Midway through the fall 2020 semester, a group of social work graduate students logged in to their Foundations of Social Justice online classroom. Small, uniquely decorated boxes could be seen in each student’s video frame. Professor Michele Rountree had asked them to create “culture chests,” an assignment created by her former colleague at Arizona State University. Inside of the box, students were instructed to place five items – art, jewelry, pieces of clothing, etc. – that represent how their social identities (in regards to race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, ability, religion, social class, nationality, age or size) influence how they perceive the world. Students adorned the outside of the box with words, pictures and drawings that represented how others view and treat them based on these social identities. The box is meant to symbolize how our humanity is often restricted to a box, Rountree says.
“Through this project, students start to identify patterns, specifically among marginalized communities, and it serves as a powerful example that people are not being treated by virtue of their intrinsic authenticity or individuality, but instead, they are treated often based on the negative assumptions of societal assumptions,” she says. “Being able to declare how they define themselves in contrast to these societal assumptions has been described as empowering. Student takeaways have been life changing and capacity building.”
For 16 years, Rountree has been a faculty member in the Steve Hicks School of Social Work at The University of Texas at Austin, teaching courses on social justice, social policy and issues to undergraduate and graduate students. Her goal as a teacher is to ensure that students are prepared to serve clients and communities, particularly those from marginalized communities.
“For me, teaching is a privilege, not a right,” she says. “The most challenging aspect of the privilege of teaching has been to create an environment that cultivates a sense of passion for discovery.” Successfully tackling this challenge while exuding support and deep caring for her students is one of the many reasons she was inducted into the Academy of Distinguished Teachers this past year.
Rountree has always been fascinated by people and the way the world works. Growing up in a military family, she moved to various states and therefore acclimated to change and meeting new people regularly. She recalls, as a child, intuitively knowing when people were not being treated fairly. Her parents instilled in her the values of care, concern and compassion for others, which she leans into while teaching. She has a Bachelor of Arts in psychology from the University of Arizona, a master’s in social work from Boston University and a Ph.D. in social work from Arizona State University. While pursuing her master’s degree, she switched her focus from a clinical approach to a more macro approach after identifying similar stressors among marginalized groups.
“I was seeing a pattern of folks coming in with the same issues and concerns. It was like a revolving door,” she says. “I wanted to know what was the bigger contributor that was compromising a full sense of well-being for these folks.”
She’s held positions as a research associate at Brandeis University and Boston University, served as a coordinator of field education at Arizona State University, and worked in the private sector, providing resources and referrals to private sector employees. After earning her doctorate, she was recruited as an assistant professor at UT. She recalls her father, a longtime Longhorns sports fan, being overcome with excitement when she told him the good news about her job offer.
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Building trust and showing empathy are important aspects of working in the field of social work, says Rountree, and it’s something she aims to exemplify to her students from the first day of class. She does this by starting class promptly, learning every student’s name and making an effort to get to know them. She hopes by modeling these behaviors, her students will understand the profound impact they can have on a person to feel seen and heard, and in turn, apply those skills when serving their clients as social workers.
Nudging students to not shy away from participating in difficult class discussions while creating a safe environment is something many students say they appreciate about Rountree. A former graduate student who took Rountree’s Foundations of Social Justice class wrote in a course evaluation: “I do not feel I have ever had to think as much in a class as I did in this one. I was challenged, stretched and forced to grow. I would take this class every semester if possible, and I feel it should be a mandatory ‘life’ class for all.”
Rountree is committed to bringing her whole self to the classroom. Sharing her lived experiences with her students invites and inspires them to do the same. One aspect of her life she shares with students is her involvement with Black Mamas Community Collective (also known as Black Mamas ATX), an organization she founded in 2018 dedicated to reducing maternal mortality and morbidity rates among Black mothers in Central Texas. The organization is made up of researchers, social workers, policymakers, public health professionals and community activists committed to change. She advises her students who are passionate about a cause to seek support from their peers and communities. “If you have a vision and you can do it on your own, then the vision is too small,” she says.
While at UT, Rountree has been a passionate advocate for diversity, equity and inclusion across the university. She’s displayed this by serving as the faculty liaison for the student organization P.O.C.K.E.T. (People of Color Keeping Everyone Tight), co-chairing the Diversity and Inclusion Committee for the School of Social Work, and serving in 2018-2019 as the associate director of the Institute for Urban Policy Research and Analysis, an interdisciplinary policy research institute that provides intersectional policy solutions supporting Black communities.
Rountree challenges her students to think critically about the world around them and the institutions in which they are a part, which is something she also practices. On being inducted into the Academy of Distinguished Teachers, she says she is very grateful for the honor while adding she sees opportunity for UT to further grow in its mission of changing the world by working toward greater support, retention and recognition for faculty members of color. As a member of the academy, she says one of her plans is to facilitate content on creating more inclusive and equitable practices in the classroom.
Noting that working with the topics in the field of social work can be emotionally taxing at times, she encourages students to practice self-care. For her, that includes enjoying the simple pleasures of life, like playing fetch with her dogs, taking walks and practicing yoga. Although she was not a big sports fan before working at UT, she lights up reminiscing about the fun memories she’s made while attending UT football, basketball and volleyball games with her family.
For Rountree, teaching has been one of her greatest honors. The privilege of teaching the next generation of social justice scholars and activists who will change the world is immensely rewarding, she says. “What greater professional legacy can there be?”