Why mentors matter: the woman behind the woman behind

Florence Kelley, photo with permission of History Link

One of the themes from The Woman Behind the New Deal that has lingered with me since I read it last month relates to the role that other women, in particular other women social workers, played in shaping the social conscience, feminist identity, and, ultimately, career choices of Frances Perkins.

Florence Kelley, for example, provided Frances with a vision of a working, politically-active woman in an age with a very different dominant view of women’s roles. So did Jane Addams. And, perhaps even more important than these inspirations was the real interest that these women and others took in cultivating Frances, finding places for her within social movements, sharing books and exposing her to alternative thoughts about family, economics, and just society.

One of the things that struck me was how interconnected these women were. In Chicago, Washington, DC, New York, and points in between, they pop up in each others’ lives, organizations, and campaigns. They shared not just passion for social justice but real affinity for one another, and a solidarity born out of fighting tough struggles as an overlooked and often marginalized gender.

And they made a difference, not just in the legislative environment that improved the lives of generations of Americans (consumer protection, regulation of child labor, development of mothers’ pensions, worker safety…), but also in the capacity of other women activists to weather their own difficult battles, at home and in the public sphere.

And reading the excerpts from their letters to each other, and the interweaving of their lives over the course of decades, has made me think more about how much my students today (and, really, me too!) could benefit from such a strong network of social work “justice fighters”–people with whom to share not just tips and web links, but also tears and celebrations, people who share not just our causes but also our stories, our values, and our professional identity.

I don’t mean to suggest that there’s none of this kind of mentoring among social work advocates today; certainly I try to provide it for some of my students, and I have definitely benefited from the investment made by other women advocates in my own life and work. There are institutions like the Social Welfare Action Alliance that try to formalize some of this convening, and there is the existence of the field instruction experience which, at least theoretically, seeks to provide some mentoring in the foundation of a new social worker’s career.

But we need more.

Because, while it may not be as revolutionary to work and mother at the same time as it was in Frances Perkins (or Florence Kelley)’s day, it’s still not easy to be a social worker seeking to integrate clinical skill with radical social change. And I know that there are holes in the networks that support new social work activists, because my students often tell me that they feel alone when they launch their careers. This blog, really, is in part an attempt to fill some of that void.

Speaking truth to power is always somewhat lonely. Frances Perkins’ story offers many insights for social workers today, but perhaps chief among them is that she probably never would have become what she did, and therefore never won for us what she did, if not for the women social workers who guided her, lifted her up, surrounded her with wisdom and encouragement and, when necessary, chastised her into using her hard-won power for the least among us.

We’d all do better with friends like that.

Where do you find support for your social work advocacy? Who are your mentors? What are your recommendations for social workers starting out on a social change path? And what are you willing to do to bring up (and bring out) the next Frances Perkins?

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