For decades, Joyce James has led the fight to end systemic racism in Texas.
By Kathryn Freeman. Photos by Romina Olson. Styling by Asma Parvez (with assistance from Noalanii Karakashian), with inspiration from Nordstrom and Arbor Eye Center. Hair by Vikki Bush. Makeup by Marisa Warren Artistry. Shot on location at Holy Cross Catholic Church.
You could say Joyce James was born to be a social worker. Her first example of what is now known as “kinship care” was in her own family. Her mother took in and raised her cousin, who was born prematurely, to help her aunt. “My mother was my first role model of a social worker,” James shares. “Even without a formal education, she was always helping others.” The values her mother instilled in her would carry her from Port Arthur, Texas, to the corridors of power in the Texas Capitol. With every step, she remembered the lessons her mother taught her, while fighting systemic racism and working to build communities of resilience in underserved populations.
Like many African American children with working parents, James spent her early years with her grandparents, who lived in Opelousas, Louisiana. When she was 8 years old, James and her brother moved to Port Arthur to live with her mom and stepfather. “Port Arthur was segregated. We lived like most Black families on the west side of the tracks, and while I did not know it at a young age, I eventually realized we lived there because there were designated areas where Black people could live.” James recounts having only Black teachers, segregated schools and hand-me-down books, uniforms and band instruments. She would eventually graduate from Lincoln High School and attend Lamar University. But those early experiences with racism and segregation in Port Arthur would stick with her.
“I have lived experience with white flight,” James says. “As Black people moved from the west side to the east side, white people began to move out of those areas, and the resources and investments in those neighborhoods left when white people did.” White flight refers to the large-scale migration of white people from urban areas into what became the suburbs that took place in the 1950s, ’60s and ’70s. James makes clear that she does not attribute these migration choices solely to individual racism, but to what she calls “structural racialization.”
According to the Kirwan Institute at Ohio State University, structural racialization is when systems and processes produce unequal outcomes along racial lines with or without the presence of racist intent. James describes how structural racialization impacted housing patterns in Port Arthur in the post-World War II housing boom. The federal underwriting of home loans favored white home buyers and treated African Americans as “adverse influences” on property values. Private loan companies adopted similar policies, and these policies ended up incentivizing racially homogenous neighborhoods.
“Realtors preyed on white fears and scared them with stories of what would happen if they lived near Black people,” James explains. In fact, the Federal Housing Authority actually refused to lend to white people who moved into Black neighborhoods. Resources tended to follow white families, and this divestment had both cosmetic and real consequences. “[Local governments] no longer invested in the communities where Black and Brown people lived; you did not see the same level of upkeep for the streets, the parks, the sidewalks, etc.” This is one example of structural racialization, but to James these systems are interlocking—housing patterns affect the local tax base, which affects the quality of public schools; segregated housing leads to environmental racism and the health effects that come from exposure from toxic waste. For James, understanding structural racialization plays a critical role in her work as a racial equity consultant.
Most of us see the dilapidation of urban communities and assume the renters and homeowners have made conscious choices to let things fall apart. But James encourages casual observers to look deeper, to inspect the groundwater. James’ groundwater analysis encourages her clients to look beyond just the surface, where it is easier to see differences, and examine the ways structural racialization and systemic injustice have created the world we see.
James is passionate about ending systemic racism, but she also has empathy for those still learning what that means and why it’s important. She did not always have language for what has become second nature to her these days. “I would love to say in my eight years as a caseworker that I raised [issues of systemic racism], but I didn’t,” she admits. “When I started, I was responsible for finding and monitoring placements for youth in residential treatment facilities, which are the most restrictive placements, and I became consciously aware that my caseload was primarily older African American teens. There was something about it that did not quite strike me as being normal.” She recounts visiting “her kids” and noticing that their needs for simple things like hair care products or lotion were going unmet.
For years, day after day, month after month, she would take kids from their home communities and drive them long distances across the state of Texas. As a young caseworker with Texas Child Protective Services in Port Arthur, James did not have a “clear analysis or understanding” and certainly did not “feel comfortable raising any issues [with leadership].” Instead, she did what many African Americans do when trying to address injustice—she turned to her family and the Black church.
“I would go to my church and my family and ask them to help me to support the kids on my caseload. I would use the money to buy them hair care and skin care products, any small, little thing that I knew could make a difference for them.” James recounts the difference she would observe in her kids when they had products made for their hair texture and type. “The kids would look better, but there would also be fewer disciplinary referrals.”
Now after more than 30 years’ experience with child welfare systems, James realizes she was operating on the individual level. “I was dropping kids off in places I would have never wanted my own children to be in; [those experiences]gave me a better understanding of what it feels like to experience oppression inside of a system.” James emphasizes that it is not about “mean-spirited people” within the child welfare system. “We should all do and be accountable as individuals, but that’s not sufficient for the type of systemic change that needs to occur.”
It takes courage to confront long-held ideas and ways of doing things. James recognized that change must operate on both the individual and institutional levels. So, while the individual practices she instituted as a caseworker benefited the children on her caseload, they were not enough to overcome the systemic inequity built into the system. Even as she became a supervisor and began training the caseworkers underneath her to beg other organizations for resources for their kids and formed local African American adoption councils, this still was not enough. Her kids were being taken care of, but what about the others?
When James first became a program director, she began plotting how she could address the disparities in treatment she had witnessed in the system. “I’m seeing disparate treatment; I’m seeing race affect outcomes and how our children and their families are treated. While I did not attribute it to mean-spiritedness, people did not have a clue. They thought they were helping,” James shares as she reflects on what shifted for her. She began to realize her silence was doing harm too.
James was looking for an opening to talk with her supervisors, and the window into the conversation came through charts and graphs. She asked for some data disaggregated by race and ethnicity. “The data revealed everything that I had observed. For instance, Black children represented 29% of the child population in our largest county, but 80% of the kids in foster care were Black,” she recounts. James explains that no one chooses the low pay, large caseloads and stress of working in child welfare because they want to do harm. The data gave her an entry point to delve into the operations, policies, practices and training of social workers in Texas’ child welfare system to determine what needed to change to ensure better outcomes for African American children.
Working in a race-conscious and data-driven way allowed James to lay some common myths to rest—that the poor outcomes African American children were experiencing were the result of poverty and high rates of single motherhood. James chuckles. “People still believe today that it’s not about race or racism, but rather that it’s about single-parent households and poverty, and we dispelled that myth.” James and her team were able to demonstrate through the data that even when controlling for income and living in a single parent household, African American children still experienced the worst outcomes.
Here’s the thing about targeting those with the worst outcomes for improvement: The system improves for everyone. Caseworkers would seek the least restrictive placements for kids of every background, more judges would question the caseworkers about placements, more parents would be given options for community services and more kids would be placed with relatives or close family friends rather than sent across the state. James is quick to recognize that the Texas foster care system is not perfect, and her tenure did not solve all the problems facing the agency. But in her first two years as the leader of CPS, “more children were leaving foster care than were coming in, we tripled our kinship placements and the number of families receiving services in their own home, but we also closed the gap in outcomes between children across ethnic and racial backgrounds.”
In 2004, James would be promoted to a regional supervisor, the first African American to lead Texas Child Protective Services, and then in 2009, to deputy commissioner of the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS). Ultimately, in 2011, James would see her decades of advocacy against systemic racism in the child welfare system rewarded when she was appointed the first director of the Center for the Elimination of Disproportionality and Disparities, a state-level agency charged with working across systems to address racial inequities. The agency was defunded in 2017, and James went into private consulting.
But even knowing her work would be dismantled, she is quick to say, “I would do it all over again.” The models she created changed the lives of children and caseworkers in Texas and is still considered a national model. (Texas was one of the first states to require the child welfare system to address disproportionality, and to create a statewide agency to address systemic racism across state entities.)
James sees parallels between the fight to defund the Center for Disproportionality and current debates about critical race theory. “I think that the pushback around critical race theory originates in fear and lack of understanding. Racism is not just about what white people do or have done; the real work is how systems have contributed to inequity and how we move away from just the individual lenses of who is right and who is wrong, to recognizing systems have certain relationships to people based on where they live and how they look.” James insists we must be willing to be educated, but we also must be willing to be vulnerable.
Vulnerability allows us all to be learners. In fact, many years ago, James held a workshop on the poor outcomes for African American kids in the Eastside of San Antonio. While it was easy to write off parents who did not attend the court-ordered parenting workshops as not caring about their kids, James actually made those in attendance consider that most of the workshops were on the other side of town and it took hours by bus to get to them. Needless to say, the participants left that meeting determined to make sure community services were in the communities that needed them.
The great African American writer Toni Morrison once said, “Two parents can’t raise a child any more than one. You need a whole community—everybody—to raise a child. And the little nuclear family is a paradigm that just doesn’t work. It doesn’t work for white people or for Black people. Why are we hanging onto it? I don’t know. It isolates people into little units. People need a larger unit.” James argues we need a large unit of those inside and outside our institutions, working in community and cross-racially to end systemic racism for the coming generations.
For James, the work has not been easy. She shares that the key to dealing with resistance is to expect resistance. “There is no quick fix; it requires a level of risk-taking, but there is hope in that we know that with the right framework, we have the tools to reduce disparities for all people.” James also takes hope in the fact that two of her three daughters followed her into social work, and her son now works with her in her consulting business. Her chosen field cannot be all bad if her kids have followed in her footsteps.
Despite the arduous nature of the work, James finds joy in her family, her husband John and in addition to her children, her eight grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren. She also takes joy in “seeing what can happen when people are willing to be courageous and engage in this work.” She consults with leaders across the country and recently returned from New York after working with one of the city mayors and his cabinet.
James also takes the long view and continues to immerse herself in the work. After over 30 years in child welfare and decades of leading equity, she is still building her capacity and teams to undo racism. She is still organizing local communities to fight systemic racism through co-founding Black Mamas ATX, which provides training to medical professionals and community-based organizations to address African American maternal mortality rates. She is still organizing church members to fight social injustice as the co-chair of the social justice ministry at Holy Cross Catholic Church in East Austin, which operated the first Black hospital and is the only predominantly Black Catholic church in Austin.
Most importantly, she is still honoring the lessons she learned around the table with her mother. When her mother passed away a year ago, James and her family created Gladdie’s Angels in Port Arthur to keep her mother’s memory alive through financial grants to local organizations and churches. Like most mothers, Gladdie Stelly probably did not need a reason to be proud of her daughter, but she had every reason to be proud of raising a trailblazer with the commitment and courage to create a world free of racism where all children are free to thrive.