Social Work: The Way Forward
I write this “Dean’s Corner” column on the day we celebrate the life and accomplishments of Dr. Martin Luther King. As a social worker and an American, I approach this day with a profound sense of awe of his courage and commitment, and admiration for the transformative achievements of the Civil Rights Movement he led. We also must consider the gains yet to be realized, the importance of the work ahead, and our own role in that change.
Over the last several months I have spent many hours thinking about the way forward for social work. I have read many so-called “thought leaders,” and talked with colleagues, in and outside of the profession, to friends and family, to students, to people with whom I both agree and disagree. And for what it’s worth, here is what I have come up with.
Respect for the worth, dignity, and civil rights of all people, regardless of race, ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, age, ability, or political party is a central and sacrosanct value in our profession. We are required to call out racism, the violation of rights, and contemptuous and insulting speech in all its forms wherever and whenever it occurs. This responsibility is derived from our profession’s mission and there may be no deviation from it.
Another foundational principle is our respect for dialogue across differences and our belief that the free and respectful exchange of ideas will result in the compromise and consensus that creates enduring change. Empathy for others is the bedrock of our profession. We are trained to “live in the shoes” of others, and through that experience we reach across divides. Those finely honed skills will be critical in the days ahead.
It is dangerous as a society to act in ignorance. As social workers, we are committed to use facts, knowledge, and evidence to ground our thinking and actions. We do not support “making stuff up”. Every problem, be it at a population or community or client level, requires us to learn deeply about it, to listen, to read, to study, and to evaluate. Our positions and actions must be grounded in data. The undermining of facts as a basis for action is as dangerous in social work as it would be in medicine or engineering. Many social and health care policies in areas such as housing, social security, the Affordable Care Act, Medicare and Medicaid, and unemployment will be hotly debated in the days to come. It is incumbent upon us to take a rigorous evidence-based approach to our analyses of these policy debates, familiarizing ourselves with research on effectiveness and cost efficiency.
Since the earliest days of our profession, social workers have striven to make the United States a fairer and more equitable society. Inequality is often as costly to our society as it is to the individuals within it. We know that there are social conditions, now called social determinants, which are prerequisites to health and success. They include: living in a safe and toxic free environment, having a reliable and sufficient income either through employment or benefit supports, residing in affordable and standard housing, consistently having access to nutritious food, being socially engaged, and having access to transportation, caregiving, and social and health services. The banner we carry for social and economic justice requires us to understand, propose, advocate, and implement equity in these critical areas. We may favor different elected officials, different parties, and different strategies, but we must agree on our role as advocates for the right to housing and health care and safety net policies. It’s not about the person or party. It is about the issues.
Finally, there is a great deal of research that some people have advantages and access to resources that others are denied. There is little factual evidence to support the idea that personal striving is sufficient for success. Only a very few lucky people are able to rise out of persistent poverty. As social workers we must acknowledge the uneven playing field that exists in our society. There is evidence that rural Americans and members of the white working class are experiencing problems, struggling with the social conditions I listed above. The data also tells us definitively that African Americans and Latinos, women, and persons with disabilities do far worse on all indicators of wellness and success. That is what we call institutional racism and social injustice, because the obstacles to success and wellness are embedded in social structures and delivery systems. So while we argue for everyone’s rights and welfare, we must be particularly vociferous in advocating for the most disadvantaged.
In the months ahead, I hope this column will spark dialogue about each of these ideas. We must learn more about the assumptions that we hold as a society and as a profession. We must understand the impact of unequal social conditions on our clients and our country. We must educate ourselves about the most effective strategies for change.
To encourage that dialogue, I will invite others to join this column. Some will be experts because they know a lot more than I do on certain topics. I invite students and alumni to take a subject and develop it as a guest column. I invite you to write to me with your thoughts and differences. Mostly, I appeal to you, in celebration of Dr. King’s legacy, that we recommit to the mission, values, and skills of our profession to find common ground for action in the days ahead.
Yours in friendship,
Jacqueline B. Mondros, D.S.W.,
Dean and Assistant Vice President,
Social Determinants of Health