For the Black Leadership Initiative (BLI), Black History Month is not just the month of February—it’s all 12 months of the year.
“We’re very focused on the history of Black communities,” Samuel Bradley, co-founder and co-director of the BLI, said. “The history of Black communities is oftentimes an overlooked aspect of the work, but how can you know how to stage for the present or the future without understanding the implications of the past.”
In the fall of 2021, the Boston College School of Social Work enrolled an inaugural cohort of 15 student fellows as the first class of the BLI. These fellows participate in programming where they learn about how social work practices can be applied to help Black communities.
The program was co-founded and is co-directed by Tyrone M. Parchment and Bradley, who work together to admit master’s of social work (MSW) students into the BLI.
“This is a multi-year graduate program,” Bradley said. “This will be the first year we graduate students participating in BLI, and the students go into fields from politics to mental health counseling.”
The program consists of three custom classes, monthly meetings emphasizing community and featuring guest speakers, and an annual retreat. The goal is to create a community within the cohort and build a network of Black social workers, according to Lujuana Milton, the BLI program coordinator.
“Throughout the year I bring in BCSSW alums who are Black-identifying, or of the African diaspora, and they speak about their work and the way in which they engage in practice,” Milton said. “Some themes have included self-care, practicing as a social worker, and unique experiences that Black social workers have through clinical and macro practice.”
Teaching the history of the Black community can be difficult, Bradley said, so he sees the program as a march toward justice. The program teaches about the histories, philosophies, and cultures of the Black community.
“Our classrooms are filled with deep discussions, and they feel like community, like family, while also being full of rich knowledge, history, and culture,” Mattie Harris, a BLI student and BCSSW ’24, said. “We all have a shared experience of being Black in the United States … our professors do a great job of taking these experiences and translating them into how it will make us great social workers.”
Bradley said the BLI also takes an Afrocentric approach to social work for MSW students, working to elevate peoples’ social and emotional well-being.
“And in particular, we’re trying to train our students with the best evidence-based practice, specifically for Black communities,” Bradley said.
According to Milton, taking an Afrocentric approach to social work means centering teaching around the experiences of individuals who are of the African diaspora, as opposed to more typical Western social work teachings.
“When I was a social work student, many of the teaching theory frameworks are basically taught from a eurocentric and Western lens that often denies people’s cultural experiences,” Milton said. “We have to educate ourselves through slavery, through some of the experiences that Black people had to experience.”
When Milton first spoke to Bradley and Parchment about their work developing the BLI, Milton said she realized it incorporated everything that she, as a Black social worker, felt was missing in her practice and education.
“By participating in a program like this, it really puts into words what many social workers are already doing in the communities,” Milton said. “It is able to frame their experiences in a way that is different from traditional westernized ways.”
Bradley said that when he joined the BC community, he had a desire to connect with other Black graduate students. He wanted to create opportunities for students to engage in their own culture and take classes geared toward the Black community.
“[Students] who were looking for themselves in the curriculum, the books, and activities and maybe not always finding it,” Bradley said. “It created an opportunity for me to seek out like-minded folks within the school so that we could work together and build a partnership.”
The most rewarding aspect of working with the BLI, Bradley said, is the human connection element. He said getting to know students, creating opportunities for them based on their passions, and coaching them are the most important parts of his role.
“If I can make each one of my students feel like there’s somebody in their corner who cares a lot about them and wants it to be successful, I think half of my job is done,” Bradley said. “The other half is to connect them with opportunities to impact the world, and also just engage in self-exploration.”
Harris said the BLI taught her to implement the West African concept of shared consciousness—a set of shared beliefs and morals that operate as a unifying force—into social work.
“It gives a different perspective on the many different cultures within the Black community,” Harris said. “We meet and talk with social work professionals who embody the characteristics of BLI students within their own fields of practice.”
Harris’ experience in the BLI is one she would not be able to get anywhere else, she said.
“We have students from California, from Atlanta, from Nigeria, I’m from Louisiana, you know, the list goes on,” Harris said. “I have definitely taken a lot out of the BLI, especially with understanding each of the different cultures within the Black community and all over the African diaspora, because it’s not a monolith.”
The BLI was the main reason why Harris decided to come to BC and move to Boston—she said it was her saving grace.
“It was something that no other program in the United States had,” Harris said.
For Harris, being a part of the BLI also helped her adjust to life in Boston by providing her with a community of friends who share similar life experiences.
“Being able to meet these beautiful, intelligent future social workers who are Black like me, and who aren’t Black like me, I’m beyond grateful,” Harris said. “To be able to share spaces of knowledge with each other, to be able to go out with each other outside of BLI too.”
Gabrielle Nash, a BLI student and BCSWW ’23, is a member of the inaugural cohort, and she said the BLI was her favorite part of studying at BC.
“Being able to have more candid and honest conversations in this safe space is really special,” Nash said. “Dr. Parchment is actually a SOCA-certified workout teacher, which is like Zumba with Afrobeats, and one month he led a class—we do fun activities that also deepen our bond.”
Nash said the specialized focus she is learning from the BLI will provide her with a well-rounded approach to her social work. The BLI has shaped her entire experience at BC, both professionally and personally.
“BLI just really allowed BC to feel like home for me,” Nash said.