The Role of Activism in Social Work

Social activism is about much more than disobedience and disruption. There are many effective ways that individuals can help to influence the political landscape and shape public policy — and social workers are uniquely positioned to do it. Here, we examine why it is important for social workers to get involved, what are various opportunities for doing so, and how engaging in social activism supports the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work.

Why social workers should get involved

As of late, more Americans have become politically engaged. This dynamic provides a ripe opportunity for social workers to raise awareness about the needs of struggling communities and become instrumental in shaping policies that can help change them for the better.

In ”Engaging Social Workers in Activism: Where to Start?”, Charles E. Lewis Jr. underscores how the unique experiences of social workers can help to inform public policy conversations. Dr. Lewis is founder and president of the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work & Policy (CRISP) and an adjunct professor for the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work’s online Doctor of Social Work program.

“A lot of social welfare policy is devoted to vulnerable populations,” Dr. Lewis said. “We know the struggles that people go through. We have this perspective of people in their environments. And we can look at how the environment impacts people, including laws and regulations.”

How social workers can engage in social activism

There are many opportunities for social workers to participate in social activism in meaningful ways, such as the support of voter registration efforts. Although overcoming the disillusionment that many individuals feel toward the government may be a challenge, Dr. Lewis notes that convincing others to wield their voting powers as a tool for change can have a lasting effect: “Data shows that people who are not voting are not getting the policies that are important to them, such as health care and day care, addressed,” he said.

Helping to shape public policy is another way to engage, especially since this is an essential component of the social work field. “We can sit and wonder what will happen, or we can look for opportunities to make things happen,” said Dr. Lewis. “We all have a chance to help protect democracy and improve our country.” The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) provides information for social work professionals who would like to better the lives of those in need by supporting public policy and legislation.

Ways to champion change

The 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work, developed by the American Academy of Social Work & Social Welfare, provide many ways for social workers to be champions of change through advocacy, political activism, public education and policy development:

  1. Ensure healthy development for all youth.
  2. Close the health gap.
  3. Stop family violence.
  4. Advance long and productive lives.
  5. Eradicate social isolation.
  6. End homelessness.
  7. Create social responses to a changing environment.
  8. Harness technology for social good.
  9. Promote smart “decarceration.”
  10. Reduce extreme economic inequality.
  11. Build financial capability for all.
  12. Achieve equal opportunity and justice.

If you are interested in more ways to get involved, connect with organizations that are active in advocacy efforts that specifically address one or more of the 12 Grand Challenges. You can also reach out to your local NASW chapter to learn about additional opportunities that may be available.

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