Tag Archives: social workers

Infographic love, for those who don’t get spring break

I am fully aware that, outside of the academic world, spring break isn’t a ‘thing’.

I feel like I really need this break, come the middle of March every year, and so I feel for those who can’t reset at this moment, before spring really comes to the Midwest, when we’re all ready for sunshine and some extra sleep.

I can’t deliver you spring break, but I can share the next best thing (?):

Some great infographics.

Because who doesn’t love a good infographic, even more than a day on the beach?

You’re welcome.

And I’m sorry.

Bolder Advocacy’s Map of advocacy wins on GLBT rights: Check out the pins, where you can see photos and learn more about each victory. Maybe it’s more an interactive map than an infographic, but it’s cool. Spring break or no, we’re #winning!

If Kansas poverty was a city: This sobering figure comes from good friends at the Kansas Center for Economic Growth. The statistics suck, but the infographic is powerful.

Economic Policy Institute figure on attacks on American labor standards: I consider myself fairly well-informed, but a lot of this went past me. If we don’t pay attention to how the rules of the game, so to speak, are changing, we don’t stand a chance at reversing the trends of eroding worker well-being. These laws matter, for the people we serve and for the future of our nation.

Social Work Salary Guide: I receive quite a few unsolicited pieces that organizations want me to use for my blog. Some of the content is good, but I tend to be a little skeptical, and I certainly don’t want to load this site up with content from the private universities or job search services that tend to gravitate here. But this salary guide seemed like it might be of interest to folks, so I’m linking to it here.

Do you have infographics you’re loving right now, that you’re willing to share?

If they’re awesome, I’ll even look at them from vacation. OK, I promise, no more spring break talk.

Just have a great week next week, wherever you are.

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When it’s time to walk away

I believe, very strongly, that social workers (and even social work students–sometimes, especially social work students) can be change agents in their own organizations.

We know, usually better than those on the outside, the injustices that need righting, within our own shops, and we are often well-positioned to attract attention to the needed changes.

Sometimes, we get real results.

But, sometimes, we need to know when it’s time to walk away, because we can no longer be complicit in (fill in the blank, but my students usually grapple the most with angst around unethical supervisors who can’t be reined in, agency policies that unduly punish clients, and severe budget cuts that imperil well-being).

There is a story in A Problem from Hell about some foreign service officers who resigned during the genocide in Bosnia, in response to the lack of U.S. action, that has me thinking about the role of protest resignations in social work organizations, too.

Our Code of Ethics states clearly that there is no excuse for silence, and our first recourse has to be to summon our courage and speak up.

But, then, sometimes we recognize that we have become the ‘inhouse devil’s advocate’ (p. 312). We complain, people look grave and nod their heads, and then they move forward, unimpeded. It’s like a safety valve that inhibits fundamental reforms, and it can be dangerous. I mean, it can feel good for all involved, it keeps the system intact. It slows change. It lends legitimacy to decisions that, at times, cannot really be legitimized.

In those cases, we have to use our advocacy skills to recognize when our internal dissent has become just a coping strategy, instead of a change strategy. If we’re just playing to type (we let her complain, and that’s her role), you won’t have an impact. Instead, it becomes the way that you live with working within a system, or a context, contrary to your values.

Ultimately, in this anecdote, these insiders decided that there was nothing conscientious about objecting to a policy that would never change.

They had to make a more dramatic move.

And, no, the spates of resignations during the U.S. government’s failure to act in response to the Bosnian genocide didn’t immediately and dramatically change U.S. policy, despite the hope of one foreign service official, who wrote, “I am therefore resigning in order to help develop a stronger public consensus that the U.S. must act immediately to stop the genocide” (p. 286).

But it did attract attention, especially because of the recognition of the considerable cost of such an action, to those involved.

That means that, sometimes, walking away can be an act of great moral courage, and of advocacy.

And can even be a game-changer.

One of the officials said, “When you are in a bureaucracy, you can either put your head down and become cynical, tired, and inured, or you can stick your head up and try to do something” (p. 301).

Sometimes, deciding to stick your head up means deciding to turn around.

Have you ever walked away from an organization you just couldn’t justify working for? How did you come to that decision? And was it gratifying–or did you feel like they were just relieved to get rid of you?

It doesn’t have to be ‘macro’ to be huge

My friend and inspiration, Robert Egger, wrote a blog post several years ago that I found serendipitously by following other links on his site, about how we define ‘power and influence’ and what makes an organization really poised for significant impact.

Here’s what I think is so important about what he says, and, more significantly, the way that he lives and the way that he has built an organization, the DC Central Kitchen, as a testament to these ideas:

We will only ‘move the needle’ on the problems that plague us when we start to use ALL of the tools we have at our disposal. That means advocacy, yes–we should take every opportunity to bring others into our work and push for policy changes, and we should make every opportunity that we can to do the same–and also direct services, especially when they’re done in ways that bring new attention and new energy to our collective causes.

It’s not either/or.

It’s both/and.

And, so, social work students, you don’t have to choose between working with people or changing the world.

You can, and should, do both.

That means that we have to build organizations that are always thinking about how to leverage their reputations for policy impact, how to engage their clients in social change, and how to innovate their services so that they change the conversations around their issues.

And it means that we need to cultivate cultures that embrace the idea of ripple effects, so that we understand how change in one program, or one community, or even one life can (does not always–this is not ‘starfish’, but, instead, change theory) plant seeds for larger changes.

And it means that we need to train practitioners who can walk between these two worlds, of individual care and concern and broad-scale movement building. Indeed, who don’t even see them as two separate worlds, but, instead, as different scales of engagement in our shared world.

As Robert said in his post, “Listen…change is a mush of ideas. It’s not about one group advocating while another group “feeds the poor.” It’s about using media, money, volunteers, laws, votes, the power of the pen and the miracles that come from caring…and using them TOGETHER. Divided we are weak. We ALL need to tilt our heads a tad and start to see the gold that lies at our feet. Direct service programs like the Kitchen–we’re cool, and we know that we are not the answer. BUT…we sure as hell can lead a lot of thirsty horses to water if you give us the opportunity.”

Showing up: TANF and the social work profession

Chart from the National Conference of State Legislatures--the states in blue have proposed or adopted drug-testing requirements

In the past 2 years, more than 80 bills–in more than 30 states, plus Congress–have been proposed to require drug-testing for recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF, or ‘welfare’).

There are, of course, several pretty objective problems with these proposals, including the fact that most studies find that TANF recipients are only slightly more likely to be using substances than the general population, drug-testing is quite expensive (and would, then, likely result in reductions in benefits for needy families), and drug-testing requirements (especially when, as proposed in some states, the low-income recipients themselves would be responsible for paying for the drug test–the proposals often stipulate that they could be reimbursed if they pass!) serve as deterrents to TANF participation even for families living in dire poverty (which, of course, is probably not an unintended consequence of these proposals).

But this post is really about the moral objection that we all, especially as social workers, should have to the idea that it’s permissible to cast such widespread suspicion on a group of people, simply because they are in need. And, further, that we might stand by while such suspicions are used to justify highly intrusive, demeaning, discriminatory practices.

Because stand by we often do.

In Kansas, a bill requiring drug testing for TANF recipients was opposed by just one conferee, an intern with the ACLU who has been enrolled in a social work program.

The bill flew out of committee, and the rest of our profession (including me) were, indefensibly, silent.

I have a question on my midterm for the foundation policy course about why TANF features so prominently in social work students’ study of social policy, and why, especially because relatively few of our clients actually receive TANF anymore (since, let’s be honest, ‘welfare’ as we understood it did really end in 1996), it should still matter so much.

It’s a question that I admit asking myself, especially early in my career, when my policy advocacy focused almost entirely on the rights of immigrants, almost none of whom are eligible for any cash assistance.

If it doesn’t really affect that many people, and if the benefits are so meager as to be not that valuable anyway, then why would we pack the hearing room for debate about forcing (mostly) single moms to take a urinalysis before they can get some money to feed and clothe their children?

Because this isn’t about who the clients are, or how many of them there are.

It’s about us, about who we are, and about what we’re going to stand for.

It’s about saying that we won’t accept policy that imposes punishment when sustenance is needed, or that wastes precious resources on ‘gotcha’ games when children are hungry.

It’s about saying that we know that a policy that rationalizes intrusions into our most basic liberties in the name of ‘fiscal responsibility’ and ‘personal accountability’ won’t stop with TANF recipients and their supposed drug use, and that we’re not going to abide a slippery slope.

It’s about being there to make sure that our clients–those on TANF, those who wish they were, and those who refuse to accept it even when eligible–know that social workers speak out when people are attacked, so that they’ll know that we’ll do the same for them.

The answer to that midterm, if students want full credit, is that working with people in poverty has always been a critical part of who we are as a profession and that our Code of Ethics requires that we work for social justice, especially on behalf of vulnerable populations.

I, obviously, deserve a point deduction.

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: Why I ran

    **Note from Melinda: This guest post is from Shana Althouse, a tremendous former student of mine who is also a neighbor, and for whom I campaigned in advance of the Fall 2010 elections. Although she wasn’t elected to the Kansas House in that cycle, I know that Shana will continue to influence policy and our community, and I am honored to have her share her thoughts here about running for elected office as a social worker.

    “Don’t Stop Believing” – Journey
    You might think that a person who ran for the Kansas state legislature would have quoted Kathleen Sebelius (former Kansas Governor, now Secretary of DHHS) or Dennis Moore (retired Congressman from Kansas’ third district) for political inspiration. While I do admire them both, it was Journey’s song, “Don’t Stop Believing” that ran through my head last summer when it was 100 degrees and I was walking door to door to meet the voters in my district. Yes, I had a theme song, and it carried me to Election Day. Why did I have a theme song? The reality is, running for public office requires you to find a way to keep going, and a reminder of why you are running. For me, my motivation was that I sincerely believed I could make a difference. If not now, when?

    When I first contemplated running, I had just heard my state representative talk about how the demographics in our district were changing. I live in a Republican county, but Democrats had been picking up seats all around my district and voting trends were leaning Democratic. I thought, “really, hmmm.”
    In the summer of 2007 I hosted a healthcare round table at my house. One of the attendees had run for State Representative in our district previously as a Democrat. I mentioned to her that I had an interest in running for public office someday. The next week I received a call from the President of the Johnson County Democrats and we met for coffee. It wasn’t long before the state party was calling and asking if I was going to run. I decided it was time to take this seriously and I needed my husband to be okay with this. I had managed a political campaign in 2008 and I knew my husband had to be totally on board or it was a no go. It was not an easy decision for us. When you run for office, you do not get paid and it is a major time commitment. We have two school-age children with busy social lives. We had a lot to factor into our decision. We finally decided to go for it and, since I would be finishing my Master’s in May, I would forego the job hunt to focus on the campaign.

    My decision to run was strongly influenced by my profession. As a social worker, we advocate for those who often are not able to advocate for themselves—children, working families, the homeless, people with severe and persistent mental illness. Now, more than ever, we need strong leaders who can work on behalf of those who are disenfranchised. We need more public officials, not more politicians.

    The support I received from my colleagues was tremendous. Many social workers donated to my campaign and offered to go door to door with me. The biggest disappointment, though, came from our local KNASW chapter which chose to donate to and endorse my opponent. This was purely a political decision, influenced by other representatives. KNASW could have easily chosen to donate to both candidates, especially considering the fact that one of us was actually a social worker. If our profession is to encourage more social workers to make the commitment to run for office, we have to be willing to support each other actively and enthusiastically.

    I will never regret or doubt my decision to run for public office. I have met many amazing individuals who have tirelessly devoted their lives working for the betterment of our society. I remain engaged through community organizations and may consider running again someday. I know that my presence in the campaign raised critical issues for our district and shaped the tone of the debate. For now, though, I am truly enjoying spending more time with my family and friends!