Tag Archives: macro social work

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.

Macro Social Work and Maximum Career Success in 2012

My students and I just finished our fall semester. For them, that means a few weeks without practicum or policy studies. I’m sure they’ll be glad to get online without seeing frequent posts from me about new policy developments or insightful new articles that I’m just SURE they’ll love (can you ever listen to too many Robert Greenstein podcasts? I think not.).

For me, the break between semesters means decorating Christmas cookies with the kids, trying to come up with gifts for the dozens of people who help us raise them throughout the year, and catching up on the stack of reading that has grown on my nightstand throughout the fall.

But I’ve also had several conversations with students in the past couple of weeks about their futures, and what the next year may hold, especially given that my Advanced Policy students will receive their MSWs in the spring, in a job market that honestly doesn’t look much better, at least in some sectors, than it has for the past three years or so (which is to say, not too good). Increasingly, my students are getting started early in researching organizations that might provide some career opportunities for them, which just might mean that they’re taking my career advice about seeking a good fit between you and the organizational culture, rather than searching for the perfect job description.

But I’ve been doing some investigation into other resources for young nonprofit professionals, most of which are good fits for social workers, too, especially those who see nonprofit administration as a promising career path. These macro social workers will need to understand how organizations work, and how they should work, what the context of social service delivery will look like, and how to chart a career progression for themselves that will position them for long-term success in an often volatile market.

In this thinking, I’ve benefitted greatly from the wisdom of former students, especially from the recent past, whose own job experiences provide inspiration and comfort to today’s graduates. I’d love to hear from more of my own former students as well as other new social work professionals, regarding these resources, others that you’d recommend, or the advice that you wish someone had shared with you at the inception of your macro social work career. I’m particularly interested in how to help students bridge the direct practice jobs that are somewhat more plentiful to the macro work they seek. It requires finding opportunities to build skills and relationships in one service context that you can leverage in another, and demonstrating leadership in direct service that can lead to opportunities to lead on a larger scale. I don’t mean the assumed “work your way up to management” role, but, rather, intentionally complementing one’s macro social work education with strategic direct practice experiences, in pursuit of an overall portfolio designed to deliver a chance to shape our field.

  • I’ve shared Rosetta Thurman’s blog on my blog roll before; I find her writing topics and style thought-provoking, refreshing, and genuinely additive to the conversation about young people in the nonprofit world. There’s a lot here to prompt all of our thinking (regardless of age) about the future of nonprofits and how to build impactful organizations by investing in people, but, especially for newer professionals, there’s also tangible advice about how to network, which conferences are worth your time and money, and how to build your personal brand. You should also check out her book, How to Become a Nonprofit Rockstar. Sometimes we think that someone has to be speaking directly to social workers to have anything to say to us, but I never fail to find something in Rosetta’s thinking that resonates with me.
  • Another blogger with relevant advice for new nonprofit workers is Alison Jones, who blogs at Entry-Level Living. She comments on the state of the nonprofit world, too, but also has advice about how to jumpstart your nonprofit career with formal service programs, how to integrate into nonprofit culture as a new employee, and how to tell the story of your college education in order to win a nonprofit job. Especially in this job market, it’s also critically important not to feel alone, and the community that arises on these two sites can complement the “real-world” support network that job-seekers so need.
  • Some new online forums, mostly completely self-moderated, have popped up for those seeking social work jobs. While there may not be too many actionable tips for social work graduates looking for a specific setting or geography on these pretty broad sites, there is an opportunity for solidarity and a chance to gain a sort of high-level overview of the landscape of the social work job market. One is the Social Worker Jobs Forum and another is the Social Work Job Bank (this last one is affiliated with The New Social Worker Online, and does have a stronger community moderation component).

    Here’s to a very bright new year, indeed, for social work graduates.

  • 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 msn.com

    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.

    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!

    Sticking in Macro Every Chance I Get

    Even though I started my academic career exclusively teaching graduate students, I’ve found that I kind of love teaching BSWs.

    I love how their discussion board posts are punctuated with exclamation points, and how they’re nearly bubbling over with enthusiasm for our profession.

    I love how they’re pretty wide open, in terms of where and how and with whom they’ll practice, and how they’re so eager to have contact with real people that they’ll embrace pretty much any exercise of social work skills.

    I love how frequently they reference the strengths perspective, and the focus on person-in-environment, as something that drew them to social work over other helping professions.

    I love how they ask questions, and not just about their assignments; they don’t yet know what they’ll need to know (do we ever?), so they want to know everything. I feel that way, too.

    But, mainly, I love interfacing with (and hopefully impacting) students who most likely won’t become policy analysts or administrators, at least not right away. I love the opportunity to help those whose working lives will mostly be filled with helping clients meet their immediate needs figure out how to integrate macro practice into that direct work.

    Because that’s really where my passions lay, and where I think the future of our profession rests: leveraging this huge “army” of direct practice social workers into a powerful force for social change.

    This semester was a particularly rewarding one (and the grades are all posted now–it’s officially over!). I had two great sections of the same class: Community and Organizational Dynamics and Human Behavior (even though I can never remember the title without looking it up). Virtually without exception, I had students who were curious and compassionate and committed, and it made me feel really good about the future of our profession.

    And, the most fun for me, they came to the course open to the idea of working with larger systems, and pretty quick to grasp how their clinical skills would help them with these bigger contexts. We could spend the semester, then, connecting their new theoretical understandings to these specific environments, and continually tying that work back to the heart of the matter: the impact on the clients we serve.

    I tell my students at the beginning of the semester that my goal is not to turn them into macro social workers, but that I will work hard to help them become social workers who do macro practice (not necessarily the same thing). I believe that every social worker whose primary responsibilities are administration or community organizing or policy advocacy should be constantly focused on client well-being as the “bottom line” (otherwise, there’s too great a danger that we start acting like those job functions instead of like social workers, with our particular professional mandate and value base) and that every clinical social worker needs a complex understanding of how policy and other environmental constraints impact clients’ lives (and a commitment to remove barriers and make those environments more supportive).

    That’s the mashup that our profession needs, and I really think these students will be part of bringing it to reality.

    As part of the class, I ask students to share with me their evolving ideas about this integration, and what it might look like for their practice. I have their permission to share a few of these ideas, which are noteworthy not so much for their novelty as for their origin–these are the plans and hopes of our newest social work colleagues. And they bring a refreshing and pretty inspiring dedication to live them.

  • Utilize group work more, in a residential treatment program for at-risk adolescent boys.
  • Conduct voter registration with staff at an organization serving people experiencing homelessness.
  • Create a group for social workers within a mental health center (where most other professionals are psychologists and licensed counselors) to provide a sense of professional comraderie and work out ethical dilemmas.
  • Provide policy updates to case managers working with refugee families, about developments that impact non-citizens.
  • Share information about state budget cuts with consumers at an outpatient mental health center.
  • Introduce a community service component into an after-school program for youth.
  • Record short videos of seniors utilizing home-based services, to be shared with legislators considering program cuts.
  • Join the National Association of Social Workers so that they receive updates about pending legislation that would affect their work.
  • Participate in the state domestic violence coalition’s lobby day, along with some clients.

    What I love, every day, about working with these BSW students, is that, while they decided to become social workers because they want to save the world, they’re not overwhelmed by that prospect. Instead, they are eagerly looking for ways to dive in. This kind of “I may not be able to do everything, but I must do something” attitude, applied broadly throughout our profession and others, really could change the world.

    There are thousands of ideas that could be added to a list like this–ways that social workers and other professionals can weave some systems change work into their daily interactions with those we have the honor to serve. What’s on your list?