Dexter Voisin is the dean of the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto. A social worker with more than 28 years of clinical experience, he is the author of America the Beautiful and Violent: Black Youth and Neighborhood Trauma in Chicago. Before joining “What Would Society Look Like Without Police?,” part of the Zócalo/University of Toronto series The World We Want, he spoke in the virtual green room about pranking his neighbors as a kid in Trinidad and Tobago, his first experience of snow, and why social workers are like American Express.
How do you procrastinate?
HGTV. Love It or List It, Flip or Flop, those are some of my fun, guilty pleasures.
You were born and raised in Trinidad and Tobago. Where was your favorite place to go there as a child?
The beaches, in particular, Maracas Beach, which is one of the most famous beaches in Trinidad. It's just beautiful, picturesque. The drive there is as enjoyable as the actual location. Driving through the mountains, seeing natural streams, stopping at the overlook, and just looking at the natural beauty.
How did you get in trouble as a kid?
Oh, I was the group leader as a kid in the neighborhood, so I would round all the other kids up and make mischief with the other neighbors. I was a real prankster. Somehow the other kids always got in trouble and I avoided getting in trouble myself.
I guess I was showing early leadership skills, but I didn't really see it as leadership. But I had a way of pulling people into my mission, which was to sort of create excitement or playfully scare some of the neighbors.
You’re currently the dean of the oldest social work program in Canada. What do you think is the biggest misconception people have about social work?
That social work is really about child welfare, taking away people's kids, and about income assistance. But social work is so much more than that—social workers are mental health providers, programmers, evaluators, community organizers. And we operate in every major area of social concern, thinking about issues around public health, housing, homelessness, sexual education, mental health, health policy—we are all over the place. I always say we are like American Express: “Everywhere you want to be.”
What's the best perk of being dean?
I have the opportunity to step back and look at the big picture and put in supports, initiatives, policies, and processes to really improve the student experience.
Do you think some of that propensity for big-picture thinking, which is an approach you’ve been recognized for throughout your career, is a result of coming to the U.S. as an outsider?
That has definitely helped to shape it—growing up in a different country, and navigating multiple roles, because I was American, but not really fully American.
I've always been navigating dual identities and sometimes multiple identities. I was labeled as African American, but I'm not really African American, I’m Caribbean American. In addition to that, social workers are trained to be bridges, to be brokers, and to help connect the dots. So, part of it is just my lived experience, layered with my professional experience. I'm a proud social worker. I predominantly work with folks both inside and outside of the social work realms in terms of psychology, medicine, nursing, public health education, which I find very exciting because it allows me to think about bridging those disciplinary silos and making connections.
What stereotypes about Canadians are actually true?
That Canadians are actually extremely nice, very polite and welcoming. I'd found that while you find some pockets of individuals in the U.S. particularly welcoming—think about Southern charm, Southern culture—I think, broadly speaking, that Canada is much more of a welcoming society.
Your father was a police officer. Did you ever consider following in his footsteps?
Oh, no. No, no, no. I was never interested in law enforcement. Police officers are trained in a particular way to use authority, to use force, and that has never really appealed to me. I'm more moved by the art of persuasion and the power of consistency. I think about how water can wear away a rock just by being consistent and staying on message, moving in a particular direction, in a repetitive way. My interest in social change has been more so around building relationships and the power of persistence rather than the power of force.
It just seems like you keep going further North—after leaving Trinidad and Tobago you lived in North Carolina, Atlanta, New York, Chicago, and now, Toronto. What was your first experience of winter?
I was in college. It was probably my first or second year, and we were all huddled up in a car driving back to New York City, which was home for me in the U.S. I remember driving out of North Carolina, and I think we’d moved into Virginia and then Maryland. I saw snow started to fall, and I told them to pull the car over on the side. I remember stepping down out of the car and touching the snow. For someone who'd never experienced snow, touching snow for the first time was a very innocent, childlike experience.
Did you have trouble adjusting to the winters in the northern states and Toronto?
I love the cold. Maybe that's from growing up in the Caribbean and just having two seasons, a rainy season and a hot season. But I've spent majority of my life in North America. I have a high tolerance for cold. The cold doesn't bother me as long as my feet don't get wet.
What's the best meal that you've had while in quarantine?
Fried baked chicken. It's fried and then baked. That's one of my favorite COVID dishes. When I need comforting, my comfort food is anything fried.
Do you prepare this chicken yourself?
No, I try to avoid the kitchen at any cost.
You spent two decades at the University of Chicago, which is known to have some funky traditions. Do you have a favorite?
Well, UChicago is “where fun comes to die”—that’s part of the tagline. The undergraduates are very intense and take themselves very intensely. One of my fun UChicago traditions is attending graduation, you know, all the pomp and ceremony and circumstance, and being in Rockefeller Chapel, which is historic. Seeing all the graduates and their family members and loved ones really enjoy the whole regalness of the entire experience, and putting that academic show on. That's one of my fondest traditions.
What have you been reading lately?
Michelle Obama’s Becoming.
Speaking of books, you published your first last year. How do you feel looking back on that process now?
It was a very painful experience; writing is a very painful, lonely experience. And it's also a very vulnerable experience because at the end you sort of give birth to this book and then you hope people will like it. It's like someone giving birth to a child and saying, “Do you think my child is beautiful?” and hoping that you're not the only one who thinks the child is beautiful. For me, it's the closest thing I could imagine to childbirth.
You were a clinical social worker for almost three decades. Do you miss getting to do that work?
Being a clinical social worker, it's a very deep, humanizing, highly personal experience you share with clients. People come to you when they are most vulnerable and in need, and creating that space where you can talk—you peel all the layers off and you really connect. Those are very powerful, humanizing moments when you can sit with someone in their strength, their vulnerability, their resiliency, and be equally vulnerable.
It's also very draining, at the same time. You sit in a room and you have four or five or six clients a day, and at the end of the day, you flatline, because you give so much of yourself; every client depends upon you to be alert, to be attuned, to be empathetic. That takes a lot of emotional energy.
In many ways, I miss it. But in some ways, too, I also recognize the deep toll it takes.