When Roicia Banks set out to found Social Roots, her Phoenix-based social work consultancy, she focused on what she didn’t want her business to look like.
For one, it would not replicate the one-size-fits-all government model; it would be owned and operated by herself, a Native American and black woman who understands the uniqueness of the marginalized communities she would inevitably serve. And rather than work as a reactive engine of child removal, Social Roots would champion preventative, evidence-based interventions that focused on keeping families together.
“It's a whole new system I’m trying to build,” she says proudly.
The 30-year-old was born a ward of the state and shuffled through the foster system for eight years until she was adopted by a single mother and raised on the Hopi Reservation. After leaving to earn her bachelor's at Arizona State and her master's in social work from the University of Houston, she returned home to practice social work for a tribal government. But it wasn't long before she became frustrated with the bureaucracy and institutional inertia on the job and decided to set off on her own.
Today, about a year later, Social Roots largely works on a contract basis with attorneys to conduct home visits. Banks prides herself on conducting these visits in what she describes as a “culturally competent” manner. Part of a social worker’s job is understanding a specific family’s dynamics, and Banks explains that there are different factors at play depending on if she's walking into a Native household, a black household, a white household, etc.
"There are a lot of little things that you think are so common sense that are not so common to everyone," she says. For instance, if an elder offers you something to drink, a visitor should drink it in order to avoid insulting the host. "That misunderstanding can have a negative relationship to what social workers are trying to cultivate."
Sometimes, these misunderstandings go beyond manners. If a social worker doesn't understand certain cultural norms, they might misinterpret the context of the entire visit. As an example, Banks points to the communal living style common to Native American families.
“My aunt's house had three generations of family members in their home,” Banks says. “It may not look like normal to the European idea of what a functional household looks like, but I have to come in and say this yes, it is functional. It’s okay the aunts, uncles, and grandchildren live together. Everyone may not have their private space and there might be a bed in the living room, but that’s a normal thing, and for you to say otherwise is inappropriate.”
This knowledge, combined with a proactive mindset, helps Banks address household problems before they escalate. For instance, she says that one of the most common reasons for social worker intervention is childhood neglect – usually not because of malicious intent, but rather because parents lack access to healthcare, family care, or proper nutrition to support their children. If she can connect these families with the proper resources – whether it be food assistance, Medicaid, or some other charity or welfare program – Banks hopes to address the root issue before more drastic action is required.
“That’s a severely traumatic event that the child will more than likely never get over,” she says about child removal, “and depending on their age, you just disrupted their entire life.”
The family visits comprise only part of the business. On a broader level, Social Roots also contracts with area nonprofits to maximize efficiency and best serve marginalized communities. Recently, a community college asked Banks to determine what obstacles are causing black students to enroll at a disproportionately low rate.
It's all proof, she says, that what once was Social Roots' greatest business challenge – getting clients to recognize the need for individualized approaches to different demographics – has become perhaps her greatest advantage.
“I’ve definitely found a niche because I’ve experienced the foster care system, I am the two racial/ethnic minority groups that are marginalized in some of the worst ways, and I have my education,” Banks says. “Call me a triple threat.”