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Abolitionist Social Work

Social work must be anti-carceral, against oppression, and committed to ending systems, structures, and ideologies that cause people harm.


The uprisings of the summer of 2020 became one of the largest protest movements in the history of the United States. The large-scale organizing and mass protests of that summer were made possible by many years of organizing work, done by the Movement for Black Lives and countless other groups across the country, and were propelled by centuries of struggle for Black liberation—from the resistance by enslaved people in the United States and the first abolitionist movement to end slavery to the Black Panthers and beyond. Conversation and action about mutual aid, resistance to state violence, and abolition surged broadly that summer, leading both to opportunities to build as well as unfortunate opportunities for the co-optation of abolitionist principles and strategies. Social work was held out by some as an alternative response to police and by others as an addition to policing models that could somehow “fix” the brokenness of the existing systems. These suggestions were often put forth with little to no recognition of the long history of policing by the social work profession itself.

The Network to Advance Abolitionist Social Work (NAASW) was one of many formations that took shape during the 2020 uprisings. It began as an effort to challenge the idea that social work and the police are ever compatible, and it seeks to explore the ways that social work both limits and advances the realization of a world where people have access to the things that are foundational to personal and community safety and a world without police, prisons, and surveillance.

The roots of the NAASW date back to earlier anti-criminalization organizing efforts and a long history of radical social work. In 2015 a group of social workers in New York City created a formation called Social Workers Against Criminalization (SWAC). Similar to NAASW, SWAC came together during a time of uprisings, following the police killings of Michael Brown and Eric Garner. SWAC was formed to challenge the social work profession’s complicity in the criminalization of Black and brown people. This was at a time when the social work profession was only beginning to use the term “mass incarceration” broadly and only starting to dig into the underlying realities of longstanding mass incarceration and mass criminalization. SWAC’s vision was based on the shared analysis of its members at the time: that incarceration and criminalization were the problems and that social work continued to play a role in furthering both of those forces. Although SWAC had ambition and useful analysis at the time, its ability to enact those ambitions fell short because of capacity. Fast-forward to 2020, and several of the founding members of SWAC came back together with other social workers across the United States to explore possible ways to intervene in conversations that proposed social work as the solution to policing.

Through much discussion, the NAASW was founded on the idea that not only should we challenge social work’s carceral complicity, but we could also contribute to a different type of social work, one in which politics and practice align with the abolitionist horizon to which we were committed. The work of scholars such as Beth E. Richie, Mimi E. Kim, and others offered us the concepts of carceral social work and carceral services as a way to understand not only the direct relationships between social work and carceral systems, but also the deeper carceral and punitive logics and relations that have been a part of social work practice broadly over time. So when the NAASW formed in 2020, not only did we have an understanding of carceral social work and experience attempting to dismantle it, but many of us had been a part of a growing abolitionist movement whose ideas and practices were more visible than ever before. The result of all of this was the push for a concept of abolitionist social work and an exploration of what that concept would mean in practice.

The term abolitionist social work has been recently introduced to discourse, is contested for a range of reasons, and is a term that many in the world of social work are grappling with for the first time. It is a term in early formation. Within the NAASW, there are differing ideas about the term’s meaning and utility, as well as debate about whether we should be working to abolish social work altogether rather than move forward a faction of social work practice rooted in abolition praxis. Despite this, there is a shared desire within our group to push ourselves and the social work profession toward anti-carceral and abolitionist politics and practice. What this means in the long term for social work is an unsettled question for us, but we believe that interjecting abolition into social work theory and practice will support more of us in working toward the world we dream of and aspire to.

At the most basic level, abolitionist social work is about bringing abolitionist principles and politics to social work theory and practice. As the title of this book suggests, this endeavor is full of contradictions and limitations, particularly in mainstream, majority-white social work institutions that are prone to a hyperfocus on the professionalization of organizing, advocacy, and care work. Still, we in the NAASW have been able to engage in abolitionist efforts in our own social work practices and have experienced the real changes that can come from doing this. At the time this is being written, we can also still imagine a transformed social work, one that is rooted in solidarity over charity; one that is decolonized, deprofessionalized, anti-capitalist, and antiracist; and one that is committed to repair, accountability, and continual transformation. As our colleagues wrote in 2020, at its best, “social work will be the chorus for abolition—partnering in the work of ending state violence, while supporting life-affirming relationships, practices and organizations.”

Toward the advancement of abolitionist social work, we offer the following principles, which bring together the ideas and practices of many scholars, activists, and organizers that have shaped our work and thinking and that we believe build a foundation for social work theory and practice that is truly aligned with justice, liberation, and freedom. We also recognize that achieving these principles in practice is often difficult, especially in professionalized social work. These principles act as both the horizon we seek to reach as well as a guide to support us in building the bridges from today to tomorrow, to the many years ahead.

Abolitionist social work is committed to being anti-carceral.

In their article “Defund the Police: Moving Towards an Anti-Carceral Social Work,” Leah A. Jacobs, Mimi E. Kim, and their colleagues offered the concept and framework of anti-carceral social work. They understand carceral social work “as two interlocking components—the deployment of tactics, within social work, dependent on the same [w]hite supremacist and coercive foundations as policing, as well as direct partnership with law enforcement itself.” And thus, anti-carceral social work challenges both of these components.

Abolitionist social work is committed to anti-oppression.

Identity and power shape who has access to which resources, who is considered deserving, and whose humanity and dignity are acknowledged by social structures. Abolitionist social work fights for the dignity, freedom, and care for people of all intersecting identities—race, ethnicity, gender, class, sexuality, ability, nationality, immigration status, religion/spirituality—centering people and communities at the margins. Abolitionist social work is committed to anti-capitalism.

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Abolitionist scholar and activist Ruth Wilson Gilmore has taught many of us to understand capitalism, and more specifically racial capitalism, as a principal driver of violence and the core logic of carceral institutions. Since its founding, much of professionalized social work has been subservient to the order of racial capitalism and has attempted to mitigate its worst harms, rather than to transform the economic and social systems that create and sustain immense suffering. Therefore, an abolitionist social work toils against racial capitalism and struggles for economic and social systems rooted in mutuality, interdependence, and care rather than in domination and exploitation.

Abolitionist social work is committed to decolonization.

Many scholars and organizers have made clear that any just future must include Indigenous sovereignty and an end to settler colonialism and coloniality more broadly. Craig Fortier and Edward Hon-Sing Wong offer practices for unsettling social work including disrupting historicization, working toward the repatriation of Indigenous lands, working toward deinstitutionalization, a return to mutual aid and treaty responsibilities, the ongoing reckoning of settler complicity, and promoting deprofessionalization as a way to return control to communities.

Abolitionist social work is committed to deprofessionalization.

Social work’s historical complicity in white supremacy, combined with its aspirations to be seen as a legitimate profession and the onslaught of neoliberalism over the last forty years, has led the field to become a gatekeeper of crumbs and a mediator of the worst consequences of systemic oppression, rather than a field committed to collective wellness and lasting liberation. The profession of social work has constructed professional boundaries built on hierarchies of worthiness and the primacy of legal liability. In addition, it has created a system of education, training, and licensure that has attempted to hold captive the means for wellness and care to the few who can access social work institutions. An abolitionist social work strives toward community self-determination and is committed to liberating the resources, tools, skills, and education that support all forms of healing, wellness, care, and transformation.

Abolitionist social work is committed to centering systems, structures, and ideologies as the problems, not people as the problem.

The profession of social work has adopted a practice of pathologizing individual behavior, rather than assessing and diagnosing the ideologies, structures, and systems that create and perpetuate human suffering, inequality, and violence. An abolitionist social work centers these forces, not people, as the problem and works with people to meet our individual and collective needs, to heal our individual and collective wounds, and to transform our social and economic conditions.

Abolitionist social work is committed to solidarity, not charity.

As Dean Spade and many others have taught us, solidarity is both the pathway to, and the result of, liberatory work, and charity is rooted in maintaining inequality. Charity work is uninterested in facilitating access to what we need to get free: meaningful relationships, collective power, and changes to structural conditions. An abolitionist social work is committed to solidarity, which is rooted in interdependence and relationships and is centered around working together to meet our immediate needs while organizing collectively toward the world we deserve.

Abolitionist social work is committed to building life-affirming institutions and relationships.

Critical Resistance, Mariame Kaba, Ruth Wilson Gilmore, and many others have taught us that abolition is about building the institutions and relationships we need to be well and to thrive. Although social work has often been a partner to harmful systems and practices, we believe an abolitionist social work can play a role in building life-affirming organizations and relationships that are rooted in care, mutuality, and interdependence.

Abolitionist social work is committed to self-determination and autonomy.

The Black Panthers and the American Indian Movement are just two of countless groups that have made self-determination and autonomy central tenets of liberation work. Carceral systems and ideologies of domination are sustained by control of, power over, and exploitation of people and communities. Abolitionist social work must be committed to realizing self-determination and autonomy in practice.

Abolitionist social work is committed to nonpunitive approaches to harm and abuse.

Responding to harm and abuse with more harm and abuse do not reduce them, nor does it create the pathways for meaningful healing, accountability, and transformation of individuals and communities. Punishment is a tool of domination, and carceral punishment is used to subjugate and control marginalized people. Restorative, transformative, and healing justice approaches have demonstrated that nonpunitive and noncarceral responses to harm and abuse are not only possible but necessary. An abolitionist social work struggles against punishment in all forms and works to bolster nonpunitive approaches to harm and abuse.

Excerpted from Abolition and Social Work: Possibilities, Paradoxes, and the Practice of Community Care. Copyright © 2024 by Mimi E. Kim, Cameron Rasmussen, and Durrell M. Washington. Reprinted with permission from Haymarket Books.

Image: Anton Lammert/Unsplash