Social Workers as Public Intellectuals

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The CRISP Political Boot Camp next month is designed primarily to provide training for social workers and others desiring to run for elected office or manage political campaigns.

It also offers training for those seeking to be spokespersons for a political candidate or a cause—what are often referred to as public intellectuals. Of the 25 registrants to date, nearly half have indicated they want their training to focus on becoming a spokesperson. This was a surprising but welcomed development because of the need for more social workers participating in public discourse.

In a 2010 issue of Social Work Research (vol.34, no.3), Matthew O. Howard documented the absence of social work public intellectuals and lamented that no social workers were included in the 2008 listing of the top 100 public intellectuals by the periodicals Foreign Policy and The Prospect. The list included four psychologists, four biologists, and representatives of other professional groups, but no social workers. Today, perhaps social worker Jared Bernstein makes that list, however more for his experience as a White House economist than his reputation for being a social worker.

From the days of the New Deal, social workers relied on the Democratic party to give voice to the concerns of the poor and the most vulnerable in society. However as conservative ideology and policy gained momentum—particularly with the election of President Ronald Reagan—many liberals and progressives conceded victory to the free market economy over socialized policies and abandoned their strong defense of the welfare state. Conservatives doubled-down with supply-side economics which resulted in huge tax cuts for the wealthy, robbing the federal government of revenues needed for social programs.

Conservatives bolstered their dominance in public policy with the creation of well-financed think tanks such as the Heritage Foundation, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Cato Institute. Progressives (by the 1990s “liberal” had become a pejorative label) were late in responding with the Open Society Institute and the Center for American Progress. Government-funded research organizations such as the Institute for Research on Poverty (IRP) and the Urban Institute, where social workers are in more abundance, emphasized maintaining a nonpartisan and objective posture, particularly when Republicans control the levers of the federal government which is usually the time their voices are need the most.

In a 2004 article, “The Decline of the Public Intellectual in Social Work,” published in the Journal of Sociology & Social Welfare (vol.31, no.3) Howard Karger and Marie Theresa Hernandez at the University of Houston attribute the dearth of social work public intellectuals to the fact that social workers often are employed in environments that discourage involvement in politics and advocacy due to funding concerns. They also point to the profession’s “adoption of micro-practice and hyper-professionalism” as another factor. Finally, they fault the academization of social work education as a third factor that often traps would-be public intellectuals in their ivory towers churning out publications while reaching for the brass rings of tenure and promotions. In recent years, social work research has focused more on evidence-based interventions than inquiries into social and economic justice.

The good news is that we are witnessing the pendulum swing back to social work’s early emphasis on social justice and working for the betterment of society, principally with the formation of the Coalition for Policy Education and Practice. The major social work organizations—Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), National Association of Social Workers (NASW), and the Society for Social Work and Research (SSWR), all have contracted with government relations firms and/or added programing to their annual conferences.  New policy institutes are emerging—the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research at NYU’s Silver School of Social Work and the Clark-Fox Policy Institute at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis are two fine examples. Influencing Social Policy (ISP) has an annual policy conference.

The work of the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work initiative is gaining momentum as an effort that will generate research and ideas that could lead to solutions for some of society’s most intractable social ills through systems change and policy reforms. The CRISP Political Boot Camp is one effort to prepare social workers for opportunities to be media spokespersons to let the world know about the profession’s endeavors to achieve economic and social justice.

Written By Charles E. Lewis Jr., Ph.D

Social Workers as Public Intellectuals was originally published @ Charles Lewis – Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy and has been syndicated with permission.

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