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Dr. Michael Forster

Social Work graduates are prepared to lead positive change

The School of Social Work held pre-commencement pinning and hooding ceremonies last week at the Trent Lott Center.  Following is part of my address to the graduates:

Do we – does the state of Miss, does the U.S. of A., 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 are – without exaggeration – enormous.  Poverty rates are soaring, unemployment remains far, far 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 – live in poverty.  Hundreds of thousands of our citizens 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.  “Safety net” services have been cut, cut, and cut again, as the result of a long-running public budget crisis.  Individuals, families, and communities are stressed as available support and resources diminish.  And politicians pushing for “austerity” measures would further shred our already tattered social safety net.

That’s the bad news.  But fortunately there is good news too .  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 hear new criticisms of “corporate welfare,” and calls for Wall Street bank accountability.  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 “go green” on their own.

This is all 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. Indeed, why shouldn’t social workers go beyond just being involved, to take the lead in movements to build a more fair, just, and sustainable world?  It is our heritage and our responsibility to do so, is it not?

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 to start with?  And why, just as importantly, would the profession have chosen you? Yes, I say chosen you – because social work is not so much a job as it is 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.

 

Dr. Michael Forster

“Open forum” shows that campus reorganization well underway

On the eve of President Bennett’s inaugural events, I think today’s faculty-staff open forum at the Gulf Park campus – hosted by the Academic Deans Leadership Team (ADLT) and skillfully facilitated by College of Business Dean Gilbert – showed excellent progress toward implementing the president’s decision to reorganize intercampus relationships.

Today’s focus was on reviewing currently available programs and identifying real and potential growth opportunities.  The broader context, however, concerns cultivating trust, “building bridges” to a full realization of the “one university” ideal.  This will take time, as well as a firm adherence of everyone to the ADLT values of transparency, communication, and accountability.  But we most definitely have traction.

Dr. Michael Forster

Celebrate diversity, work for justice

This morning USM School of Social Work students sponsored a “Diversity Dash” 5K run.  I was invited to make a few brief opening remarks on the significance of celebrating diversity.  Those remarks follow.

Good morning!

So – We are here to “celebrate diversity.”  But why should we celebrate human diversity, anyway?  Let’s consider a few reasons:

Because, first of all, diversity is good in itself, just as the qualities of healthiness, of rich variety, of depth and beauty, or the experiences of joy, or belonging, or accomplishment, are good in themselves.  As these good things are ends in themselves, so is human diversity an end in itself.

But diversity is also “useful”; it serves other important human and social purposes.  We know, for example, that:

In communities, diversity builds social capital – it forges connections and shared commitments, its many strands increasing the strength of the whole community.

In organizations, diversity makes for better decisions and better outcomes – decisions and outcomes reflecting alternative points of view and experience, and pointing to alternative and otherwise foreclosed possibilities.

In interpersonal relations, diversity encourages tolerance and empathy, undergirding the expansion and broadening of our caring capacity.

In politics, diversity expands democracy and the promise of equality, pushing us toward the fulfillment of the democratic project – which we all well know is “one nation…, with liberty and justice for all.”

But let’s us not delude ourselves into thinking that any of these good things are simply given.  Without a firm and sustained commitment to justice, the phrase, “celebration of diversity,” can too easily ring hollow, can too easily degenerate into banal bromide or superficial slogan.  We must never forget that the ancestors of today’s native Americans were victims of a genocidal march of conquest across the continent; or that most of the ancestors of today’s African-Americans were brought to this country in chains and condemned to slave labor; or that among the extensive diversity of our brothers and sisters and fellow citizens alive today, far too many have been and continue to be victims of exclusion, exploitation, marginalization, or oppression of one kind or another.

Diversity and justice should, therefore, indeed must therefore go hand in hand.  In the words of Rev. King, the marriage of justice and diversity turns “lip service” into “life service”; this marriage is our best, our truest, basis for celebration.  As Dr. King also said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable… Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle; the tireless exertions and passionate concern of dedicated individuals.”

On this wonderful Saturday morning, then, let us dedicate ourselves simultaneously to the celebration of diversity and the struggle for social justice.

Katherine Nugent

Encouraging News for BSN Graduates

Last month, the American Association of College of Nursing (AACN) released data that showed that graduates with a baccalaureate or master’s degree in nursing are more likely to have job offers at the time of graduation or within 4 to 6 months following graduation (Journal of Professional Nursing, 2014).   That is encouraging news amidst concerns about new college graduates finding employment in today’s job market.

This is not only encouraging news for the graduates of our program but for the current and future population who access healthcare.  For the past decade a significant body of research has demonstrated that nurses with a baccalaureate-level preparation are linked to better patient outcomes.  Based upon these studies, the faculty at Southern Miss has designed the curriculum to prepare graduates who have strong clinical decision making skills and are prepared to practice from a culture of patient safety.  The use of simulation and case studies in the classroom enhance the acquisition of the knowledge and competencies needed for successful nursing practice.

In a recent conversation with an administrator at one of our health care agencies, I was inspired to hear the success of our recent graduates who are working together in a patient care unit and making a difference in the quality of care in that agency.  Just one example of our baccalaureate nurses making a difference in the State of Mississippi.

Dr. Michael Forster

Smoke and climate change “resilience” are both bad for health

I just completed a solid three days of attendance at two conferences linked only by geography – the state chapter conference of the National Association of Social Workers, which met at Biloxi’s Imperial Palace casino, and the “Race, Gender and Class” conference, sponsored by a section of the American Sociological Association, in New Orleans.

The two conference experiences prompted distinct but equally troubling health-related thoughts.  The Biloxi experience had nothing to do with conference content, but rather with location.  Despite a major push in recent years by health advocacy groups to pass smoke-free workplace legislation in Mississippi, casinos in the state remain havens of “smokers’ rights,” and you certainly know it as you move about the Imperial Palace.  The smell of cigarette smoke is everywhere and seems to cling to everything, including your clothes long after you’ve left the premises.

The New Orleans experience, on the other, was all about content.  Several presentations by university-based researchers focused on the extremely troubling health impacts of environmental degradation and climate change, with emphasis on disparate impacts related to race, gender and class.  Yet it’s clear that virtually all the attention of both policy-makers and practitioners today is on ameliorating the effects of this degradation and change; little is going to addressing underlying causes, which are largely, if not exclusively, human in origin.  Most discussion and an increasing measure of action is devoted to “impact mitigation” and “building community resilience” to climate change.

Both conference experiences prompted me to consider the madness of our current state of collective thinking and behavior, and our seeming inability to take appropriate action in response to unequivocal scientific evidence.  Despite massive and no long disputed evidence of the extreme health risks associated with second-hand smoke, we still allow thousands of workers (many of them low-income) and thousands more patrons to suck in second-hand smoke at Mississippi casinos every day.  This is an outrage, and evidence, I think, of a certain kind of behavioral madness, a species of “denialism” that revels in thumbing its nose at the data.

In like vein, an overwhelming scientific consensus has emerged to conclude that human activity is responsible for climate change, and hence all the deleterious health effects already flowing from it and expected to cascade rapidly as climate change advances.  And yet we appear incapable of acting to address the underlying cause of our troubles – an extractive economic order that is “healthy” only when it’s growing, ever increasing on a global scale the very behaviors that are threatening the essential conditions of human existence itself.

“Resilience” in response to known threats to human health and well-being is not the answer.  Resistance to the forces driving our destruction – be they personally behavioral and psychological, or collectively political and economic – is.