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How Social Workers Are Changing the World

Social Work isn’t all counseling and case work. It’s also lawmaking and politics.

“Politics is social work with power,” says Senator Barbara Mikulski, a Maryland Democrat who happens to be a social worker. Behind the scenes of our everyday lives, removed from popular images of counselors and caseworkers, social workers who influence policy play a critical role in all levels of government – and they are leaders of one of the core tenets of their profession.

“Policy is developed with the intent of doing the most good for the most people. This seems like exactly what social workers want, too,” says Heather Boyd, chief of staff for Rep. Leanne Krueger-Braneky of Pennsylvania’s 161st district in Delaware County. “Legislators decide how funds are spent and pass legislation attempting to mandate how services are delivered, and our offices provide services for the community. All of these areas would significantly benefit from having people trained in social work.”

This spring, students in the School of Social Work will take their social justice commitment to the next level at conferences, workshops, and visits to the Pennsylvania and U.S. capitals.  

March 3 and 4 the school sent two students to the University of Connecticut’s Campaign School, a workshop that teaches social workers to run for office, work in government leadership positions, advocate for social change, and understand their own political power. A program of UConn’s Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work, Campaign School draws professionals and students from all areas of social work practice.

“Campaign School reinforced for me that as social workers, our skills and values position us well to run effective campaigns and hold political office. We are no less qualified to run for office than anyone else – in fact, we are likely more qualified than some,” says Cortney Bruno, a student in the MSW program with a concentration in social work in community and policy arenas (shown in the Campaign School group photo at right). “I had worked in social service settings in a direct practice role, and I grew frustrated with policies in place that were not in the interest of the population we served.” After she completes her degree in May, she hopes to effect change at the state and federal levels.

Ciara Sheerin, a junior in the BSW program, learned the hows and whys of running for office. “I had never considered political social work until my experience volunteering for the Bernie Sanders campaign and then being an organizing fellow for the Clinton campaign last year – now I’m strongly considering running for office someday. Campaign School reassured me that I am qualified. I feel empowered to take political change into my own hands.”

On March 8 and 9 Mikayla Ferrell and faculty member Laurie Friedman attended the annual Social Work Day on the Hill in Washington, D.C., sponsored by the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP). They met with legislators including Sen. Mikulski (left), the chair of the Congressional Social Work Caucus, and Democratic senators and congress members from Maryland, Michigan, California, Illinois, and New Hampshire. The caucus represents the policy and legislative interests of the more than 600,000 social workers in the U.S.

“I’m extremely grateful for the opportunity,” says Ferrell, a first-year social work student with a minor in political science. “I consider myself lucky to have the chance to give a bigger voice to others who may not have one at all. I believe we need more social workers involved in our government and I hope to be one of them.”

And on April 18 a busload of approximately 40 students and faculty will join more than a thousand others in Harrisburg for Social Work Advocacy Day, an annual event of the Pennsylvania chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. The event draws nearly 1,000 social work students and practitioners (shown below at the 2016 event with Rep. Joanna McClinton, of Pennsylvania's 191st District comprising Philadelphia and Delaware counties).  

All these students are part of a long Temple tradition. Social justice has sat at the heart Temple’s social work program since it was established in 1969 – not merely adhering to the standards of the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics but forming its bedrock.

“Social change was our mantra,” said Professor Emeritus Jim Kelch, one of the school’s founding faculty members, in a conversation with the College of Public Health earlier this year. (You can read more about him here.) “The idea that we can change society, and we can mentor people who will use their professional practice to change society, was the original focus of the school, and it’s retained that character.”

“Social justice is emphasized throughout our social work program,” says Laurie Friedman, an instructor and online MSW coordinator at the School of Social Work. Social justice themes permeate all social work classes, including courses explicitly focused on this.

“If we are working with an individual, we need to be aware of how macro-level factors like organizational policies, legislative policies, and the environment impact an individual's well-being,” Friedman says. “I also think it's important that non-social workers see the profession as doing more than taking children away (as often portrayed in the media).”

Beyond improving services to others, zooming out to view social work as a political matter benefits students both professionally and personally. “Students tell me they feel empowered by assignments that ask them to call or write their representatives,” Friedman says. “They initially think they don't have any knowledge to share; then they reflect on how they do have knowledge and experiences to share and contribute.”

“Social workers need to be politically involved, especially in our current political state, whether it means campaigning, volunteering, advocating for political change, or running for office,” Sheerin says. “We have to participate in social justice advocacy because we need to ensure that we progress rather than go backwards.”

Learn more about what’s happening at the School of Social Work.

Photos: Campaign School courtesy of Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work; Advocacy Day courtesy of NASW-PA.


Posted:  March 14, 2017