A few readers took exception to my saying that the revered Nelson Mandela had the heart of a social worker. Apparently some see making the comparison is somehow demeaning towards a great leader of the stature of Mandela. I was reminded that South Africa’s emancipator was much more than a social worker. I could argue that I never said he was a social worker, but I think what those readers may have missed is my equating his desire for justice and a better life for people as the same desire that motivates people who join our profession whether or not they ever get the opportunity to operate on a grand stage. Mandela was a lawyer; I would never imply that he was a mere social worker! Pardon my sarcasm.
Social workers care about what happens to the people we serve. It is certainly not monetary rewards that motivate us. On occasion social workers do get to operate on the grand stage like lawyers and members of other disciplines. Social work can claim our share of transcendent individuals such as Jane Addams, Dr. Dorothy I. Height, Whitney M. Young, Jr. and Frances Perkins. Jared Bernstein, a social-work trained economist who worked in the White House as chief economist for Vice President Joseph Biden travels the world providing insight and commentary on fiscal and monetary policy. They are not in any sense ordinary social workers, but they have much in common with all social workers.
Our training provides us with skills and knowledge that allow us to relate better with other human beings. We learn how to develop rapport, how to listen, and how to assess human interactions. These are skills that serve us well in various occupations and arenas. That is why Bernstein says the world would be better served if economists had social work training. That is why former Congressman Ed Towns and current Congressional Social Work Caucus chair Rep. Barbara Lee insist our government would be more functional if there were more social workers in Congress.
We at CRISP are seeking to expand opportunities for social workers to engage the federal government, particularly as it relates to legislative and policy deliberations on the Hill. We believe there is a place for social workers in that environment and we need to be there to ensure our unique perspectives on society are considered. An article in Sunday’s New York Times describes public policy schools as strong in their ability to produce students with high level quantitative skills but lacking the ability to produce students who can effectively engage the government they would like to influence. I attended an Association for Public Policy and Management (APPAM) meeting several years ago and the top complaint was that public policy schools were not producing graduates with adequate people skills.
I tell students in my policy and research classes that what separates social work research from other disciplines is that we focus on outcomes that matter more to our clients rather than the policymakers. That is what the heart of a social worker brings to research; that is what the heart of a social worker brings to the policy arena. What sets social work and social workers apart from other disciplines is our commitment to a Code of Ethics that commands us to proactively “promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients.” Not everyone enters the profession with the same level of commitment and purpose and many become jaded after years being overworked and under paid.
Many enter the profession for less noble reasons that trying to save the planet. Having a social work license does not certify that you have the heart of a social worker. But I believe people who enter the social work profession are more likely to possess that altruistic streak that compels us to go the extra mile for someone despite the meager paycheck. Our desire to help children and families find the means to achieve better lives makes you go to work and deal with the bureaucratic frustrations waiting for you at your agency every day.
What Nelson Mandela did for the people of South Africa and the influence he had on the world was obviously more than social work. His dedication to empowering all people of South Africa magnifies the desires of many social workers who may not get the opportunity to operate on such a grand stage.
Written by Charles E. Lewis jr., Ph.D
Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy
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