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Jan/Feb 14 Currents Martha's article
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Message from the President

Social Work Is Social Justice
Martha Adams Sullivan, DSW


This the time of year when many of us reflect on the past with an eye to what we want to see in our future.  Like the Sankofa bird who looks backward with an egg in its beak, we are hopeful. One might say that we are the profession of hope; where many see despair, we see possibility. We see the inherent dignity and worth of all people, even when they may not recognize their worthiness or when others do not validate their worth. We can envision change. Changed individuals. Changed families and communities. Changed social systems. We dream of a better world. Our professional values actually articulate what that better world is like.

Change is not easy to achieve. Yet, we are committed. Social workers have not only the ability to envision change, but equally important, we have the tools to bring about change. It is a just world where difference and equity coexist. We are skilled in engaging people and systems in change processes. Nevertheless, our work is challenging. So what sustains us?


There are, obviously, many individual answers to this question. I’d like to offer two sources of sustenance:  
1) positive change itself encourages us to continue our work; and 2) working in community, our professional community empowers us and urges us on.

In addition to the New Year, this is a time when we reflect on the lives and work of two other champions of social justice and the rights of workers: Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., whose birthday is a national holiday which we celebrate this month and the late President Nelson Mandela, who passed away recently.

If you have visited the MLK Memorial in Washington, DC, you know that it displays quotes from his many speeches. All are deeply moving. I found one to resonate perfectly with social work:

 "I choose to identify with the underprivileged, I choose to identify with the poor,
I choose to give my life for the hungry, I choose to give my life for those who have
been left out of the sunlight of opportunity…This is the way I’m going. If it means
suffering a little bit, I’m going that way If it means sacrificing, I’m going that way. If
it means dying for them, I’m going that way, because I heard a voice saying "DO

I had occasion to visit the MLK Memorial in Atlanta, Georgia this past summer. It is an amazing memorial which I encourage you to visit should you have the opportunity. There’s insufficient space here, nor is it my goal to describe the memorial or the many reflections it prompted. Here I will share just one. Until this visit, I’d not fully understood the extent to which Dr. King’s life was rooted in community. The Ebenezer Baptist Church is one block away from the family home in which he grew up. As a child, Dr. King played on the streets around the house with his neighbors, many of whom were fellow congregants. He also played in the school yard of the Catholic school which is one block from home in the other direction.

Relatives and other visitors from the larger community frequently stayed at the King home. Hotels were not open to them. He was nurtured and loved in his family and community, yet he was not shielded from the harsh realities of the conditions of many in the wider community. Undoubtedly, Dr. King’s embrace of the "beloved community" was rooted in his early experience of that community. The philosophy of the Beloved Community - a vision of the future as a "reconciled world," i.e., a just world wherein all can achieve their full potential. Familiar?

I also had the opportunity last summer, along with many other social workers, to participate in the March on Washington that commemorated the 50 the Anniversary of the March in 1963. The March drew attention to social justice issues: unequal access to jobs, education, and healthcare; voting rights; racism in the criminal ‘justice’ system, in particular justice for Trayvon Martin. The March also fostered an empowered community for activists. For instance, through speeches, banners and even tee shirts, marchers were reminded that "Freedom ain’t free." That "injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere." That one must ‘come to Washington to commemorate and go home to agitate.’ That the Pledge of Allegiance is about a ‘spiritual struggle against hatred and bigotry.’ Reminders to "… let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like a mighty stream." (Amos 5:24) There was talk of the need for more love and the Beloved Community. My favorite was on a tee shirt: "Know Justice. Know Peace."

There are some events in life that are so momentous that collectively, when we recall them we remember not only what happened but we place them in the context of our lives at the time. We even ask others ‘what were you doing when…?’ It happened that word of the passing of Nelson Mandela came when we were gathered, 500 social workers in New York City, for the chapter’s Annual Awards Dinner on December 5, 2013. The quote above could just as easily have been from Nelson Mandela. In fact Mandela articulated a similar sentiment:

"A fundamental concern for others in our individual and community lives would go a long way in making the world the better place we so passionately dreamt of." President Mandela clearly understood the value in envisioning a better world and devoting oneself to change. In his struggle to end the racist, oppressive system of apartheid, he endured aggression, microagressions, and ultimately a 27-year imprisonment for his efforts in leading change. Once released, when apartheid was ended, he led the country in a process of reconciliation. Again, space here does not permit a thorough analysis of the anti-apartheid movement. The point is that as a profession with a social justice mission, the life work of these and many others can sustain us in our work. And, we can sustain each other, working as a professional social work community.

The Chapter’s Social Work Equity Project has been described previously in detail. It includes several activities and initiatives including the soon-to-be-released Poverty Toolkit which will be useful in advocacy work. The Social Work Equity Project includes attention to the conditions of social workers, as laid out in the NASW-NYC Campaign for Equitable Social Work Salaries. Join your social work community in working on the issues you care about. Click here to sign on to the Campaign now!

It’s all about social justice and social work is social justice.

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