Ronald V. Dellums: A Social Worker to the End

Monday, August 13th, 2018 @ 8:29AM

I was on the Hill with the first cohort of DSW students from the Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work at the University of Southern California when I first learned of the passing of former Congressman Ronald V. Dellums. These doctoral students were completing requirements to develop an innovative response to one of the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work. Mr. Dellums would have like that. His entire life was devoted to tackling enormous societal problems whether in his native Oakland, California which he represented first in Congress and later as mayor, or for the country at large, which he served as a member of the House Armed Services Committee and chaired from 1993 to 1995.

I had the privilege of meeting Ron Dellums in November 2014 when he was a visiting Fellow at the Ronald W. Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center at Howard University. Former Congressman Ed Towns invited him to meet with the CRISP board of directors to discuss our efforts to help social workers engage Congress. He was affable and charming and dead serious about his views that our country was headed in the wrong direction. He said he enjoyed being at Howard University because he was able to interact with young people. However, he was concerned that they would succumb to cynicism. That was three years before President Trump was elected.

He worried that young people would believe the system is irreparably broken—that it cannot be fixed, and they would withdraw to the comfort of their cellphones when what is needed is for them to break away from the electronics and get involved with finding solutions to the nation’s problems. I can imagine that he was encouraged by the young people from Parkland, Florida who led the March for Our Lives in Washington, DC earlier this year and fought to change gun legislation in the Florida state legislature.

Mr. Dellums’s message to CRISP and the social work community was to think big. For him the biggest problem confronting the United States is poverty. He believed poverty is much more than the lack of resources and should not be conflated with welfare. He said poverty was multidimensional and must be addressed through various dimensions—health, economics, education, justice and housing. He believed that solving the problems of poverty will create jobs. He believed social work is obligated to put poverty at the center of the discussion about improving society for the many rather than the few.

In his autobiography, Lying Down with the Lions: A Public Life from the Streets of Oakland to the Halls of Power, he wrote about the critical role his social work training played in him becoming an effective public servant: “. . . working for progress in the real world demands that one learns how to escape the narrow confines of received assumptions and theories. This means constantly reassessing, moving forward, and refusing to be bound by old ways of thinking, while remaining true to core principles.” He credited his social work mentor with helping him avoid the trap of ideological rigidity. Colleagues on both sides of the congressional aisle often praised him for his willingness to listen and sometimes acquiesce to policy proposals that were different than his own.

Congress needs more legislators like Ron Dellums. We need more social workers in Congress because our values, skills and knowledge make us exceptional public officials. Our goal is to double the number of social workers in Congress. To that end, 40 social workers have gone through training at our political Boot Camp. I believe several will eventually be elected to Congress and others will be working on political campaigns helping social workers and other like-minded candidates win seats in local, state and national legislative bodies.

Ronald V. Dellums was a rare statesman in today’s political arena and a social worker who made us proud. He closed the introduction of his book with this statement: “For in one sense—whether as a caseworker, a group worker, a community organizer, or a national legislator—I would never stop being a social worker, no matter how far my calling stretched the boundaries of that profession.”

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