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Reflections on Barack Obama's Election for Social Work
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Reflections on Barack Obama’s Election For Social Work
Inspiration For Us in the Midst of Extraordinary Change
Message From The Executive Director

Robert Schachter, DSW, LMSW

December/January 2009


Everyone had their personal experience the second that they learned that Barack Obama was elected President of the United States. For a great many people, the feeling about his election runs extraordinarily deep and reflects our greatest aspirations for our country, our communities, our families, and ourselves.

Several weeks before the election I attended a 50th anniversary celebration of community organizing as a social work method at the Hunter College School of Social Work. In anticipation of an Obama victory and the fact a community organizer from Chicago would likely be elected president, the focus of discussion started out on how long a road it has been in working against the odds to help empower low-income communities which are also frequently immigrant communities and communities of color. The point was, as Professor Steve Burghardt put it, that after working in the community for so many, many years, under appreciated and under resourced, change can come. He said that history unfolds slowly but that we have reached a special moment in time.

It was a great beginning for the celebration of community organizing. Then the discussion turned to the economic, political and social realities that Barack Obama will be facing, and it was very sobering.

I think that we need to be realistic about what we are facing as a social work profession in New York City today. At the very same time, it is imperative to hold onto our ideals and our convictions that brought us into this profession, and to embrace the possibilities for change. This is what the social work profession has always been about. Barack Obama personifies these ideals and convictions. It is in the very same way that our next president’s values and commitments resemble those of the profession, that people of all ages from across the country (and around the world) are also inspired by many of these same qualities. Social work so often seems outside the mainstream of society, and yet, we may be finding ourselves more connected with the heartbeat of this time than we might have thought possible.

This is what hope means: wonderful possibilities exist.

With a perspective of hope and future possibility, here is a brief but somber reminder of some of the major challenges that the social work profession faces in the City:

• As the economy shakes up every sector in our society, we usually see those in greatest need affected the most. We can expect social problems to increase at the same time that human services and social work take serious hits.
• Health risks, employment disparities, and rates of incarceration that affect communities of color will not easily be addressed in an environment in which trillions of dollars are being transferred to the business sector, as corporate welfare has never been more pronounced. (NASW-NYC will remain in the forefront of the profession in discussing how historic, systemic, institutional racism contributes to the lack of progress in these areas, whether the economy is in a slump or when it is thriving.)
• Civil rights for the LGBT community have just taken a big hit in a number of states that passed laws prohibiting gay marriage. Just as the first black president was elected, unequal treatment and the urge to legalize discrimination still thrives in this country.
• Mayor Bloomberg and Governor Paterson are cutting their respective government budgets as tax revenues have plummeted, to a great extent because of what has occurred on Wall Street. A great many social work programs, and jobs, are dependent on this funding. (NASW-NYC has thrown its support behind a new city-wide coalition challenging policy makers to avoid balancing their budgets on the backs of those in greatest need.)
• The New York State licensing law is making it very difficult for new professionals to get a foothold in their careers, including obtaining the LCSW. Even though the State Education Department is making some adjustments, we may see a long-term impact on the professional workforce. (NASW-NYC is being relentless in its pursuit of an approach that fits with the actual needs of the social work profession.)
• Working conditions, including low salaries, excessively large caseloads, and whether adequate supervision is available, will likely become more challenging. (NASW-NYC will continue to put a spotlight on what agencies need to be doing.)

We must be careful that the excitement that has been engendered by Barack Obama’s election not be used as a diversion from the real problems that exist, along with the knowledge that recent history has been against much actual change. Just look at how long it has been since we had a national War on Poverty (the mid-1960s), which gave us such long lasting programs as Medicare, Medicaid, and Head Start.

I prefer to see Barack Obama’s election as creating possibilities, not just for the country, but internally, as well, within each of us. I believe that what has been sparked in many of us is our own potential to become greater than we are. Social workers make a difference in people’s lives despite enormous challenges. This election may prove to be a good shot in the arm if we become what our potential holds out for us.

On a wider stage, President-Elect Obama may just have what it takes to help turn the tide of history and bring forward an entirely new effort in addressing the human condition. Let’s hope so. We can help by communicating about human need in the communities we serve to our elected representatives in New York City, Albany, and in Washington, as well to others whom we know. That would make up part of a much larger effort.


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