Category Archives: From the Trenches (Guest post)

Oh, SNAP! (I couldn’t help myself.)

In lieu of a guest post, I am sharing this ‘advocacy from the trenches’ example from two of the stellar organizations with which I have the distinct honor and pleasure to work on advocacy: Harvesters and Kansas Action for Children.

Both organizations are taking on the ridiculously (and senselessly) controversial issue of funding for the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and both are framing the issue perfectly: are you pro-feeding hungry kids? Or not?

I watched this alongside Joanna Sebelien from Harvesters, featured prominently in the video, this week, and we debriefed the piece and the experience. One of the greatest triumphs, in my assessment, is the quietly devastating representation of the complexity of the SNAP application process by Shelly, the outreach worker.

And KAC CEO Shannon Costoradis’ final comments are absolutely spot-on.

I would never be so presumptuous as to assert any responsibility for their fabulous fearlessness and astute analysis.

Just watch the video. And you’ll know why I am so, so glad to be on the same team.

Justice is Every Step: How all kinds of social work can advance social justice

**Note from Melinda: I am beyond honored to bring you this blog post from my dear friend, colleague in many struggles for more than a decade, and absolutely wonderful social worker Megan Hope. I’ve read it 3 times already and I still find a new line to mentally underline. It’s pretty incredible, and I feel a bit apologetic to tell you that she’s not taking over all regular writing duties here! Thank you, Megan, for sharing this, but mainly for all you do, on so many levels, for so many.

On a typically hot El Paso day, I sat across the table from a middle-aged man and his 14-year-old son. About a month before, they’d traveled from their home in northern Mexico, crossed the border without documents, and rung the bell at our house of hospitality. Like most guests, they’d come with hopes—soon disappointed—of finding day work. Beds in the men’s dorm were always in high demand, and the pair had already stayed past the two weeks we usually offered to guests who, arguably, had more opportunities than single women or families with young children. I explained the house’s time and space pressures, and they laid out theirs: They were stuck. There were no jobs to speak of in their hometown, no way to pass the Texas or New Mexico highway checkpoints without identification, no eligibility to be or work in the U.S. with authorization even though there was, surely, demand for their cheap labor. “I know,” I blurted. “It’s the global economy!”

That was during my second stint working and living with newly-arrived immigrants, refugees, and asylum applicants at Annunciation House, a Catholic Worker-style organization started in the late 1970s when Central American refugees were fleeing civil war violence. In the eight years since my first year-long stay, I’d earned an MA in Latin American Studies, presented workshops on NAFTA, participated in foreign factory workers’ labor campaigns, organized against the Iraq War, traveled to 12 developing countries, and written grant proposals for social and legal services for farmworkers and other immigrants—all attempts to learn about and effect structural change, and all propelled by memories of my neighbors on the border. I’d also worked as a paralegal, coordinator of social services for migrant farmworkers, and tutor. On good days, I hoped the folks I was working with and I were making a dent in temporary problems or, better yet, systemic injustice. On bad days, I pondered what I preferred crying about at the end of the day: the individual I felt I couldn’t help enough, or the latest in-fighting at a coalition meeting?

When I belatedly began to consider an MSW, I was troubled to learn that many programs require students to choose one concentration: either macro/indirect/administrative/community practice, or micro/direct/clinical practice. Huh? What appealed to me about social work was precisely its person- in-environment perspective and seeming appreciation for multiple and simultaneous forms of contemplation and action.

As a student, I discovered (and undoubtedly helped perpetuate) the stereotypes, born of desperation for self-definition, that can exist between “our” type of social worker and “the other.” Community students derided their clinical counterparts as apolitical, touchy-feely, diagnosing, wanna-be psychologists. I heard less the other way around, but if pressed, could snarkily characterize community practitioners as self-righteous, intellectualizing policy wonks with questionable empathic skills. The gravitation toward specialization in social work education and practice I saw seemed to reinforce the unfortunate bifurcation of the field. Though more of a community practice person myself, I sought out my sympathetic academic dean to help me design more of a mix of classes than ordinarily prescribed under our school’s track system. I’m glad for the broadened education this allowed me.

But still, the divisions and attendant dilemmas in social work practice remain: How best to advance social justice? Is social change the purview and prerogative of only macro-level interventions? I try to remember why returning to Annunciation House when I did was appealing to me. Much of the daily work there consisted of proverbial Band-Aid activities: putting on meals, stocking a clothing bank, ushering people to a medical clinic—often providing swift relief of immediate needs, but not exactly uprooting the ills of the global economy. Yet our practice of radical hospitality felt transformative. And I have found direct work with individuals elsewhere to also be consistent with my vision of social justice.

Why? First, I think of how I learned to be with people at Annunciation House. It was based on personalism, the belief that we each have a responsibility for one another’s well-being—not as “service providers” and “clients” who dispense or receive solutions—but as people, cognizant of our various privileged and marginalized identities, who make an attempt at solidarity, communitarianism, and real relationship. In one of his Easy Essays, Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin made the common critique that social workers learn how to help people adjust to their environment, but not how to change it. “Social workers must become social-minded before they can be critics of the existing environment and free creative agents of the new environment.” In houses of hospitality, he said, social workers “can acquire the art of human contacts and the… understanding of social forces” that allow them to build with others a new society.

I think that’s what happened my first year on the border, and my return signaled that once was not enough. Certainly, houses of hospitality and other direct service settings are not the only training ground for social-mindedness. But for me, no book, course, theory, organization, or campaign has ever been as consistently informative, radicalizing, grounding, or exacting of accountability as sharing a roof with people whose experiences testify to the countless ways we say some human lives are more important than others. I think of Gaspar, Tatiana, and Concha when I act, and when I don’t.

Also, I’ve found that while it’s obvious that the personal is political—the plight of an out-of-work father and son originates in systems much larger than a single family—we sometimes overlook that the political is personal. Poverty, war, crime, lack of access to health care and education are not only policy issues, but also causes of crippling personal depression, anxiety, and trauma. Recent research indicates that microaggressions—subtle verbal, nonverbal, and environmental communications that insult and invalidate members of oppressed groups—may be more harmful than overt acts of discrimination and hate. If oppression operates at ideological, institutionalized, interpersonal, and internalized levels, shouldn’t there also be four I’s of social justice?

Consider a woman I worked with who spent nearly a year in immigration detention following a false criminal accusation. She had been sexually, physically, and psychologically abused by family members and intimate partners since she was a child. We filled out a culturagram together, an assessment tool used to explore aspects of a person’s background and identity. One square asked about experiences of abuse and trauma. To my surprise, before any mention of incest or domestic violence, the client wrote that the trauma she had was “not being free” because she was undocumented. Under experiences of oppression, she listed persecution by Immigration and said, “For this reason, we need an amnesty.” Clearly, she knew how the politics of immigration, institutionalized sexism, racism, and xenophobia, and interpersonal violence had oppressed her, and identified changes she wanted to make, from personal relationships to involvement in immigrant rights organizations. But she also dealt with a great deal of internalized shame and self-loathing. In the time I knew her, she grew to love herself more, which helped her feel personally empowered, able to secure a visa for crime victims that will allow her to legalize and bring her three sons to join her, and able—I have no doubt—to positively affect her community. Doesn’t every member of “the social” deserve that kind of justice?

Indeed, in our criticism of direct services and clinical interventions as superficial or soft, I think we inadvertently dismiss the real, felt, multilevel needs of people; wrongly assume that they don’t understand how systems work (when if fact, they’re often experts); or think micro-level work can’t be political (when, in fact, it’s often a necessary precursor to wider change). We know that unexamined privilege, among other ills, can make direct services insulting and paternalistic. But I think closing the doors and telling people to come back for a meal only after NAFTA’s been repealed or immigration policy is reformed would be no less presumptuous or demeaning. Absolutely we should ask why the poor have no food and should eliminate root causes of hunger. But justice should include the right to eat today.

And there are reasons for offering a meal beyond meeting a physical need. At the first Occupy Denver event I went to, I met a man who said he’d been homeless for a long time, moving from one state to another as he was able to. He’d recently arrived in Colorado and had started sharing a tent on the capitol lawn with other demonstrators. He believed in the multipronged movement for economic justice, but he was most excited about the newfound company of people who cared about his cause and cared about him. “I’ve had a hard time for a lot of months,” he told me. “But the last few weeks have been so much better.”

Sometimes when I imagine what the world will be like after all just revolutions, I think of what will not have changed. People will still die—not from preventable disease, human-wrought violence, or unsafe work, but they’ll die nonetheless. People will have decent homes, time off work, and material support to grieve their losses with dignity, but there will still be losses, inevitable and heartbreaking. We will still have an urgent need to belong to each other. I believe social work on any level that honors this reality has the best potential to achieve social justice.

A Diary of a Social Worker in the Political Arena

**Note from Melinda: I asked Becky Fast, whom I have known since my undergraduate days (when she was my boss!) to write a reflection about her decades as a professional social worker immersed in the political realm, always with a laser focus on upholding the mission of our profession and advancing our collective values. I am honored that she agreed to do so and thrilled to share this inspiring post with you. Becky has graciously agreed to share her email address, too, for those interested in pursuing this path–I can say from personal experience that she is an excellent mentor! blfast at

My venture into politics began advocating for the rights of my brother with Downs Syndrome to access regular education. At a young age, I observed first-hand how public laws and regulations excluded full participation of women, minorities, and persons with disabilities.

I was attracted to the profession of social work because of my desire to be a social activist. I had a desire to change the world in such a way that others wouldn’t have the childhood experiences that I had. I was attracted to the mission of the profession to uplift people and to improve the quality of their lives.

Social work when practiced at its best is about social change and social justice. Yet – I was greeted with mixed reactions from my social work colleagues when I decided to detour for 12 years from direct practice to a career in political social work as an aide to a U.S. Congressman. I found it perplexing to encounter a long-standing and pervasive belief that social workers are to be apolitical in their approach to professional practice. I found social workers embracing public service, volunteerism, and community organizing but they were conflicted about direct involvement in politics.

The Institute for the Advancement of Political Social Work Practice at the University of Connecticut-School of Social Work under the leadership of Dr. Nancy A. Humphreys helped me to see that I wasn’t abandoning my profession by working as a political social worker. I began to see that everything I learned through my MSW education and field practice experience is what exactly a politician needs to be successful. Over the years, I found my professional knowledge critical to candidates for office and elected officials as they formulate social policy decisions.

In my role as the Director of Casework for a U.S. Congressman, I handled individual and community problems with federal policies and programs including Medicare, Social Security and Veterans Benefits. When individuals or groups would have similar problems, it was my responsibility to report to the Congressman and assess if a change in federal legislation was needed.

Our daily lives as social workers are often based on actions taken in the political arena. My current job as a hospice social worker is dependent in a large part upon helping families access the Medicare hospice benefit. Our nation’s support for housing, health care, childcare, and education for the disadvantage and vulnerable are all made by politicians and government officials. As programs and services are slashed and cut from the statehouse to the white house, social workers involved in politics are needed now more than ever as our clients lose their jobs, housing, and health insurance from financial insecurity. Many of our clients with the least amount of resources carry the heaviest social and economic burdens.

Politicians change policy that either will help or hurt our profession and our clients. Social workers working on the “inside” as elected officials, lobbyists, campaign workers, staff and as a part of coalitions are needed to insure political empowerment of the populations we serve.

Empowering ourselves and our clients by becoming more active in political processes is a core tenet of social work and what political social work practice is all about. More politically empowered social service professionals and clients will improve the public policy decision-making and the services provided.

Being involved in politics doesn’t have to be a career it can also be as simple as writing an email or making a phone call to an elected official about a proposed budget cut. If you are considering getting involved in political advocacy please join me because only together can we effectively fight against poverty, racism, and injustice.

Economics of Studying Social Work: Guest Post from The Professional Intern

**Note from Melinda: I was approached for a guest post by Jesse from The Professional Intern, a blog/website written by and for high school, undergraduate, graduate, and adult education students. One of the frequent topics on the blog relates to the financial aspects of higher education, and life beyond, and I think that the resources contained here, and on the site, will be helpful for social work students and recent graduates, too, particularly given how frequently my students’ career decisions are influenced by very real financial considerations. In an ideal world, the important work that social workers do–whether 1:1 with clients or on the macro level–would be compensated so that social workers can take care of their families and pursue their individual financial goals, too. That will take reforming the incentives facing nonprofit organizations, valuing the contributions we make to society, and creating public policies accordingly. Until then, consider Jesse and his colleagues fellow travelers on the quest to “do well while doing good.” Thanks, Jesse!

People who go to school for social work aren’t in it for the money. They realize they’re facing a lifetime of being underpaid and overworked. But just because you’re never going to strike it rich doesn’t mean you have to carry a load of debt around with you.

Before you go
One of the most important decisions you can make when you’ve decided on your career path is where to go for your degree. This is one of those times when you have to be real with yourself. Going to a pricey private college may not be easy for you later if your parents aren’t helping you pay your loans. Admissions counselors will tell you that 99 percent of students will get financial aid. While that’s completely true, they often leave out the fact that this is only a few thousand on a $35,000 price tag.
A more affordable option is attending a state school. They tend to run at about $16,140 a year. With scholarships, they can often be brought down to about $10,080, according to a recent report. Scholarships will only knock private school tuition down to about $21,020.

If you need to work while you’re attending college, look into an online degree or a community college. Many state schools can also have more flexible schedules with night classes that will help you in your quest to do it all.

Once you’re there
Student loans can often be used for any educational expense. This can be stretched easily to include some things that you might not actually need, so it’s one of those times that we have to apply the advice we often give to others–how should we prioritize our budgets?–to our own financial decisions. Remember that you’ll have to pay this money back sooner than you’d think.

On that note, any money you take from your technical loan money should be repaid by the time you graduate. If you have loans that charge interest, pay those back immediately. For the loans that don’t accrue interest, go ahead and put the money in a savings account that you can’t access through a bank card. If you need extra help ensuring you don’t spend it, ask your parents to put their names on your account and require that you all be there to remove it.

Consider signing up for AmeriCorps if there is a program in your area (or another, similar service program). AmeriCorps is a government-funded program that allows people to give back to their community in various ways. In return for your service, you receive a living stipend. Upon completion of the program, you also receive an education award, which can be applied directly to tuition costs or loans. Depending on the amount of hours you put into the program, you could end up with a couple of thousand dollars on top of your living stipend. It’s best to do the AmeriCorps program as an internship, since it will take a considerable time commitment. Many of the projects that members can sign up for are directly related to social work and can provide valuable experience along with the much-needed money.

And now, the fun part
The fun, of course, comes from having your degree. If you’re unable to find a job right out of college, take one that you can find and continue searching hard for a job in your field (ML: again–the same advice social workers often give our clients!). With the economy the way it is, even low-paying jobs are sometimes hard-to-find. In the meantime, call your loan provider and see when you’ll need to start paying back your loans. Most have a waiting period of about six months. If you graduate in May, your first payments will begin around December. You can usually find out everything you need to know by going to their website and digging around. However, if you call you will get an opportunity to talk to real people who know your situation and can help. Memorizing the number might be the most important step you can take.

If you have trouble paying back your loans, here are some options you can take.
• Defer your loans:
Deferring your loans is the first step you should take when you lose your job or can’t make payments on a low salary. All it takes is a call to your loan provider and a short explanation of why you need a deferment. You only have a set number of these to go through though, so be sure you’re using them only when absolutely necessary.
• Extend your payback period:
If your loans exceed a certain amount, your payback period may be eligible to be extended. Remember that this will make it harder to buy a home and a new car later on down the road, since you’ll have more money already tied up in loans. The amount you currently owe back is also reflected in your credit score, so be sure to check and see how much it’s affecting you before you extend it another 5-10 years. The average loan’s standard payback period is 10 years, but can go up to 15-20 if you meet the requirements.
• Consolidate your loans:
In the funny loan world, you can have two separate loans from the same provider, both due separately. If you find this has happened to you, simply call your loan provider to ask them to be combined.
• Check the time of month:
If rent is due the same week as your student loans, most companies will allow you to switch the due date. Remember that it will take a month or so to go in effect, so don’t think you can use this to get a couple weeks of free deferment.
With all of these options available, you should be able to manage loan repayment on even the tiniest salary. Remember to also list the amount you’ve paid towards them on your taxes, as some of that money will be tax deductible. Be proactive about your loans, and you’ll be able to stay on top of them.

Does anyone else have advice to share? Recent graduates, what are you encountering in the job market, and what has worked for you? Those with longer tenures in the working world, what has this perspective taught you that you wish you’d known before?

Guest Post: Humility, or How I Came to Peace with my House of Cards

**Note from Melinda: This guest post is from a relatively new social worker whose career I have watched over the past few years. I have witnessed her family’s financial struggles as she seeks to create what all social workers want: a job opportunity that allows us to use our skills to work towards social justice, while experiencing a measure of that justice–adequate compensation that provides dignity and comfort for those we love–for ourselves. I asked her to write about this journey, and I am so grateful for the very personal and poignant way in which she has shared these very intimate challenges. For me, reading this post prompts all kinds of questions, about economic justice (Why are such valuable jobs so relatively devalued?), women’s rights (How can our female-dominated profession empower women as mothers AND as family wage-earners?), about nonprofit organization reform (If even the best organizations aren’t paying family wages, how can they compete with for-profit companies for the best talent?), and about the future of social services for those whose lives we touch (What will our profession look like in 10 years if excellent social workers can’t afford to stay?). I’d love to hear your comments, in response to those questions and to this narrative. And I thank her so much for sharing.

I assume that most people are like me – they went to school to pursue their passion. I got a law degree and a masters degree in social work because my passion is, in the most general sense, changing the world for the better of all inhabitants.

I know that this is not the only reason people go to school, because we also go to school to get a job that will pay our bills, feed our families, and maybe even allow us to have a hobby. But, in the idealist twenty-something head, this is second to passion.
Upon graduation with both degrees, I got a job at a well-respected non-profit in the state. This is lucky, truly lucky, because it grew out of my second year practicum at a time when job prospects for inexperienced graduates were/are not great. I pursued administrative social work, and this position is the perfect blend of giving me a chance to practice what I want to do and giving me the experience I need to continue pursuing a successful career. It is not a “career” position, but it is an unbelievably fortunate starting point.

Shortly after I began this well-paying job, I realized how insufficient the pay really was. I couldn’t pay the bills, buy the gas, food, and pay rent. I couldn’t afford to send my children to daycare, because my husband, if he were to get a job outside the home, would only make enough to cover the costs of sending them – effectively paying to have someone else raise our children. I couldn’t afford health insurance, and there were times that we were selling our book collection by the box so that we could afford enough food and gas until the next pay day. We couldn’t go to the doctor, go visit family, buy Christmas presents. Everything was going toward staying afloat and avoiding shutoff services.

The financial strain my family was feeling began to seep into my work. I was frustrated. I was the least paid attorney there, and I worked hard. I applied for a higher position, and, although I was led to believe I was a shoo-in, I didn’t get it. I started coming in late. I was sarcastic during meetings. I spent a lot of time online.

How on earth did I not get fired? I have no idea. But I had the good fortune of having an understanding supervisor who had a serious meeting with me. My supervisor made it clear that my job was not in jeopardy before beginning to speak, but let me know that what I was doing wasn’t going unnoticed, and my job could be in jeopardy if I continued as I was. My supervisor made it clear that she knew that I had the skills and personality to do this job well, but I had to make the choice to do it with integrity. My supervisor was respectful but honest, and she gave me the decision-making power. It was truly a reflection of the work of the organization – empowerment.

I was humbled. Sometimes it takes someone on the outside who cares for us to show us what a petulant whiner we’ve become. And I was. Sure, I was struggling – I was a first year graduate, just passed the bar. I have children and a family to support. This is stressful stuff, and it hasn’t gone away. Women as breadwinners for their families have unique issues that society hasn’t even begun to address. Seeking balance is important, and sometimes it’s not immediately possible. My life was beyond balance. My focus was solely on supporting my family.

I forgot that I was also working for an organization that looks at the bigger picture and does work that I believe in. I signed up for this job as an opportunity, and I was no longer seeing it that way. I saw it as beneath me, as something I had to do because I couldn’t find something that would pay me “what I was worth.” I knew it was important work, but I had to find a way to support my family, so I only paid lip service to the mission of the organization. Almost immediately after the conversation with my supervisor, I began to change my behavior. I also continued to pursue the next step in my career.

The first three or four resumes I sent out, I would spend a lot of time fantasizing about the position, my life, paying off credit card and student loan debt, having even ten dollars in the checking account on pay day. I would think about the office, buying a house, having health insurance, fixing the car. The first three or four rejection letters I received, I was crushed. Crying, feeling like the world was against me and my family, not being present, and not giving my whole heart to the job I had again.

It was a slow and painful process, but I’ve come to a pretty good place. Nothing has changed. I don’t make more money. I don’t have an office with a window. The book collection is still dwindling. I hope that my children don’t break a bone or come down with something horrible because a financial blow like that could crumble this fragile house of cards. But I do have perspective. Nothing I was doing was making things better. It was making them worse.

I firmly believe that faith is necessary in our lives. We don’t have to be spiritual in the sense of having a religion or faith community, but we have to have faith in something – be it god, Buddhahood, the almighty dollar, personal ethics, or whatever. I have faith that I still have something to learn. I have somewhere to be, and right now it is right here, whether I’m completely at peace with that or not.

I haven’t stopped putting out resumes, and I still sometimes find myself fantasizing about some positions. I only apply for jobs that I would be passionate about, so it’s hard to refrain sometimes. But I’m here. Putting my heart into my job. Searching for the next step while remaining present where I am. I don’t know where I’ll be in one year or ten years. But, that’s no longer daunting; it’s exciting. Every rejection letter I receive makes the mystery more intriguing, because I have to tell myself that this wasn’t it, it wasn’t the perfect place for me to be. Someday that job will show up, and I will be able to move forward with dignity and integrity, because I know that I’ve worked hard, and I deserve it.

I write this not to show how wonderful I’ve become. I still have petulant days, disappointing moments, and plenty of times when I’m not as present in my work and life as I’d like. I just hope that this helps someone who may be there right now, perhaps saving them a trip to their supervisor’s office to have a humiliating conversation. Starting a career is hard, especially today when one position receives sixty applications from highly qualified, experienced people, and we are merely fledglings trying to learn to fly. May we all end up exactly where we need and want to be, and may we learn the lessons that we need to learn without too many growing pains.

Guest Post: From classroom to capitol, literally

*One of my students, Jody McCready, was a Kansas legislative intern this past session (in addition to her practicum and a full load of classes!). She kindly agreed to share her experiences here, and I know that she’d welcome your comments, too! What can you do to increase your engagement with your state legislature? How should our social work curricula be modified to encourage these experiences? Which piece of advice speaks most to you?

I was interested in interning at the Statehouse this year because I figured given the political environment and economic status there would be much to learn and observe. I was correct in this assumption. Some days I left the Statehouse extremely confused, irritated, and hopeless. I will try to share with you some of the lessons I have learned from my year with the legislature in a precise manner. Here are my top twelve lessons from the Statehouse:

12. Say “Hi” to everyone in the hallways, and start small talk with other people- even those who you disagree with. Talk to all legislators and develop a personal relationship. While talking to representatives, use your clinical skills and gather information about them- what they are experiencing. Talks should not just revolve around professional topics; really dedicate yourself to getting to know elected officials as the person they are. AND create relationships with the secretaries and support staff- they are the gatekeepers to the legislature.

11. Sometimes it is all about the money. Unfortunately, sometimes your goals and mission are overriden by the economic status. This year is a prime example. While this is frustrating to experience, you must not give up on educating elected officials about your mission and the needs of the population you are advocating for.

10. Understand that our representatives are not geniuses, and do not know it all. Many are honestly normal people. While some officials may have higher education, others may just have a high school education. For example, the representative I interned for only has an associate’s degree and has never had experiences with the population I am motivated to advocate for. Other legislators may reference religious morals as a basis for making political policy and votes. We must interact with representatives as if they know nothing about our mission and concerns. We must educate them on the basic concerns and needs of the population we are advocating. We also must know how to manage the topic of religion, especially how its tenets may contradict the realities of our populations. This takes precision and tact when in discussion with representatives who rely on such religious beliefs for policymaking.

9. Use your listening, paraphrasing, and “clinical” skills. Yup, engaging representatives (or consumers) through meaningful conversations is the way to connect. Your connection with an elected official will benefit you!

8. Prepare for uncomfortable situations, awkward statements, and boundary violations. It will happen. Some elected officials are not professional, and others may make inappropriate comments about your appearance or work. Be prepared on how you are going to deal with such situations.

7. Utilize resources supported by the state, like the research office and library. There are many resources supported by the State that are available to the public. Do not be afraid to call the research department when reviewing an issue, or consult the library to find resources.

6. Present professional, well-rounded information. Present professional-looking materials. Try to supply not only statistical information but also personal stories. Make suggestions for amendments for policies in the works; don’t just present problems. If you have a concern about a policy, don’t be afraid to supply amendments or suggestions to improve the policy. You would be surprised how many legislators are interested in hearing such improvements. Many representatives do want to represent their constituents but don’t how to address the gaps in policies. We as social workers are the experts and can supply suggestions close such gaps.

5. Don’t discriminate according to party. Just because a representative is a “Democrat” or “Republican” does not mean that they agree with the party’s stance on every issue. They all are humans and their path through life has led them to have different life experiences, just like us. By talking to representatives you never thought would support your cause, you may surprise yourself and find a new supporter.

4. Know yourself and what topics trigger you! Prepare yourself for stereotypical statements and testimony that will flat-out infuriate you. Prepare for this, create a plan on how to deescalate your feelings when you are getting worked up while in a professional environment, and how to deal with the stress that follows when you leave for the day.

3. Volunteer to attend political events, forums, and to assist in campaigns. I am volunteering to help a representative out of Overland Park this summer just to gain more experience. There is much to learn while interacting with representatives on their campaign, and vice-versa. Representatives do have much to learn from social workers given hot political topics.

2. Constituents need to be present and visible in the Statehouse. Bottom line- constituents are the most effective way to get a representative’s attention. Elected officials are devoted to their constituents and by bringing a constituent to them who can speak to your mission will achieve much.

1. Social workers are needed in the Statehouse DAILY. Social workers need to be visible and available to legislators. Being at the capital for one day does not create a lasting impression with legislature. You want to cultivate a relationship with a legislator? Be visible, available, and constant in the legislator’s day.

I personally suggested to the Dean to make capitol experiences a focus in our school intern curriculum, even for clinical workers. As social workers we learn the needs and concerns from our community through direct experience; this is why we must also have direct experience in the legislature. All social workers have much to learn from direct observation and presence in the legislature. We as social workers need to be present in the legislative session to fill the role of liaisons from policy development to current functioning of our communities.

I also feel that organizations need to continue contact with representatives after session. Organizations must invite legislators to educational events and trainings to inform them of their organization’s mission, concerns, service, and population’s need. There is just not enough time to do this while in session; therefore we must maintain the relationship with our elected officials and continue education with them as much as possible after the end of the legislative session.

Guest Post: What a long, strange trip it’s been: The winding job search of one macro social worker

**Graduation at our School was about a week ago, and many of my former students are in full job-search mode. To both honor their accomplishments and equip them for the weeks ahead, I asked one of my favorite former students, whose job search I witnessed, to share his story with us. He has such passion and talent for social justice work, and I know that we’ll continue to see more of his impact on our world. I’m so glad he chose social work, and so glad that I get to observe his journeys. Thank you, Jason!

Several weeks ago, Melinda wrote a blog post with this piece of advice for new grads seeking work: Choose an organization that you’re excited about, not a job description that sounds good. No nugget of wisdom better sums up my experience job searching last year with a fresh SWAAP (Social Work Administration and Advocacy Practice, our School’s macro social work concentration in the MSW program) degree in hand and a social work job to find.

I was optimistic starting out (which never fully waned). I knew I would be moving to Chicago at the end of the summer so I figured I had all the time in the world. I didn’t. I was working part-time in Kansas City and I spent many of my days drafting cover letters and formatting resumes for positions as a Policy Analyst, Administration Coordinator, Outreach Manager. These jobs sounded wonderful, but I had little experience outside of class time, no connections, and little understanding of how Chicago social services work or look, apart from a couple informational interviews I’d done during a spring visit.
Applying for jobs in Chicago while living in Kansas City was tough. I think only one employer even gave me an interview. And they weren’t even hiring for the position any longer! It turned out that the hiring manager was Mennonite (my particular brand of Christianity) and recognized a denominational service program I had done. This was literally the only reason he (pre-) interviewed me. It went well and it was great practice. I kept in touch with him throughout my job search, but he never did have an opening.

I finally moved to Chicago in late August and for 2 and a half months I was in full job search mode. Most of the time. I never before knew how difficult it was for me to stay motivated on a single task. I had one purpose: find a job. But I felt completely unable to control that outcome. Though energy was much more frenetic than it had been in Kansas City and there were times of euphoria (an informational interview with the director of an advocacy group who had a position that was PERFECT for me and promised an interview; three interviews with one organization; completing my side project: running a marathon), there were also times of despair (the promised interview never happened despite my best attempts to seek follow through; the third interview was a complete nightmare; after the marathon I still didn’t have a job… or a marathon to train for).

In desperation I agreed to work for a friend’s friend’s Halloween store, which had me standing on a street corner dressed as a Smurf for a couple of late-October weeks. It was during this time that I received a second interview (the first had been two months prior, and I hadn’t been chosen for a second at that time) with Inspiration Corporation, a north-side non-profit specializing in job skills, a culinary training program, and services for the homeless. Though I’d initially applied for one position, that had been filled by someone internally, which led to my rejection. After a few weeks passed, another employee (who had the position I have now) decided to leave the agency, as did the person who received the job for which I initially applied and was rejected.

This time I got the job, which I’ve now held for six months.

As a Career Specialist, I meet with 4-6 people every day, each of whom are either homeless or at risk of homelessness, to discuss their lives and provide support, advice, and guidance on their job search or quest for further training. Though it’s work I’ve done in the past (and doesn’t require my MSW or have a strong focus on policy or advocacy), I’m passionate about the mission of the agency and appreciative of the structure and initiatives it has taken to impact homelessness in Chicago. Inspiration has a stellar reputation and I work with the most passionate people I could dream of to deliver services to some of the most talented and underappreciated citizens of Chicago.

It’s not what I would have considered my dream a year ago, but it’s exactly the entrance to social work (and post-MSW professional life) in Chicago I need. My policy and advocacy interests are only strengthened by the exposure to people’s real lives I’m witness to, and I hold on to hope that I will be interviewed for the Policy Analyst and Outreach Manager jobs. Likely soon.

I know the job search isn’t easy, but there are ways to survive. I’ve compiled a few tidbits and learnings here. Some are obvious. Hopefully some aren’t.

● Have someone edit your cover letters, someone from whom you don’t mind receiving criticism. They will be stronger for it, and they’re not as easy to write as you might think. And read them out loud to yourself to make sure everything flows.
● Send your resume as a PDF and your cover letter as the text of your e-mail.
● Informational Interviews matter. Eventually someone I interviewed with told me they’d heard about me from someone else. It’s about networking, but it’s also about sanity. When I was down (and I spent a lot of time feeling down), a good informational interview snapped me out of it and re-instilled hope, knowing someone out there had made a life of doing the kind of work I wanted to do.
● It’s easy to dismiss “networking” as overblown and overrated, but it turns out I met the person whose position I eventually received after he received a job at another agency at a friend’s barbeque for the homeless group she works with during one of my summer visits. Pretty random, right? But those are the effects of making connections in the relatively small non-profit world (especially around issues of hunger, poverty, and homelessness).
● Don’t take it personally when you hear nothing back, even though that’s next to impossible. You’ll usually hear nothing back.
● Give yourself a break. Go to a museum. Find free events. Read a novel. Even watch some TV on Netflix or Hulu. Budget your time wisely, but give yourself some fun.
● Brush up on local licensure policies. I worked with kids in a residential setting in Kansas City, so I thought it’d be a no-brainer to apply for those jobs (and get them) in Chicago. I didn’t learn until much later that all of these jobs required a particular city-certification for child welfare that I did not have.
● Connect with Social Work PRN. They’re completely wonderful (and had I not received this job shortly after I connected with them, I’m confident I’d have received some temp work). They are more focused on the clinical side of social work, however.

Congratulations on graduation and happy job hunting!

Guest post: A Case for Advocating from Within

**Note from Melinda: This guest post is from a blog reader who has generously agreed to share her story of advocating from within her employing organization. For obvious reasons, she remains anonymous in this forum, but she is willing to engage in conversation if other readers have questions or comments about her work.

Working within a movement to create social change is something I have wanted to be a part of since childhood. Always rooting for the underdog, cheering for the kid in fourth place or sitting at the table with the classmate by themselves seem to have been a theme in my life. I also love to challenge authority. It has left me with multiple time-outs, probably a good year lost to groundings and supervisors waiting in their office with a stack of write-ups titled “Insubordination’.

It was not a huge surprise when I wound up working for a women’s organization straight out of college. It felt comforting to look around and see other people dedicated to improving the lives of women and children. The realization came that the violence women are enduring are not random or isolated acts, but rather sustained by a framework developed by systems that maintain power and control over her life. It is easy to see the abuse women survive from their partner, sometimes, but not so easy to see the abuse they endure due to sexism, racism and classism. Diagnoses such as PTSD, depression and anxiety are commonly used in my world. The effect of these seems to remove “providers” further from the “consumers”. Diagnostics don’t seem to accurately reflect the experience of millions of women nor prevent the larger issues of violence against women. In my line of work we talk about how it is our responsibility to help her craft, draft and tell her story for her healing. Why not help her craft her story to connect and correct the larger injustices?

Working for a self-touted client-centered organization it seemed natural for this type of a program to be created, shaped and implemented. My organization is part of a state-wide coalition that claims to be part of a social change movement. Implementing a survivor-designed and led advocacy group seemed like an easy fit, right? That’s what I thought. What I have found are the people, organizations or systems that are “supposed” to be on our side can actually provide more challenges than who we think our natural opponents to be.

Internally, administrators balked at legislative advocacy because they believe that it’s our coalition’s responsibility (not our organization’s), they’re misinformed about the parameters of how nonprofits can lobby, and they’re concerned about the time/energy for adding another project to the organization. The project was not allowed to be added into my new job description as my supervisor did not feel “the project was developed enough.” Concern for burnout and shifting priorities from my primary responsibilities are other stated reasons from my supervisor to pull me off the project. The current barrier is her concern that the grants that pay my salary all specifically state ‘no lobbying’. Contacting the grantors is in the plans; however I have been barred from participating in the conversations.

Participating in our Coalition’s Legislative Advocacy Day has been an activity that our organization traditionally does. Bringing survivors to this day is something that I thought seemed logical. The welcome was lukewarm and ill-prepared, as they had never invited survivors to this event. After women told their stories to State Legislators and a representative responded empathetically, the Coalition reacted and I was told they strategically build relationships and plan out legislation. They were alarmed at the survivor’s “uncontrolled message” and told me that they never want a “story like that ever getting back to the capital”. The effect of this statement is unfortunate in several dimensions. Violence against women can involve substance abuse, mental health, poverty and sometimes suicide and homicide. Instead of seizing the opportunity to educate people in power about the complexities of the lives of their constituents, the Coalition sent a message to my organization and the survivor that shamed her (what had happened was her fault) and attempted to take her power away by controlling her story.

Why do I keep pushing for a survivor-led advocacy group? Because what I hear time and time again is that system action or inaction has a direct impact on people’s lives. Survivors look to systems for basic needs, protection and justice. When systems fail, women feel violated, and sometimes the “beat down from the system is worse than a man’s.” Women have been affected by the problem of violence and have a stake in the issue. They are the experts in how systems fail and re-victimize. They have a strong desire to end the re-victimization by changing the way people think about violence against women, responses to survivors and holding these systems accountable for their actions. They want a social change group that is a combination of education, policy change and legislation. If we want true change, then the people who are most affected by the problem must be at the center of righting the wrongs.

Guest post: adventures in regulatory policy

Photo credit, The Pregnancy & Postpartum Resource Center

Too often, we equate “advocacy” with “lobbying” and, so, overlook all of the changes that we can achieve through other means, by focusing on other types of decision makers.

I’ve learned through teaching and my own advocacy that stories are particularly potent tools for inspiring us to act, so today’s post tells the story of some advocates for women’s health care who took an unexpected route to their desired social change. Along the way, they learned how to navigate a specific regulatory environment, added new skills to their advocacy repertoire, and, perhaps most importantly, moved closer to a significant advance in women’s health care.

To craft this post, I interviewed Jen Stoll, one of my rock-star former students who has been featured here before. I’m not quick enough to get everything she said word for word, so these are paraphrases, not direct quotations, but she has verified that they are accurate reflections of our conversation and of her experience.

I want to hear from others (and Jen does, too!) who have used regulations to change social systems and improve people’s lives, too. How do your skills transfer between legislative and regulatory advocacy? What learning do you want to share?

ML: How did you define the problem you wanted to tackle?
JS: As a doula, I experienced first-hand the frustrations of not being able to work with clients who were Medicaid recipients unless I volunteered–Medicaid would not reimburse for doula services, even though there is compelling evidence that doula-assisted births are less expensive and less potentially traumatic for women. Women I met who were Medicaid recipients were upset because they often didn’t understand their options and disappointed because they didn’t have the births they expected. I started to talk with other doulas in my network about this, connecting this policy to poorer birth outcomes for some low-income women. One doula told me that Minnesota had passed legislation that directed Medicaid to reimburse for doula services, so it started to seem like a wider policy change would be possible.

ML: So, if Minnesota had achieved this change legislatively, what made you start with regulatory advocacy?
JS: We actually didn’t start out with that intent. We knew that we needed to know more about how Centers for Medicaid and Medicare Services (CMS) viewed doulas, and what they knew about the impact of Medicaid policy on women who give birth. I serve on a committee through Doulas of North America focused on this issue, and we divided up a list of dozens of contacts, at various levels in the Medicaid system, to start conversations with regulators. A friend who works with Medicare also gave me some contacts to guide this work. We started to make cold calls, telling a story of a client who gave birth attended by a doula. The story wove together the narrative of better outcomes with some persuasive data on cost savings. We were all calling independently, but we shared the same objectives: to educate and to listen.

ML: So how did an informational campaign result in actual regulatory change?
JS: Every person with whom we spoke was responsive. It was really quite amazing; we also have some campaigns underway with private insurance companies, but we’re not making nearly as much headway with them. With CMS, every message we left was returned, and everyone listened and asked questions. Still, we never found someone who could, or would, answer our question about what the process would be to achieve this change. No one ever said, “oh, that’s my job.” So we just kept calling.

ML: And then?
JS: And then, one day, the committee received a letter from CMS stating that doulas had been issued a provider number (we didn’t know that that was what we should have been asking for). We still don’t know whose advocacy really made that happen. It seems like we kind of created a drumbeat for change, and that our persistence paid off, in finally conveying the necessary information to someone(s) with the authority to take action.

ML: So what now?
JS: Now we’re initiating the next step. States have to take action to require their Medicaid programs to reimburse doulas, and each state has a different process for that decision. In Kansas, it wouldn’t take legislative change, but we’re starting with some states with greater doula representation where, like Minnesota, the legislature will need to act. Simultaneously, we’re educating doula providers on why they should apply for Medicaid provider status, and how to proceed with that application.

ML: What lessons did you learn from this regulatory advocacy that you want to share?
JS: First, you really don’t need to know that much. We made the progress we did by asking lots of questions. Regulators are experts in their field, and, for the most part, they want to share what they know. Second, stick with it. Many of these regulatory agencies are complex by design, and they certainly don’t make it easy to navigate through for the information you need. We figured that, since we were taking shots in the dark, we should shoot wide and long! Third, change can happen in unexpected ways and, while you can’t always be prepared for this, you do need to be able to pivot to the next step quickly. And, finally, ask for more than you might expect to get. Regulators care about the programs they administer, and we had very different conversations about the health care of low-income women than we could expect to have in more politicized contexts. That can create openings for change beyond your expectations.

I know that Jen would be happy to answer your questions about this process, or her ongoing work. And, regulators, if there are any reading, you can be anonymous–how do you like to be approached by advocates, and what is most persuasive to you, in terms of tactics?

Guest Post: Justice for all–including those with mental illness

Note from Melinda: This is a guest post from one of my all-time most awesome students, from whom I have learned, and continue to learn, a great deal about what it means to be a great social worker. I asked her to write something about an issue that should matter a great deal to all social workers, both in our quest for social justice, and in our efforts to build the political power of our organizations and those we serve. Thank you, Cookie, for all you do and all you are. I’m so very, very glad to know you.

My name is Janet Cook, or simply Cookie. I am a mental health consumer (dual diagnosed) and a convicted felon. Some of you may ask yourself why I am sharing this very personal information for all to see. Am I not opening myself up to judgmental attitudes, unfair labeling and just plain old, everyday common discrimination? Yes I am, but for good reasons.

First, I could not care less about what strangers may think of me. My family and friends know me and, to borrow the infamous statement by Sally Fields after her Oscar win, “They really, really like me.” It has always been my philosophy in life that if someone does not like me I am okay with that as long as they have made at least the most basic effort to get to know me. Also, I am neither naïve nor narcissistic enough to think that everyone will like me or afford me the opportunity to be who I am without judgment.

That being said, I now come to my second reason for sharing the above information. My felony conviction, a condition over which I had control, allowed me to resume my right to vote once my civil rights were restored by completing my sentence and probation. First thing I did was re-register to vote. No lie–that is how important my right to vote is to me.

On the other hand, my mental illnesses, lifelong conditions that I never asked for but have accepted as just one part of who I am, can deny me right to vote in one of 40 states that places voting restrictions on people with mental illness, including Kansas.

In Kansas, if I am under guardianship or have been found incompetent, my right to vote is assured because the Kansas Legislature removed references to these conditions in 1974. However, prohibitions for individuals who are insane, i.e. suffer from mental illness, and felons were left in the Constitution. Am I the only one who does not see the logic in this?

Kansas SCR 1622 is a concurrent resolution that would remove the references to mental illness and suffrage rights from the Kansas Constitution. The right to vote is our most fundamental duty and honor as citizens, and struggles throughout history have sought to extend it to all. Yet in recent committee meetings some State Senators voiced belief that people should have the capacity to make proper judgment or some level of capacity before being allowed to vote. I have to ask myself how election officials might go about “testing” every registered voter to make sure he/she will make a “proper judgment” before casting a vote. Any and all ideas are welcomed.

Fortunately, SCR 1622 was passed by the full Senate by a resounding majority-38 yeas and one nay. The fight in the Kansas House is going to be a bit more of a battle. The bottom line is that all Kansans need to contact their State Representative to ask them to support SCR 1622. If you don’t live in Kansas, find out what your state’s laws are regarding the suffrage rights of those with mental illness, and connect with consumer groups advocating to extend and protect this core right.

By all accounts, approximately one in four Americans suffer from a mental illness. Look around you right now, at your work place, at the mall, in the grocery store or wherever. Every fourth person you see or meet in all likelihood suffers from a mental illness. Do you or anyone else have the right to tell them that “Hey, you can’t vote. You’re just too crazy.” Sound silly? Guess not in at least 40 out of 50 states in the great country of ours. And at the same time, the social work profession tells consumers, including those with mental illness, that they need to take responsibility for their own services, engage in their communities, advocate to protect the services on which they depend. We can’t pay lip service to empowerment if we’re not willing to fight for the most basic power–that of the vote–and against discriminatory efforts to deny it.

Spread the word. To find out who your Kansas State Representative is and how to contact him or her, go to Tell your representative that you’re a voter, and that you think every Kansas citizen should be too.