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.