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Currents - Sept. 2011 - Annual Meeting Phil Coltoff Summary
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2011 Annual Meeting

Harnessing and Leveraging Our Strengths to Better Serve the Needs of the Public

Summary of 2011 Annual Meeting Keynote Speech

Philip Coltoff, MSW, Katherine W. and Howard Aibel Visiting Professor and Executive-in-Residence, NYU Silver School of Social Work


Keynote Speaker Phil Coltoff, MSW, Katherine W. and Howard Aibel Visiting Professor and Executive-in-Residence, NYU Silver School of Social Work and Lorraine Gonzalez, Chair, NASW-NYC Annual Meeting Planning Committee.

Indeed these are extraordinary times with unemployment and underemployment affecting 25 million people. Youth unemployment, particularly for minority males can be upwards 40-60%. Food pantries are at their highest use since the Great Depression with many displaying empty shelves. Food stamps and vouchers are at an all time high and the disparity between the wealthy and the poor is the greatest in the last half century. The highest 1% receives 20% of the national income while the bottom 20% shares 5% of the national income. The Pew Charitable Trust recently reported that the annual costs of not treating child abuse and neglect exceeds 103 billion dollars per year.

The profession of social work has always believed in equal opportunity, human rights and dignity for all, and has often served as a voice for the dispossessed and disenfranchised—particularly for the poor, newcomers and for children who do not have a political voice. Historically, the profession of social work has served “a gadfly on the public conscience”. Interestingly, this year’s Pulitzer Prize for Public Service was awarded to journalist who authored stories that represented “significant positive change for our society.” Social workers, not only journalists, deserve similar recognition.

Often we have fulfilled our role as “gadfly” or advocate for the poor, however, there is much that we still must do. NASW having a political action committee, and a Washington D.C. and Albany lobby are good beginnings but only beginnings. Our profession must also serve as a positive “whistle blower”. The leaders of our profession should call to the public’s attention the problems and deficits of our service systems whether it is in the area of children services, programs for senior citizens or neglect in juvenile justice. Too often it is the press or investigative reporters that call attention to these problems. Our profession should serve as an effective monitor of services that are poorly delivered to the populations that we are mandated to serve.

The crisis in public schools ought not to be left to educators alone to solve. Poor children need more than “great principals and great teachers” to be effective learners. Social workers should not only serve a mental health function in public schools, but also partner with educators in assuring that children receive proper nutrition, physical activity, and social development skills to enable them to be responsive learners. Schools should be safe places, open through the evening hours, on weekends, and during the summer months to effectively serve children and families. Our profession, especially youth serving agencies should be equal partners with educators and city government in fostering public school reform and transformation. After all, who is better at community organization and parent outreach than social workers?

 Approximately 200 attended the 2011 Annual Meeting. Members of the audience listen to remarks made by Keynote Speaker, Phil Coltoff.

Most social agencies have a mission statement but at times that statement is outdated and doesn’t reflect today’s needs. All social agencies should periodically review and analyze their mission with a visionary focus allowing for better service to today’s most vulnerable populations—the homeless, newcomers, unemployed youth, substance abusers, the aging and aged, the disabled, and those who have experienced continuous and great trauma. Too often our limited scope and mission prevents us from reaching out to those who need us the most and to effectively challenge the social systems that perpetuates poverty, discrimination and inequality. If we do not move forward, if we are not a dynamic movement of change, we will suffer what the author Jim Collins referred to as “how the mighty fall.” Those organizations that have been able to reinvent themselves to change have thrived, have grown, and have won the support of the public. These organizations have raised considerable sums of money which have enabled them to develop new and relevant programs and services. Collins points out that when we enjoy the respect and sanction of the community, we often receive positive media attention which results in greater public awareness. All organizations can capture a larger share of the 300 billion contributed privately by individuals in 2010 if they present a dynamic and committed face in solving today’s social and environmental problems. The money is there if we know where to look for it, how to access it, and most importantly how to deliver on the promises that we make.

Social work and the non-profit industry have a GNP of 1.5 billion dollars per year. We represent between 25 and 30 million employees nationally. These numbers alone should represent greater influence on the national and local scenes than we currently are exercising. We must find a way of harnessing and leveraging our strengths to better serve the needs of the public, especially those who are underserved. Our national association must play a larger role, a more forceful role and one that expresses the views and opinions of our membership, especially those of our younger membership. Schools of social work need to understand that producing clinicians alone, while important will not solve today’s social problems. We must produce better and greater number of administrators, organizational leaders, political activists, and those who are reform minded leaders.

We have a great opportunity if we do not retreat in the face of adversity, recoil when examining massive social problems and yield our share of the marketplace to other professions. We must be forthright in our leadership, secure in our knowledge base, and committed to our professional identity.




Click here to view a list of the 2011 Annual Meeting Co-Sponsors

Click here to view the Chapter Circle of Support

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