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Unsettling Human Rights History in Social Work Education: Seeing Intersectionality

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Social workers must locate their work within the history of our profession, while also recognizing how and why particular accounts are constructed, legitimized, and disseminated. The historical context of human rights work is especially significant. This narrative has been shaped by selective attention, which advances some perspectives and erases others. Intersectionality encourages scrutiny of missing elements, calling one to explore what else was happening concurrent with the mainstream account and whose perspectives are absent from the story. This paper illustrates the value of an intersectional frame by examining three erasures from human rights history in social work: the Combahee River Collective, the Black settlement house movement, and the Compton’s Cafeteria Disturbance. The paper closes with implications for social work education in four areas: deconstructing contemporary social work narratives, investigating historical and cultural locations of our knowledge base, theoretically contextualizing intersectional contributions, and respecting intellectual contributions beyond refereed journals and other traditional formats. Intersectionality theory engages marginalized aspects of human rights history in educating professional social workers; however, it must avoid cooptation to maintain its vibrant critique.

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  1. Founded in 1952, the Council on Social Work Education is the national association representing social work education in the USA.

  2. The common acronym during the 1960s and 1970s was LGBT. The “Q” was added in 1996 to represent queer/questioning. The common use today is LGBTQ+ with the “+” representing a range of marginalized identities and sexualities (Baez 2019).

  3. We acknowledge that this widely used term disregards Central and South America and much of North America.

  4. Erasure of the origins of intersectionality is not a new idea. Carastathis (2016) explicitly takes this up in her analysis. The CRC is presented here as an illustrative example.

  5. Other activists involved in the Black settlement house movement include Lugenia Burns Hope, Alice Ruth Moore, Judith Ann Trolander, Birdye Henrietta Haynes, and Gertrude Brown (Carlton-LaNey 1994; Carlton-LaNey and Hodges 2004; Cash 1991; Hounmenou 2012).

  6. Dr. Stryker, an intersectional scholar herself, has also been erased in a sense, despite her contributions to gender and sexuality literature (Levine 2003).


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Correspondence to Nadaya A. Brantley.

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Brantley, N.A., Nicolini, G. & Kirkhart, K.E. Unsettling Human Rights History in Social Work Education: Seeing Intersectionality. J. Hum. Rights Soc. Work 6, 98–107 (2021).

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