On Wednesday March 11, 2020, scores of social workers will gather in the Holeman Lounge in the National Press Club to discuss social work in the political arena. March is Social Work Month and an appropriate time to reflect on the work we are doing to improve our world. Perfecting our union is an ongoing struggle as poverty and oppression and those who profit from it will never be eradicated. The goal is to galvanize a critical mass of the virtuous who are willing to labor in the effort to create a society that promotes dignity for all people. Many of these are social workers.
Responding to the clarion call of pioneers like the recently departed Nancy A. Humphreys, social workers are increasing our presence and activity in the political arena. Social workers have long been political going back to the days of Mary Richmond and Jane Addams. The first woman elected to Congress in 1940, Jeannette Rankin, was trained at the New York School of Philanthropy in New York City which would eventually become the Columbia University School of Social Work. Social workers continued to provide distinguished service in Congress with the likes of Barbara Mikulski, Ron Dellums, Ed Towns, and Barbara Lee. There are six social workers currently serving in Congress. Social workers are involved at every level of government.
Today we are faced with an existential threat to our way of government. In a recent report, Freedom House concluded President Trump’s assault on democratic institutions, including attacks on the system of checks and balances, a free press, an impartial judiciary, and fair and free elections, creates the need to defend the rules and norms of democracy more now than ever. Freedom House is the nation’s oldest organization devoted to the support and defense of democracy, created with the support of Eleanor Roosevelt in 1941 to promote America’s fight against fascism in World War II. How does the social work profession respond?
The question was first raised two years ago in response to Nancy MacLean’s phenomenal book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right's Stealth Plan for America. The Duke historian agreed to participate in a panel discussion during our March 21, 2018 Social Work Day on the Hill posing the question: Can Social Work Help Save Democracy? Although the event was cancelled due to inclement weather, the panelists were in town and we conducted a three-hour session that included NASW CEO Dr. Angelo McClain and Patricia White who had recently retired from the New York Community Trust.
Dr. Martell Teasley, president of the National Association of Deans and Directors (NADD) invited the panel to present the discussion during the NADD fall meeting. It was well-received and Dr. Eddie Uehara, dean at the University of Washington School of Social Work agreed to lead a taskforce to determine what might follow. She coined the term, Social Work Democracy Project. A steering committee was formed that included Drs. Teasley and Uehara; Dr. Sandra Crewe, dean at Howard University School of Social Work; Dr. Laura Abrams, chair of the Department of Social Welfare at the Luskin School of Public Affairs at UCLA; and Dr. Alan Dettlaff, dean at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work.
The project, in its early stages of development, will document activities by social workers designed to promote democratic values and encourage civic engagement. The project could share and propose curriculum. Dr. Abrams suggests we define democratic values—what exactly are we supposedly protecting promoting. For me, it means getting our values and ideas in the public arena. Social workers—particularly our scholars—need to have their voices heard on various news programs and in policy forums.
The social work profession has always endeavored to find the right balance between cause and function. How much effort and resources should be devoted to helping people cope with the challenges confronting them in society and how much should be invested influencing and changing the system? Like most Americans, social workers were not prepared for a Donald Trump presidency. Few of us knew he would become the prevaricator-in-chief with a zeal for authoritarianism. But now that it is upon us, how do we respond? Do we respond? Do we want to be standing on the sidelines as history is being made? True, there are ethical concerns about going into the political arena but my reading of the NASW Code of Ethics says we need to get involved.
You are welcome to join us for this discussion by registering here.