Defending and Defining Our Place at the Social Work Table

As an aspiring social worker at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, I am no stranger to the stereotypes, assumptions, and misconceptions about social work that exist outside of the profession.

“Social workers take kids away from their families.”

“Social workers don’t actually care about people.”

“Why go to graduate school for social work? You don’t need a degree to be one.”

These quotes are just a few that I have experienced. Ask any social worker what others have said to them and the list will likely go on and on.

While hearing these things is discouraging and frustrating, my post is not to lament about how those outside our profession view us. Or to lament how the general conception of social work is misinformed through the incomplete single story we have been assigned. Rather, I am writing to criticize the single story that social workers themselves are applying to our own profession.

I have been so desensitized to being told that social workers take children away from their parents that it no longer incites a strong emotional reaction when I disagree. What I have not yet been desensitized to is being told by other social workers, including students within my own graduate program, that what I want to do professionally – work in policy practice – is not real “social work.”

I am not yet immune to the sinking feeling I get when individuals offhandedly comment that the smart thing – no, the right thing– to do would be to take the clinical social work route, go out and get my LCSW (Licensed Clinical Social Worker license), and then enter into macro practice. I still react emotionally when others imply, or sometimes even directly say, that clinical practice is the only way I will find employment, make a living, or truly help people. I am not yet able to disregard the frustration that arises when myself or others must justify our place at the social work table as macro students and practitioners.

Comments and actions like these do a grave disservice to our profession by discouraging individuals from pursuing macro coursework, placements, and careers. They can place arbitrary limits what students think is possible. They can limit critical thinking about how a social work background can be an asset even in careers that don’t have “social worker” in the title or do not require a social work degree. In particular, they discourage us from exploring the various ways that micro and macro level issues intersect and how macro level changes can improve micro level issues.

In short, when the definition of social work is limited to this single clinical story, we do a great disservice to the offices, businesses, sectors, and populations that would otherwise benefit from the values and ethics, the training, the education, and the skills of a social worker. Few within our profession would disagree that the work we do with individuals can be transformative. Fewer, I argue, would disagree that social workers bring a lot to the table. Why, then, are macro interests not encouraged and supported the same way as are clinical interests? Who better to support the transformations of current systems than social workers?

The work being done here in the GCSW’s Austin Legislative Internship Program is unique in that it brings macro practice to the forefront. We receive course credit and a living expense stipend while working directly in policy practice, exposing not only the participants but also those around us to range of possibilities available within our profession. We critically examine systems, institutions, policies, and conflicts through the lens of a social work graduate education. The students who participate in this field placement meet new people, encounter new ideas, and develop new skills. Our understandings of the core values and ethics of the profession are tested and developed. Importantly, amongst the new people we meet, some are incredible social workers working within the policy sphere that we can now look to for possible mentorship. Just a few of these stand-out social workers that I’ve connected with at the Capitol include: Douglas Smith, senior policy analyst with the Texas Criminal Justice Coalition, GCSW alum Amanda Williams, executive director of Lilith Fund, and GCSW alum Kylie McNaught, legislative director for Rep. Jon Rosenthal.

I am grateful that this internship offered me the opportunity to come to Austin for my second legislative session, after an initial experience as an undergraduate. Being here a second session has further cemented my interest in policy and specifically my dedication to macro practice as a social worker. It has shown me almost limitless opportunities for social work, within both clinical and macro practice. Importantly, it gave me armor to wear when the words of naysayers are especially pointed. Not everyone has had the opportunity to immerse themselves in the legislative process, though. It is programs like the Austin Legislative Internship Program that open the door and usher social workers into the wild, unruly world of politics within the Capitol’s Pink Dome. It is also these programs that will help change the single stories of social work for both those in and outside of the profession.

by Emily Joslin, intern in the University of Houston Office of Governmental Relations

Article was originally posted on University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, Austin Legislative Internship Program and has been re-published with permission by all parties

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