A Social Work Professor Explores and Elevates the Stories of Young Black Men

Charles Lea finds inspiration for his current research from his and family's experiences in the 1980s and 1990s in California.

Caroline Harting
December 07, 2022

After finishing his undergraduate degree at the University of California, Berkeley, in 2004, Charles Lea took a job with a mental health agency that partnered with a middle school in Oakland, California. He was a classroom counselor, but was often asked by the more experienced, mostly white school social workers to do some of the intensive, individualized work with the predominantly Black and brown student population. As a Black man who was not much older than many of his students, Lea felt deeply connected to them. That's when he discovered that people like him need to be a part of the social work profession.

Columbia News sat down with Lea, assistant professor of social work, to learn more about his journey to a social work researcher, what inspires him to elevate the stories of young Black men, how critical race theory informs his studies, and why he chose to work at Columbia School of Social Work (CSSW).

Briefly describe the focus of your research.

My work examines the risk, resilience, and resistance processes of young Black men in peril and involved in the criminal legal system and the impact of culturally congruent interventions on their health and well-being. I center my research on practices and policies that look at the consequences of environment and systems on the individual. I don't believe in punitive approaches to address the harms caused by structural and systemic racism. My research also concentrates on the relational and contextual aspects of school and community settings because they are mechanisms that create and exacerbate racial disparities in mass incarceration and recidivism. How do we dismantle the punitive structures within these spaces and effectively implement culturally compatible, healing-centered, and asset-driven strategies so that young Black men can live healthy lives? This is what I hope to answer through my research.

What inspired you to choose this path for your research?

Focusing on young Black men stems from my experiences growing up in California in the 1980s and 1990s. During the Black migration, my family moved to California from New Orleans in the 1970s. My siblings, cousins, and I were born and raised on the West Coast, but our upbringing was influenced by my family's roots in New Orleans. As early as elementary school, I saw firsthand that men in my family, including one of my younger brothers, would cycle in and out of the criminal legal system. I used to think, “Well, why don't they just make better decisions, so they can stay out of prison,” which mimicked the rhetoric of the time.

It wasn't until I went to UC Berkeley and majored in sociology that I learned about the larger social-structural factors like racism that shape decision-making and behaviors at the individual level. After learning that, I knew I wanted a role in addressing issues related to mass incarceration with a focus on the school-to-prison pipeline.

Entering graduate school at the University of Michigan after working as a classroom counselor for a school-based day treatment program in Oakland, California, I initially thought I would get my master's to become a school social worker. However, working as a wrap-around case manager in my internship, I saw how institutional policies and practices made it difficult to support the young people on my caseload. Therefore, I found that the research side of social work would be a better fit, as I hoped to have an impact on systemic and social change.

How do you do your research? 

At the core, my research is guided by critical race theory because it recognizes that racism is ingrained in the fabric of our American society. It also identifies power structures that are based on white privilege and white supremacy, rejects traditions of meritocracy and liberalism, recognizes that race alone cannot account for discrimination, disadvantage, and disempowerment, centers the voices of marginalized people, and is rooted in a commitment to racial and social justice.

My research also involves principles and practices associated with community-based participatory research. I always say that I can’t do my research unless I partner with people and community organizations. They are the gatekeepers, the trusted people in the community that these young men believe. Once I’ve established a relationship with an organization, I’ll work with them to connect with young men about their experiences related to their health, well-being, and carceral and reentry experiences through one-on-one interviews and focus groups. I might also do ethnographies or observations of interventions with the young men in particular contexts. I’ll also review documents from programs or student work to learn how the young men are talking about their racialized, developmental, and school and community reentry experiences. Part of my work is about allowing people to tell their own stories and challenge entrenched narratives about racial and ethnic groups and communities. In the future, I hope to engage formerly incarcerated young Black men as co-researchers to enhance the rigor and impact of my work.

What is your favorite part of your work?

It is the qualitative research. The stories I hear and my participants' faces live with me forever. I love it because it allows folks to feel heard and humanized. It goes back to when I wanted to be a school social worker and work with young people in school settings. I find that qualitative research provides a good balance. I'm not a therapist in a school setting, but I can hold space for them and hear their stories, which I think is empowering for them. Many young people that I've talked to have thanked me for taking the time to hear their stories. For some, their stories are everything and being able to share them has been an important aspect of their post-incarceration experiences. It also motivates and empowers me. I can contribute knowledge that challenges the deficit-based narratives previous research has contributed about formerly incarcerated young Black men.

What are you working on now?

I’m working on a grant proposal with another CSSW faculty member and doctoral student, Craig Schwalbe and Kevonyah Edwards. We are partnering with the New York City Department of Probation to conduct a qualitative study with Black and brown young people to better understand how they define, perceive, and experience racial equity. Today, many probation departments put out racial equity statements and commitments, but there's often no clear structure on how to implement them. We hope we can learn from the young people about their racial equity experiences and perspectives and how that might be put into practice.

I'm also working on a few manuscripts from a study I recently completed focused on COVID and formerly incarcerated Black people in Houston. This work was also presented at the American Public Health Association’s annual meeting in Boston this past November. On top of that, I’m conducting a study examining the different cultural assets and resources formerly incarcerated young Black men use to navigate risks associated with substance misuse and HIV infection. I have started interviewing some folks in Houston, and I will carry that study over to Columbia to finish. All this work will inform an NIH grant that I'm working on that will explore the structural, social, and cultural determinants of substance use and HIV among young Black men.

You recently came to Columbia from the University of Houston. Why did you choose to join the faculty at Columbia School of Social Work?

I actually wasn't looking for a job. I co-lead a special interest group focused on reimagining youth and young adult justice. We had a convening in the summer of 2021, and this is where I met Craig Schwalbe. We started to work on the grant involving racial equity within probation departments. Through this work, I learned more about the CSSW job announcement and its focus on identifying scholars whose work is rooted in anti-Black and anti-Latinx racism. That was one of the primary reasons why I decided to apply. I wanted to be a part of a cohort, a school, and a university that values this type of research. It was exciting to know that there would be interdisciplinary scholars across campus who concentrate on these topical areas, regardless of whether it's directly related to social work.

Living in New York City was a big reason too! I love the arts and food. To have those things at my fingertips is fantastic.