Assemblymember Tony Thurmond: From Social Worker to Lawmaker

Thurmond
California Assemblymember Tony Thurmond (D)

You only need to take a look at the committees California Assemblymember Tony Thurmond (D) requested to be on in order to get a sense of his top priorities.  When he took office in January, he sought to contribute on Education, Health, Human Services, and the Select Committee on Homelessness.

“That’s exactly where I would expect him to be, knowing him,” said Carroll Schroeder, executive director of the California Alliance of Child and Family Services.

After a couple of decades working with nonprofits serving children and youth, as well as stints on the West Contra Costa County school board and the Richmond City Council, Thurmond says that in his new role as Assemblymember for District 15, he is “advocating for those who have the greatest needs.”

“I’m here for the least of us,” he told an audience at a Planned Parenthood Affiliates of California meeting on a recent Wednesday in Sacramento.

In his first months in office, Thurmond has proposed legislation to establish school-based mental health services and to address chronic absenteeism of children in grades K-3.

He is a bright star for children’s advocates and the service providers he worked alongside, most recently as senior director of community and government relations at Lincoln Child Center in Oakland.

Thurmond has emerged as a leader for the youth services field in what some youth advocates in California see as an era of austerity and erosion of the social safety net under Governors Schwarzenegger and Brown.

“There’s been a disinvestment in children’s services,” says Patrick Gardner, executive director of the Young Minds Advocacy Project. “During the recession, people assumed children were doing all right and there were other areas that needed more attention, and I think the result has been that children have suffered…We need a champion for children, and I think Tony has both the background and the heart to do it.”

Thurmond, who chairs the Budget Subcommittee on Health and Human Services, said he supports the Continuum of Care Reform Plan (CCR) developed over the past three years by the California Department of Social Services, providers, and advocates.

“The result will be better outcomes for kids,” Thurmond said.

The CCR report presented by CDSS to the legislature in January outlines 19 recommendations for transforming the delivery of child welfare services, including the establishment of a Core Practice Model to create consistency throughout the state.

“I came this close to being in foster care,” he said, holding his finger and thumb nearly together. After his mother died when he was six, he was sent to Philadelphia to live with a cousin he’d never met. “It was kinship care but we didn’t call it that back then.”

After getting his bachelor’s degree in psychology from Temple University, Thurmond got his first job as a social worker in Philadelphia.  “All I ever wanted to do was be a helping professional.”

But that first job seemed to him like putting a “Band-aid” on bigger underlying issues facing the clients he served, such as long-term poverty, substance abuse, and lack of access to education.

“I wanted to learn how to work to change systems,” he said, so he completed dual Masters Degrees in Law and Social Policy and Social Work at Bryn Mawr College.

At a recent briefing in Sacramento held by the California Program on Access to Care (CPAC) at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, Thurmond expressed his support for the restoration of cuts to MediCal benefits and rates. He described his proposed Assembly Bill 1025, which would establish school-based mental health programs that would largely be funded by MediCal.

AB 1025 would establish 30 pilot programs providing school-based mental health services throughout the state. The legislation calls for mental health support to be offered in schools to students who have experienced trauma or other challenges.

Naming education his highest priority, Thurmond has also proposed AB 1014, a truancy prevention bill to address chronic absenteeism for kids in grades K-3 by funding outreach workers who would do home visits and work with families to address whatever is keeping children from going to school.

“Education is my top issue,” he said. “We want to help those kids get back in school so they learn to read by third grade so they don’t drop out and enter the juvenile justice system.”

“From my perspective based on my experience at Lincoln Child Center, home visiting is one of the most effective ways to get kids back in school.”

Reductions to the state’s safety net are a continuing concern for Thurmond. In his remarks to CPAC, he noted that despite acknowledging recent improvements to the state’s fiscal situation, Governor Brown “has talked as a consistent theme about our need to prepare for the future and to save money.”

“We all know,” said Thurmond, “that we have been for the last decade dealing with the great recession and tough cuts…and tightening our belts.”

He recalled the night in 2008 when he was sworn in as a member of the school board.  Despite his “excitement to help kids,” the first decision he was called upon to make just moments after being sworn in was “a vote to close ten schools because the state budget was so bad.”

“And that has been the climate and the culture,” he added, “in every single sector including our health safety net and our social services safety net. Now is the time to make restorations.”

“Everybody’s telling us what can’t be done, and that’s been the narrative for way too long,” Thurmond said in the Planned Parenthood meeting. “What is the cost we pay if we don’t take this action?”

Noting his choice of committees, not the most sought after by new members, Thurmond said simply, “I came up here to do work.”

Good News for Macro Practice?

There may be good news on the horizon for social workers who appreciate the need for our profession to be more involved with influencing institutions and policies. The Association for Community Organizing and Social Administration’s (ACOSA) Special Commission to Advance Macro Practice in Social Work expects to release a report and proposals this year on ways to strengthen social work macro practice. The formation of the commission was spurred by a report, Education for Macro Intervention: A Survey of Problems and Prospects, by the venerable Dr. Jack Rothman. The Rothman report garnered a great deal of attention because it documented how little attention has been given to macro practice in social work. And that macro practice instructors often felt marginalized in social work programs. Social work leaders coalesced around the critical and timely need to address these issues and created the special commission.

St Thomas Univ. at Social Work Day at the Capital
St Thomas Univ. at Social Work Day at the Capital

Once again, social work is wrestling with the tension between cause and function—how much resources and energy should be devoted to addressing the structural causes of what ails society’s most vulnerable citizens versus efforts to help these citizens cope with their various sets of circumstances. What is encouraging is this appears to a credible effort to systematically examine the state of macro practice and arrive at some proposals for real change.

The special commission is being co-chaired by Dr. Darlyne Bailey, dean of the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research at Bryn Mawr College, and Dr. Terry Mizrahi, professor and chair of Community Organizing and Program Development, Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College and former president of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). To date, it has received financial support from 40 schools and departments of social work and two organizations.

At issue is how much attention and resources can be devoted to macro social work practice given the overwhelming emphasis on licensing and direct services in most schools and departments of social work? Social work schools value instructors who teach courses that prepare students for licensing exams. Rothman found in his research that schools will use adjunct instructors for macro courses and reserve the bulk of their tenured positions for micro practice educators. As a result, students gravitate to micro practice because they believe this area of focus gives them the best chance for employment after graduation.

Another concern for macro practitioners is the issue of licensing. If macro practice were to grow as a share of social work there would undoubtedly be increased pressure to professionalize this specialization. Dr. Linda Plitt Donaldson and colleagues wrote in Social Work that licensing macro practice is a complicated enterprise because of the current state of variations in licensing requirements among states. Currently only three states (Michigan, Missouri, and Oklahoma) offer licenses in advanced macro practice. Given the broad range of macro practice would there be different standards for administration, community organizing, and policy? Licensing is generally seen as a means to protect the public from poorly trained practitioners. Would the same concern apply to a policy analyst who rarely interacts with the general public?

These are some of the tough issues the special commission will be grappling with going forward. What is clear in this ever changing society we live in—new technologies, graying population, transforming demographics, growing inequalities—decisions are being made in various policy deliberations and social workers need to be at the table. Gentrification and immigration are reorganizing communities and social workers need to be in the mix. We are not going to be able to “fix” people to deal with their environments, we need to be fully engaged in helping to shape their environments.

This is not a zero sum proposition. Expanding macro practice does not mean reducing the emphasis on micro practice. There will still be a need to improve the image of the profession generally and increase compensation to attract more direct service providers. By expanding macro practice, we may expand the pool and some who enter for macro practice will find micro practice more to their liking as well.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of St. Thomas University

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