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The Future of Social Work: A New Professionals - Pioneer Collaboration
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The Future of Social Work: A New Professionals - Pioneer Collaboration

Dr. Elaine Congress, Associate Dean, Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service; Anna Fewell, New Professionals Task Force, and Andrea Woodward, Fordham Social Work Intern

December/January 2009

 

On November 3, 2008, the NASW Pioneers of the New York City Chapter and the New Professionals Task Force came together for a first collaborative night of dialogue and partnership. The purpose of this historic event entitled, “The Future of the Social Work Profession: A Discussion with New Professionals & Pioneers of the New York City Chapter of NASW” was to provide a forum for addressing some of the challenges and needs that social workers are experiencing in the field today, as well as some of the new developments and progress that have been made in and through the profession. The planning committee for this event included Pioneers - Pat Brownell, Chapter President, Ann Burack-Weiss, Elaine Congress, Helen Hamlin, Lynn Ohrnstein, Alma Young and New Professionals - Anna Fewell, Alison Franks, Launa Kliever, and Karol Markosky.

The NASW Pioneers of the New York City Chapter including many long-time leaders in the social work community, have a large and active membership and meet regularly to discuss the current issues facing the social work field. While many of the Pioneers are still actively engaged in social work, their experiences as beginning social workers were much different than those of today’s new professionals. The Pioneers became increasingly aware that they must educate themselves on the issues affecting practice today.

As Pioneers have learned about some of the challenges social workers entering the field face, they saw the need to take their discussion beyond their meetings and hear from those who are directly affected in order to identify difficulties and begin working towards implementing change. Thus the Pioneers made the decision to meet with and learn from the New Professionals Task Force about current issues in social work practice.

The New Professionals Task Force, whose motto is “Advocacy, Connection, Peer Support” was convened in 2006 at the suggestion of the Board of Directors in order to strengthen leadership among newer professional leaders working with NASW-NYC, and to address workforce issues.

The New Professional-Pioneer partnership was enthusiastically welcomed by both sides and it is their hope that this first event is just the beginning of a combined effort to examine current practice issues.

The night began with a period of networking, followed by greetings from Elaine Congress, Co-Chair of the event, Helen Rehr, Chair of the Pioneers and Ricardo Torres, Co-Chair of the New Professionals Task Force, as well as a welcome from Bob Schachter, NASW-NYC Executive Director. Participants then broke into small groups consisting of both Pioneers and New Professionals for guided discussion, which allowed participants to individually discuss their past and present experiences and hopes and aspirations for becoming a social worker. The participants also discussed the realities they faced or are currently facing in practice - and formulated questions which examine the future - things that should be changed and preserved and steps for getting there.

It was through these small group discussions that the Pioneers and New Professionals were able to discover shared aspirations for entering the field and the realities of how the field has changed. This also provided participants with an opportunity to gain insight and support from each other. New Professionals were honored to have such esteemed and accomplished members of the profession express interest in their experiences and likewise, were delighted to gain wisdom from their expansive and impressive experience in the field.

As the New Professionals raised concerns about professional development, inadequate field placements, lack of supervision, support and the frustrations of working with administration, the Pioneers were given a glimpse as to how different the world of social work is today. As Pioneer Frances Gautieri stated, “The realities of the New Professionals are in stark contrast to those of the Pioneers who started at a time of government- subsidized graduate education, field work placements with field instructors assigned from the school rather than the agency, well-organized agency structures for beginning workers with regular supervision, mentoring, and ongoing staff development. New professionals are expected to function at developed levels of performance that used to take years to move toward [which is] causing considerable frustration and job dissatisfaction with many new workers leaving the field after relatively short periods.”

After the small group discussions, the New Professionals conducted a Speak Out where the numerous concerns were raised. In keeping with social work values, New Professionals felt strongly that the field should work to become more unified across diverse fields of practice and work more collaboratively with clients to achieve a more cohesive and stronger identity. Regarding the perception of the profession, New Professionals would like to see social work valued by society as a higher paid profession. Several saw the need for greater opportunities for upward mobility within the field resulting in more social workers in leadership positions and allowing for more voice in the political arena and media. There was a call for broad political change in favor of social workers and their clients, including the socialization of health care and more money invested in programs such as AmeriCorps and the Peace Corps, which could draw new talent and interest into the field of social work. Other ideas for areas of immediate improvement involved updating the social work school curricula to meet the needs of social workers in the field, as well as more emphasis by schools of social work on the quality of field placements and field instruction. Some hoped that social workers could become more comfortable dealing with budgeting and funding issues for their programs, and that funders would have more realistic understanding of the field. Schools of social work and continuing education programs might also place a greater emphasis on teaching social workers to advocate for themselves around salary issues, and to develop a strong personal and professional voice.

New Professionals continued to voice a need for supervision by social workers, professional development opportunities through continuing education programs, and an opportunity for mentorship relationships. Issues of traditional concern to the Task Force and the Chapter were mentioned, such as the need for smaller caseloads, more scholarships for social work education, an increase in loan forgiveness, a well functioning licensing system, and greater socio-cultural and racial diversity within the profession. As expected, many wish they had better strategies of making time available to themselves, and for increasing their overall quality of life.

In the concluding discussion both the New Professionals and Pioneers described a desire for continued dialogue within the profession, calling on our diverse capacities (including our community organizing and political strengths), as well as bringing leadership together. The combined group considers NASW-NYC to be in a unique position to facilitate this type of discussion, drawing upon its talented membership for volunteer strength, hosting dialogues, as it has done in the past with unions and legislators, as well as moving forward with more political activism. Other suggested next steps included beginning peer supervision support groups, approaching schools of social work to assist in curriculum enrichment, and hosting a “think tank” to further deliberate options for action.

Finally, the New Professionals and Pioneers considered the importance of continuing their own valuable dialogue and working relationship and conducting the “real, meaty” discussions necessary to draw on the past and together make the next steps towards building the future of the social work profession for the benefit of social workers, as well as for clients.

The discussions that evening build upon the Chapter’s focus groups conducted with new professionals in 2006 and the continued work on workplace surveys, open meetings and dialogues, as well on a need for the Pioneer discussions about the present and future state of practice. By bringing New Professionals and Pioneers together and allowing for richer discussion, the group hopes to strategize about how to affect change. This first collaborative discussion between the New Professionals and Pioneers sets the framework for a broader reflection on what parts of the profession should be preserved, as well as what changes are sought. To contact the Pioneers for more information about this project: congress@fordham.edu

To contact the New Professionals Task Force for more information about this project: new.professionals.task.force@gmail.com

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