Whether we know it or not, at some point in our lives we have probably been in contact with, or impacted by, a social worker. Now, I know what you’re thinking, “but how could I have been in contact with a social worker, I’ve never had my kids taken away!”; just a few weeks away from finishing my Bachelors of Social Work (and heading to complete a Masters of Social Work program at the University of Pennsylvania), I have heard this comment more often than not. While some Social Workers do in fact work for Child Protective Services, many more do completely different jobs for completely different organizations – even those who do work for CPS don’t really want to remove your children, I promise you.
““Teach by example, practice cooperation, and practice social democracy” – Jane Addams
Social Workers have had this erroneous reputation for quite some time, even though the profession has grown leaps and bounds over the last 125 years. Since the time of the first settlement houses in Chicago, Social Workers have been dedicated to empowering people to live fulfilled lives. In my mind, Social work is not typically chosen by the individual, but rather life’s circumstances seem to choose the field for the future practitioner. Such is the case in my life, like so many of my predecessors and colleagues, that circumstance has led me to the figurative door of the Hull House, and to the words of stoic Jane Addams (largely considered the mother of social work). “Teach by example, practice cooperation, and practice social democracy,” said Mrs. Addams of the three ethical principles of the settlement movement (the precursor to modern Social Work practice) in the United States. It is these three principles that guide Social Work practice at its core, and the very different roles that Social Workers play.
“So what do Social Workers ACTUALLY do,” you might be asking yourself, “if they don’t just take away kids from homes?”. Good question – as mentioned, Social Workers perform so many roles within this social science of ours. From research to direct practice, Social Work is imbedded in the very fabric of our modern culture.
- Social Workers assist people in overcoming hardships and barriers to long-term success.
Social Workers are rigorously educated and trained over the course of their careers, so that they attain a deep understanding of human behavior, systemic cause and effect, and individual functioning. One of the main goals of many social workers is to help people address their needs through psychosocial services and community connection.
- Social Workers advocate and push forward social justice issues.
All social workers, whether they practice from a micro or macro perspective, are charged to advocate for their clients, the systems in which the clients exist, and cultural institutions that prohibit client functioning. From socio-economic barriers, educational opportunity, to discriminatory legislation, Social Workers are often on the front lines advocating for positive change.
- Social Workers conduct research that deepens our understanding of the human condition and how to impact lives positively.
Not all social workers work directly with individuals and their families. Part of the profession exists to create and evaluate theories on human functioning and the interventions that can improve that functioning. Social research is often qualitative in nature, and researchers in the social sciences are well-trained to take qualitative data and outcomes, translate to a quantitative nature, and inform the direct practitioners in new evidenced-based strategies. These social workers keep our field moving forward, and I consider them the unsung heroes.
- Social Workers work in ALL different settings, in ALL types of roles.
In today’s world you will find social workers in governmental agencies, educational institutions (secondary and higher), non-profit agencies, hospitals, behavioral health treatment centers, city governments, criminal justice institutions, in military services, and in private corporations! They perform job functions from case management, community liaison, therapist, grant writers, program coordinators, to United States congressman!
These are really just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to professional Social Workers. The fact is that we are much more than just the people who take away kids from homes. We are part of the connective tissue that pushes humanity forward, and helps pick it up when it falls. We empower individuals by being aware of their innate strengths, not trying to fix their weaknesses. We shout loudly at the capital hills of the country, striving to move the needle forward for true equity for all individuals. We are well-educated, and well-practiced – we ARE Social Workers.