My social work training has been useful in a wide range of experiences including my years working in the House of Representatives. Needless to say, Congress these days presents a challenging environment. The spirit of cooperation between and sometimes within parties is often difficult to achieve. I described my experience on the Hill as being able to navigate dysfunction. Yet working with Congressman Ed Towns, a social worker, we were able to create a bipartisan bicameral Congressional Social Work Caucus that is now chaired by Rep. Barbara Lee of California who is one of seven social workers serving in the House of Representatives. Social workers who choose macro practice often work in nontraditional social work environments but we still are social workers. At least I want to believe we are.
The profession of social work has a breadth that exceeds other professions. As written in the preamble of the National Association of Social Workers’s (NASW) Code of Ethics, social work activities “may be in the form of direct practice, community organizing, supervision, consultation administration, advocacy, social and political action, policy development and implementation, education, and research and evaluation.” Social workers are lawyers, clergy, elected officials, union organizers, lobbyists and are working in a myriad of occupations not thought to be social work.
NASW conducted focus groups on the public’s perception of social work in 2004 and found that public awareness about the profession was limited to a few areas of social work practice. The study found the public was generally confused about who was a social worker and the level of education needed to be a social worker. Jeffrey Olin wrote in a 2013 article on the public’s perception of social work that social workers must actively participate in creating a public image and not leave the task of defining the profession to the media or other outside entities.
There is still much ambiguity about just who qualifies as a social worker. The most accepted litmus test obviously is having a certifiable license to practice social work. But the issue of certification remains muddied. Even the possession of a degree in social work does not qualify one to be a professional social worker in the eyes of some. Case in point, I engaged in a conversation with a neighbor in my building and when she stated that she was a social worker, I proudly retorted that I, too, was a social worker. Her next question was: “Do you have a license?” I responded that I did not but had earned my Ph.D. at Columbia University School of Social Work. She stated emphatically, “you are not a social worker!”
What could I say? End of conversation. I knew that it would be useless to engage this social worker in a debate about just who is a social worker? Yet, I desired very strongly to defend my self-identification as a social worker. I was a licensed social worker for a brief time after I completed my M.S.W. degree in clinical counseling at Clark Atlanta University School of Social Work. My field placement agency, Families First, hired me after graduation and I was required to get the LMSW which I did. However, after shifting my focus to policy and beginning my doctoral studies, I decided to put my full attention towards policy and forgo maintaining licensure. Didn’t think I was ending my career as a social worker.
Across the pond, social workers in the United Kingdom are undergoing self-examination and reorganization having created the College of Social Work in 2012 to provide leadership for the profession. The College held its first annual conference last week. Here in the USA, there are a few initiatives occurring that may bring a better understanding of our profession. In 1995 the major social work organizations created the Action Network for Social Work Education and Research (ANSWER) providing a platform that would allow regular discussions about social work among its leadership. NASW has a Macro Practice committee exploring the state of macro social practice in the profession that focuses much more on direct services. A conference is being planned for May 9, 2014.
There is an effort to raise awareness among social workers about the Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young, Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act. Rep. Barbara Lee reintroduced the bill (H.R.1466) in the House and Sen. Barbara Mikulski sponsored a companion bill (S.997) in the Senate during the current (113th) Congress. Among other things, should the bill become law, it will create a commission to examine the overall state of the profession and report back to Congress. Social Justice Solutions has collected more than 11,000 signatures on a petition advocating for the legislation.
During the College of Social Work conference, Chair Jo Cleary stated: “The future of social work is in our hands. Our time is now.” I hope social workers everywhere take that to heart.
***Correction: I was informed by NASW that they do not have a Macro Practice committee and are not hosting a conference in May.
Written By Charles E. Lewis Jr., Ph.D
Who Is A Social Worker? was originally published @ Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy » Charles Lewis and has been syndicated with permission.
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The clinical wing of the social work profession has hijacked the entire discussion and has the NASW safely tucked in their collective back pocket. Clinical licenses are now seen as the be all and end all for social workers. This has narrowed the perception of our expertise so much that many roles formerly filled by social workers like agency administrative directors are now being taken by people with MBAs or MPAs. If we cede the leadership roles in the organizations we work in the cultures will be set by non-social workers and our values will not be guiding these organizations.