In Russia, Discovering a New View of Social Work

Women in traditional Russian dressWomen in traditional Russian dress greet delegation members.

NASW Executive Director Elizabeth J. Clark admits that prior to leading a People to People social work delegation to Russia in August, she had a distorted, preconceived idea of what life is like in the former communist country.

“After all, I grew up during the Cold War and the space race and watching James Bond films,” Clark said in an interview with NASW News.

But when she found herself standing in Moscow’s Red Square, awed by the brilliant onion domes of St. Basil’s cathedral and the massive Kremlin complex, all those preconceptions, like the Iron Curtain, fell to the wayside.

“First of all, everyone we encountered was extremely welcoming,” said Clark, who also has led delegations to Cambodia, China, Egypt and South Africa as part of the Social Workers Across Nations, or SWAN, initiative. “But, once again, I was struck by just how much different cultures and different peoples have in common. Americans like to think that we have unique values, but other countries value their families, their children and their religion, for instance, just as much as we do.”

Clark’s co-leader Richard Jones, president and CEO of Chicago’s Metropolitan Family Services, was surprised by the openness of Russian society. “Prior to going, I imagined people would be less than candid,” said Jones, who also serves as president of the board for NASW’s Assurance Services Inc. “But that was not the case; everyone was very comfortable sharing ideas and information. The country is very much moving beyond the era of communism.”

Indeed, Russia, the country that once made up the bulk of the Soviet Union, is not the oppressive regime Clark and Jones had come to know — it has been a representative democracy since the early 1990s, and its citizens enjoy greatly expanded freedoms.

The social work profession there is about as young as the representative democracy. After visits to social services centers in Moscow and St. Petersburg, Clark noted that it’s a growing profession that faces challenges similar to those in the U.S., except for one key difference: “Social services in Russia don’t seem to suffer from a lack of funding.” She said the city of Moscow, for example, devotes more than 75 percent of its budget to the provision of social services.

Jones was especially impressed with services for older adults and children with special needs. “The programming was exemplary; the facilities we saw were of excellent quality; the social workers were committed, well-trained; and the people really recognize the value of the social work profession,” he said. “That was true of each place we visited.”

Clark also found it remarkable how Russians treat their war veterans. “Their WWII veterans are revered, and they do a lot for their veterans and take good care of them,” she said.

“You can tell they really do care about older people in that country,” Jones added. “We can learn a lot from Russia about how we too can provide a continuum of services that is responsive to the needs of an aging population.”

St. Basil’s CathedralThe group saw landmarks such as St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow.

The delegation spent four full days in Moscow and two in St. Petersburg.

In Moscow they met with Russian Union of Social Workers and Social Pedagogues President Antonina Dashkina. Like NASW, the RUSW&SP works to improve the social support system and social policies in Russia, enhance the professional status of social workers and ensure the professional growth and development of its approximately 10,000 members, among other things.

“A highlight of these trips is the opportunity to share best practices from country to country,” Jones said. “I was very taken by one project in particular that Russian social workers have implemented using Internet communications software to keep incarcerated youth in touch with their families. They have seen a significant reduction in violent behavior because the youth don’t feel as isolated.”

In St. Petersburg, the delegation visited a children’s hospice. The recently opened institution is the first of its kind in all of Russia. It occupies a former mansion, which has been renovated to meet the needs of the patients while retaining a non-institutional look.

“It’s pretty amazing — the variety of services provided,” Clark remarked about the hospice. In addition to palliative and end-of-life care, the hospice operates a “dreams come true” program that takes children on field trips to places like the zoo or the aquarium.

Jones is optimistic about the social work profession in Russia. “Russia is such a massive country with a very diverse population and incredible challenges, but I’m impressed with how social workers are mobilizing around those challenges.”

The next People to People social work delegation will travel to Brazil in fall 2011.