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The Power Behind Running a Community-Based Organization
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The Power Behind Running a Community-Based Organization
Social Work and Community Organizing

Irma E. Rodriguez, LMSW; Executive Director, Queens Community House

April 2010


I’ve thought a lot about whether my social work education has added value to my role as an administrator in a human service organization and the answer has been, mostly, a resounding “yes”—and a tiny qualified “no.”

Certainly, the skills taught in social work school, particularly those that relate to human and group behavior, add value to everything— from figuring out how to motivate staff in a stressful funding and regulatory environment to understanding how and why staff meetings can go astray. Unfortunately, some skills most directly related to running an organization are rarely taught in social work school with the exception of those schools that have programs in community organization and social planning. When I was in school—granted a very long time ago—the administration/supervision electives focused on social work supervision and on management theories as they might relate to a social work environment; learning in these two areas was valuable to a very limited extent. Some social workers do go on to supervise not only other social workers, but many also supervise staff who are non-professionals and those with other professional degrees. Management theories seem to change quickly and the debate over the benefits of non-profit and for-profit perspectives is best left to another article—except to say that the last few years have certainly proved that the corporate world has a lot to learn.

Experience in the field as a social worker has been all the more valuable for understanding systems, working with other disciplines, dealing with senseless bureaucratic situations, and seeing community concerns up-close and personal; it gives a perspective to the work of running an organization that is hard to get if you haven’t also done that work. It certainly helps in the supervision of staff undergoing these pressures. That said, community-based social work is pretty elastic and many individuals from other professions have very similar experiences. A multi-service organization—like our settlement house—employs persons from many fields and while we come from different educational perspectives, our day-to-day experiences in the field are pretty much the same.

As for me, the education and experience that has brought the most value to my current position as Executive Director of a community-based organization is my background as a community organizer. Now, lots of people from many different professions—our current President as an example—have community organizing experience, but I think the combination of social work and organizing is a pretty powerful one, especially when leading a community-based organization. Certainly a good understanding of what community is and how people relate to community is an important knowledge base from which to work.

What are the aspects of the work that are enhanced by this experience? From the global to the more specific, I would highlight: a world view, commitment to mission, and the belief that people working together can accomplish great things. I would also add all the very concrete analytical, planning, and political skills necessary to wage a grassroots or advocacy campaign—or run an agency.

In addition, since social workers who are also organizers bring a deeper understanding of human behavior, we naturally believe strongly in the balance between task and process. We are less likely to use people as props for mobilization, and more likely to spend the time and effort needed to develop their leadership skills. We believe in the transformative nature of leadership and prefer to “do with” rather than “for” the people we work with. We facilitate an understanding of why things are the way they are and help people see their ability to make change. We are able to take our work from “case to cause,” see areas for advocacy, and work on social policy.

It is disturbing that for the most part lawyers, our legislators, and their staffs write social policy in this country. There are human services administrators who are lawyers who are drawn to the field who really get it, yet few of them are involved with policy issues. Of course it is a time issue—so many of us are just trying to stay afloat—it is difficult to influence policy too. Yet it is time we must spend or see our environment continue to deteriorate for our participants and ourselves. It is so important for human service organization administrators to have a vision of the world they would like to see and work toward and encourage staff to work to achieve it as well. Social work administrators should bring that view to their work. Otherwise we are just pushing paper.

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