Last week, members of the board of directors of the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP) had the privilege of sitting down with former congressman and mayor of Oakland, California Ronald V. Dellums to get his views about how CRISP can be effective in our efforts to expand opportunities for social workers to engage the federal government. The meeting was arranged by former Congressman Edolphus Towns, founder of the Congressional Social Work Caucus who was instrumental in creating CRISP. Together Dellums and Towns have 58 years of Congressional experience in the House of Representatives—Towns serving for 30 years and Dellums serving for 28 years. Both are social workers and their careers in Congress overlapped for two decades.
It was remarkable experience. For two hours, Dellums shared his wisdom and insights into the workings of Congress and the federal government and expounded on what he learned as mayor of Oakland. Dellums storied career on the Hill was highlighted by his ascension to the chairmanship of the powerful House Armed Services Committee. In 1986, the House passed his legislation, the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act that led to the divesture of corporate support for apartheid South Africa and ultimately to the release of Nelson Mandela. Congress overrode President Reagan’s veto of the bill.
Dellums talked about his experiences growing up in Oakland California and beginning his career as a psychiatric social worker when he was approached to run for the Berkeley City Council and eventually got elected to a seat in the US House of Representatives. He distinguished himself in Congress by promoting a decidedly liberal agenda and creating enough of a disturbance to make Richard Nixon’s enemies list. When asked what he thought of Nixon labeling him a radical, he said if Nixon meant by radical that he advocated for ending the war in Vietnam, promoted solutions to poverty, and insisted that young people receive quality education then he was a proud radical.
These days, Dellums is spending time on the campus of Howard University where he is the first visiting fellow of the Ronald W. Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center. He says he loves the experience because it has given him many opportunities to engage young people from various disciplines. Dellums says he is encouraged by their hunger for knowledge and their desire to find solutions to society’s most perplexing problems. He says there is much we can learn from the millennial generation but worries they might succumb to cynicism. He says young people are getting bombarded by messages that say nothing can be done—that the system is bought and paid for. That change is not possible.
He says one thing we can learn from young people is how to move beyond the internecine squabbles that seem to plague our generation. Dellums
says we must learn to embrace our humanity and get beyond our differences in order to successfully address the universal problems—climate change, poverty and inequality—that threatened all of us. He says young people get this. He says social workers are in need of a big idea that we all can coalesce around. He says the key to connecting policy to practice is activism—getting involved and making things happen.
Much of our discussion centered on the issue of poverty. Dellums lamented the fact that when the issue of poverty comes up, people automatically think of welfare. So, poverty is equated with welfare and is seen as the undeserving transfer of resources from productive citizens to citizens who are unmotivated to work on their own behalf. He suggested that when we talk about poverty we must talk about the multi-dimensional aspects of poverty that include economics, health and mental health, education, housing and social justice to name a few. So when you are developing policies to address poverty you must develop policies within those specific domains.
Dellums’ message to social workers is there is a sense of urgency today that did not exist fifty years ago when he began his career. He said that
when he and Towns arrived in Congress, they felt they had time to address the challenges of their day. But the world today is moving at such a fast clip that too many people are being left behind. There is a sense of urgency to act now. Will social workers find a big idea that will define the profession over the next decade?
Written by Dr. Charles E. Lewis Jr.
Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy.
The post Ron Dellums: Social Workers Need a Big Idea appeared first on Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy and has been syndicated with permission.
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