Samuel Bradley, Jr., an assistant professor in the Boston College School of Social Work, likes to share his favorite motto: “I want to build cool stuff with my friends.” 

And since joining BC in 2019 he has lived up to his words, collaborating with assistant professor Tyrone M. Parchment to create a suite of academic programs aimed at preparing master’s students to develop solutions to complex problems in Black communities.

“This is both an innovation that moves us forward and a recalling of the work that many Black pioneers of social work practice have engaged in for a long time,” Bradley said on Friday during the annual Pinderhughes Diversity Lecture. “It’s important to not only create outstanding classes but to also push the boundaries with regard to what practice, community, and scholarship look like.”

The lecture, held on Zoom, zeroed in on the goals of the new academic offerings and paid tribute to Black social workers who have paved the way for Bradley and Parchment to design these programs. It is named in honor of one such pioneer, Professor Emerita Elaine Pinderhughes, whose seminal research revealed that race, ethnicity, and power strongly influence how social workers interact with clients.

Pinderhughes, a special guest, told the virtual attendees that she cultivated her approach to social work as a clinician at a treatment center for kids. It was there, she recalled, that she and her colleagues began to ask what they needed to know in order to help Black children thrive.  

“Soon it became clear that we needed to look at ourselves in the context of many layers and levels of cultural influence,” said Pinderhughes, who worked in the School from 1975 to 2016. “Among these layers we found out were our own culture as it influences us and the overarching influences of United States-based American culture.”

Bradley and Parchment have designed three new academic offerings—an initiative, a certificate, and a field of practice—that center the cultural experiences and values that connect people of African descent. The Black Leadership Initiative, a cohort-based program that trains students to tackle problems facing Black communities, lies at the heart of the effort. 

Students in the program, which launched in September, do internships that support Black communities and take electives that focus on the history of the African diaspora. Bradley and Parchment have said that the BLI asks students to take a close look at who they were, who they are, and who they want to become. Every month, they meet to reflect on their experiences, hear from Black leaders, and check in with each other. 

“There are so many scholars like Professor Emerita Pinderhughes that provided the foundation for why we created the BLI,” Parchment said in response to a question from moderator Lujuana Milton, who serves as the program coordinator for the initiative. “One of the striking points from reading her work was the need to aid ethnically marginalized students and the importance of remaining positively connected to your own cultural group.”

Dean Gautam N. Yadama drew parallels between the BLI and Pinderhughes’ scholarship, pointing in particular to a paper she published in 1982 in Social Work titled “Family functioning of Afro-Americans.” “Every decade or so she says something that then everybody picks up on and she’s always ahead of the curve,” Yadama said. In this paper, “She says systems, environment, and structures are so critical to understanding practice with populations. And I think it is that concern of professor Pinderhughes that is also at the core of our BLI program today.”

There are so many scholars like Professor Emerita Pinderhughes that provided the foundation for why we created the BLI. One of the striking points from reading her work was the need to aid ethnically marginalized students and the importance of remaining positively connected to your own cultural group.
Tyrone M. Parchment, co-founder of the Black Leadership Initiative

Students in the first cohort of the BLI have studied in fields as far-flung as neuroscience, criminal justice, and human services. They have worked at hospitals, county jails, and nonprofits, helping to improve the lives of children with autism, teens with substance abuse issues, and adults with traumatic brain injuries. And Bradley and Parchment have said that many of them will go on to join the Afrocentric Social Work field of practice and earn the certificate in Black Leadership, both of which will launch in fall 2022.

The Afrocentric Social Work field of practice, one of six pathways that include specialized coursework and field placements, will require students to take “Advanced Practice in Afrocentric Social Work” and complete an internship with an organization that supports the Black community. According to the syllabus, one assignment for the class will ask students to write a paper that describes how they have integrated “African-centered knowledge, values, and methods” into their practice with clients at their internship. 

The Black Leadership certificate will require students to complete three specific courses—“Re-thinking Diversity,” “Afrocentric Organizations,” and “History of Activism in Black Communities.” One course, “Afrocentric Organizations,” will train students to develop the leadership skills to combat racism in Black communities and build capacity within Black organizations. For one assignment, students will play the role of entrepreneurs, creating business plans for companies that serve the Black community.

“I’m always thinking about what can we do to push the envelope a little bit further in social work,” said Bradley, who oversees the Equity, Justice, and Inclusion Initiative in the School. “I think I would live and die a happy man constantly challenging the profession to think about new opportunities that we can expand into with regard to our practice.”

Bradley and Parchment told Milton that they are already working to recruit the second cohort for the BLI, firming up partnerships with alumni to mentor the students, and developing relationships with potential collaborators in the community. Their ultimate goal, they said, is to create leaders who take an Afrocentric approach to social work. “If we are creating leaders who are grounded in the Black perspective but they’re in a setting where they can’t implement their learning, then it’s somewhat of a disservice,” said Parchment, who studies the behavioral health of families. “So the long term impact is to build the capacity of organizations working with folks in the African diaspora and to maximize this knowledge base.”

After the talk, the School played a 12-minute video honoring Pinderhughes, who will celebrate her 100th birthday in August. The video featured remarks from more than two-dozen important people in her life, including friends, family, and former colleagues. 

“You truly represent empathy, and wisdom, and kindness, and knowledge,” said Ruth McRoy, now a professor emerita in the School of Social Work. “You have raised, nurtured, and mentored a generation of anti-racist people, scholars, and professionals,” noted Howard Pinderhughes, one of her sons. A group of friends described Pinderhughes as their “role model,” “dancing teacher,” and “inspiration.” 

“You’ve taught us that we are as old as our ancestors and as young as our descendents,” they said. “You’ve taught us that bridges can be built even when we dared not hope. You’ve taught us to be loving to others, even when we didn’t think we were a good match. You’ve taught us how essential it is to speak with our own voice.”

Pinderhughes was moved by the video tribute. “I am overwhelmed,” she said. “I don’t know what to say except ‘thank you from the bottom of my heart.’”