I have been advising some students lately who are contemplating whether to pursue the clinical or administrative ‘tracks’ during their graduate social work education. For any non-social workers reading this, you are likely confused. That’s kind of part of my point–these distinctions that we agonize over within the profession are rather meaningless beyond it, which, I would argue, suggests that our focus is a bit misplaced.
The logic behind tracking students into either clinical practice (where they focus on therapy that uses similar methodologies to some other helping professionals to pursue intrapersonal change on the individual, group, or family level) or social work advocacy/administration (SWAAP, for short) is that students who intend to do one of these different kinds of social work or the other need specialized training unique to their intended practice. Since the two academic years outlined for graduate social work education are too short to accomplish all of our learning objectives anyway, there is a need for greater specialization in order to fit more in. So, before they begin their second year (or immediately, in the case of advanced standing students who skip most of their first year), students have to choose whether they intend to ‘be’ clinical or administrative in their practice. Not all schools of social work conceptualize these distinctions exactly the same, and there are problematic elements within most of the alternatives as well, but the divisions persist among students and within our profession, and I find it disturbing, counterproductive, and, in some cases, even destructive.
As a social worker who probably wouldn’t have pursued social work had I not had the ability to tailor my education towards the kind of macro practice that really interests me, though, I certainly appreciate the importance of having a big enough tent, so to speak, for professionals with very different ideas of the kind of social work they want to practice to all fit underneath. Surely, though, there is a way to encourage social workers to pursue their passions within the profession while not perpetuating what is really a largely false divide. I know that I wish, now, that I had more of an understanding of narrative therapy, because I see how powerful it is for people to tell their stories in an advocacy context, and there were certainly many occasions while lobbying when it would have been helpful to have a stronger foundation in human behavior! And without policy and advocacy content, I can’t see how any social worker can practice ethically, according to our Code, which requires social workers to engage in advocacy and to only practice within their areas of competence, two mandates that would seem mutually exclusive without proper preparation.
My goal here is not to contribute to the debate already (at times) raging within our profession, although I do assign sections of Unfaithful Angels in both of my core classes. Instead, I want to offer some of my initial thoughts on how we might begin to close this divide within my School of Social Welfare and as a profession more broadly. I am actively working to introduce some of these ideas with my students and my colleagues, and I know that many of them share the same commitment. Taken as a whole, social work has something very powerful, and rather unique, to offer the world, including in the advocacy arena. We can attend to people’s immediate needs while working towards a society that will not create so much need. We can fight for a product that will respect vulnerable people without resorting to processes that make people feel more vulnerable. We can integrate our traditions of social care and social change in a way that has profound implications for society’s future. If we can pull it all together.
Social workers, if you specialize in clinical practice, how do you integrate advocacy into your work? If you specialize in macro practice, how do you keep yourself connected to social work, and on which social work skills do you regularly rely? How well did your social work education prepare you for your work? What else do you wish you would have learned? Do you see a need for greater integration as a profession? How do you propose that we move towards this?