Social Workers to Launch Voter Empowerment Campaign

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There are a growing number of social workers who believe our profession can play a significant role in restoring confidence in our nation’s political processes by encouraging more people to register and vote. In the August 2015 Gallup Poll, 72 percent of Americans say they are dissatisfied with the direction of the country. They want change. Many lower and middle-income families have been feeling squeezed for years. So how does change occur?

Dēmos policy analyst Sean McElwee says more in the low- and middle-income class need to vote. In his report, Why Voting Matters, McElwee documents how lower-income voters’ failure to vote has resulted in policies that favor the well-to-do. He reported 26 million eligible voters of color and 47 million eligible voters earning less than $50,000 annually did not vote in 2012. In 2014, the numbers were 44 million and 66 million respectively.

Many social workers are realizing the critical need for more of us to be involved in political processes. Nancy A. Humphreys, past president of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and former dean of the University of Connecticut School of Social Work, has been preaching this message for decades. The Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work (NAHIPSW) at the University of Connecticut’s School of Social Work will be celebrating its 20th anniversary next month and still going strong under the leadership of new director Tanya Rhodes Smith.

Although Dr. Humphreys retired recently, she has not abandoned her efforts to educate and organize social workers, social work students and faculty around the need to be more politically active. Her message is taking root and signs of increased activity are sprouting around the nation.

CRISP is joining forces with Influencing Social Policy’s outgoing chair, Kathy Byers, to launch a social work-led voter empowerment project designed to mobilize social workers to register, educate, and get voters to the polls so their voices will be included in deciding the direction of the country.

This nonpartisan campaign seeks to provide social workers with evidence-based information and tools necessary to effectively identify and engage nonvoters. Drawing on proven resources from successful voter registration and education projects such as the League of Women’s Voters, Emily’s List, Nonprofit Vote and Rock The Vote, this social work voter empowerment campaign will create and disseminate materials and toolkits designed specifically for social workers.

In addition, CRISP will soon formally announce the formation of a Student Advisory Council (SAC) that will focus on engaging millennial social workers in BSW, MSW, and PhD programs as well as recent graduates. CRISPSAC will focus on social entrepreneurship and using technology to advocate and influence policy. Led by Shauntia White, a second-year student at the School of Social Services at the National Catholic University of America, CRISPSAC, under the banner #YSocialWork, is recruiting representatives from schools across the country to be ambassadors and spread the message at their schools.

CRISPSAC communications coordinator Justin Vest, a recent grad from the University of Alabama School of Social Work, is spearheading an awareness campaign on Tuesday that will include a Twitter chat using the hashtags #CelebrateNVRD and #SWVote.

Tuesday is National Voter Registration Day, a day to remind Americans to take advantage of our precious right to vote—a right that has never been fully accessible to all citizens of the United States. Women fought for decades to win the right to vote in 1919. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 struck down many of the barriers that denied African Americans access to the polls. The National Voters Registration Act of 1993 sought to ease access to voting.

Yet, less than 50 years after the VRA of 1965, key provisions of the legislation were eviscerated by the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder. Roadblocks such as unduly restrictive voter identification requirements, polling places with inadequate resources to meet demand, and laws that create barriers to student participation all work to limit participation in our democratic process.

More alarming are the vast numbers of Americans who choose not to exercise their right to vote. According to the U.S. Census, only 92.1 million (41.9%) of 220 million voting-age Americans voted in the 2014 elections, meaning 127 million people did not vote. Nearly 78 million voting age Americans were not registered. Voter participation rates are significantly higher in presidential elections—almost 62 percent of eligible voters went to the polls in 2012.

A defining event in the profession’s expanding political focus was the founding of the Congressional Social Work Caucus (CSWC) by former Congressman Edolphus “Ed” Towns. It created a platform on the Hill for social workers and encouraged us to be more fully engaged with the federal government.

Now under the leadership of Congresswoman Barbara Lee (CA-13), the CSWC continues to work in conjunction with social work schools and organizations. Plans are underway for a second Social Work Day on the Hill in March 2016. Empowering American voters is a critical function for which social workers are trained and equipped to be game changers.

Why Social Workers Should Address Economic Inequality

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I began discussing economic inequality in my classrooms more than a decade ago when President Bush successfully pushed through Congress another round of supply-side tax cuts. Since then, there have been continuous discussions about the consequences of having so much of the nation’s wealth concentrated in the hands of a few super wealthy individuals and families.

In remarks given at the ARC in southeast Washington, DC in December 2013, President Barack Obama called economic inequality the defining challenge of our time. That economic inequality is a phenomenon that needs to be addressed is hardly debated these days. However, no one seems to have a politically viable plan to reverse the current trend, so we can only expect it to worsen.

Researchers Emmanuel Saez and Thomas Piketty have been documenting trends in economic inequality for more than a decade. Saez, an economics professor at the University of California at Berkeley and director of the Center for Equitable Growth has published numerous research articles on economic inequality with Piketty and others.

A 2014 paper with Gabriel Zucman—Wealth Inequality in the United States Since 1913—documented the growth in the share of wealth held by the wealthiest individuals and families with slides that provide a visual representation of the largess. Piketty, an economics professor at the Paris School of Economics created a firestorm among conservative economists with his book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, in which he concluded unchecked economic inequality may not reach the destructive levels predicted by Karl Marx, but could begin to undermine democracy.

The Roosevelt Institute recently released a compendium of social and economic policies that, according to Nobel Laureate Joseph Stiglitz, will promote economic growth and more shared prosperity. Titled “Rewriting the Rules of the American Economy”, the report features ideas of top progressive economic thinkers and promotes policy changes that address financial regulation, labor unions, progressive taxation and human capital investments that they say will create broader opportunity and a more egalitarian society.

Stiglitz, the former chief economic advisor to President Bill Clinton and former president of the World Bank, stipulates that economic inequality is not inevitable—that the notion there is a tradeoff between economic growth and inequality is false, and that the market is not free and infallible but determined by the rules and policies that we have put into place. He says new rules are needed.

Across the pond, the renowned scholar Sir Tony Atkinson has been building a case for policies that promote social justice for decades. In his latest book—Inequality: What Can Be Done?released earlier this month, he lays out a 15-point plan to address economic inequality that includes raising the highest marginal tax rate to 65 percent. Take Jared Bernstein’s advice like I did and give a listen to this very compelling lecture and discussion by Sir Tony Atkinson. He says many things that are worth hearing. One thing he says that is undeniable is that neither side of the political spectrum has debated this escalating calamity in a meaningful way.

The American public has not made much of the issue despite the fact that 45 million Americans are living below the poverty threshold, many older Americans are facing a retirement crisis, and as Robert Putnam describes in his recent book—Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis—for millions of children in the United States, the myth of the American Dream is little more than a fairy tale.

In a February AP/GfK poll, 68 percent of respondents say the rich are not paying their fair share of taxes. Yet all that we have seen in terms of public outrage was the relatively short-lived Occupy Wall Street demonstrations that never became the movement it threatened to be.

My understanding of being a social worker begins with a commitment to the pursuit of social justice for all Americans especially the most vulnerable among us. So the question is: what are social workers doing to affect social change? Are we merely helping people to cope with the status quo?

I am hearing from quite a few young social workers that they are not satisfied with what our profession is doing to change present circumstances. They believe that social workers must be more engaged in our nation’s politics and so do I. So does Nancy Humphreys and Tanya Rhodes Smith. There are enough social workers to lead the charge to demand that Hillary Clinton and other Democratic candidates address economic inequality.

As Frederick Douglass said: “If there is no struggle, there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom, and yet depreciate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. This struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical; but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.”

Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work Announces Tanya Rhodes Smith as New Director

Recent events in Ferguson, Missouri and continuous efforts by various states to limit the voting power of progressive constituents demand that social workers be more politically active. Nancy A. Humphreys has led the effort to educate social workers about the importance of being involved in the political process and getting social workers to run for elected office, including Pedro E. Segarra, a graduate of the University of Connecticut School of Social Work and now mayor of Hartford, Connecticut, the state’s capital. As Dr. Humphreys moves into her well-deserved retirement, she has passed the baton to Tanya Rhodes Smith, the new director of the Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work (NAHIPSW).

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Tanya Rhodes Smith

I asked her what her vision is for the institute going forward. “Setting the course for the Institute is one that takes time and includes the input of our Board of Advisors as well as important voices in the field,” she said. “I strongly believe in collaboration, building upon what we have learned to date and developing models that can be adopted by other schools of social work, agencies and communities to increase the power and voice of social workers and the populations we serve. The Institute has been a resource for those interested in political social work, and I would like to find additional ways to connect and support political social workers in every state.

I think it’s critical that more schools of social work regularly place students in political settings, including the offices of members of Congress, state legislators and local governments. Our Board of Advisors will be helping to set our strategic plan and focus for the next several years in the area of research, education and training, and voter registration and outreach.”

“No one can fill Nancy Humphreys’ shoes. She contributed to the field in countless ways and inspired so many of us to use our knowledge, skills and power to affect policy in a variety of settings. She taught us that civic engagement and political participation is part of our obligation as social workers.

There is a great cost when social workers don’t get involved with the political process because it means that others with less knowledge will make decisions about the populations that we care about and serve. Additionally, political participation and voting directly benefits our clients and our communities, including stronger connections and better outcomes in the areas of individual well-being, such as health, and employment. Social workers need to understand that important connection and the role that we can all play in shaping policy through the political system.”

advocacy She says she will continue projects such as the Campaign School which will be its 19th year. The Campaign school trains social workers on the inner workings of political campaigns with the hope that participants will run for office and/or assume leadership roles within campaigns as either unpaid volunteers or paid campaign staff. She will continue to emphasize voter registration. The Institute encourages all MSW students to organize voter registration activities in their field agencies.

They are partnering this year with Nonprofit Vote to educate social workers on the powerful benefits associated with voting to nonprofits, communities and to individual voters. And the institute will continue its advocacy training which she sees as an important activity that trains all first year students, as part of a required macro foundation class, on ways in which social workers can and should influence legislative policy.

Finally, I asked her what she sees as the future of political social work. “Nancy Humphreys founded the Institute for Political Social Work with the strong belief that social workers should seek elected office and that political social work practice is a legitimate specialization in the profession,” she affirmed. “There is a wide range of ways that social workers can influence and directly participate in policy decisions being made at the federal, state and local levels.

The career paths of former interns at the Institute as well as students who were placed in political social work settings confirm that social workers are qualified and successful in political roles. In addition to electoral politics, many have gone on to leadership, policy, administration, advocacy and research positions in public and private direct service and advocacy agencies throughout Connecticut and Massachusetts. Expanding political social work will include exposing more BSW and MSW students to the opportunities that exist.”

Who Will Fight for Social Justice

There is a push among social workers to return to the profession’s strong commitment to social justice. Two significant events occurred last week. On Wednesday, a group of supporters gathered to mark the first year of existence of the Congressional Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP) and the presentation of our 2014 Social Justice Champion awards to two social work stalwarts. Rep. Barbara Lee, the Democratic congresswoman from the 13th District in California, and Dr. Nancy A. Humphreys, the founder and director of the Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work, were on hand to receive well-deserved accolades for exemplifying the best of the profession who agitates for social justice. It was an uplifting anniversary celebration with the gregarious former Congressman Edolphus “Ed” Towns acting as host and emcee. CRISP executive director Dr. Angela Henderson was on hand to greet our guests and ensure everyone had a good time.

Rep. Barbara Lee

Board members Dr. Darla Coffey, president of the Council on Social Work Education, and James Craigen, Sr., an associate professor at Howard University’s School of social work were joined by NASW social work pioneers Dr. Bernice Harper and Howard University School of Social Work dean emeritus Dr. Douglas Glasgow, along with Dr. Jo Nol, psychotherapist and spouse to Nancy Humphreys, and Dr. Mary McKay, director of the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research and assistant director Dan Ferris. Several of my former students attended and my Clark Atlanta University classmate Alie Redd flew up from Atlanta to help celebrate.

Wednesday’s event was significant because despite the odds, CRISP has survived to begin another year. Our institute was born out of the need to complement the mission of the Congressional Social Work Caucus which I had the honor of helping to create with former Congressman Ed Towns in September 2010. The birth of the Social Work Caucus happened as a result of my personal pursuit of social justice.

I became a social worker because I wanted to do something about the many men of color who were being scarred as a result of the mass incarceration that began in the 1970s. Along the way towards earning my M.S.W. degree in clinical counseling I learned the importance of policy in creating a more just society and completed my Ph.D. in policy analysis. After a stint in academia, I landed on the Hill and found my opportunity with the Social Work Caucus which was created to provide an official platform in Congress for social workers to engage our nation’s representatives. CRISP was launched a year ago with the theme: Unleashing the Power of Social Work on the Hill.

Nancy Humphreys

On Friday, the Maryland chapter of the National Association of Social Work (NASW) held its second annual Macro Conference featuring Dr. Nancy Humphreys and Dr. Jack Rothman whose models of community organizing continues to have a significant impact on how social workers organize communities in pursuit of social justice.

The focus of the conference workshops and activities was on evaluating the current state of social justice in social work. Rothman’s report on the marginalization of macro social work on many campuses has renewed interest in rebalancing the profession’s work in direct service practice and its commitment to social change. The Association for Community Organization and Social Administration (ACOSA) has organized a Special Commission to Advance Macro Social Work Practice that will release its recommendations later in the year.

One of its commissioners, Dr. Linda Plitt Donaldson, an associate professor at the National Catholic School of Social Services, and Dr. Michael Reisch, the Daniel Thursz Distinguished Professor of Social Justice at the University of Maryland, led discussions about the future of social work, the challenges of licensing, and strategies to advance macro social work practice.

The conference was organized by NASW Maryland chapter executive director Dr. Daphne McClellan, and Dr. Ashley McSwain, chair of its Macro Social Work Committee. Proponents of expanding macro social practice do not see this effort as a zero sum game—increasing macro social workers at the expense of direct practitioners. We see this as an opportunity to attract a different breed of social worker with an eye on changing society.

Amazing Social Workers Around the World

Everyday, social workers assist the poor, the sick, and the injured in order to assist them with accessing the services, resources, and information needed to better their own lives. In this way, every social worker in the field is doing amazing work.

However, there are several amazing social workers around the world who are doing some great work within the profession. These five particular social workers are among the many remarkable individuals who have contributed to the world at large as professional social workers. They have advocated far and wide, achieving results for entire communities while improving society and public opinion for social workers. For these reasons, I am spotlighting them as role models for social workers everywhere. Here are their stories:

Margaret Whitlam 

Margaret Whitlam, wife of the former prime minister of Australia, completed a degree in social work at the University of Sydney in 1938 and practiced as a social worker at Parramatta District Hospital while her husband served as the federal opposition leader. Even in the role of political wife, she still made the effort to visit nursing homes, advocate for social justice and reach out to her community. She was committed to speaking on behalf of underserved populations and courted controversy when she criticized others for “never contributing anything else but a smile.”  She was particularly outspoken about issues of women’s rights, including abortion.

Sudha Murty

Sudha Murty is an Indian social worker, author and literacy advocate. As a former computer scientist and engineer, she chose to pursue social work midway through her career so she could educate the underprivileged and provide better health facilities to women, especially those living in rural areas. Among her accomplishments, she has founded several orphanages, participated in rural development efforts, advocated for literacy and provided schools with computers and library facilities.

Maylie Scott 

Maylie Scott was a social worker who graduated from Harvard University in 1956 and later obtained her Master of  Social Work degree from the University of California.  According to the book The Encyclopedia of Women and Religion in North America, “Maylie Scott described her primary teaching objective as empowering the sangha [community] by making sure she is the facilitator, not the ‘star.” As a socially engaged Buddhist and teacher, she worked in prisons and with the homeless. She was also a member of the Board of Directors for the Buddhist Peace Fellowship.

Teresa Hsu

Teresa Hsu Chih was a Chinese-born social worker who became a known as “Singapore’s Mother Teresa.” As a retired nurse, she founded several charities for the sick and destitute. To her clients, she brought inspiration along with the food and medicine that she collected as donations from businesses, the community, religious institutions and friends.

Hsu was still actively involved in charity work even after turning 110. She credited her vegetarian diet, yoga and positive attitude towards life for her longevity, saying, “I prefer to laugh than to weep. Those people who cry to me, I always tell them it is better to laugh than to use tissue paper, as laughing is free but tissue paper still cost five cent.”

Nancy Humphreys 

Nancy Humphreys earned her Ph.D. from the University of California at Los Angeles and has served as dean of the Michigan State University and the University of Connecticut schools of social work, and as assistant dean at Rutgers University. She was president of the National Association of Social Workers from 1979 to 1981 and also helped establish BSW and MSW programs at Yerevan State University in the Republic of Armenia. She founded and directed the Political Social Work Practice and is a lauded public speaker.

According to the National Association of Social Work Foundation, Humphreys initially earned recognition from the New Jersey, Connecticut and California NASW chapters and was the second woman to be elected national NASW president. Since then, she has served on more than 17 commissions and task forces, and was an appointee of two governors, as well as President Jimmy Carter. Through Humphreys’ work as professor and founding director of the Advancement of Political Social Work at the University of Connecticut, she has trained several hundred social workers to operate in political campaigns.

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