Interview with Stephen Burghardt, PhD – Professor at Silberman School of Social Work (CUNY-Hunter) | Social Justice & Urban Policy

About Stephen Burghardt, PhD: Stephen Burghardt earned his MSW and Ph.D. from the University of Michigan and has worked as a community organizer, consultant and trainer in nonprofit and public-sector organizations. He was an executive coach while becoming a professor of social work at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College.

His commitments have included social justice, anti-oppression, and democratic leadership models of work and activism — ranging from anti-Vietnam War work, third-party electoral politics, rank-and-file trade union work, the homeless, Occupy Wall Street, and now the fight against ageism. His work as a professor focuses on developing Paulo Freire’s work with community organizing, weaving anti-oppression work into his courses, and, on the policy side, attention to dynamics of political economy. Stephen Burghardt was compensated to participate in this interview.

[] You currently teach at Hunter College’s School of Social Work, where you are a professor of urban policy and community organization. Why should social workers be involved in policy? How can they best get involved?

[Stephen Burghardt, PhD] Years ago, many professional social workers believed activism in the policy arena went against our professional code of ethics. Luckily, that rather privileged notion has long ago given way to social work’s attention to policy. Whether fighting for the rights of the homeless or recognizing our own interests in decent jobs with a decent income, social workers of every method and interest are now involved in legislative issues as well as national and local political campaigns.

As for how to get involved, go with your heart and where your passion lies — whether it’s fighting for the rights of marginalized LGBT youth, the formerly incarcerated, or your own rights as a public or nonprofit worker seeking a truly living wage. Work with your local NASW chapter, coalitions of professionals and community members involved in your issue, and social movement groups and alliances working on broader, long-term campaigns.

[] One of the courses you teach at Hunter is a “practice lab with an anti-oppression lens.” How is this lab conducted? Why is an anti-oppression lens an important aspect to social work practice?

[Stephen Burghardt, PhD] The lab is conducted in a way that in each class topic consciously weaves in attention to the dynamics that foster oppression—both in society and in some of our own agencies and methods of practice that often unconsciously yet irrevocably replicate the very forms of oppression we often seek to fight elsewhere.

We also consciously make sure that the teachers of the lab are a mix of people of color and whites; openly LGBT and straight; those with full-professor status and those who are adjuncts and perceived lesser status. Such conscious staffing allows us to bring to the fore various unconscious modes of thought and behavior that lurk in all of us related to perceived intelligence, forms of assertion, and comfort with conflict. Such issues help students struggle with issues of implicit and explicit bias as well as issues of power and privilege that occur in one’s own work—and which can and do exist within us faculty.

The course simultaneously provides tools of anti-oppression work that provide an alternative to more traditional modes of practice: mindful practice, how to develop humility, and how to bridge micro and macro forms of practice rather than treat them as polar opposites.

[] Besides your bachelor’s degree from Lafayette College and your MSW from the University of Michigan, you hold a doctorate in social work and political science, also from the University of Michigan. What is the connection between social work and political science? Should more social workers be pursuing political science education?

[Stephen Burghardt, PhD] Having a doctorate in social work and political science allowed me to both learn “where the people are at” (the social work part) and how those people, when aggregated and analyzed in terms of data and trends, could impact social policy and the larger polity (the political science part). Social workers often don’t trust their capacities to use data sets and aggregated information, to our detriment. If we can see the cumulative strength of “from case to cause” — what one learns from many individual cases aggregated to a genuine cause that gives social workers real authority to advocate for —we can comfortably enter the political arena. By the way, most political scientists could benefit from a little more attention to “where the people are at” as well.

[] You won the 2012 SAGE Council on Social Work Education National Award for Innovative Teaching. Can you describe how your approach to instruction is innovative? What benefit does that innovation bring students?

[Stephen Burghardt, PhD] Besides what has been stated about the lab in some of the previous answers, the key distinction in my teaching (I hope) is built around a stated objective in the first class of every practice course I teach: “That by the end of the term, you (the students) will have gained power (in the classroom) while I will have lost none.”

This seemingly contradictory statement—how can the older, full professor at the front of the room who wrote one of the textbooks in the course neither lose power, while those with far less power actually gain some? Such a contradiction is at the heart of Paulo Freire’s work, and is modeled through three pivotal issues woven throughout the course work and class itself: a genuine belief in the students’ capacity to develop and use such power well; that this capacity does not spring forth fully born but must be struggled with and fought over throughout our time together, where standards are not dropped but access to new forms to achieve them are slowly developed; and that my own humanity is bound up not in my perceived status and positional power, but in my willingness to struggle with students to achieve this paradoxical result in our learning relationship together.

My purpose in this approach (besides what it obviously gives me, again and again) is to model for students that this liberational, humbling approach to practice is also for them to develop with the community members and clients with whom they work—a form of practice that frees a person to seek a rewarding career unburdened by status measures of excellence or harmful misuses of “power” that constrain rather than liberate all of us. For one to know that one’s freedom is bound up in yours, whoever you may be, is a wonderful thing.

[] The School of Social Work at Hunter aims to prepare its graduates to serve New York’s diverse communities. What are the gravest social work challenges currently facing New Yorkers? How is Hunter preparing social workers to meet those challenges?

[Stephen Burghardt, PhD] The gravest challenge facing social workers is the unending attacks on education, human services and health care — that have created conditions of penury, poverty and starvation within the organizations themselves. This includes bizarrely long wait times at clinics, staffing shortages in every human service work place, and deteriorating working conditions harmful to staff and clients alike. Such problems could be corrected were we to return to the taxation rates under Ronald Reagan. If they returned to that under Eisenhower, there would be no student debt, social security would be flush until 2200, and a public works program would have rebuilt our roads, bridges and tunnels.

Instead, we operate at the margins, working with the results of intensified poverty and diminished standards of living falling upon more and more Americans: greater and greater homelessness, increasing dropout rates and under-education in cities and rural areas, mountains of students debt for those who do make it through college, isolated elders living in newfound isolation. And, of course, all of these problematic issues are intensified by racism, homophobia, sexism, class bias and ageism.

Thank you Stephen Burghardt for your time and insight into social work!

Last updated: April 2020