Decentering Whiteness in Social Work Curriculum

An Autoethnographic Reflection on a Racial Justice Practice Course


  • Stephanie Odera Virginia Commonwealth University
  • M. Alex Wagaman
  • Ashley Staton
  • Aaron Kemmerer



De-centering whiteness, CRT - Critical Race Theory, social work education, anti-racist, autoethnography


The social work profession has historically been dominated by the presence and perspectives of whiteness. The centering of whiteness in social work education is reflected in course offerings, course content, assignment construction, and inherent racialized assumptions about who clients and social workers will be in practice spaces. Critical race theory (CRT) and liberation theory provide a framework for considering how to make visible the ways in which white supremacy is embedded in social work education, and to identify strategies for disrupting its presence by decentering whiteness. The purpose of this project is to foster critical thought about ways to dismantle racism and white supremacy in social work educational spaces. Using the reflexive methodology of collaborative autoethnography, the four authors - two course instructors and two students - with varying racial identities and positionalities, reflected on the experiences of coming to, being in, and transitioning out of the course. Areas of convergence and divergence in the autoethnographic reflections revealed strategies such as embracing vulnerability, promoting authentic relationships, and normalizing emotional as well as cognitive engagement for decentering whiteness in social work education. Implications and recommendations for social work educators and students committed to engaging in anti-racist practice are also discussed

Author Biographies

Stephanie Odera, Virginia Commonwealth University

Stephanie Odera is the Associate Director of the Graduate RVA partnership within the Center for Community Engagement & Impact at Virginia Commonwealth University. In this role, she will plan, prioritize, and coordinate the activities of the Operations Leadership Team and support for the related Collaborative Action Networks. Stephanie will also be responsible for project management, policy and practice change leadership, outreach, and communications and resource development as well as lead the Lumina Foundation grant work associated with the Richmond Talent Hub designation.

Stephanie earned a doctorate degree in Educational Leadership from VCU as well as a Bachelor and Master degrees in Social Work. As a social work practitioner she has over 10 years of experience in the field of social work which include working as a school social worker in Richmond City Public Schools and as a CPS Specialist II for the Virginia Department of Social Services. Immediately prior to joining the partnership, Stephanie served as an assistant professor in teaching at VCU School of Social Work where her teaching and research interests included educational equity, the promotion of racial and economic justice, and social work in educational settings.

M. Alex Wagaman

Alex Wagaman, Ph.D., is an associate professor in the VCU School of Social Work. Her research focuses on participatory research and service approaches that promote engagement and resilience among youth and young adults who belong to populations that face marginalization and discrimination. Current projects include a multi-site partnership to explore the strategies that LGBTQ+ social work students employ to increase inclusion in their programs, and a youth participatory action research team - Advocates for Richmond Youth - that works to end youth homelessness in the Greater Richmond community. Research conducted by Advocates for Richmond Youth has been used to develop a set of community-wide recommendations and has supported the efforts of multiple stakeholders in a Youth Housing Stability Coalition in partnership with the United Way of Greater Richmond and Petersburg. Their work has also received national attention through selection as a Grand Challenge community with A Way Home America (2019-2021) and serving on a national team working to develop a research agenda on LGBTQ+ youth homelessness in partnership with True Colors United. Dr. Wagaman also is partnering with Drs. McDonald and Wike on a study exploring the impact of pets on the wellbeing of LGBTQ+ youth.

Wagaman is involved with a research team that explores empathy and social empathy, including its measurement and application to social work practice and education. The team has recently published a book - Assessing Empathy - which encompasses much of their work.

Wagaman’s primary teaching interests are in macro social work practice and community organizing. She also facilitates community-engaged co-curricular opportunities for students to learn how to do justice and advocacy work. She currently works with the Black Lives Matter Student-Alumni-Faculty Collective which plans an annual orientation to racial (in)justice in Richmond called Richmond [Re]Visited.

Ashley Staton

Ashley is a current Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work MSW student. 

Aaron Kemmerer

Aaron recently completed the MSW program at Virginia Commonwealth University's School of Social Work. He will begin the PhD program in Social Work (also at Virginia Commonwealth University) this fall. 


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