Social Work manuscript competition yields winning essay on white privilege and its implications for practice

Wayne State M.S.W. student Austin Kieffer was named winner of the School of Social Work’s 2017 Elizabeth N. Brehler manuscript competition for his essay describing his struggle to disentangle his values regarding work ethic from the privileges afforded to him as a white male.

Established in 1992, the annual Brehler competition awards $3,000 to the essayist who best describes the way his or her personal and professional values conflict with the obligations of social work practice. In his winning submission, Kieffer recalls being raised in Waterloo, Iowa, in a German-American family where hard work and thriftiness were cardinal virtues and poverty was, both subtlety and overtly, associated with laziness and a lack of worth. Stereotypes about minorities and welfare proliferated in Kieffer’s family and his community, he explains, with no context concerning centuries of policies, attitudes, and institutional racism designed to keep people of color from having the same economic status as whites.

An undergraduate psychology student, Kieffer decided to earn a Master of Social Work to help those with mental health issues and to address the societal issues that cause or compound them. He chose the Wayne State School of Social Work for its “clear clinical focus,” he said, and soon found that the minority clients he counseled during his field work at a community mental health agency compelled him to examine the implicit biases he had developed about class and race during his upbringing. Kieffer realized that he was evaluating clients based on how much effort they put into counseling and drawing on lifelong assumptions about hard work and worthiness by devoting more attention to those he felt were most committed to progress.

Ultimately, Kieffer realized this mindset conflicted with social work’s ethical imperative to help those most in need and betrayed a lack of self-awareness of white privilege and racism, things which are essential in developing a therapeutic alliance with racially and ethnically diverse clients.

“My belief that hard work is necessary and enough for advancement is so strong simply because it has generally worked out for me in the past,” Kieffer writes. “As a white male, society rewards my achievements over other groups, even if the achievements of another group are greater. Awareness of this fact and a willingness to work against it in the spirit of social justice will be necessary for my effectiveness as a social worker.”

Associate Social Work Professor Debra Patterson, who served as Kieffer’s faculty advisor for the competition, called Kieffer’s essay “brave and honest.”

“As social workers, our biases can be an obstacle to effective and ethical practice,” Patterson said. “Austin examined and challenged his assumptions about race and class that he learned during his youth. This process not only produced an exceptional manuscript but also resulted in Austin experiencing meaningful growth and a deeper understanding of the use of self in social work practice.”

Kieffer’s manuscript, along with the other winning manuscripts from 1992 forward, can be found on the Wayne State University School of Social Work website.

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