Social Work is a profession that is multifaceted and involved in all segments of society. SJS interviews social workers as a way to promote the profession and to share all that one can do with their degree. The interview below with Charles E. Lewis, Jr. depicts how diverse a social work career can be and the types of positions one can hold. Much is gained when a social worker shares their story of why they chose the profession along with their career journey. The story and life experiences of another can assist current and upcoming social workers, those that are curious as to what the profession is all about, and assist in choosing a direction whether micro practice, macro practice or perhaps a combination of the two.
Mr. Lewis’s interview is inspiring for a few different reasons. He entered the profession a bit later in his career and he has been involved in direct practice, teaching, macro level work, and politics.
1- Why did you Choose the Profession of Social Work?
At the time I chose to pursue a social work career, I was working full time at a large church in Brooklyn, New York in the dual capacity of communications director and director of a ministry to African American males that became the subject of a book, Upon This Rock: The Miracles of a Black Church. I had dropped out of college years ago and was telling these men about the importance of completing their education. I had been in psychotherapy for a couple of years and realized that I could be more effective working with these men if I had more skills and knowledge. So at 42 I went back to school and completed my B.A, in psychology with the intention of attending seminary to study pastoral counseling when I was advised to consider social work. Not having a favorable view of the profession, I resisted until I was convinced by a past president of the National Association of Black Social Workers to not only enroll in a M.S.W. program, but to attend his alma mater Clark Atlanta University where I graduated in 1997 with a M.S.W. degree in clinical counseling. I subsequently completed my Ph.D. in social policy analysis at Columbia University in 2002.
2- Discuss your past work experience as a full-time faculty member at Howard University School of Social Work.
I applied for a position at Howard University School of Social Work at the urging of a friend who was on the faculty. My experience there had its pluses and minuses. A plus was teaching, which I love. However the university did not have the research infrastructure needed for researchers at the beginning of their careers so my applications for grants were not successful. Also, I was 52 years old when I graduated Columbia and was not intending to enter academia so I did not have a clear plan that would lead to tenure. I befriended Richard Boykin, the chief of staff for Rep. Danny Davis of Chicago, while at a church we both attended and he agreed to let us place students as intern in his office. Two second-year students completed their field placement requirements in his office each year. Also, I had known Rep. Ed Towns from my days in Brooklyn and he too agreed to place students in his office.
3- Can you discuss your past role as communications director for former Congressman Edolphus Ed Towns. and your past role as staff coordinator for the Social Work Caucus?
I joined the staff of Rep. Ed Towns in June of 2010 and became his Deputy Chief of Staff and Communications Director. As Deputy Chief of Staff I was responsible for managing the functions of the Washington, DC office, which included overseeing the budget and human resources for the entire staff among other things. I also served a dual role as communications director and was responsible for handling media inquiries, developing a new website, producing newsletters and news releases and managing correspondence. I worked with Rep. Towns, who is a social worker, to create the Congressional Social Work Caucus. As coordinator for the caucus, I was responsible for overseeing all activities of the caucus and communications to the offices of caucus members.
4- Your current role is as President of The Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy, can you share the positives and negatives in this role?
The Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy, or CRISP as we like to call it, has a unique opportunity to advance the presence of social work in Congress. Our mission is to lend support to the Congressional Social Work Caucus within the guidelines of House Ethics Rules which has strict guidelines for working with outside groups. Caucuses or Congressional Member Organizations (CMOs) are not permitted to have resources of their own and must rely on the budget of the members’ offices. Since congressional budgets have been cut several times in recent years, Members of Congress are trying to do more with less. Ultimately, we hope to provide support for caucus activities. We also would like to expand opportunities for social work students to fulfill their field placement obligations in congressional offices either on the Hill or in district offices and help to connect social work research to legislative activities on the Hill.
Like many small and emerging nonprofit organizations we struggle with not have adequate resources to do our work. We have to do a better job to convince the larger social work community of the value of our work and the need to support us.
5- Many in the field see the future of social work as occurring in the political arena. Why is this needed? What are the benefits to it?
Because of the polarization of American politics in recent years, much of the progress we seek has to be made on the political battlefield. The days of reaching compromise about dissenting policy proposals are gone. There was a time when the Democratic and Republican parties would bring their best policy ideas to the table and try to work out some consensus. This is no longer true. Whichever party holds the majority—in Congress or in state and local legislatures—unilaterally pushes their ideas. Look at what is happening in North Carolina as a prime example. Increasingly, the only way to make change is to vote people into office who share your views which means convincing the public that you are looking out for their best interests. The benefits are having more politically active and savvy social workers. We are challenged not only to do our best job to help people cope with current conditions but we must also work to change their environments and empower the people we work with to become part of the change. Society as a whole will benefit from this new energy.
6- What other direction (s) do you see the field of social work going?
I think we will see more attention on the development of macro social work practice. There is a need for social workers looking at the broader picture but there are few clear paths into a career that does not need a license. I know there is a taskforce looking into this now. More specifically, I see a continuing emergence of policymakers with social work backgrounds. Jared Bernstein, the former chief economist for Vice President Joseph Biden and a member of President Obama’s economic team, is a good example. He has said that he believes all economists should have some social work training. Ultimately, we must think our way out the status quo. We know what the major social welfare problems are: income and wealth inequality, over use of incarceration, inadequate resources for mental health services, high rates of poverty and unemployment, just to name a few. How do we fix these? We must generate policy proposals backed by sound research and work to sell our ideas to the public and get them through the various legislative processes. We need more public intellectuals to speak out about these issues and promote social work solutions. We need to rework our image as a profession. We have much to be proud of now, but most people have a very limited understanding of social work.
7- What advice can you offer to current social workers, those currently studying to become one and the individuals contemplating a degree/career in social work?
I would encourage students contemplating a career in social work to explore the broad range of opportunities in the profession. Yes we need more direct services practitioners, but we also need more social workers working in politics, working to build unions and create other institutions to strengthen the profession and society as a whole. I think students should consider whether or not they would benefit by complementing their M.S.W. degree with study in other fields such as public health, public administration, political science, and law to name a few.
A special thank you to Mr. Lewis for agreeing to the interview. The hope is that current social workers, those contemplating the profession and those currently studying social work will obtain additional ideas of the benefits to a social work degree and how other degrees can compliment and broaden one’s career path.
By Victoria Brewster, MSW
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