2013 David Roth Scholarship Award Winner
Tiffany Paul, Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College
Social Work and Political Activism
My father made a living as a marble mason until 1990, when he suffered a closed head injury on the job. Due to a lack of support from the systems he was operating within, and lack of access to knowledge about his rights, the result of this injury was job loss without compensation. Left cognitively disabled and already struggling with a mental health condition, my father lost his home. He remained homeless for the entirety of my teenage years. While my father was struggling to survive, I was living with my mother in a middle class suburb of Detroit, MI., where the cost of living was slightly above our means, but where I was sure to get a good education. I was coming-of-age as a white, LGBTQ-identified, woman in a world of vast socioeconomic inequality, sexism, homophobia, and institutionalized racism, the later of which was illustrated clearly to me by the excruciating level Black poverty happening inside Detroit's city limits—a city deemed the second most segregated city in the country. I graduated high school one year before September 11th, 2001, and that year, from Michigan, watched bombs drop on the people of Afghanistan and Iraq. Too much was going wrong in the world, and as a human being, I had a duty to do something about it.
I moved to New York City to further refine my understanding of social responsibility by seeking out a larger, organized community that was working for social justice. At the age of 19, I enrolled in the International Relations program at the City College of New York in 2003, through which I worked as an intern at The Immigrants' Center assisting individuals in applying for citizenship and other changes in immigration status. On campus, the political activist inside of me bloomed. As a Freshman, I joined a socialist club that had at the core of its mission learning how to undo structural forms of exploitation and oppression. As a Sophomore, I co-founded two student groups, one in support of a prominent third party presidential candidate, and another that focused on U.S. foreign policy, which was incorporated into a national network of student anti-war/pro-peace activists. In my Junior year, I was awarded the Weston Scholarship for Public Service by the school in recognition of the activism I did on campus.
This scholarship allowed me to transition from campus-based activism, to engaging with community-based social work practice inside an organization. I was introduced to a community based organization called the Interfaith Assembly on Homelessness and Housing (IAHH), where I interned from 2007-2008, and subsequently worked as Assistant to the Executive Director and then Program Manager from 2009-2013. The agency addresses homelessness by promoting public policies that produce affordable housing, prevent homelessness, provide services and promote employment in conjunction with running therapeutic, life-skills oriented group programs that assist people who have been homelessness to get back on their feet. When I started coordinating the Life Skills Empowerment Programs, I began interacting with very poor people seeking services in a way I never before had: as someone who had the potential to actually provide these services. I was deeply inspired by the impact the programs had on those who were enrolled, and it was this experience that led me to pursue social work training. However, funding for our programs was lacking throughout my time at IAHH, and at the turn of the new year in 2013, I was laid off due to a major funding crisis.
As a social work student and social service worker, I believe that organizing for our clients rights within the context of our agencies can be a powerful place to start campaigns that have real potential to advance social justice. By defending our work and our client’s rights to quality services and adequate resources, social workers are in an unparallelled position to push back against the current climate of austerity. This framework is supported by the model of labor-community alliances, and it is one through which I can apply my skill set as a political activist and organizer to my new role as a social worker. This model operates under a few assumptions: first, that the funding and range of client services should be expanded, not cut; second, that social service workers are better able to serve their clients when they are paid a living wage and provided with basic job protections; and third, that social service workers who engage in collective bargaining agreements have significant power to amplify both their own voices, and the voices of their clients.
When we look back at the origins of the ‘social safety net’, without exception these programs were initiated in response to the demands of the people who needed them. We as providers cannot replace the role that social service recipients have in demanding that our society prioritize funding and improve these services, but we can be allies in this struggle. While some client-worker demands, such as case load reduction, will benefit both social workers and clients, I believe that social workers also have a responsibility to incorporate client-generated demands that do not directly benefit ourselves into such negotiations. In the 1960s, social workers at the New York City Department of Welfare formed the Social Service Employees Union (SSEU) and did just this. Though democratic union organizing, these social service workers won an automatic clothing grant for their clients—a demand that originated from the clients themselves. I believe that social workers can learn a lot from this history of allyship, and that worker-client collaboration in the struggle for a stronger, more just, social welfare system has real potential to advance the value and impact of our work.