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.
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I remember during my childhood the “duck and cover drills” we endured in the wake of the invention of the atomic bomb. We cowered under our desks, not knowing what to think. Was there really the possibility we could be blown to bits? The Cuban missile crisis had everyone on edge. We lived in constant fear. The more time we spent thinking about our impending demise, the less time we spent thinking about homework and grades. Decades later school children are being subjected to “active shooter drills,” which psychologists say often inflicts enduring damage on the children the drills are designed to keep safe. There must be a better idea.
On Wednesday, June 12, 2019 at 3:30 p.m. in Room 2261 in the Rayburn House Office Building, Dr. Ron Avi Astor, along with several distinguished colleagues, will convene a congressional briefing to discuss how the science of psychology, social work, and education research can address the issue of students feeling safe in schools. The briefing, held in conjunction with the Congressional Social Work Caucus chaired by Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA-13), will focus on developing a public health approach to the problem of weapons and violence in schools.
The mass shooting at the Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida on February 14, 2018, that left 17 students and staff dead and another 17 wounded, elevated the public’s attention on the vulnerability of many schools. Many bills have been introduced in Congress to promote school safety. They range from H.R. 1109 that would provide more psychological resources in schools to H.R. 743 that would license teachers to carry guns. One that has promise is H.R. 838 -- Threat Assessment, 5 Prevention, and Safety Act of 2019 that would create a multi-disciplinary process the assess threats and identify best practices for ensuring school safety. The has 84 sponsors—42 Republicans and 42 Democrats—a rare display of bipartisanship in these days.
“After the shootings in Parkland, those of us who have been doing this kind of school safety work, realized that much of the national discussion was about stopping the next shooter and preventing mass shootings and students had been telling us through our research that they had broader issues with weapons in schools,” Dr. Astor explained. “The youth of this country have been telling us through our research that they have been exposed to and threatened with a variety of weapons—not just guns—and although they may not have been killed or harmed, the presence of those weapons has had a significant impact how they felt about school.”
Dr. Astor, who recently completed 17 years at the University of Southern California’s Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work and Rossier School of Education, is moving to UCLA’s Luskin School of Public Affairs as the Marjorie Crump Endowed Professor of Social Welfare where he plans to create an international school safety and wellbeing center to help shape the vision of what healthy schools ought to be. He will draw on research and ideas in his most recent book, Bullying, School Violence, and Climate in Evolving Contexts: Culture, Organization, and Time, which he co-authored with Rami Benbenishty of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, published in January by Oxford University Press. There is a companion website, podcast, and policy brief available.
Also on the panel are: Dr. Sean Joe, Benjamin E. Youngdahl Professor of Social Development at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis; Dr. Dorothy Espelage, Professor of Psychology at the University of Florida; Dr. Marlenee Wong, Professor of Clinical Social Work at the University of Southern California; Lauren Hogg, a student at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, Florida; and Pia Valenzuela Escudero, executive director at Los Angeles Unified School District, Division of Student Health and Human Services.
The mass shooting Friday in Virginia Beach was yet another reminder that more needs to be done to reduce the proliferation of guns in the hands of unstable individuals. Dr. Astor says the focus needs to be broader. Failure to provide safe and nurturing environments in our school will prove costly in the long run if we fail to allow America’s children to reach their full potential. Unfortunately, confronting fear in schools and neighborhoods is something children of color have been living with for decades. Let’s hope this briefing will produce ideas that will lead to more effective strategies that will make schools and neighborhoods safer.
I am a huge Orson Welles fan. This weekend I decided to watch Citizen Kane again to escape the daily Donald Trump soap opera. Bad idea. It became a double-dose of emotional upheaval as I juxtaposed the various personality traits embodied by both characters. Kane’s character is at times pompous, lording over anyone he could belittle. Sounds familiar. At other times he appears shallow and pathetic. Lessons relearned. One cannot accumulate enough material things to make life meaningful and rewarding. There is no escaping yourself and soon enough you will be a lonely, despised character waiting for your inevitable encounter with the grim reaper. Welles was remarkable in that role. I cannot say the same for Mr. Trump; he’s doing a lousy job playing President.
However, for millions of Americans, Donald Trump is that “great man” they desperately need to feel safe. He is the Jim Taylor in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, who ensures everyone toes the line and stay in their places in order to keep order. As Ayn Rand wrote in The Fountainhead: “Great men can’t be ruled… The great is the rare, the difficult, the exceptional.” America was built by exceptional men—the Rockefellers, the Gettys, the Vanderbilts. Donald Trump would like us to believe he belongs in that pantheon. Until we see his tax returns, millions share his fantasies as one who can make America great again.
March was Social Work Month. “Elevate” was the theme for the month chosen by the National Association of Social Workers and we in the profession are focused on elevating our game during these challenging times. Social workers in the trenches providing direct services to children, families and communities are hard-pressed to do more with less as the federal government continues its foolish policy of providing tax cuts for the richest Americans while taking an axe to social services budgets. Those in the policy and political arenas continue to press for legislation that will help move the nation towards being a more egalitarian society. The system, by many accounts, is broken. Democracy is in jeopardy when the will of the majority is often thwarted by the disproportionate influence of the affluent.
Spurred by Dr. Nancy MacLean’s award-winning book, Democracy in Chains: The Deep History of the Radical Right’s Stealth Plan for America, CRISP has helped convene several discussions on the question: Can Social Work Help Save Democracy? On March 20, 2019, a panel of young social workers addressed the question, and last week we were invited to Johnson C. Smith University School of Social Work in Charlotte, North Carolina to continue the conversation. The panel was one of several events for the school’s Social Work Month activities. Conceived by Dr. Judith Crocker Billingsley and Dr. Dezette Johnson, activities included the inaugural Dorothy I. Height Lecture presented by former Congressman Edolphus “Ed” Towns.
I found myself sharing a microphone with Mecklenburg County Sheriff Garry McFadden who I later discovered had a popular television show, “I Am Homicide”. Also, on the panel were Dr. Lori Thomas, director of Research and Engagement at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte; Chad Lassiter, executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Rights Commission; Deronda Metz, a leading housing and homelessness advocate; and Dr. Melvin Herring, director of Johnson C. Smith’s MSW program. McFadden and Herring are alums of the JCSU social work program.
There is a hero in every good story and in this story that would be Dean Helen Caldwell who heads the newly-minted JCSU School of Social Work. The MSW program was added four years ago and will be graduating 52 students in May. I have had the privilege of engaging quite a few deans and directors of social work schools and department over the years and she is right up there at the top of my list. She has been at this work for decades, before social work was recognized as a discipline at JCSU. She has guided social work into becoming a subject, a program, a department and now a school. She is admired by everyone at the school for her leadership. The culture of respect and courtesy was evident and felt genuine. She seemed quite comfortable taking a back seat while her professors ran the show.
My dear friend Dr. Crocker Billingsley, whom I have known since my days in the MSW program at Clark Atlanta University’s Whitney M. Young, Jr. School of Social Work, is working diligently to expose students to the political arena. In the fall, Brianna Johnson will begin her senior year field placement in the Charlotte office of Congresswoman Alma Adams, just a stone’s throw from Capitol Hill.
I will remember Nancy Humphreys as someone I wished I had met earlier in life. Her tenacity and determination to hold onto to an idea in which she firmly believed had a profound impact on my thinking about social work. Nancy believed more social workers needed to be actively involved in the political arena. She believed that if part of our cause was the pursuit of social justice, then social workers could not stand on the sidelines of the political arena and watch history being made. She believed more of us needed to follow in the footsteps of Jane Addams, Jeannette Rankin, Whitney M. Young, Jr., Dorothy I. Height, and Ron Dellums. If you don’t know these names, you need to look them up.
Her first attempt to train social workers for entry into the political arena was a nonstarter. In 1984, armed with a grant from the Silberman Foundation, Nancy, then director at Michigan State’s School of Social Work, planned her first campaign school with Oakland Congressman Ron Dellums as the featured speaker. She had to cancel when no one signed up. But she had clear ideas about what she wanted to accomplish and soon created the Institute for Political Social Work in 1995 after moving to the University of Connecticut where she would spend the remainder of her academic career. She served as dean of the School of Social Work from 1987 until 1995 and was professor and director of the Institute until her retirement in 2014.
I met Nancy in 2012 during my time on the Hill as the deputy chief of staff and communications director for former Congressman Edolphus “Ed” Towns, a social worker representing my home borough of Brooklyn, NY. He and I worked with NASW Executive Director Betsy Clark and her special assistant, Elizabeth Hoffler, to create the Congressional Social Work Caucus, an official Congressional Member Organization (CMO) that would provide a platform for social workers on the Hill to give voice to our concerns and ideas about the pressing social issues confronting the nation. When it became apparent that Rep. Towns would retire after three decades in the House, we created the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP) to ensure the caucus would remain viable.
As I was contemplating the idea of a nonprofit support organization, Betsy Clark suggested that I have a talk with Nancy Humphreys. I flew to Hartford and she sat with me for hours helping me think through its purpose and mission and how it might be received by the social work profession. From that point on, she mentored me through the ups and downs of being a political social worker, emphasizing the need to persevere. Nancy could always get people to listen to her. She was one of the great orators of her time.
Before meeting Nancy, I had no idea political social work might be seen as a legitimate practice. I always thought my friend Ed Towns was a social worker who left the profession to go into politics. Thanks to the scholarship of Dr. Suzanne Pritzker at the University of Houston and Dr. Shannon Lane at Sacred Heart University, there is a textbook for political social work and I am meeting scores of talented enthusiastic social workers eager to take our skills and knowledge into the political arena where they are profoundly needed.
The Social Work Caucus lives on under the capable leadership of Congresswoman Barbara Lee, the social worker who succeeded the late Ron Dellums representing citizens of Oakland and beyond. Social workers can be proud that she is among the leadership of the House Democratic Caucus. Rep. Lee will be reintroducing the Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young, Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act in the current Congress in March which is Social Work Month. Those who would like to leave condolences or make a donation in honor of Nancy A. Humphreys can go to her memorial page. I plan to speak with her life partner, Jo Nol, to get her approval to create a CRISP tribute to her work and legacy.