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Home    >    Narratives of Social and Economic Justice
Narratives of Social and Economic Justice
Roberta R. Greene, Harriet L. Cohen, John Gonzalez, and Youjung Lee
ISBN: 978-0-87101-388-0. 2009. Item #3880. 180 pgs.

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Narratives of Social and Economic Justice answers the call from social work educators for academic resources that deal with cross-cutting issues and cover a broad spectrum of domains and specializations – gerontological social work, social policy, health, mental health, and social justice.

A companion to Dr. Roberta R. Greene’s earlier Resiliency: An Integrated Approach to Practice, Policy, and Research, Narratives of Social and Economic Justice thoroughly elucidates the theoretical underpinnings of resiliency-based practice and makes a compelling case for its ascendancy as a model for building strong families and communities.

This volume – coauthored with Harriet L. Cohen, John Gonzalez, and Youjung Lee – is a masterful capstone to Dr. Greene’s impressive oeuvre. Narratives of Social and Economic Justice is an indispensable addition to the bookshelves of social work educators, practitioners, and policymakers and to social sciences library collections. As an educational resource, this book will foster the insights and skills that social workers need to effectively combat racial and ethnic disparities and promote optimal human development.

Special Features


  • Introductory chapters covering the four dimensions of narrative and the normative model of resiliency

  • Competency-based approach to core social work practices, with emphasis on mastery of critical thinking, diversity work, and advocacy skills

  • Narratives of 11 remarkable people who thrived in spite of discrimination and oppression

  • Political and historical commentaries, review questions, and exercises accompany each narrative

Introduction: Narratives of Social and Economic Justice: A Competency-Based Approach

Chapter 1: Narrative Gerontology: Four Dimensions

Chapter 2: Social and Economic Justice

Chapter 3: We Have Overcome: Resilience

Chapter 4: The Graduate

Chapter 5: Memories of Quakertown

Chapter 6: Negotiating Two Sides of the Track

Chapter 7: From GED to PhD
John Gonzalez

Chapter 8: Abandoning Hwa-byung
Youjung Lee

Chapter 9: The Making of a Social Activist
Harriet L. Cohen

Chapter 10: Grass Roots Organizer

Conclusion: Narrative as Transformation
The narratives for this work were collected during a research project that explored the factors that enabled selected older adults to overcome early discrimination and become resilient adults. Resilience is a term that describes unpredicted or distinctly successful adaptations to negative life events, trauma, stress, or risk. A snowball sample obtained from social work practitioners and educators identified "successful" older adults respected for their work in overcoming discrimination and advocating for social justice. Researchers conducted semi-structured interviews to discover the personal characteristics and environmental factors that enabled the older adults to overcome negative life events (see Table 1).

Table 1: Cultural Narrative: Open-Ended Interview Questions

  1. Where did you grow up?

  2. What was it like to be a child growing up there?

  3. Was there much racism or discrimination?

  4. What are some of the things that were done in your community that made you or your friends feel discriminated against?

  5. How did people get around these threats or overcome hassles?

  6. Whom did you know who really coped well or got around bad situations?

  7. What made them good at bouncing back?

  8. Was there someone who was particularly "good" at bouncing back?

  9. What about you?

  10. What types of help did people need or want when things got bad?

  11. What did your family do to raise children (who felt "good" about being Black, Latino) when there was discrimination?

  12. Did you teach your children ideas/strategies to prepare them for "bad things that might happen"?

  13. Did they learn things about how to succeed?

  14. How would you say you influenced your children or other young people in the community?

  15. Did you tell them any stories?

  16. What about the neighbors and community?

  17. What should I write about for social work students to learn?

  18. Did I miss some questions you would like to tell me?


Competency-Based Education


This text is organized around a competency-based approach to social work education. The competency-based approach to education, recently adopted by the Council on Social Work Education (see Table 2), "is an outcome performance approach to curriculum design" (Council on Social Work Education, 2008, p. 3). This means that upon graduation students are expected to demonstrate that they have mastered "measurable practice behaviors that are comprised of knowledge, values, and skills" (p. 3).

Table 2: Council on Social Work Education

Educational Policy Statement


  • Educational Policy 2.1.1: Identify as a professional social worker and conduct oneself accordingly.

  • Educational Policy 2.1.2: Apply social work ethical principles to guide professional practice.

  • Educational Policy 2.1.3: Apply critical thinking to inform and communicate professional judgments.

  • Educational Policy 2.1.4: Engage diversity and difference in practice.

  • Educational Policy 2.1.5: Advance human rights and social and economic justice.

  • Educational Policy 2.1.6: Engage in research-informed practice and practice-informed research.

  • Educational Policy 2.1.7: Apply knowledge of human behavior and the social environment.

  • Educational Policy 2.1.8: Engage in policy practice to advance social and economic well-being and to deliver effective social work services.

  • Educational Policy 2.1.9: Respond to contexts that shape practice.

  • Educational Policy 2.1.10(a)-(d): Engage, assess, intervene, and evaluate with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities.

Source: Council on Social Work Education. (2008). Educational policy and accreditation standards. Alexandria, VA: Author.


Each chapter presents core competencies and study questions and activities to measure mastery of chapter content. There is an emphasis on the reader’s ability to

  • apply critical thinking to inform and communicate professional judgments,

  • understand how diversity characterizes and shapes the human experience and is critical to the formation of identity,

  • understand the forms and mechanisms of oppression and discrimination, and

  • recognize the interconnections of oppression and be knowledgeable about theories of social and economic justice.

Narratives of Social Justice


The text uses narrative accounts of 11 older men and women as vehicles for learning about the "interconnections of oppression" and the potential of "theories of justice and strategies to promote human and civil rights" (Council on Social Work Education, 2008, p. 5). It focuses on how the storytellers overcame discrimination based on ethnicity/race, religion, economic status, gender, or national origin. This book uses selected quotes from narratives to help the reader understand the social injustices of the Jim Crow era and how the storytellers maintained a resilient self and fostered a resilient family and community.

Each chapter is organized around the personal, interpersonal, sociocultural, and structural aspects of the narrative, leading to an understanding of the factors that enhanced the storytellers’ resilience. From this perspective, personal narratives also represent a global sociocultural, historical, and political context, and may be thought of as stories about a given society at a particular point in time. Thus, the narratives

  • provide insights about the historical context in which the storytellers lived,

  • outline the nature of the "differences" that limited their equal participation in society,

  • examine how the power relationships of the day affected their interpersonal relationships and societal rights and responsibilities,

  • describe personal and environmental risk factors that may have interrupted the development of resilient personalities, families, and communities,

  • discuss the legal barriers and social and economic injustices that needed to be overcome as the storytellers adapted to and engaged in civic responsibility,

  • analyze how they negotiated power relationships to overcome the risks of discrimination, and

  • describe actions taken at the personal, interpersonal, sociocultural, and structural levels that enabled the storytellers to be agents of change.

Each chapter also offers historical accounts and policy information to align the reader with each storyteller’s personal context "across space and time" (Shuman, 2006, p. 152). This will help the reader understand how historic and current structures of social policies and services advance social and economic well-being (Council on Social Work Education, 2008).

Our intent is to illustrate, through personal examples, that an individual’s experience is part of collective memory, public discourse, and political identities (Shuman, 2006). Each chapter of the book presents an older adult’s critical life events and describes how earlier conflict was reconciled (Coleman, 1999). Through this, the reader will learn what it was like when this older generation was growing up, and the lessons learned will provide an intergenerational cultural perspective on life events (Greene, 2007).

Definitions of social and economic justice provide additional means of understanding narrative accounts, as does an examination of societal power dynamics. Narratives bring to light how these older adults advocated for social justice; what allowed them to lead full, productive, and resilient lives; and how they left their mark on their family, community, and society. The reader will therefore develop an appreciation of how personal resilience is intertwined with social justice.

The text uses the ecological systems perspective to describe the complex transactions between people and their environments. Ecological thinking focuses on the multiple systems of influence in which people live. This approach contributes to the reader’s understanding of the interplay of a person’s particular life story with collective histories. That is, an individual’s story, told in that person’s own words, can "uncover how life reflects cultural themes of the society, personal themes, institutional themes, and social histories" (Creswell, 1998, p. 49).

As the narratives reveal, the stories of older adults can also express negative experiences "in which cultural meanings are subjugated" (Saleebey, 1994, p. 38). One reads their accounts to learn about their adaptations and strategies that ultimately led to a resilient sense of self, allowing them to overcome critical life events and challenges. The individual life stories also contribute to a collective understanding of the historical era that culminated in the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s.

As readers learn how the storytellers overcame societal injustice, they understand why promoting social and economic justice is a core social work value. Thus, "the teller not only recovers her voice; she becomes a witness to the conditions that rob others of their voices. When any person recovers his voice, many people begin to speak through history" (Frank, cited in Shuman, 2006, p. 153).

Chapter Content


Chapter 1 presents the historical background of the narrative form and introduces the reader to the four dimensions of storytelling. Chapter 2 discusses the issues of social and economic justice described by the storytellers. Definitions of social and economic justice are provided and examples are taken from the narratives to illustrate various types of discrimination.

Chapter 3 introduces the assumptions of risk and resilience theory, allowing the reader to understand the formation of the resilient self, family, and community. The term resilience refers to self-righting behavior with unpredicted or distinctly successful adaptations to negative life events, trauma, stress, or risk. Resilient people draw on internal resources, including hope and determination, as well as on external supports, such as mutual aid networks (Greene, 2002). Resilience is a "universal capacity which allows a person, group or community to prevent, minimize or overcome the damaging effects of adversity. Resiliency may transform or make stronger the lives of those who are resilient" (Grotberg, 1995).

Chapter 4 contains the first narrative, using the life of AS to illustrate the four levels of the narrative: personal, interpersonal, sociocultural, and societal/structural. Kenyon and Randall’s (2001) four interrelated dimensions of life stories are adapted to categorize resilience: (a) the societal/structural encompasses social policies, power relations, and economic conditions; (b) the sociocultural refers to social meanings associated with aging and the life course; (c) the interpersonal includes interactions with families and friends; and (d) the personal involves internal meaning and coherence.

AS grew up with a single parent and a close extended family, including grandparents who provided unconditional love. His neighborhood was integrated but his one-room school, which he started attending at age four, was segregated. His mother moved the family to a larger town when AS was in eighth grade so he could continue higher levels of schooling. There, he discovered that there was a "Mexican school, a white school, and a black school." AS continued his education in a segregated school and upon graduation became the first black student at the University of Texas at Austin School of Social Work. During his career as a social worker, he worked as a counselor at a family service agency, founded a bank, and helped establish a housing complex with support from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development.

In chapter 5, the descendants of families who lived in a once-thriving neighborhood describe school discrimination and the educational inequities they experienced while growing up. Quakertown was a middle-class African American community in Denton, Texas, from the mid-1870s through the early 1920s. It was probably named for the Quakers who helped the freedmen during Reconstruction. During the 1880s, schools, churches, businesses, and civic organizations were built in Quakertown to support the growing number of black residents.

In the early 1920s, the trustees of what is now Texas Women’s University decided that they did not want their white daughters walking past a black neighborhood. The Denton City Commission issued a bond to purchase, demolish, or move Quakertown properties. Some residents sold their homes or moved them to Solomon Hill, currently part of southeast Denton, on the other side of the railroad tracks. The community of Quakertown was destroyed and the property adjacent to the campus of Texas Women’s University is now the home of the city park.

Chapter 6 presents the life of JM, who grew up in Hampton, Virginia, which was then a segregated town of about 5,000 people. JM’s story illustrates the importance of education as a vehicle for overcoming discrimination. Hampton is home to the Hampton Institute, one of the first historically black colleges in the United States. Though segregated, the town had a community of "solidly middle-class blacks," JM recalls. Other black residents were poor and worked as crab fishermen. Still, black employees who worked at nearby military bases were forced by law to ride in the back of the bus. JM, who worked on a military base after the school day ended, remembers being "persuaded" to move back to avoid trouble. Such experiences helped him to decide consciously to become part of the professional class.

JM received his MSW from a school in the South that had to send him north to complete his field practicum. He joined the military when the armed forces were still segregated. He later took advantage of opportunities provided by the military to get his doctorate. He rose to the rank of colonel in the Air Force and head of its social services, overseeing staff and acting on promotions.

Chapter 7, authored by John Gonzalez, discusses the life of GG, who overcame discrimination to become an educator. Issues of Spanish as a second language are discussed: Speaking Spanish was not allowed, and children were held back (not promoted).

GG was born in New Braunfels, Texas. He walked to a segregated school five or six miles from his home and did not speak English until he was 10 years old. He had attended 11 different schools before he dropped out at 17 and joined the Marine Corps. He remembers picking cotton and hoping to do more with his life.

In the Marines, GG was sent to a Japanese language school and recognized the value of an education. He got his general equivalency diploma and, following military service in Korea, earned a master’s degree and a doctorate in education. He has been married for more than 50 years and four of his five children are college graduates. GG, who takes pride in his Latino heritage, has been a principal and a superintendent of education, and has an alternative high school named for him in Austin, Texas.

Chapter 8, authored by Youjung Lee, describes the life of JS, a successful Korean businessman who immigrated to the United States to establish an export-import business. To accomplish his "American dream," he had to overcome housing and other forms of discrimination.

Chapter 9, written by Harriet L. Cohen, presents the life of JG, a Jewish woman living in the South but originally from New York. Her story exemplifies the making of an activist. JG did not experience discrimination until she married and moved to Mississippi with her husband in 1955. At that time, public schools were being integrated and JG was asked to join a group that favored racial segregation. She refused and instead helped to form the Panel of American Women, an advocacy group that fought discrimination and promoted school integration. Panel members toured Mississippi, making as many as 1,000 presentations. Such advocacy could be dangerous; JG remembers her synagogue and rabbi’s house being bombed. Her family was ostracized for being pro-integrationists.

Finally, Chapter 10 examines the life of PC, a Catholic nun, activist, and role model. She describes how she listened to people’s stories as a community organizer in colonias, very low-income areas of the Texas-Mexico border that may not have running water or sewers.
Roberta R. Greene, PhD, MSW, is professor and Louis and Ann Wolens Centennial Chair in Gerontology at the School of Social Work, University of Texas at Austin. Dr. Greene is the author and coauthor of numerous publications, including Foundations of Social Work Practice in the Field of Aging: A Competency- Based Approach (NASW Press, 2007), Social Work Practice: A Risk and Resilience Perspective (Brooks/Cole, 2007), Contemporary Issues of Care (Haworth Press, 2007), Resiliency: An Integrated Framework for Practice, Research, and Policy (NASW Press, 2002), and Social Work with the Aged and Their Families (Aldine de Gruyter, 2000). She serves on a number of editorial review boards, including that of the Journal of Social Work Education, and is currently engaged in research that incorporates filmmaking and Web site design.

Harriet L. Cohen, PhD, LCSW, is associate professor in the Department of Social Work, Texas Christian University (TCU) in Fort Worth, and brings 26 years of experience as a social work practitioner with older adults into the classroom and her research. She has published in numerous journals and is a coauthor of Foundations of Social Work Practice in the Field of Aging: A Competency-Based Approach (NASW Press, 2007). Since joining the faculty at TCU, Dr. Cohen has helped to establish the Center on Healthy Aging and to develop the Healthy Aging minor. Her research interests include two vulnerable populations – older Holocaust survivors and older lesbians and gay men – and her current research documents the contributions of Holocaust survivors in Texas, utilizing multimodal learning formats.

John M. Gonzalez, PhD, MSW, is assistant professor in the Department of Social Work, University of Texas-Pan American. Dr. Gonzalez received his BA in psychology and sociology from the University of Texas at Austin, his MSW from Texas State University at San Marcos, and his PhD from the University of Texas at Austin. A former Council on Social Work Education Minority Research Fellow, he has authored and coauthored a variety of publications on older Latinos and mental health services and older adults overcoming oppression. His research interests are older Latinos and the delivery of mental health services.

Youjung Lee, PhD, MSW, is visiting assistant professor, Department of Social Work, Binghamton University, State University of New York. Dr. Lee received her MSW in 2002 and her PhD in 2007 from the University of Texas at Austin. Her research interests involve positive aspect of family caregiving and resilience in minority older adults, focusing on the disparities of minority family caregiving dynamics between spouse caregivers and child caregivers. She has published on issues of minority family caregiving and the resilience of minority older adults who overcame discriminations and has taught on human behavior and the social environment and program evaluation in social work practice.