Boston College Social Work MSW/PhD Student Melissa Bartholomew is a minister, a lawyer, and Harvard Divinity School graduate who was selected as HDS’ 2015 commencement speaker.
Bartholomew is devoted to tackling one of the biggest social ills of our country, racism, and in particular, to developing healing interventions that address the lasting trauma that exists in the descendants of Africans who were enslaved in America and the contemporary racial trauma they continue to endure.
Since arriving in Chestnut Hill last September, Bartholomew has quickly made her presence known. In October 2015, she served as a respondent to Rev. Dr. Gregory Groover’s talk on creating “passionate activists for justice” to address shootings such as the one that took place at the Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina. She left a lasting impression with her depiction of the striking realities of being black in America.
In this Q&A with BC Social Work, Bartholomew places into context many of her life experiences and how they have brought her to Boston College; she talks about her project to develop a model for racial trauma healing for African Americans; and she explains why social work is so critically important to eradicating racism.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with us today, Melissa, and a belated welcome to BC Social Work. We’re very excited that you’re pursuing your MSW/PhD with us. You have an impressive personal narrative. Tell us a little bit about why you decided to embark upon your latest endeavor, as an MSW/PhD student here at BCSSW.
Melissa Bartholomew: Thank you for this opportunity. I am honored to be at BCSSW. In my short time here, I have been made to feel so at home. Everyone, from faculty, to my fellow students, to the director of the PhD program Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, has been genuinely supportive. From day one, I’ve experienced such a large measure of hospitality, and I’m very grateful.
I have been blessed to acquire wisdom through my experiences as a lawyer, mediator, minister, divinity student, and as a wife and mother. My clear call to racial justice and healing crystallized over time, and I am fortunate to have arrived at BCSSW with such a rich set of diverse perspectives.
My recent experiences at Harvard Divinity School played an important role in my decision to pursue my MSW and PhD in social work. I went to Harvard as a Christian minister who was already committed to the call of racial reconciliation and healing, and I wanted to develop the capacity to engage people of all faiths, as well as those who do not claim a particular faith, in this important work. Harvard equipped me for this assignment.
As a result of my time in divinity school, and my experiences working in the community, I also came to realize that there is a critical need to focus on racial healing. One particularly influential experience was my work at the Southern Jamaica Plain Health Center as a faculty member with their racial reconciliation and healing program which is run by two brilliant social workers. This is a yearlong program for high school students of all racial and cultural backgrounds who are being trained to become racial justice change agents. My work with the young people illuminated the fact that the work of healing in racial justice must be prioritized. I also interned as a chaplain that year at Mount Auburn Hospital. Being able to minister to people in pain, in both settings, underscored the importance of the work of healing as a path to getting to the root of the wounds that racism has caused. My particular focus addresses the enduring trauma of the descendants of enslaved Africans in this country that is compounded by present day racial struggles.
One of the qualities that made BCSSW so compelling to me was the school’s stated mission to diversity and justice, and in particular to last year’s specific theme of race and justice which has been carried over to this year. I can’t stress enough how important this institutional commitment is to me as an African American, particularly considering the work I am pursuing.
Tell us more about this incredibly important, relevant research interest.
MB: My research will examine the role of forgiveness and faith in interventions designed to heal generational and contemporary racial trauma in African Americans.
I am grateful that I was able to come to BCSSW and prepare to become a licensed clinician. I’m thankful that the school supports this through the dual degree program. It’s very important that I engage in this work of healing as both a clinical practitioner and a researcher.
My vision is to develop a model for racial trauma healing that can be implemented in African American communities. I was born and raised in Baltimore, Maryland. I am committed to the healing of the people of Baltimore, and I would like to apply this model there.
Addressing the problem of dismantling racism in the United States is a complex, adaptive, multidisciplinary problem, and I realize that there is much work to be done. My ultimate vision is to develop a program that equips social workers to implement the racial trauma healing model that I develop. My hope is to serve in an institution where racial trauma healing is an area of focus for social workers to specialize in. I am confident that BCSSW will continue to be the supportive environment that I need to work towards achieving my goals.
Racial reconciliation and healing is obviously something that’s very important to you, personally. Tell us more about this personal connection, and what it means for you to be able to pursue issues in racial justice as your life’s work.
MB: My lived experience as a black woman in this country being fully aware of the legacy of my ancestors and their experiences, their trauma, and their pain, as well as their hope and faith, motivates me. I’m steeped in both the historical context of my ancestors, and in my own daily, lived experience of what it means to be black in this country.
The vision of a beloved community that I know is possible also fuels me. I believe my responsibility on this earth is to contribute to the development of this vision that Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King and so many others held onto during the Civil Rights movement. I likely will not see it fully come to pass in my lifetime, but it’s my responsibility to be a part of the current network of racial justice change agents working together to realize this vision.
I believe that social work is the perfect field for me to engage in this work. Embedded in our code of ethics is a call to social justice – and I have the privilege of carrying on the work of the social justice change agents that came before me.