Academics and Research / Magazine Feature

New social work course tackles bias and prejudice

Social work Assistant Professor Eugene Walls expects more than a few tears in his newest class.

And Walls says that’s OK.

In his spring-quarter course Disrupting Privilege Through Anti-Oppressive Practice, Walls challenges students at DU’s Graduate School of Social Work to confront personal biases and prejudices and recognize and address those biases in other individuals and institutions. When observations turn inward, conversations turn brutally honest and his students examine themselves and those around them, tears may follow.

Change isn’t easy, he says, and it doesn’t come without cost, effort and sometimes pain.

Walls says the course will encourage students to accept that they all have built-in advantages, no matter how open they strive to be. To be successful, a social worker cannot ignore his or her own biases, he says.

“It’s kind of a radical course,” Walls says.

Society tends to look at who is affected by inequities of privilege and ingrained biases, but individuals often don’t consider their own roles, he says.

But he says they should. In everyday life, he asks, “How does my maleness give me privilege? How does my Christianity give me privilege?”

Walls says his course pushes students to explore and disrupt patterns of privilege and power that people hold over each other, including race, religion, wealth, nationality, sex and sexual orientation.

As part of the three-credit graduate course, students will attend the four-day White Privilege Conference — a national event examining advantages held by whites — held this year at the University of Colorado’s Colorado Springs campus.

With the help of three facilitators, the course’s 18 students will work in teams to produce an audio-visual colloquium as a final exam.

Walls launched the course with a mix of grants and other support. The University’s Center for Teaching and Learning provided $14,945; the DU Campus Climate Council offered $2,500; the school’s Curriculum Diversity Small Grant fund provided $2,986; and the DU Latino Center provided $1,000. Additional support came from the faculty travel fund and the Graduate School of Social Work, which gave Walls time to develop the curriculum.

In the final quarter of her master’s program, Jenny Nelsen says she knows she’s in for a challenge with Disrupting Privilege. But, she says, a gut-wrenching self-examination is something she needs as she prepares for a career in social work.

“I’m going into this class thinking I have a pretty good idea of who I am and what privileges I have,” she says. “I’m betting I’m going to see a lot more and have a better understanding after.

“It’s seems like a course that would really challenge us to look at ourselves.”

This article originally appeared in The Source, May 2007.

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