Interview: Redefining Trauma, Diversity and Inclusion in Social Work

“Knowing ourselves is the most important part of that journey. Because that’s going to show up in our work with clients.”

Social work practitioners focus on improving the lives of others, and so it can seem contradictory or even uncomfortable to turn the lens inward. Yet, as Associate Professor Laura Quiros explains, introspection is critical to being an effective and empathetic social work leader. Realizing how our experiences shape our perspectives gives us a better understanding of potential biases. It also primes us to be more inclusive.

Quiros emphasizes this need for bridging the personal and the professional in her new book Incorporating Diversity and Inclusion Into Trauma-Informed Social Work: Transformational Leadership (Routledge, 2020). She also explores how trauma and difference manifest in the ways social work practitioners communicate, lead and collaborate.

In this interview, Quiros talks about her own experiences with trauma and shares timely advice for anyone who takes on a leadership position or who wants to improve the ways they connect with their clients. She also discusses how Adelphi University’s School of Social Work is further incorporating diversity and inclusion into their curriculum.

Sit in on a recent Zoom chat with Quiros about how she is positively disrupting the social work space: view the recording here.

Let’s start off with talking about your book. How would you describe it?

This book is an intersection between the world of trauma and the world of diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI). It is very much positioned for social workers, although I do hope that leaders in every space will use the things that I talk about in the book as part of their leadership approaches.

What this book essentially does is reconceptualize certain terms in social work practice, including leadership and social work, and looks at them through a trauma-informed plus DEI lens.

This includes traumas such as racism, sexism, classism, homophobia, xenophobia and other forms of oppression, which aren’t traditionally mentioned as traumas.

Why did you choose to include “transformational leadership”?

I added the adjective transformational because I see this book as a real-life practice tool for leaders and social workers to interrogate their own identities in order to understand how they lead. And ideally the transformation comes when they are leading with an awareness of not only DEI but also trauma.

You’ve said that there is no distinction between the personal and the professional self, and so it makes sense that this book includes your personal experience with trauma. Could you talk about how your history shaped this book?

I think that one of the most important things to know about the book is that I use my own narrative to model vulnerability. I grew up in a biracial and multicultural home. My mom is white and Jewish and My dad is Black and Latino, beginning as a young child I moved back and forth between these worlds of exclusion and racism and anti-Semitism. I also experienced exclusion when I moved into leadership positions, some of which was based on my identity as a Latina woman of color.

And so I locate myself in order to help the reader understand that the way someone leads is connected to the ways in which they’re socialized, the values they grow up with, where they lived, who they were friends with, what they were taught, what they read and what they watch. Because of my childhood experiences of exclusion, I strive to lead from a place of inclusion and my work involves helping others do the same.

In traditional leadership culture and literature, the self, meaning the way one has been socialized and one’s positionality, is often not interrogated. You’ll read lists on how to be a good leader that say things like, “be compassionate, be kind, be thoughtful.” But what the literature rarely says is “to be a good leader, know thyself.”

Can you talk more about how knowing yourself can help you understand others better? How does this make you a more inclusive leader?

Our identity forces us to have a very myopic lens. So, people in leadership positions need to stop and consider, “This may be how I’m operating as a leader, but am I considering other people who don’t share my experiences and/or have different identities?” If leaders spend more time understanding who they are and how that impacts their leadership choices, they benefit from this transformational experience. They will be better able to engage organizational culture and the people who report to them in ways beyond their own individual selves and ways of knowing.

White culture is usually treated as the “default” and that’s often not named nor interrogated. White leadership shows up in ways that are normalized and our culture treats anything else as not normal. So, leaders of color who have very different experiences than white leaders often don’t have the space to dialogue about those experiences, nor do they have similar resources or support.

Leaders of color are also not encouraged to bring their whole selves to work nor are they encouraged to lead from a place of vulnerability because of stereotypes, because of bias and because leadership literature does not really highlight or embrace the lived experiences of leaders of color. And so, particularly for white leaders, it’s really important to read and understand how white culture is the assumed default and how that can set the norms and standards of the organization, which inherently makes the organizational culture exclusive for people of color.

How do you address this assumed default, especially if you are dealing with people who may not be aware that they are perpetuating it?

Through positive disruption.

In every space I enter, I’m very mindful and conscious about positively disrupting that space if I see and feel that it’s exclusive.

More specifically, I use the skill of curiosity a lot to locate the underlying meaning. I’m a big fan of “calling in” people when I hear something or see that a harm has been done. Having a conversation with them privately, and in some instances publically, helps bring awareness to inequity and exclusive behaviors.

I grew up with a mother who did not have an awareness of racial equity or anti-racist practices. So when I was younger I experienced the world very differently from her. I have learned that the only way to move my mother, who is the most important person in my life, is through the space of compassion and dialogue. Shaming her or calling her out is not going to change things or shift her awareness.

Publishing a book like this during 2020 must have been quite the writing experience. How did the events of this year affect your work?

I had this contract for quite some time and I was sitting on it. And then this year happened and a light bulb went off: I said to myself, wow, this is a moment to be a brave leader and social worker and to talk and write about my own experiences as a woman of color, as a single mother, as somebody who grew up in a home with racism and antisemitism and domestic violence, who had a loss of a brother at a very young age and who experienced exclusion as a leader.

I felt like it was an opportune time to share my story and practice of positive disruption with my social work community; all in a space of vulnerability and compassion. One of my goals was to show that, by using yourself, you can positively disrupt status-quo spaces to make them sincerely inclusive.

Going through the literature and conducting research during this time also allowed me to make connections and pull out themes as a qualitative researcher that I wasn’t able to do before.

In my life, I have looked at crises as opportunities. I know that’s a saying that we often hear, “in crisis lies opportunity,” but I really believe that. So I think it was having limited time, limited resources, plus the felt equity with all of my family and community being in this pandemic together, that really forced me to produce something in this moment that would contribute to the social work profession.

How are schools like Adelphi responding in order to advance diversity and inclusion?

Schools of social work are interrogating their curriculum more. They’re taking a look at how social justice appears, and does not appear, in the curricula and in pedagogy, as well as at inclusion and equity in the implicit and explicit culture of the school. In general, universities are also being more conscious of the lack of Black, Indigious or people of color in leadership and in faculty.

Right now I’m chair of the School of Social Work curriculum committee at Adelphi and we as a group, are looking at the curriculum and at our pedagogy, both in terms of the content and also in terms of how we teach from an anti-oppressive and anti-racist lens.

I hope social work leaders are revisiting the social work mission and are asking themselves, “How am I upholding the social justice mandate of the profession? What is the responsibility of social work in this moment?” We have a huge responsibility. And so I do think there is a lot of good that’s coming from this and my hope is that it’s sustained—that it isn’t just a trend, that it’s actually incorporated and sustained and supported, monetarily and in other ways.

What would you say to social work practitioners who might feel uncomfortable or anxious about introspection and turning the lens on themselves?

I think to social work students I would say that we have a responsibility to move past that. We need to know the difference between feeling unsafe and feeling uncomfortable.

We also need to know that silence is also a sign of privilege. Silence is a way that, particularly white social workers, can get away with not engaging in conversations in a way that social workers of color don’t have the ability to do.

If you are committing yourself to this profession that is grounded in social justice, if you’re working with people to move through obstacles, you have a responsibility to them to know yourself just as well as you want to know your clients, and part of that knowing is understanding your privilege and your positionality. That’s foundational for social work students.

I always tell my students this work is not about you, it’s about your client. As social workers we’re healers and we can’t heal unless we heal ourselves first. Knowing ourselves is the most important part of that journey. Because that’s going to show up in our work with clients and in the classroom.

It sounds like it’s important that social work practitioners see this as a journey and not just a one-time activity. Can you talk about that?

Theories of human development tell us that we change over time. Every developmental stage that we go through is going to bring up new things for us, new learning, new teaching, new ways of being, so we should always be interrogating ourselves and really looking at that as a beautiful process. Take the time to reflect on what we learned and how it impacted us. Take the time to consider the relationships that we choose and how that impacts us and the people that we work with. Take the time to recognize our biases and where they show up.

The most beautiful lesson in life is to know yourself and how you interact with the world and build relationships.

To be in this field of social work, I take it incredibly seriously because it’s about the human connection ultimately, and the human experience. We have to know ourselves in order to be successful in this work.

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