Social Work Practice with African American Families
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Social Work Practice with African American Families

An Intergenerational Perspective

Cheryl Waites, Cheryl Waites

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eBook - ePub

Social Work Practice with African American Families

An Intergenerational Perspective

Cheryl Waites, Cheryl Waites

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About This Book

Be more effective by understanding African American families from an intergenerational perspective Social workers looking to provide competent practice with African American families may be more effective by using a new strengths-based approach from an intergenerational perspective. Social Work Practice with African American Families presents a comprehensive look at this new approach to view, assess, and provide services to multigenerational families and communities. It closely examines this useful innovative framework which encourages opportunities for action to create solutions for survival and change. The approach dynamically considers the changing demographics in American society, key issues, and the various challenges pertinent to the African American community. This text offers a strong, culturally competent approach to social work practice for African American families that takes into consideration the latest policies, programs, and demographic changes. It also incorporates the voices of African American families, along with teaching that focuses on strengths derived from the transfer of information and support between multiple generations. The book is extensively referenced and provides tables to clearly present data. Topics discussed include:

  • the importance of strong kinship bonds

  • demographic changes

  • mutually supportive intergenerational relationships

  • intergenerational policy

  • intergenerational programs

  • cultural genograms

  • assessment issues

  • long term care giving issues

  • intergenerational influences on education

  • the role of intergenerational knowledge transfer in church

  • community programming

  • and much more!

Social Work Practice with African American Families is a valuable resource for social workers, counselors, educators, and students in African American studies and family studies.

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This book will present an intergenerational approach for working with families and prepare social work students for competent practice with African-American families. Practice principles and the intergenerational perspective will provide a framework for exploring (1) the strength and resource richness of intergenerational relationships; (2) the roles and contributions of African-American elders, middle-aged adults, and children to family life; (3) the issues and challenges facing African-American multigenerational families and the extended family network; and (4) the impact of community intergenerational transactions.

Chapter 1
African-American Families Across Generations

Cheryl Waites

Family must look out for family.
African Proverb

As you look across time and generations, it is important to acknowledge the significance of multigenerational family networks and intergenerational relationships that are central to the African-American experience. History tells us that extended family networks have always been prevalent in the African diasporas. Multigenerational families (four or five generations) providing support and care for family members and fictive kin (nonblood relatives) across the life course has been well documented (Billingsley, 1992, 1999; Freeman & Logan, 2004; Hill, 1972, 1999; Ladner, 1998; Logan, 2001; McAdoo, 1997; McCubbin, 1998; Staples, 1999; Taylor, Jackson, & Chatters, 1997). Equally established are the reports of family and community perseverance in the face of disparity and oppressions spanning 400 years of slavery, years of “Jim Crow,” decades of segregation, marginalization, and continued intentional and unintentional racism (Christian, 1995). In spite of these barriers, there is a legacy of people of African descent with strong family connections, resilience, spirituality, and hope (Bagley & Carroll, 1998; Denby, 1996).
A deficit model—problem-focused approach—is sometimes used to understand African-American families who have carried on in often hostile environments. This approach neither considers the resilience and achievements of African Americans across time and generations, nor does it attempt to understand and build on these successes and strengths. It is paramount that social workers, and other professionals, appreciate family and community strengths and the pathways that lead to triumph over adversity. This involves understanding the legacies and traditions of the African-American families and communities as well as the structural constraints, the historical realities, and the overall cultural context across time and generations (Barnes, 2001).
This chapter introduces an intergenerational, strengths-oriented perspective. A strengths perspective emphasizes the capacities and competencies of clients (Saleebey, 1992) while acknowledging the social context. An intergenerational perspective recognizes strengths, challenges, and transactions across time and generations. However, it fundamentally serves as a lens that provides multidimensional life course information, insight, history, and traditions. Cross-generational strengths—generational legacies that have been transmitted across generations—intergenerational transmissions, and current cultural context all are significant to this perspective. An intergenerational approach provides a framework for discussing the past, the current context, and promising practices that may be helpful for work with African-American families from older adult to youth. To fully understand and utilize an intergenerational perspective it is important to understand and connect with the past and the social-historical understanding that lays the foundation for this approach.


Understanding African-American families requires an appreciation of the realities that have shaped their experience across time, generations, and context. Enduring oppression and pervasive cutoffs from the African cultural heritage and customs, African-American families have demonstrated powerful endurance. Family practices, beliefs, and customs as well as social-political action have historically been part of African-American life. Traditions linked to spirituality, special care for children and elders, kinship ties, oral storytelling, collectivism, and unity are connected with the past and present (Barnes, 2001).
Hill (1972, 1999) has eloquently written about five assets of African-American families: strong achievement orientation, strong work orientation, flexible family roles, strong kinship bonds, and strong religious orientation. Hill and others point to strengths that are linked to history, culture, values, and adaptations and suggest that building on these strengths is a good strategy for working with African-American families (Freeman & Logan, 2004; Logan, 2001; McAdoo, 1997; McCubbin, 1998; Staples, 1999). In order to understand the multigenerational connections and intergenerational relationships one must understand these family and community strengths and traditions across time and place.

Kin Keeping

Kin keeping is a tradition in the African-American community where families are often multigenerational networks, and blood relatives and fictive kin interact across the life span to provide assistance and care. The orientation where family takes precedence over the individual is well documented (Billingsley, 1992; Hill, 1999; Hines & Boyd-Franklin, 1996). Boyd-Franklin (1989, 2003) concludes that reciprocity, the process of helping each other and exchanging and sharing support as well as goods and services, is a central part of the lives of African Americans. This principle compels one to give back to their family and community in return for what had been given to them (Sudarkasa, 1997). African Americans place a high premium on mutual assistance and interdependence; it remains an important value (Billingsley, 1999; Hill, 1999). This is evident in the prevalence of the extended family network, where adult members experience a collective social, financial, and ethical responsibility to care for family members.
African-American grandparents caring for their grandchildren and other relatives are viewed as a cultural strength (McAdoo, 2002; Scannapieco & Jackson, 1996). Well documented are examples of grandmothers, and in some cases grandfathers, who care for grandchildren whose parents are experiencing a host of social problems that hinder parenting (Cox, 2002). Grandparents, particularly grandmothers, play a central role in African-American extended families (Billingsley, 1992, 1999). They serve as guardians and caretakers for children, grandchildren, parents, extended family members, and fictive kin. Grandparents represent wisdom and strength and are the key keepers of family values such as respect, religion, love, support, and community. Grandparents, especially grandmothers, are serving more frequently as surrogate parents owing to an increase in single and adolescent parenting, divorce, crime, HIV/AIDS, and drug usage (Barnes, 2001; Ruiz & Carlton-LaNey, 1999) and this has created stress on this invaluable resource. Often these middle-aged adults are responsible for several generations, including their children, nieces and nephews, as well as parents and other elder family members (Ruiz & CarltonLaNey, 1999). Grandparents and other kin keepers assume roles of caretaking and must prepare grandchildren to avoid pitfalls of gang activity, illegal gang involvement, premature sexual activity, negative interactions with law enforcement officers, and problems with the school system.
Gibson (2005), in discussing the parenting strategies of African-American grandparents, found that they use seven strengths:

  1. maintain effective communication;
  2. take a strong role in the education of their grandchildren;
  3. provide socioeconomic support;
  4. involve extended family;
  5. involve grandchildren in selective community activities;
  6. acknowledge and work with the vulnerabilities of grandchildren; and
  7. deal with the absence of the biological parents.
She concludes that the Afrocentric perspective views intergenerational parenting as a potential resource and should be considered in assessing kinship care and other community resources. Older adults (age sixty and above) also play a significant role in family life by supporting younger family members, mentoring, volunteering in the community, church leadership, and participation in fraternal and civic organizations. Gibson (2005) encourages professionals to build upon the strengths of intergenerational parenting and older adults who will come forward to assume a variety of caregiving roles.
As adult children become middle aged, they may become more involved in caring for parents, grandparents, and aging relatives. The health and economic disparities of many African-American elders put them at risk for hypertension, diabetes, chronic illnesses and disability, and low wealth. A lifetime of hard work followed by poor health as they age often makes the supportive care of extended family important. Black elders are less likely to be placed in nursing homes or long-term care facilities (Hooyman & Kiyak, 2005; Taylor, Chatters, & Celious, 2003). However, some identify that this may be changing and is discussed later in this book. A variety of arrangements for the support and care of older adults can be found in the African-American community. This might include relative care of childless elders, coresidence of adult children and parents, family care to maintain elders in their home, and placement in a long-term care facility.

Oral Traditions and Intergenerational Transmissions

The African-American rich oral history has transmitted the wisdom of grandmothers and grandfathers from generation to generation and has historically helped families adapt to the realities of daily life (Carlton-LaNey, 2003, 2005; Stack, 1996, 1997). Stories and lessons learned enable all of us to step into the world and gain a glimpse of life, with all of its reality. Knowing about relationships across generations, the way families function, their church service, and the black church community cohesiveness and community traditions facilitate a deeper understanding of the cultural context and the overall environment across time and place. Oral history helps us gain insight, perspective, and cultural information. Many stories tell one of times past and link struggle, resilience, and lessons learned. They are fables often grounded in spirituality, faith, instruction, and healing (lessons for the mind, body, and soul).
Contemporary accounts of African-American families are as poignant as those from generations past. The examples of resilience and strength are just as meaningful. Families face heartbreaking difficulty, often fueled by the widespread use of drugs and the rampant spread of HIV/AIDS. Crack, in the 1980s and 1990s, put a strain on the kin support networks as many became addicted and the drug dominated their lives (Dunlap, Golub, Johnson, & Wesley, 2002; Dunlap, Golub, & Johnson, 2006). Grandparents raising grandchildren, intergenerational connections/solidarity, caregiving needs of older adults, and the rising economic and health disparities have all been exacerbated by the changing environments in the African-American diaspora and larger society as a whole.

Religion, Spirituality, and the Black Church

Religion and spiritual beliefs are the foundation of inner strength and continue to be important in the lives of African-American families (Barnes, 2001). These provide a protective factor for families when faced with the often harsh realities of daily life. The black church has played a historical role in the African-American community and has guided the community through two major reformations: the abolition of slavery and the abolition of legal racial apartheid (Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement) (Billingsley & Morrison-Rodriguez, 1998). Churches provide a variety of support and leadership and many families turn to the church during difficult times.
Older adults play an important role in black churches. They, especially women, are preservers of church tradition. They support the church by tidying it up, service attendance, and loyalty. They are more likely to internalize the teachings and engage in activities beyond Sunday services (Taylor & Chatters, 1989). To encourage prayers and visitations to housebound or frail members, many black churches publish weekly lists of those who are shut in because of illness or old-age related impairments. Studies have found that one out of five members received financial assistance, goods and services, or total support from the church (Lincoln & Mamiya, 1990; Taylor & Chatters, 1989). Sometimes collection plates are passed around to aid members in times of need. Some churches provide transportation services to churches, grocery shopping, and other activities. Some churches have also used U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development Grants or congregational funds or other combinations to purchase land and provide safe and affordable housing to its disabled and elder members.
The church is a prominent institution in the black community. Yet, there have been some criticism. Many have called for the black church to take action to protect and promote health among its families through concerted action on multiple levels; to “mount a spiritual and political campaign to save African-American families, thereby ensuring their prosperity” (Billingsley & Morrison-Rodriguez, 1998). Others point to how slow the church was to respond to the HIV/AIDS. Some churches are now playing a role in intervention and prevention of this disease by acknowledging the urgency for action after realizing the life-threatening effects caused.
The Balm In Gilead, Inc., is a not-for-profit, nongovernmental organization whose mission is to “improve the health status of people of the African diaspora by building the capacity of faith communities to address life-threatening diseases, especially HIV/AIDS” (The Balm In Gilead, 2007, This grou...

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