The Role of Social Workers in Economic Development

Bills and Finances

Many people become social workers or join allied professions because they want the opportunity to work one-on-one with individuals and see a concrete impact on them. Whether this is through running programs, providing counselling or therapy, or otherwise delivering the front-line support people need in times of crisis – social workers have carved out an imposing role as micro-level practitioners.

Less commonly associated with social work is the macro-level practice and policy work. While many social workers do this type of advocacy, policy analysis, and other high-level work this is not what many people think of first, when they think of the social work profession. Instead, this advocacy is often thought to be done by lawyers, public health professionals or others with different qualifications.

One area that is especially overlooked is the role that social workers can play in economic development. Social workers work extensively in poverty alleviation to be sure – but this is only one aspect of economic development. Rural communities especially are seeing higher levels of unemployment, lower levels of community engagement, fewer employers and a general pessimism that comes with a lack of opportunity. How can social workers of all stripes play a role in economic development? There are a few things that you can do:

Economic Development Strategies

Familiarize yourself with Asset-based Community Development (ABCD)

Asset-based Community Development is an inversion of the traditional way that economic development has been done. While economic development used to be done by focusing on the negatives in a community (such as high unemployment or low levels of education) and then trying to alleviate those things, ABCD involves looking at the assets of your community and highlighting what already exists. Once you’ve identified those things, it is much easier to build on that momentum.

For example, an ABCD approach to a city might identify:

  • There are a lot of vacant lots that can be turned into community gardens or co-working spaces
  • There are many unemployed individuals who can pursue remote employment
  • The community is very committed to their school board, with many volunteers who might be willing to participate in community beautification efforts

A community audit can help, either to inform your strategic planning efforts (see below), or after you’ve completed the strategic planning process to help you figure out how to pursue those things.

Join your local Economic Development organization or Chamber of Commerce

Many communities have Chambers of Commerce to support the business community in that area. These organizations lobby for tax cuts, deregulation (or less regulation) and other pro-business items. While it may seem strange for someone in Social Work to join a Chamber of Commerce, especially if they don’t own their own business it is not as unusual as it looks at first glance.

By being an active member in the Chamber, you have an opportunity to present the other side of these discussions and find compromise that supports both the needs of local businesses while also respecting other residents. For example, a factory that wants a zoning change to allow industrial activity that may cause increased pollution could be persuaded to agree to fund an environmental clean-up effort associated with the change of zoning.

Economic development organizations in some states are associated with the Chambers of Commerce, but more commonly are separate organizations. These organizations focus on activities that can help improve the economy in the local area through activities like:

  • Community beautification to raise property values
  • Attracting businesses and new industries
  • Recruiting knowledge workers, artists, immigrants, and others with intellectual, creative and cultural capital

As a member of the economic development organization, you can help directly play a role in improving your community’s forecast and advocate for the poorest residents.

Participate or facilitate Strategic Planning sessions

Strategic planning is something many social workers are familiar with. Strategic planning is usually done for the next 3-5 years and helps you identify the long-range priorities that your organization or area need to focus on. By participating or even leading the facilitation of the strategic planning you can ensure that all community member voices are heard and that the plan truly has community buy-in.

There are many roles for social workers to play in economic development, and they are similar to the roles that ordinary citizens and elected leaders (city councilors, mayors, and others). By bringing social workers to the table, these organizations and residents benefit from the unique knowledge and holistic approach social workers use to strengthen families and communities.

Our Social Responsibility in Combating Oppression

As a Social Worker, I am committed to social justice. However, as I have always been on the frontline doing day-to-day work with individuals and families, I left political intervention and macro social work to others. I have spent too much time thinking and feeling that someone would come along and help improve the state of Black America, but I can not stay silent any longer.

We have spent too much time having the same conversations ending with the same list of demands that will never be achieved; and they won’t be achieved because they are unrealistic. As a 33-year-old woman of color, I have heard these demands, but I am more concerned with creating our system of justice than I am with getting others to amend theirs to suit the needs of my community. The Black community in America should consider the following:

Stop believing anyone owes us anything

screen-shot-2010-02-01-at-16-14-521If this is true for individuals trying to succeed in a chosen career, why isn’t it true of a community? How many oppressed people sit back waiting for their oppressors to correct the system of oppression they created for their own benefit? I am aware that the government promised 40 acres and a mule.

What I am not clear on is why we continue to expect people who don’t even see us as human beings to honor a promise that was quickly repealed? It gave with one hand and took it back with the other. Have these demands for a repealed “promise” prove productive or prosperous for us? No. What it has done is keep us locked into poverty and a slave mentality. It is no longer a valid argument and we do ourselves no justice trying to change a system built to deny. We need to move on and forward.

Stop addressing each other as n***ers or any variation of the word

The argument is that by using it we take the power away from the word. The truth is that argument is a blatant lie. What we’ve done is give others not only permission but license to use that diminutive word without any context to its damaging nature. The truth is, I doubt anyone who uses this word (besides those who aren’t people of color) would feel so confident as to walk away from a Caucasian person using this word. The truth is, if they heard this shouted when they were out on their own in the middle of Mississippi, they wouldn’t bother sticking around for an explanation. As long as the word precedes an attack on my person, either physically or verbally, it is unacceptable. We need to stop using the word and stop accepting it from others. We are better than that.

Establish a national Black Caucus

I know there is a congressional caucus that is looking at the representing the interests of the African-American community. However, I am proposing an expansion or a separate entity. The remit would be calling our prominent figures that are doing things that are counterproductive to change, prosperity and/or progression within the community. We would manage public relations of national community issues – sending representatives to rally locals and improve media portrayal of the community. We would prepare local political candidates to represent the community and create local caucuses to help them address the issues prevalent in their own communities. It would be a coming together of local and national leaders.

Local lobby for fair and appropriate representation in communities where we are the majority

We need to work with our young people to help them understand and get into politics. We need to support our own who want to get into politics. We need to support those with track records of supporting or being involved in initiatives that address local concerns. We need to understand politics and the dynamics of representation on a larger scale.

Get our young people involved

We need to get our economists, political science majors, policy makers involved in local government early. Create local internships and fellowships etc so they are talking, strategizing and creating actions plans to move forward locally.

Take notes from other communities on building and circulating wealth within the community

We continue to need educating on finance. Not only on the use of money, credit and the like, but also on investments, financial planning, equity and other issues. We need to build up the work ethic and sense of community/communal assistance. We need to own more and to be educated on how to do this so that we hold on to it. We need to know more about possible tax breaks, write-offs and rebates for volunteer work, pro-bono work etc.

Take responsibility for our own wealth and prosperity

We need to stop relying on “others” to move our community forward on a local level. There are many national programs looking at the bigger picture but we need to empower the “impoverished” so they learn to help themselves. Stop being so comfortable with “others” buying in our neighborhoods when we own nothing. Stop blaming anyone except ourselves for our lack of progress because in truth we haven’t done all we can do. Start accepting the responsibility to ourselves, to each other and to our communities.

Teach and accept social responsibility

We need to help our children and young people gain work experience within their own neighborhoods first and foremost, encourage volunteerism from a young age as a means of community building, developing social skills and local pride while also developing employable skills. We need to make local investments in restorative justice and reparations to discourage crime and rebuild what has been broken. We need to, as adults, model this behaviour for our children and volunteer to help each other and each other’s children.

Understand that if we want change we have to create it. We can’t depend on our oppressors to help us progress. No one will give us anything we haven’t taken. Discussions are important but only as predecessors to action which will facilitate change.

After #Ferguson: Taking a Stand in Governance

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In the wake of #Ferguson, we can all agree that something needs to be done. I think we can all agree that we need to stand in a way we haven’t for many years. We need to take responsibility for what is going on in our communities. We need to do better and there are ideas as to how to do this.

According to a recent article in The Root, it argues that “Black America Needs Its Own President”, and I wholeheartedly disagree. For years, we had something akin to this in the likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson but then we are still having the same conversations. We are still reactive and not largely proactive. We are still asking for the same things and making the same demands.

We don’t need our own president what we need is to take responsibilities for ourselves and form a coalition to directly address behaviour, policies and practices that are detrimental to the way we are viewed globally and treated locally. They need to be able to directly and assertively lobby for changes that obliterate racial disparities.

We need to develop a caucus that goes into our communities where there are issues and organize strategic action that doesn’t include violence or destroying our own communities. We are a people of immense and immeasureable talent and potential. We need representative voices that are not only saying something new but are about real action – strategic and targeted that would uplift and empower our communities.

Having one person we look to when things go wrong isn’t the answer. We are a diverse people living in diverse communities all over the country. If we had a caucus where individual leaders from Black communities could come together we can start having the conversations that lead to action plans. We need to address our economic needs and start to build community wealth so we are in a position to help each other instead of relying on others.

There is no reason our community shouldn’t be as prosperous as others. It isn’t about amassing wealth as much as it about being able to help our own through crisis. So many have been doing it for so long, meanwhile we are still waiting for our 40 acres. I can’t stand people who continue to perpetuate a myth. We are the only people who rely on our oppressors for progress. Are we serious? This is why we have made progress but have not become leaders and drivers of changes in our communities.

I agree that there needs to be a Black presence to represent our interests but it does not need to come in the form of one person who is on the media stage. It would be more empowering to go into communities and help develop local leaders who can then come to the table to represent their communities.

The problems individual communities face are problems our community faces on the whole. There are those who still see our problems as the problem of “Black Americans”, having amassed their own wealth through hard work and dedication and I believe this is what is needed. But we also need to realise that the resources to achieve this are not readily available to everyone and there are communities that are systematically disenfranchised and would benefit from assistance and motivation from their peers in order to see and experience success. We need to help each other out of the trenches and onto the the path of prosperity.

There is no reason for us to rely on others to take us out of the shadows; we have everything we need within. It is about having the conversations (new one because quite frankly, there have been apologies for slavery, we need to stop expecting our oppressors to help us progress – i.e. move away from the fairy tale of our 40 acres and a mule, and we need to wholly understand the impact of racism ourselves) that will lead to strategic plans to impact the world around us so it will change in favor of us.

A coalition of communities leaders could do this. Yes they will come with their own agendas and understandably, so they come from varied communities. However, it doesn’t change the fact that there are some issues that are pervasive and need to be addressed. We can balance the two, addressing issues of the Black community as a whole while helping individual communities develop.

To be more specific I think the remit of a caucus or a coalition could be:

  • making “community call outs” on any prominent figures – local, nationally, or internationally – who are doing or saying things that are counterproductive to change, prosperity and progression.
  • manage image of the Black community in the media
  • manage community issues before they become national statistics and fodder for stereotyping
  • sending consultants to communities to help in times of crisis (public relations, organizing, creating strategic actions plans for change led by local leaders)
  • sending consultants to communities where leaders appeal to the caucus for assistance
  • training of local community on change management, building community resources, and training local “champions” to manage local political processes
  • aiding in ensuring there is equal political representation and policing in communities where Black people dominate the population (to start)
  • re establishing town hall meetings as a means of addressing local issues and manage them independently
  • building of funds to fund community interventions
  • financial drives: possibly local drives to address their own issues
  • national drives: appeals to organizations and representation for national crisis fund

We have all the talent and ability to unite and do better. Having a national voice is part of it but listening to local voices is the bulk of it. Let’s build on what we have to increase what we have.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Milwaukee Community Journal

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