Following are remarks I made at the School of Social Work’s pre-commencement recognition ceremony on December 12:
Good evening. For quite a long time now, I have been fond of saying that Social Work is the “greatest profession in the world,” for two reasons:
- Social workers have both a mission and an ethical responsibility to change the world for the better, AND
- They have the tools – the knowledge, the skills, the values – to do it.
Do we – does the state of Miss, does the U.S., does the world? – need social workers today? You bet! In fact, the need for social workers fired by the mission to change the world for the better, and armed with the tools to do it, has never been greater. The challenges facing us today are – without exaggeration – enormous. Poverty rates are soaring, unemployment remains much too high, homelessness and hunger are widespread. The wealth inequality gap in the U.S. is greater today than any time since the 1890s. In Mississippi, fully 1/3 of our children – disproportionately children of color – are poor. Hundreds of thousands go without accessible and affordable health care, with strong political resistance to taking advantage of opportunities to extend it to the poor and the near-poor. Social services have been cut, cut, and cut again, as the result of a long-running public budget crisis. Individuals, families, and communities are under growing stress as available support and resources diminish. Now, you may have noticed a very recent “thaw” in the Washington gridlock around budgetary matters – evidently no one wants another government shutdown, and this is a good thing – but those pushing for “austerity” measures which would further shred our already weak social safety net are still calling too many shots in the ideological wars being waged.
So that’s the bad news. But there is good news too, fortunately. The good news is that across the country (and the world), we see progressive movement and reaction, even resistance, to much of the bad stuff happening. We see challenges to cuts that hurt the poor and disadvantaged. We see demonstrations against destruction of the environment, new and well organized efforts to raise the minimum wage, to extend unemployment benefits, to increase health care access. We even see very innovative and creative efforts to “reinvent” community and political economy – to form housing cooperatives, for example, and self-reliant economic arrangements of various sorts, to establish democratically run worker-owned businesses, to repossess public land for common purposes, to produce food and energy on a localized basis so that communities can get out from under corporate control and “go green” on their own.
This is good, and social workers need to be involved, deeply involved. Social work needs to be part of progressive movements to democratize, to share wealth, to re-include and empower the excluded, to save the planet from ecological degradation. It needs to form part of the resistance to forces of destruction, inequality, oligarchy, and exploitation of vulnerable populations. In fact, nothing less than leadership in such efforts should be asked of us, because nothing less will do if we are to remain faithful to our heritage, our mission, and our ethical commitments to work for justice and a better world – a more fair, more inclusive and egalitarian world.
So graduates, this is your charge, to stand up and stand out, to lead in making progressive change. It is a heavy charge, but I have no doubt you are up to the task. Why, otherwise, would you have chosen this profession? And why, just as importantly, would the profession have chosen you? Yes, chosen you – because social work is not so much a job as a vocation, and that is how it is with vocations – they choose you as much you choose them; they issue the call, and you decide only to answer or not. Clearly, social work – the greatest profession – has called you, and you have chosen to answer; you would not, otherwise, be here tonight, prepared to “commence” to the next phase of your professional life.
Let me close by saying that as both a professor of social work and as dean of the College of Health, I am immensely proud of the wonderful work the School of Social Work does, and most especially of their contribution to this wonderful moment – the graduation of so many new professional social worker-change agents, fighters for social and economic justice. Graduates and families, I applaud your accomplishment. Faculty and staff, I applaud yours. It is a single and singular accomplishment – important, timely, and indispensable – to Mississippi, the US of A, and, indeed, our ever-shrinking planet. Thank you.