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This Black social worker is sparking a discussion about racial inequities in the system

"Being a social worker of color, there are additional challenges on top of being a social worker, period," Deona Hooper said.
Deona Hooper, a social worker and former corrections officer and law enforcement officer, is focusing on helping social workers.
Deona Hooper, a social worker and former corrections officer and law enforcement officer, is focusing on helping social workers.TODAY Illustration / Center of Attention Photography of North Carolina / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

Deona Hooper didn't have a place to talk about the issues she faced as a Black social worker, so she created her own platform to speak up about racial inequities affecting social workers and the people they support.

"You can’t create policy shifts if things aren’t acknowledged. You have to talk about things in the public sphere to get people to say, 'Hey, this a problem,' and then make changes," Hooper, who lives in Elizabethtown, North Carolina, told TMRW.

Creating positive and inclusive changes are exactly what she strives to do with SWHelper. The single mother founded the online platform in 2012 after she couldn't find a place to write about her experience battling thyroid cancer while she was in graduate school.

Hooper's degree required a 40 hour per week internship, which meant she had to quit her job and lose her health benefits in the process. She wanted to share her story to advocate for the Affordable Care Act, former President Barack Obama's health care law, but found most publications were "too clinical" and didn't want to listen. She instead started building an audience on social media and found her story resonated with other people in the industry

"I lost everything. I lost my home of 15 years. I didn’t have someone else covering my bills when I was sick," she said. "I was a forced advocate. If I hadn’t gotten sick, I would've been a child welfare supervisor."

SWHelper has since grown it into a nationwide resource to support the more than 700,000 people employed as social workers in the United States. Stories on the site range from "How to create inclusive environments for Black students on predominantly white college campuses" to explainers on how social workers can protect children from harm "in the context of distance learning."

It also includes an app, which Hooper likens to a "pocket social worker."

"We used to have a binder an intern would keep up with resources, which was often outdated," Hooper said. "What I did is I created an app where people can read SWHelper, put in their zip code and find a host of resources in their local area. Anything from food banks to farmers markets to crisis helplines and support services. Whatever you are looking for, even if you need to compare costs for funeral services, you can compare shop."

'Being a social worker of color, there are additional challenges'

Before she attended the University of North Carolina Chapel Hill for graduate school, Hooper worked as a correctional officer at the Supermax prison in Butner, a law enforcement officer in Durham in private security and as a social worker.

While helping people has always been a part of who she is, Hooper said her job has at times been made more difficult due to racism.

"I have been a Black social worker in the South and that has presented many challenges. There were times when there were places it wasn’t safe for me to go. My clients didn’t want me to enter onto their property," she said. "Being a social worker of color, there are additional challenges on top of being a social worker, period."

While most social work publications take a clinical approach, with SWHelper Hooper has created a space where BIPOC and white allies can speak freely about social justice issues.

Getting into the profession is often the first barrier.

There were 713,200 jobs in the US in 2019. Employment of social workers is expected to increase by 13% from 2019 to 2029, outpacing the average for other occupations, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

The field is overwhelmingly female and white. A 2017 survey from the National Association of Social Workers found that 68.8% of social workers are white.

Angelo McClain, CEO of NASW, told TMRW that while social workers are "one of the most diverse professions," he knows there's more that can be done to attract BIPOC to the field.

"The thing we need to do is if we can be responsive to addressing racism, it's going to attract more people to the profession," he said. "Those 8th and 9th graders are watching right now and wondering, where can we make the biggest impact?"

Hooper said her mission is to continue hosting a safe space for people to talk, through SWHelper and a virtual anti-racism discussion she hosted in September.

"It gave people a place to talk. There are many white folks who rare anti-racist, but we did not have a space to be able to do that," she said. "For some reason many topics have been highly politicized. Hiring, pay equity...We don't talk about getting out the vote, but it is in our code of ethics to use technology in order to enhance our practice and look out for vulnerable populations."

Hooper runs SWHelper full time and employs a team of contractors and interns to help her with marketing and administrative work. She's a social worker by training and experience, but she also identifies as a technology entrepreneur.

With that comes another set of challenges. Black women are regularly shut out when it comes to raising capital from investors, despite launching businesses faster than any other group. Hooper has chosen to bootstrap her company and reinvests the revenue she makes from ads back into the business.

“As a black female with a tech company, I have to be profitable before people will invest in me. That’s just how it is. I have to prove my worth before someone will invest in me," she said. "But I can chart a path and try to find equity in how I move and navigate and that is why I made the choice to bootstrap. I don’t owe anyone anything."