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Meet Iris Carlton-LaNey: The Social Worker Who Inspires Students To Change The System

Photo of Carlton-LaNey teaching a class
Courtesy of Iris Carlton-LaNey

Iris Carlton-LaNey is often impressed by the resourcefulness and strength of those living in poor, underserved and rural communities. As a social worker, she has spent a career observing how many in those communities have a strong commitment to hard work, family and religion. And those are values she recognizes from her own upbringing on a tobacco farm in southeastern North Carolina, where education was valued above all. 

But her time spent researching and working with rural and African-American communities in the South also showed Carlton-LaNey that even among social workers these strengths are often overlooked or discounted. Despite their intentions, practitioners in her field still fall prey to an overarching system of racism and exclusion that makes it hard to understand people and, subsequently, to help them.

Host Frank Stasio talks with Iris Carlton-LaNey, the Berg-Beach Distinguished Professor of Community Social Work at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, about how she inspires students to work for systemic change and social justice. Carlton-LaNey’s 40-plus years of teaching social work also include stints at North Carolina State A&T University and the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. Carlton-LaNey will be honored with the 2018 National Association of Social Workers-North Carolina Chapter social worker of the year award on March 23 at the Durham Convention Center. 


On the knowledge of people in her community:

My father, I think, finished third grade, and my mother finished 11th grade. I was always so perplexed as to how these people knew things. They were smart people. I don't know how they knew things. They weren't widely read. They didn't go anywhere, because the cars couldn't get them but eight or nine miles from home. And the only magazine that came into our house was The Progressive Farmer. And I think that came with the Farm Bureau membership or something. But these old people were really smart, and I was smart enough to know that they were smarter than I was. 

On exclusion in social work scholarship:

I remember when I was at the University of Chicago and my professors kept talking about these female-headed families, these single-parent families in the African-American community. And it rolled off their tongues like this is such a natural, normal thing. We all know this is a problem and an issue. And I was so confused, because I didn't know those families that they were talking about. All the families that I knew – the fathers and mothers were in the house, and they raised the kids. And many of them are multi-generational households. The grandparents also live there. So to enter this master's program and hear the people that I knew talked about in a way that was purely pathological was so confusing to me. Because that was not my lived experience, and so I think that's when I began to think: Oh. This scholarship doesn't include everybody … So there's another reality that isn't here. 

On what she gained from interviewing her own family and community:

It gave me an opportunity to say to other people: This is who these people are. And they do have unmet needs. And the way to begin to address them is to first know who they are. And if you know them and you know how they function, then you know the way to set up services and programs that'll benefit them that they'll use. But if you don't know who they are, then you assume that whatever service works for the larger population will work for them. And it won't … So I think that one of the important things about that research was to say to people who would look at it: You can do survey research. You can have an exceptionally large 'n.' But unless you talk with these individuals and you understand what their lives have been like, then you don't have very much information.

On her advice to social work students:

I encourage students to always have that lens that asks why. When you read something, when you read a scholarly article, then ask: Who are they really talking about? Who's included here? But the best question is: Who is excluded? Whose voice isn't heard? And so you as the professional become that voice. And I think we have to say: Well, they're talking about this group of people, but they've left out this population. And what's often left out in terms of strength-based practice is black and brown people. And we have to say: Were any black and brown people included in this study? And it's not enough to say: We didn't include too many black and brown people in this study. That's not enough to validate the results.

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Jennifer Brookland is the American Homefront Project Veterans Reporting Fellow. She covers stories about the military and veterans as well as issues affecting the people and places of North Carolina.
Longtime NPR correspondent Frank Stasio was named permanent host of The State of Things in June 2006. A native of Buffalo, Frank has been in radio since the age of 19. He began his public radio career at WOI in Ames, Iowa, where he was a magazine show anchor and the station's News Director.