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Tuesday, February 1

African American Heritage Month

As is tradition, February is designated as the time America gives special recognition to contributions African Americans have made to the American experience. Not too long ago, African American Heritage Month was Negro History Week. Such an expansion of this annual observation reflects an adjustment in America’s willingness to embrace diversity. More importantly, the change in moniker from Black to African American demonstrates a transformation of a group of people desiring a reconnection to another continent – Africa.

 That reconnection for me came when I journeyed with NASW Illinois Chapter’s International Activities Network in 2002 to South Africa – and I was forever transformed. Thus, I reflect on some lessons learned in South Africa that enriches our observance of African American Heritage Month.

 One of the most indelible moments in my mind was visiting the courthouse in downtown Durban, South Africa. The courthouse, a remnant of the system of Apartheid, was a complicated labyrinth, with various entrances and hallways. Once in the courtroom, we saw a line along the floor that separated the room in half. We learned that the line was once where a partition was, which separated the various races under Apartheid. Public buildings had to be complexly designed to ensure that no white, black or coloured (a designation of those of mixed races) would ever encounter each other in the public forum. Before any Americans become all too self-righteous, vestiges of Jim Crow’s legacy abound even today. All we need is to look in our neighborhoods.

 Despite the ravages of poverty, HIV/AIDS, and past history of discrimination and racism, South Africans’ hope for a better future was manifested not only in their songs and dance, but their generosity toward visitors. That ubiquitous hope was reflected in the national holiday, Heritage Day. This day was set aside to commemorate how various tribes and nations played a part in the development of South Africa. South Africans did not use this time to examine past grievances — as shameful as they may have been — but explore opportunities to build bridges within their communities. If we could only heed their lessons learned.

 This willingness to forge a new identity as the “New South Africa” is borne out of an old African concept. Ubuntu. I am because we are. This concept eschews the American myth of “rugged individualism” for what I believe to be a healthier concept of communal responsibility. We are not islands unto ourselves, but our personal narratives are inextricably linked to one another’s. Thus, observing African American Heritage month is just a beginning to this community-building process. Given the tenets of social work, we are in a unique position to lead groups to a better understanding of one another.

 There will be many opportunities for NASW members to learn more about African American history or the history of many other groups that comprise the American experience. One such opportunity would be the practice symposium Social Work and Social WelfareResponses to African AmericanMales presented by the Chicago Sandy Mills, EdD, LCSW, ACSWAs I write this column, NASW IL Chapter is preparing for a new legislative session with the 95thIllinois General Assembly. I will be working on the approved NASW IL Chapter legislative agenda, which was published in last months Networker. A new associate, my son, AaronMills, joined my consulting firm and will help me in representing and working on NASW issues this session. Aaron has a BS in psychology from Bradley University and a year of study in neuro-psychology at the Chicago Medical School/Fitch School of Behavioral Health Science. He also has several years of experience working with the homeless and mentally ill populations in Chicago. During the past 4 years, Aaron worked as a human rights investigator for the state of Illinois. Phil Milsk, a former legal aid attorney, also continues to work with me. Rene Hunt, an MSW Gary Kenzer, ACSWWith our annual Lobby Day event just around the corner, we have a number of items to bring to your attention. First, visit the NASW Illinois Chapter web site at: http://www.naswil.org/ and register online NOW. Please complete the NEW SECURE form to register for the 2005 Lobby Day! Remember Students SAVE $2.00 per registration off the full price of $14.00 (TOTAL OF $12.00) if registering online. Chapter of the National Association of Black Social Workers, April 22. For more information, check websites, http://www.ssa.uchicago.edu or www.nabswchicago.org.

 However you commemorate African American Heritage month, I encourage you to just do it.

 Javan Owens, LCSW: Field Review Administrator for Illinois Department of Children and Family Services Mr. Owens is involved in the International Activities Network and member of the finance committee. Mr. Owens is also co-chairman of the 2005 statewide conference.

Posted on 02/01/05 at 02:08 PM

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