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  • NASW-IL Staff

Speaking Truth to Power: The Voice of Social Work

Anjanette L. Young, MSW, LCSW

The late John Lewis once said we have a moral obligation when we see something that is not right or not fair, we must speak up. That statement resonated with me after having a personal experience with the city of Chicago police department, one that changed my life forever. The city of Chicago police department terrorized over fifty families from Black and brown communities over the last 4 years. Kicking in doors, pointing guns, and leaving behind lifelong trauma, all under the guise of protecting and serving everyone from violent criminals—criminals that were not found in any of the fifty homes they wrongly raided.

I became one of those fifty families on February 21, 2019. It was a typical chilly winter day in Chicago. I was up early and moving about my home to prepare for work at the hospital as a medical social worker. Before leaving home, I took my dog out for a walk and put a bottle of wine in the fridge. I left that morning with the same excitement I have on every Thursday knowing that when I came home, it would be my self-care night with a delicious snack, a glass of wine, and Grey’s Anatomy on the TV. I arrived home approximately at 6:30pm, took the dog out again, and was standing in my bedroom changing my clothes. I turned on the TV to Grey’s Anatomy and before I could recognize it, I heard an excruciating sound, a sound like a vehicle had crash into my building. I was standing in my living room with no clothes on and police officers with large guns, scopes, and lights were yelling at me to put my hands up! At this point, I was completely terrified, unsure of what was happening, not being able to make sense of the chaos around me. All I could think of in this moment was, Please do not shoot me, please do not kill me!

I spent the next 40 minutes in complete horror of what was happening to me. I was experiencing a range of emotions during this time, from crying, begging, and pleading to be allowed to put clothes on; to me questioning the officers on what was going on, who they were looking for, and telling them they had the wrong place even though I did not know what was going on. I was handcuffed, terrorized, ignored, and treated less than human by the men who invaded my home. I was invisible. Invisible to the twelve men who entered my home that night and refused to treat me with respect and dignity. And invisible also to the city of Chicago who has repeatedly used its power to hide the truth of what happened that night and has refused to settle this matter fairly and justly with me and the other families.

I spent the next 13 months in legal battles with the city, struggling with my mental health, and fighting to find my voice and dignity in this space where I was not seen because of the color of my skin. In March 2020, the world exploded with the news of the death of Breonna Taylor by the hand of police officers who raided her home in Louisville, Kentucky. This story shook me to my core because of the similarity to what happened to me on February 21, 2019 —except I did not lose my life. It was even more painful for me to know at that time my legal battles were going unnoticed.

Nine months later, after many legal struggles and fighting against corrupt city policies, my story now makes national news due to the release of body camera footage from that night. Deciding with my legal team to release the body cam footage was the hardest decision I can recall making in my life. It was necessary and came about due to the lack of cooperation from the city of Chicago Legal department and the lack of response to resolve this matter. After my attorney watched the footage, he asked me if I would like to see it. The thought of watching it was so anxiety-provoking that I declined. My legal team hired an outside specialist to digitize about five minutes of the footage to be used for the news story.

Once the footage had been prepared for the new story, I had to approve it. It was the first time that I questioned if I had made the right decision to release this video to the public. I thought to myself, Could I manage seeing myself in these videos? I know what happened, I was there, but what would it be like to watch the playback? On December 9, 2020, approximately at 7:30pm, I attempted to view the video for the first time.

I said a prayer just before clicking the link. The video was a total of five minutes long. I was able to view one-and-a-half minutes of it before it was too unbearable to continue. I lay in my bed and cried uncontrollably most of that night. On Monday, December 14, 2020, the story aired at 10:00pm and went viral on Twitter. The following Monday, I became a hashtag: “I am Anjanette Young.” It was the most chaotic, emotional, and overwhelming week of my life. I was now receiving phone calls, my social media was inundated with people I had never met, I received letters in the mail from people all over the world. Every news channel, radio station, and news network wanted to interview me. This was not a space that I wanted to be in but it was a necessary part of my legal battle, so I owned it and did over twenty interviews in one week. This experience has been very traumatic and has turned my world inside out. So many things in my personal life have had to shift because of this. I have been diagnosed with PTSD and major depression and as a clinician, I understand what that means, but personally living through it is different. I am now focused on the healing process, which is a combination of spiritual and therapeutic work daily. I read my Bible, I pray often, and I have a professional therapist. I struggle with anger and hurt regarding this issue, but I have found some strength in fighting back. I decided that I would not live as a victim! I was forced to expose the most humiliating moment of my life in an effort to expose a corrupt system that continues to harm black and brown families at an alarming rate. I drew my strength from my grandmother who was a civil right activist in the 1960s and my professional training and education as a social worker.

Before February 2019, I lived an incredibly quiet life as a direct practice social worker helping families, becoming only occasionally involved in advocacy work or activism. I did not think that was in my wheelhouse. But this incident made me realize that there had to be more to my career as a social worker. When they made me stand there in the nude with all of their body cams recording, they exposed me, so I was determined that if I was going to be exposed in this way, then I was going to take charge of the situation and tell my story my way. So now I have shifted to where I need to advocate not only for myself but for all those other families here in Chicago and around the world who have these same experiences. I will use my social work background as a platform to fight!

Anyone who finds themselves in the profession of social work is doing so because there is a passion for helping individuals, groups, and communities address some form systemic injustice. Social work lends itself to a type of balance in the justice fight. If you are a social worker, you do not have to choose being on the right or left of an issue, you just must follow the guiding principles of social work. “Service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person,” are the most important parts of advocating for all people, regardless of if they look different from you.

This is a time we must step up. We have a unique opportunity to show the City of Chicago, the State of Illinois, and the entire US how to operate in dignity and respect. How all people have a right to live without systemic oppression and racial violence as the foundation of their existence. Being a social worker means you are committed to using your voice to promote equality, inclusion, and social justice for everyone. I ask all of you to choose to be the best part of social work!

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