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.