Reflections on Social Workers in Politics
As We Continue to Move Forward
Joan Serrano Laufer, ACSW, LMSW
As co-chair of the NYC Chapter’s Political Committee for Candidate Election (see page 5 for information on PACE) for the past three years, I have become more and more aware of a strange dichotomy in the field. On the one hand, there are highly skilled and committed social workers involved on all levels of the political spectrum, from top levels of state government, to classrooms teaching policy and politics. Social workers are also found in staff positions with elected officials as well as grass roots level political clubs and organizations. On the other hand, there are equally skilled and committed social workers who feel that as social workers we must be above politics.
Obviously, it would not be until after completing my three years as PACE co-chair, that I would even consider aligning myself with the latter group. Indeed, I do hold a party office and have been active in political campaigns since before I was old enough to vote. I strongly believe that as social workers, we must be involved in politics and government if we are to be true to our roots and the history and purpose of our profession. I believe even more strongly that this involvement is part of our responsibility to those we serve, to our profession, and to ourselves and family. Involvement in politics should be a natural for social workers and we bring to it needed skills, values and expertise.
The history of social work in the settlement house movement was one of involvement. Early social workers were trying to change government to be more responsive to the needs of our clients. We worked with and for our clients then and the same needs are true today. It should not be enough to help one person, or one hundred people change. We need to help change the system that brought them to where they are. We need to change the system that they are going back to, and this can only be done through the political process. If we do not enter that arena, we leave that step to others, who may not share our passions, and our commitment to our clients.
Whether we shun the political arena because we are afraid of it, fear we lack the skills or contacts to succeed, or think it is dirty, we need to rise above those deterrants and get involved. Involved social workers help make policy, define the issues, and put strategies in place. We do this by working with individuals, with families, with agencies, and we must do it with government, thus we must be involved in politics.
Social workers are trained in the skills of politics - even if we do not recognize it. Our skills as interviewers help with the basic steps of talking to voters, breaking down issues so people understand. Our skills as advocates help us define policy issues to legislators so that they understand the needs of our clients, colleagues, families and ourselves. Our skills as administrators help us run offices, whether they are agency offices or legislative offices. Our group work skills help us plan, organize, and run events and drives. Social workers bring much to the table.
Government will continue. Decisions that affect our clients, our families, and our profession will continue to be made. Our choice is whether to sit back and let it happen or to be involved in how it happens and what happens. For those we serve, there are clear issues, regardless of our method or field of practice. For example, in working with those who need financial help from government, it is clear that the amount of food stamps and the procedures to get them will impact clients. In my years working with families of people who had developmental disabilities, I saw the impact. Whether we are working in schools, hospitals, clinics, with immigrants, etc, government, and thus politics, we can make a tremendous difference in the lives of those we serve. Our families are equally affected, whether it is in the schools they attend, the garbage pick-up in their neighborhoods, access to housing, or a host of other issues. As practitioners, licensing, loan forgiveness, and funding for programs have a direct impact on ourselves and our colleagues.
Get Started or Help a Colleague Get Started
Come to a PACE meeting which are held on the second Wednesday of the month at the Chapter office. Join a political club. Get involved with an elected official or someone aspiring to elected office. You’ll be surprised at how welcome you will be. Those of us who are involved are always looking for others to help. We need to be part of the solution!