Books for changing the world

Abolitionist Social Work: Possibilities, Paradox and Praxis

As demands to defund the police often look to social work as an alternative, panelists Tanisha "Wakumi" Douglas, Mimi Kim, Kirk "Jae" James and Cameron Rasmussen discuss the cautions of and possibilities for abolitionist social work.

Social work, historically and today, has been deeply embedded in systems of carceral control. With social work's legacy of ties to policing and oppressive family regulation through the child welfare system, the social work community is actively imagining and working towards a social work rooted in abolition, turning to traditions of resistance that also characterize its history. This conversation, organized by the Network to Advance Abolitionist Social Work (NAASW) in partnership with Haymarket Books will look at challenging carceral social work through the development and practice of an abolitionist social work.

The Network to Advance Abolitionist Social Work (NAASW) is a group of social workers from different parts of the US, building a year-long initiative to support abolitionist work in the field of social work. The initiative includes ongoing political education, research / knowledge generation around carceral and abolition social work, developing an online hub of abolitionist social work resources, and broader organizing and advocacy efforts to build abolitionist ideas and practices into social work.



Tanisha “Wakumi” Douglas: As the daughter of an undocumented immigrant who served 33 years in prison, Tanisha “Wakumi” Douglas has dedicated her life to building leadership among youth most impacted by mass incarceration and other oppressive systems. Wakumi is Co-founder/Executive Director of S.O.U.L. Sisters Leadership Collective, which builds leadership with systems-involved girls & TGNC youth, in both Miami and NYC. She has worked as a restorative justice circle keeper, social worker, community organizer, trainer, and popular educator for organizations including the Dream Defenders, Harlem Children’s Zone and Children’s Defense Fund. Wakumi holds a Bachelors from Georgetown University and a Masters of Social Work from Columbia University, where she founded and organized the first Columbia University “Beyond the Bars” conference in 2010 as a student organizer. She has also studied with renowned African-centered holistic healers and holds womb wellness circles, soul sweats and spiritual ceremonies. She was a 2018 Move to End Violence fellow and is a 2020 Soros Justice fellow. Wakumi is featured in Dr. Monique Morris’ 2019 documentary PUSHOUT: Criminalization of Black Girls in Schools as a pioneer on the subject. Her work has been featured in Huffington Post, NPR, and Miami New Times and her books include Sing a Rhythm, Dance a Blues (Morris), and Making Change (Kruse). She has spoken on stages at Google and the National Educators Association and has shared the stage with Dr. Angela Davis, Ericka Huggins, and Congresswoman Ayanna Pressley.

Mimi Kim is the founder of Creative Interventions and a co-founder of INCITE! She has been a long-time activist, advocate and researcher challenging gender-based violence at its intersection with state violence and creating community accountability, transformative justice and other community-based alternatives to criminalization. As a second generation Korean American, she locates her political work in global solidarity with feminist anti-imperialist struggles, seeking not only the end of oppression but of the creation of liberation here and now. Mimi is also an Associate Professor of social work at California State University, Long Beach and co-editor in chief of Affilia. Her recent publications include “The Carceral Creep: Gender-Based Violence, Race, and the Expansion of the Punitive State, 1973-1983” (2020) and “From Carceral Feminism to Transformative Justice: Women of Color Feminism and Alternatives to Incarceration” (2018).

Kirk “Jae” James is a Clinical Professor and Human Rights activist at the NYU Silver School of Social Work. He completed his doctorate from the School of Social Policy and Practice at The University of Pennsylvania on May 2013. His dissertation, “The Invisible Epidemic in Social Work Academia,” examined the complex phenomena of mass incarceration through a historical and contemporary lens. He concluded by developing curricula for Master level students to increase awareness, activism and holistic practice in the milieu. Courses developed from his dissertation have been implemented at Columbia University, Temple University, City College, and the University of Pennsylvania amongst others. Dr. James’s primary research and publications focus on deconstructing issues related to mass incarceration –– specifically as it pertains to trauma, cognitive development, culpability, and the examination of systems that foster and perpetuate racial injustice.

Cameron Rasmussen is a social worker, educator and facilitator. He is the Program Director at the Center for Justice at Columbia University, a doctoral student in the Social Welfare Program at the CUNY Graduate Center and a Publics Fellow at the Publics Lab at the CUNY Graduate Center. Cameron's work is focused on ending the punishment paradigm, advancing just approaches to healing, accountability and transformation, and on the growing push for an abolitionist social work. His work follows the leadership of people impacted by incarceration, criminalization and all forms of violence, and includes teaching, social movement leadership development, research and scholarship, harm and conflict processes facilitation, and work for narrative change.