In advance of today’s commencement exercise, the School of Social Work packed a room at the Trent Lott Center last night, recognizing the achievements of over 50 Bachelor’s and Master’s of Social Work graduates. A sizeable spring crop indeed!
The dean was pleased as punch to address the graduates and their celebrating family and friends, but challenged the new grads to keep learning and to confront the myriad ills of our times. You face three overlapping tasks, I said in part:
First, study and learn all you can about the big issues of the moment. Armed with knowledge, you must speak the truth about these issues from a social work perspective, which is the perspective of the disadvantaged and the marginalized, the “99%” who own very little wealth, who are, generally speaking, powerless. Poverty and inequality, immigration reform, health and mental health care, labor exploitation, war and peace, homelessness, sexual violence – there’s no dearth of what we need to know. It’s work to keep up, to be sure; but it’s work that must be done if we’re to live up to the calling of our profession to be change activists. In doing the hard work of continuous learning, I advise you to break out of the American media stranglehold, expand your perspectives. Do not be content with the omissions, half-truths and at times outright propaganda served up by mainstream television news and what’s left of most American newspapers. The internet is a wonderful tool for social workers, good for more than Facebook and on-line shopping (or finding a quick quote for a late paper!). Tune in to serious news sources, especially those that operate outside a narrow nationalist, U.S.-centric perspective – the BBC, for example, or World News Netowrk, or al-Jazeera.
Second, master the basics of political economy and the operation of our political system, however dysfunctional you may think it is. I’m sorry to admit that we social work educators need to do a much better job in this regard. Our “macro” classes give you a taste, but only a taste, of what you need to know. Like it or hate it, the intersection of economics and politics is where the power behind decision-making and policy-making resides, and that’s where social workers need to take up residency too. If we’re going to challenge political and economic realities we consider contrary to the interests and well-being of our constituents, we need to first understand them – how the political economy operates, what works and what doesn’t from a social work values perspective. And then, of course, we need to act on our understanding, because social work detached from social action is not really social work at all, no matter the number and nature of credentials attached to it.
This suggests the third and most important task of all, which is to embrace an activist mindset in your work and in your life. Look to build relationships with progressive forces and support them. Progressive movements, often taking the form of resistance to social service cuts, exist, and more are springing up around the nation all the time. By all means, join the National Association of Social Workers, but do not be content to attend a conference now and then to collect continuing education units. Rather, push the NASW to take courageously progressive stands on the important issues of the day. Above all, look to engage actively within your own community; if there isn’t anything already happening there, start something. I recently attended a small conference at Mississippi Valley State University, and heard several inspiring stories of resilient individuals in the Mississippi Delta – many of them social workers, I’m happy to say – organizing their communities for action on important issues of housing, youth violence, employment, and more. Are they eradicating problems, and quickly turning everything completely around? Usually not; but neither are they rolling over in acceptance of the status quo. Nor should we give up on political party organizations, which exist in some form in nearly every county in the nation. It’s not a matter of which party label to rally around, but of raising and pressing on social work issues with a long-term mindset, whatever the party. A professor of mine many years ago said this to a class on social change, “the problem with most progressives [read: “social workers”] is that they tend to be 100% political only 10% of the time; but long term success lies in reversing those numbers – progressive change agents have to be 10% political 100% of the time.” In other words, activism needs to be part of who we are, and what we do on a day-to-day basis as social workers.
Now, go out and do great work. Change the world, as you’ve been taught to do.