As a junior in college, I remember sitting in the front row of my social psychology class, leaning forward, actively engaged in the story my professor was telling about a small-town Iowan teacher who changed the way her students viewed and experienced racism. The day after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, anti-racism activist Jane Elliott wanted to help her third-grade students understand marginalization and racism towards black Americans, so she conducted an experiment. She treated blue-eyed students the way society treats African-Americans, and elevated and praised her brown-eyed students the way society treats White Americans. The next day she turned the tables. What captivated me most about her experiment, is that Elliott did not have to teach racism to those eight and nine-year-olds. They picked up on their roles almost immediately. Her message was important in 1968, and it is no less important in 2017.
This political climate is tumultuous to say the least, but the way for Americans to come together is not by talking about racism less, instead we should be constantly challenging our views of the world and the status quo. When my supervisor at Johnson County Social Services, LaTasha DeLoach, told me she was hoping to book Jane Elliott as the keynote speaker for the spring Disproportionate Minority Conference, I was ecstatic. LaTasha’s determination and passion for racial equity is both inspiring and contagious. Anyone who has worked closely with LaTasha knows how hard she fights for the community, so despite the expensive speaking fee for Elliott, I knew we would be able to pull this off.
As conference planning began, I quickly realized this event was going to be much larger than the forum we put together last spring. The Sheraton was booked and our ticket sales were to be capped at 350 attendees. I have never managed or assisted in managing an event that big, but it was such an amazing opportunity for me as a practicum student. I put on a brave face and fully utilized the fake-it-til-you-make-it mentality. My favorite analogy with graduate school, and my practicum duties, is that I always feel like I’m drowning until I reach the other side and realize I just swam the English Channel.
This conference was definitely an English Channel. LaTasha, Megan Ronneberg (MSW student), Samantha Kloft (AmeriCorps volunteer, MPH student) and I spent the day before managing last-minute details and putting together 363 folders (our final number reached higher than the anticipated 350) until late evening. The day of the conference went very smoothly. Minor issues were managed, people were added to the waitlist last minute, and I checked, double-checked, and triple-checked with hotel staff that lunch would be served on time. Jane’s presentation was challenging, eye-opening, and inspiring; everything we hoped it would be.
I spent that night exhausted, but very satisfied. I think as students, we sometimes underestimate our abilities, and we can’t realize our full potential until someone gives us that chance. I am so thankful to have a supervisor that challenges me and thinks big enough to put together a huge conference with a small team. At the time I am writing this, I graduate in five and a half weeks. This is both exciting and absolutely terrifying, but what isn’t in life, right?
This is experience has been a reminder that if something doesn’t challenge you it isn’t enough. We had a few attendees comment on our evaluation that Jane’s presentation went too far and she was too critical of a certain political leader. I personally felt a little resistance to some of her messages, so I can sort of understand these comments. However, I welcome that resistance. It gives me a chance to examine my privilege, and practice self-reflection. Social workers should never stop learning, in fact it is part of our Code of Ethics and licensure requirements. Planning a large scale conference with a non-apologetic anti-racism activist allowed me to be challenged academically and personally, and I hope I never stop seeking out challenging opportunities.
-Emily “Emme” Morgan is a second year MSW student at the University of Iowa. She’s looking forward to working on issues of race and gender equality after graduating in May, and her practice interests include domestic violence and sexual assault. You can reach Emme at email@example.com.