Whither Political Social Work?

Tuesday, October 17th, 2017 @ 8:27AM

The Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work, under the very capable leadership of director Tanya Rhodes Smith, conducted a highly successful Campaign School in Washington, DC earlier this month. The event was co-hosted with CRISP, George Mason University, Howard University, and NASW chapters from Maryland, DC, and Virginia. About 65 students attended—mostly from area schools, with several out-of-state attendees. Special thanks must go to Linda Plitt Donaldson, Daphne McClellan, Michael Reisch, Altaf Husain and numerous others for their work on the planning committee, participation on various panels, and volunteering. With this cohort, the Campaign School is nearing 1,000 alumni, many who hold elected office, work in legislative settings, and are active political social workers.

Many ascribe the idea of political social work to Nancy A. Humphreys who has been a trailblazer for decades in the effort to get more social workers involved in politics. I interviewed her for the Coalition for Policy Education and Practice newsletter earlier this year and asked about her coining the term “political social work” and she said it came naturally because social workers like Senator Barbara Mikulski, Congressmen Ron Dellums and Ed Towns were already practicing political social work. She was not certain how far the profession would go with the notion of political social work. “Many do not see politics as part of social work,” she said, “They see social workers in the political arena but have not yet embraced the concept of political social work.”

Dr. Nancy A. Humphreys

Macro social work practice is a strength of the profession no less than its commitment to provide evidence-based interventions for individuals, families and groups. The Special Commission for the Advancement of Macro Practice in Social Work, under the leadership of Darlyne Bailey and Terry Mizrahi, continues to promote the idea that more effort is needed to increase the number of students who devote their social work careers to influencing and impacting society on a larger scale. Expanding macro practice should not be seen as a zero-sum game—that increasing the number macro social workers would result in less micro social workers. Efforts to expand macro practice will attract a different breed of social worker—one who prefers working in policy and/or politics.

Social Work Caucus Chair Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA-13) and others often talk about the need for more social work-trained individuals in policy and legislative settings. These are vital arenas in our society where our knowledge, skills, and values are profoundly needed. Jared Bernstein, who earned his PhD at Columbia University School of Social Work, and is best known as an economist (he was Vice President Joe Biden’s chief economist and a member of President Obama’s economic team), said it would be helpful if all economists would have social work training before they sat down to craft a budget.

I will be participating in two sessions at the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Annual Program Meeting this week in Dallas with several colleagues who are devoting our careers to the advancement of political social work. One session at 2:00 p.m. on Thursday, Social Work Leadership in Civic Engagement and the Political Process, features Shannon Lane and Suzanne Pritzker whose textbook, Political Social Work: Using Power to Create Social Change, will soon be available. Their scholarship will help to provide structure for curricula and advance the profession’s agenda to pursue social and economic justice. The second session is a Hot Topic on Saturday at 12:45 p.m., Social Work Is Political: Preparing Students for Careers in Political Settings, also with Dr. Pritzker.

It remains to be seen just how far social work’s reach will be into the political arena. Given the state of today’s political environment in the White House and Congress, thoughtful interventions are needed to restore sanity and order. Scores of social work scholars and practitioners are working with colleagues in other disciplines within the networks of the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work to bring the science of the profession to bear on several of the more perplexing social issues of our day. Perhaps it is time for social workers to bring a commiserate degree of energy and effort into the realms of policy and politics. There is a growing cadre of social workers who are enthused with the idea of helping to effect change in our government and society. It is time to organize our work.

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