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“Harnessing Your Power”
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“Harnessing Your Power” Was Subject of Forum
Social Workers Explore What They Can Do to Affect Working Conditions

June 2010


On March 25, 2010, over 60 social work practitioners and MSW students attended a forum addressing the ongoing concern of how to improve working conditions for social workers. Hosted by NASW-NYC, and co-planned and implemented by their New Professionals Task Force, the forum focused on what individual social workers can do to harness their own power, in order to positively affect the conditions in which they work.

Dr. Robert Schachter, Executive Director of the Chapter, shared a brief history on what the NASW-NYC has done in past years to keep working conditions in the spotlight. In 2006, the Chapter revised a document providing rationale for addressing several aspects of working conditions, along with corresponding recommendations. Following that, social work administrators were convened for a focus group in which they shared their attempts to improve working conditions in their respective agencies. Finally, Dr. Schachter sent a letter to over one hundred CEOs and Executive Directors of human service organizations, acknowledging the budgetary challenges of doing more with less, and encouraging them to find ways to ameliorate the pressures faced by their employees. (For further details about these past efforts, please visit our website at

Dr. Schachter went on to acknowledge the importance of addressing working conditions, calling it an “ethical responsibility” of agencies, which he framed within the context of an agency’s mission to provide the best care for clients. Dr. Schachter’s opening remarks also set a tone of openness and honesty for the evening, calling for social workers to have authentic dialogue about working conditions, including sharing stories of what is actually happening in the field, as well as having realistic expectations on what kinds of changes can be made. “If we can’t be honest with one another, what do we have?” he asked.

Six panelists were invited to participate in the plenary session at the beginning of the forum, and each shared inspiring and often pointed advice from their varied perspectives on how individual social workers can harness their power to effect change.

Leaders Are Not Defined By Their Positions

Common threads among the panelists’ remarks emphasized the importance of leadership at all levels. Steve Burghardt, professor at Hunter College School of Social Work and co-author of Stories of Transformative Leadership in the Human Services, asserted that leaders know themselves to be fully integrated human beings who are not defined by their positions within the traditional hierarchy of organizational life.

Leaders possess the courage to speak up about problems and inequities in the workplace, and are willing to hold true to social work values—embodying them in their daily work, as well as expressing them within their work environments. NASW-NYC Board member, Kalima DeSuze shared that anyone entering her office immediately has a sense of her values because of what she chooses to hang on her walls.

A social worker’s ability to cultivate authentic relationships with his or her colleagues is also an important mark of a leader. A leader’s vision can inspire others to harness their power to affect positive change.

Person-in-Situation—Applying a Central Tenant of Social Work Practice

Social workers are trained to work with their clients from a perspective of “person-in-situation.” Several of the panelists noted that in order to effectively harness one’s own power in the service of positive change, social workers should apply that central tenant to themselves.

Panelists also emphasized the effectiveness and necessity of acting on both macro and micro levels to address working conditions. For example, social workers need to be clear about the system(s) they are entering—having an understanding of the parameters of the realities of how systems operate, and how they will affect the day-to-day work. On a more micro level, social workers can establish a strong footing of personal power by reaching for clarity about themselves and their professional roles, situated within their organizational environments.

Position of the Supervisor

When professionals are allowed to achieve meaningful goals, their individual power is affirmed and work-related stress can be lowered. A major focus of panelist Mark Preston’s research emphasizes the critical role of the social worker’s relationship with his or her supervisor, and its affect on all other relationships. Supervisors are well-positioned to facilitate the “empowerment” process when they understand the need of the worker, allow the worker to have professional control, and provide feedback to the worker that is task-centered rather than person-centered.

Going Deeper Into Conversation

Following the plenary panel, participants chose one of four small groups to continue the conversation in a more personal and intimate way. Topics for the small group discussions were: 1.) “Self Care and Work/Life Balance,” led by Josie Torielli and Yesika Montoya; 2.) “Social Work Managers and Supervision,” led by Elizabeth Rogers and Leslie Lind; 3.) “Staff Morale and Peer Leadership,” led by Sheilah Mabry and Tess Gilman; and 4.) “Funding Constraints, Caseload Size and Salary,” led by Lewis Zuchman.

Keeping the Issue of Working Conditions in Focus

NASW-NYC is committed to keeping the topic of working conditions in the forefront of Chapter priorities. Chapter staff and leadership will continue to promote recommendations for improving working conditions, and will explore additional ways of sharing strategies that are working within agency settings.

We need your help in the endeavor to improve working conditions for social workers in New York City. Please circulate the documents on our website with your colleagues and keep the dialogue alive.

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