Social Work for a New Generation

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Social work is at a crossroads. As a new generation of social workers move towards graduation and entrance into the profession, we face a unique conundrum. Millennials overall are earning less despite being the best educated generation in history. We are struggling to pay student loans and are widely expected to be the first generation to fare worse than our parents. We know from our own struggles this is not for lack of effort.

Injustices have been allowed to fester and grow unchecked. The social work profession must choose how to address the concerns of this new generation–dedicated to meeting the needs of others, but who are also struggling to meet their own.

For millennials, there is little choice. We will lead for a better tomorrow.

Millennial social workers are recognizing the importance of clinical, community, and political practitioners working in tandem for change at all levels, and the foundations to support this philosophy are being laid down at this moment. Recognizing the unique perspectives of our generation, YSocialWork is launching as a millennial-driven organization that will apply social work methods to the profession itself.

YSocialWork, originally launched as a hashtag for the inaugural Student Advocacy Day platform for social work students in the United States,  is a socially conscious, grassroots start-up based in Washington, DC.  It seeks to provide training and education to youth and young professionals in the areas of innovation, leadership development, and political engagement.  Since its inception in 2014, as the driving force behind creating new opportunities for students in policy-entrepreneurial engagement, YSocialWork continues to empower its members to transform ideas into sustainable solutions in the classroom, community , and government.

Examples of policy-entrepreneurial activities led by YSocialWork will include (but not be limited to): idea generation activities, problem framing activities, dissemination activities, strategic activities, demonstration project activities, activities cultivating bureaucratic insiders and advocates, activities enlisting support from elected officials, lobbying activities, and administrative and evaluative activities (Roberts & King, 1991).

I’m a millennial who became politically conscious under the second Bush Administration–tainted as it was with an air of corruption and illegitimacy. My entire adult life, the United States has been at war. I’ve only experienced an economic recession, despite the alleged recovery. My political reality has been shaped by seeing advocates who stood against the conservative Bush agenda all but disappear as a new Democratic administration came to power–but the injustices remain.

I saw a political system change but go unchanged.

I changed. What might have been the making of partisan loyalty eroded. The belief that good politicians could change the system from the inside dissipated. Because every good politician must confront a system fueled by money and seniority–two things that have a way of influencing political thought and behavior.

I cheered the Arab Spring, the occupation of the Wisconsin capitol, and of course Occupy Wall Street.

In the midst of it all, I became a social worker, drawn by its values–so simple yet essential–a belief in the inherent value and worth of all people and the pursuit of social justice. It is the only profession that carries such a mandate. Social work seemed like the obvious answer to our fragmented systems for social good with micro, mezzo, and macro practice united by a common mission to enhance human well-being.

Unfortunately, our profession has become unbalanced, with an emphasis on clinical practice that comes at the expense of organizing and political work. This is not unlike my own generation. No matter how idealistic we may once have been, we have disengaged from the political in favor of individual impact. We are a generation undeniably invested in social good, but we have not yet mastered how to maximize our impact.

To be sure, this is changing. The vestiges of Occupy–once apolitical–have found a candidate in Bernie Sanders. The historic Black Lives Matter movement has grown to engage not only in street protests, but the political sphere through its strategic confrontations with presidential candidates and the launch of a policy agenda–Campaign Zero. We are learning quickly how to use all the tools at our disposal and to attack the ills of our world from multiple angles.

We must recommit to our core values. We need social workers helping communities to stand up and force systemic change. We need social workers to be political leaders who will listen and take action with the interests of society’s most vulnerable at heart. We need front-line social workers to help individuals overcome their personal struggles and navigate existing systems. We need a united front of social workers for social justice.

Published by

Justin Vest

Justin is a macro social worker living in Silver Spring, MD with his partner and two children. Originally from Alabama, he earned his BSW from the University of Montevallo and MSW from the University of Alabama. He is currently the DC Regional Organizer for Progressive Maryland where he works to empower working class and low-income families to act for social, economic, and racial justice. View all posts by Justin Vest

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