What is a Political Social Worker Anyway?

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When people ask what I do, my reply is always, “I’m a political social worker.”  The response is usually, “what is that?”  There is a small but growing group of political social workers who work mostly in legislative offices.  I have the unbelievable opportunity to try to correct some of the social injustices that send many people to seek help from private practitioners and/or agency caseworkers.

When I was finishing up my M.S.W. and my fellow students were talking about what they wanted to do after graduation, I chimed in saying, “I want to work in a legislative office.”  “Your just saying that to start conversation, right?”, was the reaction.  “You’re not really going to work for them.”  “Oh yes I am”, I replied.  “When you start the revolution on the ground, you will be very happy to have a friend up there.”  Saying that  Martin Luther King could not have passed the Civil Rights Act without Lyndon B. Johnson is a favorite of mine when trying to help students make that connection.

I am the social worker in the Office of NYS Senator Liz Krueger.  My official title is Director of Community Outreach.  My portfolio of constituents consists only of seniors.  I develop and run programs for them as well as help them individually with issues around housing, health care, transportation, long term care, and end-of-life. This aspect of my job allows me hone my casework skills as I interact with constituents and their problems every day.

We need more social workers interested in doing the kind of work that I do.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our legislators were social workers rather than the attorneys that most of them are!  Right now there is a social work caucus in our federal legislature. A social worker’s world view is holistic and broad, while many of our legislators have a myopic view of the world where things are only black and white.

It would serve our profession well if all social work students were required to take courses in political advocacy.  When my social work interns leave this placement, I know that I have succeeded as their field advisor if they make the connection between the work that case workers do on the ground and the legislation that is proposed in the capital.  The root of many of the problems that our clients and/or constituents come for help with are a result of bad or non-existent legislation.

As an example, right now in New York City, I see many of our elderly constituents who are in jeopardy of losing their homes.  Most seniors live on a fixed income, yet their rent keeps going up.  For those who are struggling financially, there is a program that freezes their rent; but they have to be living in a rent regulated apartment to receive that benefit.  We now have 1000 seniors living in the NYC shelter system, a number that is growing every day.   Shame on us!  I am advocating for providing these older adults with a subsidy of no more than a couple of hundred dollars a month. This would keep them in their homes and is more economically prudent than the cost of keeping people in the shelter system. This is not to mention how inappropriate the shelter system is for the elderly.

I’m often invited to speak to social work classes about what I do and why social workers are uniquely trained for politics.  A number of years ago, NASW published an article entitled, “Putting the Profession in Public Office.”  I always hand this out for students to read.  It talks about how social workers in the political arena can have a huge impact on people’s lives.

Every staffer in our office takes constituent calls, regardless of their title; and we all have our niche knowledge of specific issues. My co-workers all use social work skills regardless of the fact that none of them are social workers.

When searching for a place to bring your social work skills and knowledge, consider putting some time in a legislative office.  You will be surprised at all the you can learn and all that you can contribute.  Those of us who do this work live with the hope that “moving one grain of sand can change the world”.  It is what gets us through even the roughest days.

Getting Social Workers Out of the Closet

There has been much talk recently about who can legitimately call themselves social workers. What training is required? Which licenses are needed? And, there have been many discussions about the variations of social work licenses that exist in different states. License or no license, we know that many social workers are “hiding” in non-clinical environments where it doesn’t seem much social work is happening in places like Congress, the World Bank and federal agencies such as the departments of Labor, Housing, Education and Health and Human Services (HHS). In many of these settings, social workers operate under cover. They often do not identify themselves as social workers and they have little or no connection to professional social work organizations. Yet, they are trained social workers with a B.S.W, a M.S.W., or a Ph.D. from an accredited social work school, but you would never know.

The subject arose this week during my lunch with three very special social workers who are at the forefront of promoting greater emphasis on macro social work practice. Darlyne Bailey, dean of the Bryn Mawr School of Social Work and Terry Mizrahi, a professor at Hunter’s School of School of Social Work, are co-chairs of the Special Commission to Advance Macro Social Work Practice formed by the Association for Community Organization and Social Administration (ACOSA).

With us was Jenifer Norton, a doctoral student at Bryn Mawr who provides administrative support for the commission. The commission’s mandate is to examine the state of macro social work practice and offer recommendations on how to strengthen the macro dimension of social work. To date, 46 schools and departments of social work and two organizations have donated funds to support the commission’s work. In addition to 21 commissioners, there are about 50 allies who are participating in the effort by working with one of five workgroups.

The ACOSA group was in DC for a meeting with representatives from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) to discuss the current state of macro social work practice. It is encouraging these major social work organizations are finally paying more attention to macro social work practice. This new found interest in macro social work practice was triggered by a 2011 report by Jack Rothman that concluded macro social work practice was being marginalized at many schools of social work. He and Mizrahi followed that report with a published article quantifying students who are pursuing macro practice.

While discussing the working group I have joined—Promotion and Public Support of Macro Leaders and Practitioners—Terry suggested that identifying social workers in macro settings is often difficult because many of them are hiding in the closet. Whether this is intentional or just a byproduct of being in a non-social work setting, we need to know who these social workers are, where they are plying their trade and how they are providing leadership. Many are operating at high levels and have very inspirational stories that need to be told. Why? Because many are in the closet because they feel their work might be devalued by colleagues who may not appreciate the value of social work.

My favorite example is Jared Bernstein who I have written about on several occasions. Bernstein is the former chief economist for Vice President Joseph Biden and a member of President Barack Obama’s economic team. Bernstein earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University’s School of Social Work and chose to hone his economic skills and practice in that arena. He proudly self-identifies as a social worker but when he is introduced on television programs and in settings where he is discussing fiscal and monetary policies, he is introduced as an economist. Would listeners value his input if he were identified solely as a social worker? His commentary would have the same value, but I doubt that his audience would give it the same weight if they thought his ideas were those of a social worker and not an economist.

We need to identify more social workers like Bernstein. NASW has agreed to work on identifying social workers in these settings. That should help much. If you know of social workers in macro settings—working at the Supreme Court, leading corporations, working in the media and other arenas—please shoot me an email at celewisjr@gmail.com.

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

Why the Rothman Commission was Created to Save Macro Practice Social Work


Francis Perkins with FDR

Social work has traditionally been a profession that has embraced the principles of social justice, social action, and equality with individuals functioning as change agents fighting oppression and inequality in order to improve outcomes for their communities. Social Workers such as Jane Addams, Frances Perkins, Whitney Young, Congressmen Ron Dellums and Ed Towns as well as Senator Barbara A. Mikulski to name a few used their social work background to influence social policy and legislation. Organizations such as ACOSA (Association for Community Organizing and Social Administration) was created to promote the development of community organizing and macro thinking in social administrations which would later commission Dr. Jack Rothman to evaluate the current state of macro practice courses being taught in social work education. The Rothman report was completed in October 2012 and will be discussed in greater detail later in the article.

However, under today’s standard none of the individuals listed above would be entitled to call themselves a social worker under today’s standard because they do not meet the standard of a Licensed Clinical Social Worker. Clinical Social Workers focus on micro practice in which therapeutic treatments deal only with how an individual can develop mentally, cognitively, or behaviorally. However, macro community practices are focused on influencing the social policies that creates oppression and inequality. Macro practice social workers are change agents committed to making social change while the other is managing individual change.

For instance, Social Worker Frances Perkins was the U.S. Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945, and she was also the first woman appointed to the U.S. Cabinet by President Franklin D. Roosevelt whom she helped craft New Deal legislation. During her tenure as Secretary of Labor, Perkins championed the Civilian Conservation Corps, the Public Works Administration and its successor the Federal Works Agency, as well as the labor portion of the National Industrial Recovery Act.   She was a major force in establishing the Social Security Act, Unemployment benefits,  and public assistance for the neediest Americans.

Perkins fought to reduce workplace accidents and helped create laws against child labor. Through the Fair Labor Standards Act, she was responsible for establishing the first minimum wage and overtime laws for American workers, and defined the standard forty-hour workweek. She formed governmental policy for working with labor unions and helped to alleviate strikes by way of the United States Conciliation Service. Perkins resisted having American women be drafted to serve the military in World War II so that they could enter the civilian workforce in greatly expanded numbers. Sadly, Frances Perkins with all her achievements as a change agent with graduate degrees in political science, sociology and economics would not have been considered a social worker today.

Since 1988, ACOSA has served as the official representative of social workers in a broad array of community/macro practice professions.  These include “Community organizers, activists, nonprofit administrators, community builders, policy practitioners, students and educators.  These conversations led ACOSA to commission a study to explore the concerns of its members regarding the status of community/macro practice in social work.  The report would focus on both identifying the problems with macro practice in schools of social work  while also looking for possible solutions.

The timing of this study and its outcome could not be more relevant with today’s societal issues.  During the survey process, Dr. Jack Rothman determined that many in the profession believed the over focus on clinical social work has devalued community/macro social work.  Participants were concerned about the future of community/macro practice as exhibited by the lack of macro courses for individuals interested politics, administration, public service, and grassroots organizations.  One respondent of the survey Dr. Rothman constructed pointed out that many social work faculty believed that anyone could teach macro classes—no experience or training in the field was needed.

Participants stated that ACOSA should seek to gain visibility with other professional groups and disciplines-­‐-­‐“to interface better so our community-based work is known and social work is not seen as simply casework. ”We need to relate to these groups”, they said, because “we have a common cause in macro areas and there is strength in numbers.” There were concerns that if the community/macro practitioners in social work do not establish themselves as visible players in broader areas of intervention and public policy that other fields will step in and replace us.

One of the recommendations of the Rothman Report was to develop a high-level special commission to look at community/macro social work.  One of the key issues ACOSA members expressed was the level of support received from their schools when addressing the lack of courses in the community/macro area. As a result, participants wanted to engage the Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) with respect to macro practice course in social work curricula.  Additionally, participants wanted to raise the visibility of community/macro practice and advocate for a strong place for community/macro practice within social work institutions and with the public.

Since the survey was conducted, a Special Commission with 16 individuals has been formed.  One of their first tasks will be to prioritize the issues raised by participants in the survey.  They will begin to work on growing faculty with experience in community/macro practice, as well as to work with CSWE to develop curricula in response to the need for students interested in a community/macro concentration.

Also, ACOSA has developed core competencies for community/macro practitioners, and they are looking at developing research studies that reach beyond the individual application of social work principles.  The association will begin to work with organizations that are incorporating social, cultural, economic, political and environmental influences that advance social justice solutions as well as develop change agents that empower individuals at systemic levels.  Moreover, they have also begun to develop collaborative relationships with legislatures, community members, non-profit groups, and organizations that address the needs of communities on a macro scale.

For organizations and individuals interested in community practice and the work ACOSA is doing, you can contact its current Chair, Mark Homan at   (mbhoman@msn.com).

You can also view the full report below:

[gview file=”https://swhelper.org/wp-content/uploads/2013/06/ACOSA+Report-by+Dr.+Rothman.pdf”]

Social Work and Social Media: Tools for Networking and E-Advocacy

There are lots of resources for individuals who are concerned about the fears and ethical use of social media in practice. However, there does not seem to be an equal amount of resources teaching social work and social media, and how they both can be combined for effective networking and online advocacy.

Technology has given us the ability to remove geographically boundaries and connect with others in way that is still very new to us.  However, this same technology has been exploited by the criminal element which has created many fears in using technology for its full capabilities.

Technology has the ability to create new ways of communication that has been previously denied to those without privilege or wealth such as the ability to self-publish, communication with someone abroad in real-time, and gather/organize resources quickly. How can our profession begin to adopt the technological tools utilized in the business world and adapt them to increase our ability to be more effective on the macro, mezzo, and micro practice levels?

There are instances where social work and social media, depending on your job descriptions and direct practice with clients, must adhere to a stricter standard due to safety concerns for the social worker and client confidentiality.

For those who are working on a policy and community practice level, social work and social media is essential in carving yourself as an expert in your field as well giving you the ability to mobilize resources quickly. NASW-NC gives five reasons why social work and social media is an essential combination to aid social workers in their networking potential which are listed below:

  • Opportunity: Anytime you are around others (virtually or in person), you have the opportunity to meet people and uncover what they make have to offer to your life!
  • Exposure: Have you written new research? Starting a new practice? Found a new technique to share? Networking provides the opportunity to expose others to the wealth of professional knowledge you have, and to be exposed to theirs!
  • Contacts and Relationships: Whether finding a new job, a resource for your clients, or simply someone who simplifies your life; contacts are an essential part of the social work profession. Most business is done through referrals!
  • Finding Common Ground: Everyone enjoys the company of others who are like-minded. Our common interests help ignite our passion for the profession and encourage personal growth.
  • Learning: In the line for breakfast at a NASW-NC Conference, or answering a post on LinkedIn; social workers who participate in networking gather information and ideas at a fast pace! knowledge is power!
  • See more at:

[gview file=”http://careers.socialworkers.org/documents/networking.pdf”]

Also View:
E-Politics.com Online Advocacy

photo credit: Intersection Consulting via photopin cc

Letter to the Aspiring Social Worker

I don’t claim to know about all things social work, but I have learned some life lessons along the way that have shaped who I am, my faith, and my desire to help others. Do we choose this profession or does it choose us? I believe that everyone who enters the social work profession do so because of something in their background that enrages that desire to change injustices, speak up for those without a voice, and/or inject compassion into an otherwise heartless society.

As I reflect on my journey, there are several things I couldn’t have moved forward without, and there are several changes older me wish I had the insight to make. For the aspiring social worker and the new social worker, I will be sharing throughout this post several mantras that I have used to guide my path over the years. It’s when I ignored my compass that I found myself learning another life lesson. Here are a few of the most important ones.

Lesson One-“If you want to know where you are going, look at your friends”

No matter if you are 13 years old or 45 years old, this mantra should guide you for the rest of your life. This mantra is powerful because it will determine the most powerful influences and the direction of your life for the rest of your life. You can substitute friends for peers, coworkers, or membership groups. Who you choose to align yourself with will influence your belief system, your work ethics, your ideas, and your actions. It will affect your ability to collaborate, share ideas, and information especially when there is no personal benefit for yourself.

Lesson Two- “If you don’t stand for something, you will fall for anything”

Define the line that you won’t cross. Find your moral compass. Identify the part of you that draws you to this profession. What are you most passionate about? AND Who do you feel the most compassion for? DETERMINE: What are you willing to do to advance or get ahead? What are you willing to ignore or overlook? Who has value in this society according to your standards? Are those who are suffering and poor to blame for their own problems? No Social Worker is immune from having prejudices and biases against individuals or groups of people. The failure to acknowledge this human deficiency will determine whether you are an advocate or an oppressor.

Lesson Three-“When two or more stand together and agree”

Social Work is not like running track,  playing tennis, or riding equestrian. Social Work is not an individual sport. Whether you choose to go into private practice, Child Welfare, health care, or any other area of practice, you must remain connected to other like minded individuals working together and with others.  I believe the reason why so many social workers experience burnout is because it feels like a solo fight against a system that’s to big to change.  Our separation and isolation from other professions begin in college. When do you interact with education majors, sociology, public health, criminal justice and so forth. Guess what? You are going to have to interact with other professions in the workforce! Why not start now while you are in college? Start a community service project and invite the other student groups from different majors to participate.

Why should social work students take the lead? ANSWER: The Social Work profession is the only profession that is designed to help people improve the quality of their lives on a biological, social, and psychological perspective. Give this some thought…..Let that statement marinate.

In physics, pushing up against a wall that does not move fails to meet the definition of work. If the wall does not move, it doesn’t matter how much time you spend pushing because no distance can be measured.  Instead of spending our time pushing up against walls, let’s align ourselves with people who can work with us to take the wall down brick by brick or at least enough to go around it.

Also View:
Resources for Students Considering a Career in Social Work

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