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A conversation with Shantel Thomas, BASW Anti-Racism Lead

We spoke to Shantel about how she became a social worker, her experiences of racism both in the profession and wider society - as well as her vision and approach to the role.

Shantel Thomas is a qualified social worker, practice educator and senior lecturer at the University of Hertfordshire who recently joined BASW as Anti-Racism lead.

Shantel's role involves working collaboratively with members and colleagues to support the delivery of BASW’s equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) strategy - alongside exploring how anti-oppressive and anti-racist practice can be developed and implemented across the social work sector.

We spoke to Shantel about how she became a social worker, her experiences of racism both in the profession and wider society - as well as her vision and approach to the new role.

From growing up in south London to becoming a social work academic

“I’ve been a qualified social worker for 13 years now - I spent the majority of this time in frontline practice, working as part of child protection teams around London. 

“My grandparents came here as part of the Windrush generation. My mum started working in the NHS in the 1970s (and still does) when racism was much more overt. This was the same period when signs like 'No blacks, no Irish, no dogs' were still acceptable. Because of her experiences, she tried her best to ensure we were equipped to face what was to come.

“Growing up in south London, I saw poverty and crime firsthand but didn’t understand the correlation. It was kind of natural and normal, it was something I got desensitised to as a child and teenager. I think that’s where the passion started. I was the child that would always ask ‘why is it like this?’ or ‘why are people looking at me differently?' I always had these questions but did not know the answers.”

Shantel started her career as a youth worker which led to her completing an undergraduate degree in Criminology and Criminal Justice, before studying for an MA in Social Work. As one of just three Black students on the MA course, Shantel noticed that her lived experience set her "miles apart" from others in her cohort.

"I remember my university interview: one of the panel members remarked how they were impressed with my 'passion and insight'. Insight? I was just talking about my life and experience.

"Going to university really opened my eyes - it put a framework around my lived experiences, gave them context, made them make sense. I began to find answers to some of those ‘why?’ questions."

Qualifying as a social worker and working for local authorities, as well as in agency roles, provided more questions.

"I kept thinking, why are there so many black children on child protection plans or in care? Why is it that I have to fight twice as hard to support a Black family? I was looking for justice, I was looking for equity - for everyone to be treated according to their needs."

As time went by, Shantel began to interpret these issues as deeply rooted, systemic and institutional - and against the very nature and basic ethics of social work. “I started to think, this isn't just a local authority's issue or a London's issue; it's all part of a bigger system of oppression, of racism.”

Shantel also experienced discrimination as a Black social worker. She recalls stories of being challenged in court settings, with authorities and even colleagues sometimes assuming that, due to her skin colour, she was a 'client' rather than a professional. “I did feel oppressed as a Black social worker, the system was working against me just like it works against Black people in society generally.”

In 2019, Shantel joined Canterbury Christ Church University as a full-time lecturer.  But the experiences of racism, this time in higher education, didn't stop - one incident involved a fellow member of staff challenging Shantel for being in a restricted area, assuming she was a student or a member of the public.

Despite this, the experience gave Shantel opportunities to vision meaningful change. "Working in academia gave me much more of a voice - there was scope to make changes from the top down."

Cultural competence & the power of conversations 

The murder of George Floyd, in May 2020, was a watershed moment for Shantel.

"It was the catalyst. I was working in a social work department, but nobody was talking about George Floyd and what had happened. And I couldn't sleep. I watched the video again and again. I thought to myself, the time to speak up is now or never. I really threw myself in full throttle into the activism that was going on inside and outside of work."

The murder sent shockwaves - and major protests - around the world, not least in the UK. With that came conversations around 'allyship' - or in other words, what white people could do to support the struggle for civil rights and equity.

“A lot of people do want to help but don't know how. They can be paralysed by good intentions - they don't want to offend. They don't want to be seen intruding on someone - often our [white] allies think anti-racism, equality, diversity, all of these things - is it my responsibility, or is it not?

"What I always say to them is, we've got to start with a conversation. I think when people feel comfortable, you know, even just saying the word Black for example, and not being afraid to ask questions around anti-racism and how we develop it. That’s where it starts.

"[After these conversations] they've come back to me and said they feel a lot more comfortable, and able to identify and challenge racism within their own communities and social circles. And that's the core of it - it's just challenging things in your everyday life. If you see someone or a group is being treated differently from how you expect in society, you should say something about that and have those conversations. The truth is that it's everyone's equal responsibility to practice anti-racism, regardless of skin colour."

Shantel observed that many social work students were not having these conversations - and that in turn, is what is holding them back in terms of their professional development.

"Right now, we could be doing more to embed cultural competence and anti-racist practice in the social work curriculum. A lot of student social workers, when they're going out to practice, going into homes to undertake assessments, they're not sure how to have these types of conversations. We need to help them develop anti-racist language and frameworks, to ensure they become anti-racist practitioners. This includes post-qualifying training, and particularly practice education."

Driving change through BASW 

BASW, as the UK's professional association for social workers, is taking the lead on developing anti-racist practice - alongside a commitment to improving equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) outcomes across the profession. Shantel is one of three BASW staff leading on this vital work. 

"BASW is specifying exactly which bits of EDI it's focusing on - and there seems to be an appetite for change. Since I started in this role, I've been inundated with requests from colleagues for chats to understand how they can support the work we [EDI leads] are doing, to learn more and to find out how they can support.”

Shantel is currently looking at BASW's internal policies to ensure that anti-racism is embedded with them; as well as developing anti-racist training for staff. She's also using her experience and expertise in higher education to drive change: "I'm looking at a mentoring scheme for social work students from the global majority - reverse mentoring too, where senior leaders in the profession are mentored by social workers from the global majority to help them better understand anti-racism and learn how to see issues through cultural lenses.

"We're looking at the curriculum too, working with regulators and universities across the UK. I'm keen to explore the regulations of social work, its ethics and values, and look at how we place anti-racism and anti-racist practice front and centre of that.”

Shantel is ensuring that the real, lived experience of Black social workers is fundamental to the development of anti-racist practice both at BASW and across the sector.

"It's absolutely essential that we speak to those who are impacted by racism and discrimination out there on the frontline, and base everything we are doing on their experiences and perspectives." 

The road ahead

Shantel is under no illusions in terms of the challenge ahead.

“You see, especially in the corporate sector, that there’s no real buy-in at senior levels for the issue of anti-racism and diversity more widely. You see it where there's one person from a particular background on the board; one person here, one person there. It ticks the box.

"I’ve been told by senior leaders in academia and practice that there is no institutional racism, that they don’t believe it as a concept. But having a truly diverse workforce will serve everybody's interests. It brings so much creativity, so many different perspectives, innovation and of course, increased impact.

“I'm pleased that I've joined BASW at this important time, and I think this role is an opportunity to build genuine anti-racist, anti-oppressive practice from the top down - and there's an appetite for it too at all levels of the organisation and social work more widely."

Follow Shantel on Twitter @shantelthomas77 and Instagram @basw_anti_racism_lead 

Shantel Thomas, BASW Anti-Racism Lead