses. The treatment of migrant
and immigrant, LGBTQ+, and indigenous populations among others, ignite a need to unite
the various professions, such as law and social work, in order to stand against the myriad
of injustices prevalent today. Social workers alongside other professionals must remain
vigilant, advocating for change in the face of human rights violations, never losing sight of
the international abuses, reinforcing the need for collaborative, and transformational
change. For this reason, it is an opportune time to further the discussion of the importance
of professional collaboration to address human rights violations and to change how we
educate social work students.
The World Health Organization (WHO; 2010) defines interprofessional education
(IPE) as the process in which varied professions “learn about, from and with each other”
and work collaboratively to “deliver the highest quality of care across settings” (p. 13). The
WHO (2010) documented that IPE can be a powerful tool to help rectify the challenges of
ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Summer 2020, 20(2) 373
the healthcare system, reducing costs and improving patient satisfaction and outcomes.
CSWE became an institutional member of the Interprofessional Education Collaborative
(IPEC) in 2016, committing to teaching social work students about the importance of
collaboration to increase positive results in health care (CSWE, 2016). IPE between social
workers and health care providers has been well documented (Blacker et al.; 2016; Charles
et al., 2011; de Saxe Zerden et al., 2018; Jones & Phillips, 2016). This article is a call to
further the scholarship of interprofessional education and practice between social work and
law.
There are substantial opportunities for social workers to enact their commitment to the
profession’s core values and competencies alongside other advocates, such as lawyers. This
becomes essential in the current political climate. The Trump Administration’s withdrawal
from the UN Human Rights Council demonstrates continued lack of commitment and
leadership around human rights promotion of the U.S. government (Mapp & Gatenio
Gabel, 2019). The Administration’s policies are clear violations of human rights, namely
in the areas of immigration, healthcare, and the criminal justice system, which are
discussed in detail in the next sections. These examples are used as an inspirational call to
action for social workers alongside lawyers to fill the gap where the government has fallen
short. It is an appeal for a coalition of professionals to be human rights advocates and
defenders.
Immigration
Current U.S. immigration policies have led to practices resulting in a humanitarian
crisis and evident violations of human rights. The practices demonstrated in the detention
facilities on the US-Mexico border illustrate this:
According to the AP [Associated Press], there's not adequate food, water or
sanitation inside. The report describes teen mothers and other younger kids being
asked to care for infants and toddlers on their own, with little or no help from any
adults…. Short-term holding facilities were not designed to hold vulnerable
populations and we urgently need additional humanitarian funding to manage this
crisis. (Public Broadcasting Service, Newshour, 2019, transcript para. 3)
Article I of the Convention and Protocol relating to the Status of Refugees puts forth
the rights of individuals who are fleeing their country “owing to [well-founded] fear of
persecution” (UN General Assembly, 1951). The Convention on the Rights of the Child
(CRC) delineates the special conditions under which children, as a protected class, should
be treated (UN General Assembly, 1989). The Protocol and the CRC both can be used as
tools for social workers who denounce harmful immigration practices, such as separating
children from their caregivers. The School Social Work Association of America (SSWAA)
has done so in their 2019 statement, School Social Workers Stand Up for Migrant
Children’s Human Rights: A Call to Action. The SSWAA quoted the CRC noting,
“UNCRC states that migrant children should receive “appropriate protection and
humanitarian assistance” (Villarreal Sosa et al., 2019, p. 2). In the Call to Action, school
social workers are urged to use materials from the National Immigration Law Center to
help students and communities know their rights, ensuring that immigrants know what to
Deluca-Acconi et al./INTERPROFESSIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS PARTNERSHIP 374
do if there is an encounter with Immigration and Customs Enforcement (Villarreal Sosa et
al., 2019). The SSWAA encouraged school social workers to work with lawyers and
organizations to defend immigrant human rights and lobby for American Dream and
Promise Act (H.R. 6), Deferred Action for Childhood Arrival (DACA), and Temporary
Protected Status (TPS; Villarreal Sosa et al., 2019).
All social workers have been called upon to denounce recent immigration policy with
the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) stating, “NASW encourages social
workers to regularly contact their lawmakers to express their concerns about harmful and
unjust immigration policies and to provide the much-needed social work perspective in
state- and local-level immigrant advocacy coalitions and related justice efforts” (NASW,
2019, para. 4). IPEC’s (2016) second competency, Roles and Responsibilities, underscores
the importance of understanding the roles and responsibilities of each profession to
increase positive outcomes of individuals and larger populations. In the case of social work
and immigration law fulfilling IPEC’s second competency, social workers should
understand the role and responsibilities of lawyers to provide legal advice and
representation at court proceedings to immigrants. Conversely, lawyers need to understand
the social worker’s role and responsibilities to advocate for immigrant rights and attend to
and support access and fulfillment of these rights. Achievement of IPEC’s sub-
competencies could be accomplished by working collaboratively on a project, such as
immigration reform, with deliberate team meetings that set, distinguish, and communicate
the boundaries and responsibilities of each of the professions involved in the effort. In this
instance, the NASW suggested working closely with law and policy agencies, such as the
Center for Law and Social Policy and National Immigration Law Center, and “helping
individuals and families understand or access resources that explain their legal options and
when to speak with an attorney” (NASW, 2019, para. 10).
Healthcare
The United States continues to be reluctant in providing universal health care. The
2010 passage of the Affordable Care Act (ACA), although progress towards offering access
to medical care, continues to sustain a health insurance system rather than a health care
system (Gerisch, 2018). The decision about health care as a universal right remains on the
forefront of policy debate, as the number of uninsured has begun to increase. According to
Tolbert et al. (2019), “The number of uninsured nonelderly Americans decreased from over
46.5 million in 2010 (the year the ACA was enacted) to just below 27 million in 2016”
(p.1). However, between 2017 and 2018, the number of uninsured people increased by
nearly 500,000 people (Tolbert et al., 2019).
Conceptualizing healthcare as a privilege instead of a right justifies the capitalistic
response that values profit above human well-being. The Trump Administration’s
objective to completely dismantle the ACA advances a neoliberal agenda and conservative
ideology that benefits the top quintile of the U.S. population at the detriment of the bottom
quintile. The disenfranchised are most affected as the absence of health care or the ability
to pay for it literally costs them their lives. COVID-19 has brought this structural inequality
to the forefront. Marginalized communities, historically segregated by income and race,
ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Summer 2020, 20(2) 375
are suffering from higher mortality rates during the pandemic (Artiga et al., 2020; Human
Rights Watch, 2020).
Social workers and students alike share the profession’s core values and essential role
in challenging the modus operandi of the country’s approach to providing medical services
based on a system of insurance and pharmaceutical company profit. Social workers are
essential in challenging prevailing hegemony and questioning the status quo of corporate
profit over human rights, using human rights and treaties as the basis of a campaign
(DeLuca-Acconi, 2017). For example, advocates must challenge the status quo of denying
medical insurance by companies to the poorest Americans due to their inability to pay,
citing Article 25 of the United Nations (UN, 1948), Universal Declaration of Human
Rights (UDHR) that does not place conditions on access to health care and identifies it as
a human right.
IPEC’s (2016) competency three stresses the importance of interprofessional
communication, supporting a team approach to the promotion of health and the prevention
of disease. In this case, social workers would benefit from communicating with lawyers
working toward the human right of healthcare so they both use human rights treaties and
conventions as the basis of their campaign. Lawyers would benefit from recognizing social
work’s person-in-environment perspective and unique active listening and communication
skills in their effort to defend healthcare as a human right. Subcompetency CC4 addresses
the importance of listening and encouraging “the ideas of other team members” (IPEC,
2016, p. 13) while CC6 addresses the need for respectful language when dealing with
conflict; all are skills that coincide with social work training and values. Social workers
can work with agencies, such as the National Health Law Program, that “advocate, educate
and litigate at the federal and state levels to advance health and civil rights in the U.S.”
(National Health Law Program, n.d., para.1). Strong communication between social work
and law can advance the movement for health care as a human right, ensuring that both
professions use a human rights frame when they are approaching policy change.
Criminal Justice System
The United Nations’ Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or
Degrading Treatment or Punishment (UN General Assembly, 1984) was ratified to support
rights deriving from the inherent dignity and worth of a person. This is the same language
referenced in the NASW Code of Ethics (2017). The human rights language in the
Convention mirrors that of social work in working to eradicate inhumane practices such as
solitary confinement, which was previously referenced as psychological torture
(McConnaughey, 2012). Social Workers Against Solitary Confinement (SWASC), a
coalition led by social workers and concerned allies, and the Vera Institute of Justice, who
launched the Segregation Reduction Project, are examples of contemporary efforts of
collaborations of social workers and lawyers who work to abolish or minimize solitary
confinement. These efforts have led to a planned scholarship with the CSWE to teach about
inhumane prison practices, which is to be introduced in social work education (SWASC,
2019). In January 2015, President Obama called for a Department of Justice investigation
into the practice citing psychological harm. With the continued partnership with the law
profession, several states have followed suit with statutes minimizing its use, as well as the
Deluca-Acconi et al./INTERPROFESSIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS PARTNERSHIP 376
eradication of the practice for 16- and 17-year-olds (Garcia et al., 2016). Speaking to the
need for continued interprofessional partnership between social workers and the legal
profession from a human rights framework, efforts have also continued to address harsh
criminal sentencing that results in disproportionate numbers of persons of color held under
bail or disparately sentenced. Those working in an interprofessional model, are not
“restricted to his or her traditional discipline but is woven together and enhanced by the
other” (Jones & Phillips, 2016, p. 19).
Immigration, healthcare and criminal justice policy are substantive areas that a human
rights framework within an interprofessional partnership can make the work of social
workers more effective. Working with a coalition of human rights advocates is what is
needed to challenge intractable problems and lead to lasting change (DeLuca-Acconi,
2017).
Interprofessional Education and Practice of Social Work and Law
Effective interprofessional practice (IPP) is predicated on effective interprofessional
education (IPE). The social work and legal professions have benefited from the
collaboration in both practice and education (Aiken & Wizner, 2003; Critelli et al., 2017;
Madden & Wayne, 2003; Rand, 2018). This collaboration maximizes therapeutic results
while maintaining due process and justice values. An interprofessional partnership
provides each future professional valuable insight on how to effect change; for social
workers, the legal system, and for lawyers, the implications of empowerment, self-
determination, and the strengths perspective on client outcomes. Zajac (2011) cited “that
social workers are ‘sensitized to identify at-risk issues’ and ‘address them upstream,’
providing an integrated delivery model that provides education and empowerment to
liberate clients from poverty” (p. 8). IPEC (2016) competency four, Teams and Teamwork,
highlights the need for interprofessional teams to work together to solve problems. As
social work and law each has a commitment to eradicate human rights violations, they have
a shared vision that can be realized by incorporating their respective knowledge and skills,
such as engaging in policy advocacy that addresses implicit bias and institutional
oppression that contributes to police brutality. It is essential to bring together respective
professions to work effectively as a team to plan, deliver and evaluate how human rights
are protected and promoted. IPEC’s (2016) Teams and Teamwork competency, sub
competency TT10, discusses the need to use “available evidence to inform effective
teamwork and team-based practices” (p.14). For example, when collaborating on a team
that is working against a human rights violation, such as police brutality, lawyers and social
workers should be sure to recognize their process of group development, specifically
progress through the forming, storming, norming, performing and adjourning stages
(Tuckman, 1965; Tuckman & Jensen, 1977). As the group progresses, an evaluation of the
impact of the partnership on individual and communal human rights would address IPEC’s
(2016) Teams and Teamwork competency, sub competency TT9.
Evaluation of team processes may alleviate potential barriers that occur when varied
professions come together through interprofessional education and practice (IPEC, 2016;
Jones & Phillips, 2016). While many challenges exist to collaborative partnership, the
NASW has incorporated a human rights perspective and legal jurisprudence within social
ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Summer 2020, 20(2) 377
work practice to accomplish those goals and create a successful IPP team. The NASW has
long partnered with lawyers to develop comprehensive social justice briefs, amicus briefs,
and draft letters to local politicians supporting bills and measures to alleviate human rights
abuses:
The [NASW Legal Defense Fund's] Amicus Brief Database contains
downloadable copies of 300 amicus curiae (friend of the court) briefs filed by
NASW or on behalf of NASW since 1973. Friend of the court briefs are accepted
by courts as an aid to understanding aspects of issues that may not be fully
addressed by the parties to the litigation, or where specialized knowledge may be
helpful in reaching a conclusion in high profile cases. The goal of NASW and the
Legal Defense Fund has been to ensure that a social work perspective is
represented in cases of interest to the profession. (NASW, n.d., para. 2)
Dual social work and law degrees can be invaluable for the advancement of human
rights advocacy. For instance, MSW/JD dual degree programs prepare graduates to
“actively pursue a more just society, and to initiate and implement viable systems change
by applying their training in both professions (Penn Social Policy and Practice, 2019, para.
4). In the past, there were very salient risks associated with social workers in legal practice
where state laws and professional standards conflict with navigating confidentiality (for
social workers) and privileged communication (for attorneys). Innovative solutions have
been implemented to resolve this interprofessional conflict, such as making policy changes
to allow an extension of attorney privilege to social workers working as part of the legal
team (Zajac, 2011). That extension maintains the spirit of confidentiality and privacy and
privileged communication, while also allowing social workers to adhere to their
professional obligations in the event that disclosure is made in furtherance of a crime or
fraud, or someone is at risk of abuse (American Bar Association, n.d.; New York
Consolidated Laws Civil Practice Law & Rules, 2012). This is just an example of how two
professions can resolve the need for interdependence to address identified issues preventing
those served from realizing the values of respect, dignity and worth of a person, in a holistic
way. It is critical for varied disciplines engaged in interprofessional practice and education
to understand that they hold similar values (Jones & Phillips, 2016). The partnership
between social work and law, both professions where advocacy for equity and human rights
is paramount, underscores the need for collaborative work among professionals. IPE and
IPP train practitioners to problem solve and think collaboratively (de Saxe Zerden et al.,
2018) and apply values and principles as a team to perform effectively (IPEC, 2016).
Example of IPP and IPE with Social Work, Law, and Human Rights
Practicing both social work and law from a rights-based framework becomes essential
in order to create systemic change. Thus, advancing the way we train social work and law
students about human rights becomes an imperative. IPE teaches collaborating professions
to understand the ethics and values of other occupations (Jones & Phillips, 2016). IPEC
underscored the importance of mutual respect and shared values in their first competency,
Values/Ethics (IPEC, 2016).
Deluca-Acconi et al./INTERPROFESSIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS PARTNERSHIP 378
There is a precedent for the integration of social work practice into legal settings that
are designed to defend human rights (Belenko, 1998; Butts & Roman, 2004; Cooper, 2007).
Since the establishment of alternative court-based programs in 1989, criminal, family, and
district courts have allowed the integration of social work practice to ground alternative
case processing. Drug courts integrate clinical process and legal jurisprudence, using an
interdisciplinary team model consisting of the judge, prosecutor, defense counsel, clinician,
coordinator, parents (in the case of juveniles) and community-based agencies to advocate
for rights and consider clinical consequences of legal actions. Family drug courts, juvenile
drug courts, and mental health courts all acknowledge rights and the dynamics of addiction
and trauma from an ecological (ecosystems) perspective (Green et al., 2009). Validated
screening and assessment tools contribute to the utilization of biopsychosocial assessments
to partner with community-based organizations utilizing evidence-based practices. Harm
reduction efforts and medication-assisted treatment are now viable opportunities for
alternative court processing to support the legal community’s effort to guard against
recidivism and support client’s rights.
Combining the knowledge and skills of social work and law can have a powerful effect
when challenging rights infractions to vulnerable and marginalized populations (Critelli et
al., 2017). When both disciplines work toward common goals of creating systemic and
sociopolitical change within a human rights framework, “a greater capacity to effect
change” can occur (Critelli et al., 2017, p. 132). IPE has been successful in creating positive
outcomes when students are educated from multiple disciplines (Charles et al., 2011; IPEC,
2016)
An interprofessional collaboration between the Stony Brook University School of
Social Welfare’s (SBUSSW) BSW Program and RFK Human Rights began in 2016, with
the goals to:
educate social work students about human rights,
draw upon the expertise that lawyers and advocates bring to social work
education, and,
educate lawyers about the value of social work.
The partnership originated when a clinical social worker realized the power that human
rights education could bring to social work students. The SBUSSW’s BSW Program
entered a contractual agreement with RFK Human Rights to form a working partnership
that would connect social work students and educators with human rights defenders,
advocates, law fellows, and students.
The partnership would also serve to adapt RFK Human Rights’ existing Speak Truth
To Power (STTP) curriculum to professional social work education. The adaptation of
STTP makes specific linkages to the recommendations and competencies offered by
CSWE (2015, 2016) and the Interprofessional Education Collaborative (2016). In addition,
recommendations from the National Task Force on Civic Learning and Democratic
Engagement, which are designed to strengthen students’ civic learning and democratic
engagement as a core component of college study, are highlighted in the program
adaptation (American Association of Colleges & Universities [AAC&U] National Task
Force on Civic Learning and Democratic Engagement, 2012; Council on Social Work
ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Summer 2020, 20(2) 379
Education [CSWE], 2015). The partnership allows SBUSSW students and faculty, as well
as staff from RFK Human Rights, several opportunities to integrate the defense and
advocacy for human rights into their professional development, practice and research.
RFK Human Rights and Speak Truth To Power
RFK Human Rights is an organization led by Robert F. Kennedy’s daughter, Kerry
Kennedy, that advocates and educates for a more peaceful and just world. Their programs
pursue justice through strategic litigation on key human rights issues, educate individuals
about human rights advocacy, and foster a social good approach to business and investment
(Robert F. Kennedy [RFK] Human Rights, n.d.a). Kerry Kennedy’s books, Speak Truth to
Power: Human Rights Defenders Who Are Changing Our World (Kennedy & Adams,
2005) and Speak Truth to Power: A Guide to Defending Human Rights (2017) serve as the
basis for RFK Human Rights’ education program, Speak Truth to Power (STTP). The
program is rooted in the UN’s principles of human rights education and are based upon the
stories of human rights defenders around the globe. The lessons are designed for students
to learn to self-identify as a human rights defender and to give them the tools in the global
fight for justice.
Stony Brook University School of Social Welfare
One of the four university centers of the State University of New York (SUNY) system
and a member of the Association of American Universities (AAU), located in suburban
Long Island, Stony Brook University (SBU) is home to an exceptionally diverse student
body of more than 25,200 high-achieving students from nearly all 50 states and more than
100 countries. The SBU School of Social Welfare offers three degree programs: a Bachelor
of Science with a major in social work (BSW), a Master of Social Work (MSW) and a
PhD. The MSW and BSW programs are accredited by the CSWE. The SBUSSW mission
states:
We recognize that structural inequality exists in multiple and overlapping layers
of discrimination including class, race, ethnicity, gender, gender identity and
expression, sexual orientation, religion, age and disability, among others. We
therefore seek to remediate the impact of interpersonal and historical trauma, to
foster human relationships that are grounded in social justice; human dignity and
mutual respect; to develop new and just organizational forms; to transform already
existing structures to reflect values that affirm and enhance human dignity and
social diversity; and to identify new ways to influence social, economic and
political systems to equitably distribute power, resources, rights and freedom.
(Stony Brook University School of Social Welfare, n.d.)
When faculty and partnership staff examined both the mission statements from RFK
Human Rights and SBUSSW, advocating for human rights, social justice and challenging
existing structural inequality were common themes. The focus of the partnership became
working toward the development and integration of STTP for social work students,
anchoring the BSW program in a human rights-based approach to social work practice.
The second phase of the program would be designed to educate law fellows, human rights
Deluca-Acconi et al./INTERPROFESSIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS PARTNERSHIP 380
defenders and law students about social work and the importance of interprofessional work
with social workers when advocating for human rights.
A University and Human Rights Organization Interprofessional Partnership
The fundamental desired outcome of the Stony Brook University School of Social
Welfare/RFK Human Rights (SBUSSW/RFKHR) partnership is to pilot and co-brand a
replicable STTP program at the university level, within a social work program, which
advances interprofessional education and competency-based social work education by
incorporating a human rights-based perspective and language as the foundation for
generalist social work. Outcomes of the partnership are to map STTP content to
professional competencies, and to develop replicable human rights education lesson plans
appropriate for college and professional students and to strengthen IPE.
In order to form a global citizenry of human rights defenders, the partnership aims to
impart knowledge of human rights, increase empathy for those experiencing rights
violations and provide the skills needed to make much needed systemic change
(Allensworth Hawkins & Knox, 2014). Additional goals include:
Social work students will understand the need to create an interprofessional
coalition toward a solution-focused path towards rights-based advocacy.
Law students, fellows, and lawyers will understand the importance of working
with social workers to best serve clients and society, thus increasing the
visibility of social workers in other disciplines.
Overview of Partnership
Human rights education includes a three-stage process; First, knowledge acquisition
about human rights conventions and treaties, second, awakening the consciousness to rights
violations, and finally, providing the skills needed to be a human rights defender
(Allensworth Hawkins & Knox, 2014; Gatenio et al., 2020; Mihr & Schmitz, 2007).
The SBUSSW/RFKHR curricular program follows this structure whereas students are
educated about human standards, treaties and conventions in all classes through the
narrative of the STTP defenders. Students are asked to identify human rights issues that
are occurring locally and globally in order to educate students on the second emotional
level with the goal of creating a “consciousness for human rights and its violations” (Mihr
& Schmitz, 2007, p. 978). Upon acceptance to the BSW program, students are assigned a
Common Reader that is specifically selected based on its human rights content. Students
in the SBUSSW are introduced to STTP and human rights education during their new
student orientation programming. An RFK Human Rights staff member and SBUSSW
faculty give a brief overview of human rights and its application to social work. Students
and faculty are given time to discuss the Common Reader and what it means to view social
issues from a rights-based instead of a needs-based perspective. The BSW seniors present
excerpts from Speak Truth To Power: Voices from Beyond the Dark, playwright Ariel
Dorfman's adaptation of human rights Defenders’ stories.
ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Summer 2020, 20(2) 381
At the heart of the partnership’s first phase of work, the lessons in STTP are being
connected to the nine social work competencies (CSWE, 2015) and when appropriate, the
four interprofessional education competencies (IPEC, 2016), then integrated into all core
BSW courses at the SBUSSW. Each course syllabi includes the following statement
regarding the partnership’s fundamental underpinning of defending human rights and
advocating for social, economic and environmental justice:
The Stony Brook University School of Social Welfare’s BSW Program is
partnered with RFK Human Rights to integrate human rights and social work
education. The Speak Truth To Power (STTP) curriculum, developed by RFK
Human Rights and based on the UN’s principles of human rights, is a human rights
education program that strives to create a global citizenry dedicated to the highest
standards of justice and equality. We believe this is a natural fit to incorporate into
undergraduate social work education. As a result of this agreement, Stony Brook
University School of Social Welfare BSW Program serves as a pioneer for
incorporating the United Nations’ Declaration of Human Rights, access to
knowledge about globally-renowned defenders of these rights, and skill
development to advocate for human rights into foundational social work education.
Students should become familiar with and refer to the UN Declaration of Human
Rights for assignments and coursework across the BSW curriculum. (Stony Brook
University School of Social Welfare, 2016, p. 7)
STTP Human Rights Defender lessons and assignments are integrated throughout the
undergraduate social work curriculum. The STTP lessons and assignments allow students
to develop all of the CSWE Competencies, well beyond the obvious Competency 3:
Advance Human Rights and Social, Economic, and Environmental Justice.
Social work practice-designated courses draw upon the STTP Defender stories as case
studies and as a means for students to practice the application of theory and skills. Targeted
competency development is particularly focused on students engaging diversity and
difference in their practice (CSWE Competency 2), engaging, assessing, intervening, and
evaluating their practice at all client levels (CSWE Competencies 6, 7, 8, and 9), whilst
demonstrating ethical and professional behavior (CSWE Competency 1) in their
advancement of human rights and social, economic, and environmental justice (CSWE
Competency 3). Concurrently, when students of both professions engage in the lessons and
activities, they are able to develop and strengthen the IPEC (2016) competencies:
developing and maintaining a climate of mutual respect and shared values (Competency 1:
Values and Ethics for IPP), use the knowledge of each profession’s role in addressing client
needs (Competency 2: Roles and Responsibilities), responsive and responsible
communication (Competency 3: Interprofessional Communication), and working
effectively as a team (Competency 4: Teams and Teamwork). For example, in a groupwork
practice course, students learn about STTP Defender, Juliana Dogbadazi. They learn about
the types of groups, both task and treatment, and how organizations, such as the NGO she
talks about in her interview, could develop to address the human rights issue of modern
slavery. Students then identify a human rights/justice issue that they are particularly
passionate about, identify and interview an example of a human rights defender who is
working locally in this area of practice, and plan a group intervention proposal. The story
Deluca-Acconi et al./INTERPROFESSIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS PARTNERSHIP 382
of Frank Mugisha, a STTP Defender advocating for LGBTQ+ rights is used as a foundation
for students to learn about social work with special populations and practice having rights-
based conversations, particularly around potentially socially divisive topics. They are
continually instructed about Human Rights Conventions and Covenants and are taught to
view issues from a rights-based perspective. Students are asked to research appropriate
laws that are applicable to the Defenders’ narratives. Social work policy-designated
courses draw upon the STTP Defender stories as a means to practice policy analysis and to
understand the connection between practice and policy development, implementation and
evaluation. For example, in a social political economy course, students learn about STTP
Defenders, Kek Galabru and Muhhamud Yunus. The lessons of STTP Defender Kek
Galabru, who helped to end the Cambodian Civil War and works against sexual tourism
and child labor, teach students about negotiating and ending conflict, as well as standing
up to those in power to advocate for the promotion of human rights. The story of STTP
Defender Muhhamud Yunus and his approach to addressing poverty through the use of
microlending is used in a lesson that allows students to compare and contrast economic
systems and traditional practices and develop and propose alternative solutions towards
economic justice through law and policy change. Students learn about the importance of
political participation and struggles faced in the realization of UDHR Article 21: Right to
Participate in Government and in Free Elections and are tasked to conduct a political-social
action group project that increases their own civic engagement and allows them to develop
competency in policy practice (CSWE Competency 5) and teamwork (IPEC Competency
4).
Long understood as social work’s signature pedagogy, field education is where
students are able to apply the lessons from the classroom into the field while developing
and strengthening all nine professional competencies. In response to human rights abuses
and violations, changing social work practice and education includes training social work
interns how to be responsive to changing laws that perpetuate abuse and human rights
violations. Prepared with the lessons of the STTP Defenders, students are better equipped
to practice from a rights-based framework in their field placements. For instance,
supervised internship experiences now include libraries from which services are provided
to undocumented immigrants. Considered safe spaces to congregate, social work interns
are providing case management to library patrons, which include referrals to community-
based organizations for housing, job referrals, clinical services, and attorneys for
immigration services. In our changing political climate, these efforts to provide a human
rights framework to service provision also includes crisis intervention aimed at educating
library staff how best to service immigrant or refugee populations in a dignified way,
respectful of their orientation, experiences, and threats to liberty.
Coupling the SBUSSW’s underpinning of research around the social determinants of
health with the STTP curriculum, social work courses utilize the STTP Defender stories
and lessons to develop students’ competency in research-informed practice and practice-
informed research (CSWE Competency 4). It has been documented that the U.S. views
human rights infractions as global phenomena and does not acknowledge the abuses
occurring on our own soil (McPherson & Abell, 2012). Social work educators must
challenge the belief of U.S. exceptionalism and the notion that the U.S. is a leader in the
ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Summer 2020, 20(2) 383
protection of human rights (Healy & Wairire, 2014; Libal & Harding, 2015). While
discussing the examples of immigrant abuses as outlined above is important, it is also very
powerful to educate about American human rights defenders in an effort to bring to life
that human rights abuses happen within our own national borders; one of which is Marian
Wright Edelman. In her STTP interview about her work in the defense of children’s human
rights, Defender Marian Wright Edelman, asserts,
It’s shameful that we alone among wealthy, industrialized nations don’t see
that our children get a healthy start. We have much higher rates of infant
mortality and low-birth-weight babies than our industrialized counterparts.
We lag in preparing our children in science, math, and reading compared to
many of our competitor industrialized countries that they are going to be up
against in the new global village. And we lag the world most shamefully in
protecting our children against violence. American children fifteen and under
are twelve times more likely to die from gun violence than children in twenty-
five other industrialized countries combined. (RFK Human Rights, n.d.b,
Marian Wright Edelman, para. 3)
Social work students are asked to conduct further research about the human rights
issues involved in each STTP Defender story, define action steps towards a solution, and
develop an evaluation plan for assessing the change strategy. After reading the story of
Marian Wright Edelman, they are presented with the Statement on Visit to the USA, by
Professor Philip Alston, United Nations Special Rapporteur on extreme poverty and human
rights (Alston, 2017). They are asked to conduct research on the statistics in the report,
connect it to social determinants of health policy and the mechanisms in which defenders,
such as Marian Wright Edelman, are fighting poverty in the United States
A key component of the partnership is to link a defender’s work involving current
advocacy initiatives to that of lawyers, social workers, and students. The connection
between poverty, the Special Rapporteur’s report and pre-trial detention in the U.S. is made
in conversations with a RFK Human Rights lawyer as part of the interprofessional
partnership. Students discuss the link between poverty and mass incarceration while
examining the punishing policies and practices that lead to unconstitutional pretrial
detention with a RFK Human Rights lawyer. One of the RFK Human Rights
organizational goals is to reinvest in communities most impacted by mass incarceration,
using the funds that have been previously used to run a jail. RFK Human Rights benefits
from the relationship with social work students as they discuss ideas for programs designed
to help those who have been released from prison integrate back into the community.
Conversations between social workers and lawyers become important as both sides
work toward solutions. Such conversations enhance the achievement of interprofessional
communication competence (IPEC, 2016). The extent of rights violations can be
overwhelming to students from all disciplines, creating a sense of despair. However, when
solutions to social problems are presented and discussed, students become empowered and
a sense of hope replaces that despair (Allensworth Hawkins & Knox, 2014). The power of
this partnership has been that students and practitioners of both social work and law can
see how working together in interprofessional collaboration challenges the status quo and
Deluca-Acconi et al./INTERPROFESSIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS PARTNERSHIP 384
advances human rights globally. Lawyers and law students can begin to have an
understanding from social work students about the way trauma may impact those who have
undergone human rights abuses and a history of systemic oppression. A strength of IPE,
particularly through IPEC’s (2016) Values/Ethics subcompetency VE4 for
interprofessional practice, is that other professions understand the value of social work,
expanding and improving the reputation of social workers (Charles et al., 2011). One RFK
Human Rights lawyer remarked how she benefitted from working with social workers as
they were able to engage with clients from an empowerment perspective lens. She recently
contacted the School when looking for social work research on the developmental rationale
against trying juveniles as adults. Future goals include working with RFK Human Rights
to integrate social work competencies into law practice and internships.
Practicing Social Work: Human Rights Framework
The research on human rights in social work education found that the emphasis lays in
instruction of Human Rights instruments rather than on how to practice social work from
a human rights framework (Gatenio Gabel & Mapp, 2020). As stated above, the
SBUSSW/RFKHR partnership educates social work students about human rights
instruments early in the first year of the program, and then purposely teaches about how to
specifically practice social work from the human rights framework in the second year.
STTP illustrates human rights issues through the stories of human rights defenders and the
adaptation into the BSW curriculum includes the purposeful inclusion of how to translate
the defender’s work into social work practice, illustrating human rights issues through the
stories of human rights defenders. By the end of the second year, students are taught the
third level of human rights education, skills that are needed to be human rights advocates
and defenders and to “effectively prevent and combat human rights violations” (Mihr &
Schmitz, 2007, p. 978). The skills they cultivate include collaboration with lawyers to help
advocate for the people and communities who have had their rights violated.
Allensworth Hawkins and Knox (2014) identify that it is not enough to teach about
human rights infractions, but to help train students to identify solutions. The
SBUSSW/RFKHR partnership is designed to help students identify the solutions to human
rights infractions. The STTP defenders are working toward solutions to human rights
problems and through the lessons social work students are able to begin to see the answers
to what are complex issues.
For example, Librada Paz is a RFK Human Rights defender in the STTP curriculum.
She immigrated from Mexico at the age of 15. Her works highlight the cruel treatment that
she experienced on U.S. farms: For more than a decade, I experienced inhuman conditions
working in the fields of the United States. I learned that farmworkers do not matter. Our
security doesn’t matter. Our thoughts don’t matter. Our dignity doesn’t matter” (RFK
Human Rights, n.d.c, Librada Paz, para. 3). As a part of the human rights programming,
Librada presented to both BSW and MSW students, tracing her road from a farmworker to
rights activist, passing the first laws in New York to protect farmworkers:
We have made promising advances in New York, including passing three new laws
that protect farmworkers right to clean water facilities, sanitation facilities, and a
ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Summer 2020, 20(2) 385
standardized minimum wage. These protections were the first farmworker-
initiated laws in New York State’s history. (RFK Human Rights, n.d.c, Librada
Paz, para. 9)
Through conversation with Librada, social work students were able to conceptualize the
process of problem identification to policy advocacy and change based on a human rights
framework. Social work students are able to actively engage in the farmworker’s rights
campaign and translate such experience and skill development to all areas of practice.
Beyond the interviews and lessons from the Speak Truth To Power books, the
partnership allows for live interaction between human rights defenders, lawyers, and
students, such as the campus visits of defenders such as Librada Paz, and will strengthen
the development of interprofessional education and relationships to work towards
solutions.
Program Evaluation
Social work students are being taught the importance of advancing human rights
through our partnership. The goals of the program are to increase knowledge, exposure and
engagement with human rights and advocacy, so it is of interest to assess the outcomes of
these goals. As this partnership is in the initial years of development and implementation,
a program review is being conducted but the evaluation is not yet complete. After the
program review is finished, a full board IRB application will be submitted for a full
research study for publication.
Data collection for program review and future research study includes students
completing two self-report surveys at orientation before any exposure to the material and
again immediately prior to graduation. The first instruments given to the students are the
Human Rights Exposure in Social Work (HRXSW) and Human Rights Engagement in
Social Work (HRESW), which are valid and reliable scales that assess the impact of human
rights education for social work students (McPherson & Abell, 2012).
The HRXSW measures the extent that students have been exposed to human rights
principles during their education. This measure was chosen since one of the program goals
is to familiarize students with human rights principles. It is given to the students to assess
prior knowledge and ascertain growth of knowledge. The authors are interested in the level
of prior understanding of human rights entering the social work program and the increase
in knowledge they incur upon completion of the interprofessional education and human
rights instruction in the SBUSSW/RFKHR collaboration.
Defending human rights requires an energy and commitment to make much needed
change. The HRESW is designed to discover the extent of a student’s “passion for human
rights and social work” (McPherson & Abell, 2012, p. 711). The HRESW is being utilized
to discover the extent that the SBUSSW/RFKHR partnership ignites students’ commitment
to human rights in their social work practice. Across the curriculum, each assignment
associated with a STTP lesson has the student practice self-reflection about the human
rights issue and impact of the lesson. The goal is to help students envision themselves as
human rights defenders in their future social work practice when they read and interact
Deluca-Acconi et al./INTERPROFESSIONAL HUMAN RIGHTS PARTNERSHIP 386
with the stories of the defenders. Students are asked to make specific connections to the
CSWE competencies they strengthen as a developing human rights advocate, and how they
integrate a human rights framework into their social work practice. Faculty have reported
a noticeable shift in the language used in class discussions, particularly as students advance
through the two-year curriculum, incorporating a rights-based perspective.
Specific questions added to course evaluations also provide valuable student feedback
about their experiences and the knowledge, values, and skills gained during each course
across the social work curriculum as it relates to their development as a human rights
advocate and social work practitioner. Additional course evaluation questions emphasizing
IPEC competencies provide feedback about students’ growth and understanding of the
importance of interprofessional practice for social workers.
Future Goals
In addition to continual assessment of the partnership, a program evaluation of the
partnership will be conducted to measure exposure and engagement of human rights
principles and whether social workers see societal issues through a human rights lens
(McPherson & Abell, 2012; McPherson et al., 2017).
Future plans include researching the way graduates of the partnership use human
rights by utilizing the Human Rights Lens in Social Work (HRLSW) scale. The HRLSW’s
purpose is to assess the way that a practicing social worker interprets both individual and
social issues as emanating from human rights infractions (McPherson et al., 2017). As one
of the objectives of the partnership is to create a new generation of human rights defenders,
it is of interest to the authors to see how graduates of the program practice from a rights-
based perspective. The goal is to measure the way graduates employ a rights-based instead
of needs-based social work practice, viewing problems from “sociopolitical and structural
contexts” that are the target of intervention (Berthold, 2015, p.5). Using the rights-based
lens empowers clients to see their issues from a violation of their rights instead of
individual pathology (Berthold, 2015; McPherson, 2016). Future recommendations and
goals include measuring the impact that the partnership has had on the lawyers, fellows
and students at RFK Human Rights to ascertain their level of understanding of the social
work profession and the need to work with social workers in the defense of human rights.
Elevating social work in the eyes of other professions is an important outcome of IPE and
IPP (Charles et al., 2011; de Saxe Zerden et al., 2018).
It is also important to evaluate the IPEC competencies to ascertain the strength of the
educational partnership for lawyers, students and human rights defenders. Dow and
colleagues (2014) created an assessment tool derived from the IPEC’s competencies. The
goals of the assessment tool are:
1. inform curriculum planning with valid and reliable information
2. track the effects of degree programs on interprofessional competency, and
3. provide data that can be used within and between institutions to compare
programmatic outcomes. (p. 299)
ADVANCES IN SOCIAL WORK, Summer 2020, 20(2) 387
Hasnain et al. (2017) validated a tool for self-efficacy for interprofessional competence.
The plan for this project is to examine both Dow et al. (2014) and Hasnain et al. (2017)
instruments and to conduct research as to which can be adapted and validated as a tool to
evaluate the human rights educational partnership. An objective is to adapt these
healthcare-specific measures to evaluate other interprofessional partnerships, particularly
for human rights defenders, lawyers, and students.
Conclusion
As this interprofessional partnership continues to grow, conversations and opportunities
for collaborative work between social work students, law students, fellows, and defenders
will expand; thus, too, will their integrative learning. It is a reciprocal relationship. The
goal is for non-social work partners to understand: the manners in which trauma impacts
those who have undergone human rights abuses; the impact of systemic racism; and social
work’s person-in-environment perspective. Conversely, social work students learn about
human rights law and agreements, and become better able to incorporate these into their
practice while strengthening their advocacy efforts. This collaborative expertise
demonstrates the power of interprofessional education and practice (IPEC, 2016).
The current geopolitical issues, human rights infractions throughout the globe and an
unnerving rise in the number of demagogue leaders necessitates that advocacy networks
from all professions band together. Social workers understand the deep pain of those who
have been silenced and those who have been forsaken. Using a human rights framework
helps those in interprofessional partnerships defend all who remain in the shadows, find
their voice and amplify their cries for justice. The goal is to continue to grow this
collaboration, working with human rights defenders and advocates around the world to join
the fight against injustice. “And I believe that in this generation those with the courage to
enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe”
(Kennedy, 1966, transcript para. 36).
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