Advocacy & Organizing

The original mission of social work had much to do with championing the rights of society’s most vulnerable members, from children to homeless people to the physically disabled. That mission remains the same over 100 years later.

Social workers continue to carry the torch for those who need help to succeed in our society. Indeed, while only a small percentage of the nation’s half a million social workers count advocacy as their primary job duty, all social workers carry a philosophical charge to protect and empower the vulnerable and disadvantaged. They do so through a variety of means including writing op-ed pieces, lobbying, organizing local protests, and helping to change laws that adversely affect vulnerable and disadvantaged members of society. Today’s social workers employ a full range of techniques for advocacy ranging from protests and sit-ins to harnessing the power of the Internet to network with others to affect change.

The knowledge, values and ethics base of social work education uniquely equips social workers to take on advocacy roles. For one thing, they see first-hand the difficulties faced by clients who lack the resources for maintaining the basic human needs for themselves and their families. Social workers will work with social service agencies to facilitate economic maintenance, protect a social safety net or ensure the availability of health and mental health services.

Mobilizing resources, public opinion, interacting with agencies whose responsibilities are to serve the needs of vulnerable populations are ways social workers champion the rights of individuals, communities and society at large through active participation in the political process. Whether concerned about an individual’s needs or social policy reform, social workers are most frequently the voice for change and social justice.

Often, the needs of individuals and policy overlap. Here is an example: A social worker works for an organization dedicated to serving homeless and low-income families. Several of her homeless clients tell her they are unable to receive emergency food stamps. When she explores why, she finds a bureaucratic glitch: Because homeless families have no address they are not considered residents and are therefore ineligible for the aid.

In the following weeks, the social worker meets with area service providers and state legislators, who agree to clarify the state policy and implement new regulations allowing homeless people to receive food stamps. The social worker continues her advocacy efforts at the national level, providing testimony that eventually helps to pass the Hunger Prevention Act of 1988 (P.L. 100-435).

Social workers advocate in many other ways as well. These include:

  • Media involvement: Social workers help educate the public by writing letters to the editor and op-ed pieces that clarify misinformation about social programs and point out social injustices that may otherwise escape public attention.
  • Community organizing: Social workers have long worked to empower citizens by helping them plan activities that address social problems, improve services and enhance social well-being. In 2000, for example, social work students helped organize local grassroots activities as part of a national campaign to end gun violence.
  • Demonstrations: Social workers continue to use this organizing tool to empower citizens. An example is a social worker who learned that one of her clients was living in a housing complex that was in terrible disrepair. All reasonable efforts to get the landlord involved had failed. The social worker helped to organize the tenants, who attempted to meet with the landlord to discuss improvements. When he didn’t respond, they picketed his house, showing up every day for a week. The social worker arranged for the media to cover the event and eventually, the landlord made the repairs.

Social workers also work continuously to improve legislation to benefit those in need. They are now engaged in efforts to protect Social Security recipients, for instance, and to protect vulnerable members of our society from hate crimes.

Gibelman, M. (1995). What Social Workers Do (4th ed.).
Washington, DC. NASW Press.
Mickelson, J.S. (1995). Advocacy. In R.L. Edwards (Ed.-in-Chief),
Encyclopedia of social work (19th ed., Vol. 1, pp. 95-100). Washington, D.C.: NASW Press.
Vallianatos, C. Students take action on gun violence. (2000, June).
NASW News, p.3.
Geraty, E. This issue’s book selection. (2002, May 27).
Social Work Today, p. 7.
Mizrahi, T. & Rosenthal, B. (2001, January) Complexities of Coalition Building:
Leaders' Successes, Strategies, Struggles and Solutions.
Social Work, p. 63.
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