Carmen Reese Foster was only a week into her role with the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, College of Social Work when a Black student entered her office in tears.
“She had never had a Black instructor before—not in undergrad, not in K–12,” said Foster, an assistant professor of practice and online field coordinator for Middle and West Tennessee.
The student wasn’t upset. She was relieved to find Foster, who at the time was the only Black faculty member on the Nashville campus.
“To know there were Black faculty she could touch, who were tangible, in the social work program was a really big deal for her,” Foster said.
Foster grew up in Chattanooga, one of the only Black students in her school and neighborhood. Her dad, a DuPont executive, volunteered in a YMCA program called Black Achievers on weekends. Her mom was a special education teacher and sign language interpreter. They taught her to celebrate who she is while also pushing for more representation in spaces where there were few other Black leaders.
“If you see a need, you need to fill that gap—that’s what my parents always taught me,” Foster said.
In 2018, Foster and a group of faculty members approached the college’s leadership with a proposal: The growing number of Black students in their programs were in classrooms where they did not see many people—either classmates or professors—who looked like them. What if they could do something about it?
Out of that discussion emerged the Coalition of Black Social Workers, a student organization that launched in February 2019. Since then, the coalition has grown to include nearly 50 students and 150 professional mentors and alumni across UT’s three social work campuses (Knoxville, Nashville, and online). In December 2020, the CBSW received nonprofit status, and its model of mentorship, networking, and support of Black students by professionals who look like them has expanded. The University of Memphis launched its own chapter last year, and five other public and private universities in Tennessee and Alabama have already asked Foster about starting their own campus chapters.
“I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of before I even started school,” said Tyesha Butler, a second-year student in the Master of Science in Social Work program and the incoming CBSW president.
Butler, who studied biology at Mississippi State University, was in Nashville working for UpRise, a career development program that helps get residents out of poverty.
“I had the opportunity to hear a lot of stories from people about trauma, grief, and hurt,” Butler said. “Social work aligned with my values of wanting to make a change for the people I was meeting out in the community.”
Butler’s roommate Adriana Carter (’19) told her about the program and the CBSW, which Carter had been involved with before graduating. After starting at UT, Butler received an email from Foster with an application. She was eventually matched with DeMonica Coverson, director of social work for Metro Nashville Public Schools.
“She’s part of the reason I decided to pursue school licensure,” said Butler, who’s also pursuing a trauma certificate, one of six specialized certificate or licensure programs available to MSSW students. Butler will complete her practicum this year with KIPP Public Charter Schools in Nashville.
Like Butler, Erica Williamson, an online student from Memphis, was motivated to return to school to help others. She spent a decade as an officer with the Memphis Police Department. It wasn’t long before she realized that her perspective on the street differed from some of her partners’.
“If someone broke into a house and beat the owner up, my partners wanted to go out and find who was responsible,” Williamson said. “I realized I was more concerned about the victim and what we could do to get them additional services.”
Williamson was matched with Jaime Krone (’18), a licensed master social worker who works with adults struggling with insomnia, anxiety, and depression. Krone runs the Life Lesson Center, which helps parents and children address trauma and other concerns. She was approached about becoming a mentor after meeting Foster and a CBSW group at the National Civil Rights Museum during a field trip in spring 2019.
“It’s a very challenging program, and it can get lonely sometimes,” said Krone, who earned her MSSW online through UT. Krone didn’t have the CBSW when she was a student, so she had to find community and support in other ways. “This is a very specific opportunity. I knew I had to participate when I heard about this. It’s the way I can give back.”
The minimum mentorship requirement is one point of contact a month. Before long, Williamson and Krone were talking on the phone every week and texting daily. On their first FaceTime call, Williamson recognized Krone from the Memphis Air National Guard Base more than a decade ago (both women are United States Air Force veterans). The two even met up for dinner; Krone took Williamson to try Ethiopian food for the first time.
“It wasn’t just that my mentor was a Black woman,” Williamson said. “She was a wife, a mother, and a veteran. We both like to garden. We could talk about life struggles together.”
Krone provided plenty of motivation. But she also helped Williamson set goals and stay accountable to them. When Williamson told her she wanted to work with the US Department of Veterans Affairs, Krone made sure she set herself up to get there.
“She got me the information and resources I needed,” Williamson said. “It wasn’t just me taking her word for it.” Williamson will spend her final year in the MSSW program completing a practicum with the VA office in Memphis.
Outside of the mentoring program, the CBSW hosts panels and events throughout the year. The coalition hosts an annual conference, which will take place March 4, 2022, on the college’s Nashville campus.
In 2021, antiracism workshops hosted by the CBSW were recognized in a report by the National Association of Social Workers as Tennessee’s state contribution for undoing racism in the field of social work.
“That’s the beauty of the CBSW,” Butler said. “It’s not just one piece. It’s mentorship and community. You can sit with people who look like you and talk to them about challenges they’ve already faced and that you’ve got coming up. Or you can just rejoice and laugh. All those pieces are equally important.”
Since first proposing the idea for the CBSW, Foster has worked with alumni, board members, and other Black faculty members in the college—Andrea Joseph in Nashville and Patricia Bamwine, Camille Hall, and Stan Bowie in Knoxville—to help grow its influence across the state. Social work professors at other universities have contacted Foster to ask if their students could participate in panels or be matched with a mentor. Currently the UT chapter provides support to students at Austin Peay, Belmont, East Tennessee State, Lipscomb, Tennessee State, and Union Universities.
“People may take for granted the influence UT has in the state,” Foster said. “For years, this was the only place you could get a master’s in social work. To me it’s a real blessing that UT can be a leader in this—that we could say we saw this need and we responded so others could follow in our footsteps.”
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