At a briefing during the 2010 Social Work Congress, members of the U.S. Congress and executive branch offered inspirational stories about why they chose social work as a career and how those skills continue to guide their efforts in the nation’s capital.
U.S. Rep. Carol Shea-Porter, D-N.H., said her parents taught her that “everyone mattered” and they never shied away from helping those in need.
Her parents’ concern for others inspired Shea-Porter to work with children and senior citizens.
“I ran a senior center and my social work program helped my organization skills,” she said. “As social workers, you help organize people. It’s part of being an effective social worker.”
The congresswoman explained that the skills she learned helped her never lose hope in the face of adversity. This commitment was tested when she visited New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, where in at one point, she had to turn someone away because of a lack of space at a shelter.
“I don’t ever want to say that to someone again,” she said.
Her experience in New Orleans inspired her to run for national office, she said, adding: “It’s been an honor to serve. We can change our country.”
Shea-Porter said that despite the poor economy, it is important to reflect on the positive changes brought about by her legislative duties — actions that remind her each day of her ability to advocate for others.
“Thanks for your work,” she told the Social Work Congress attendees. “You are the unsung heroes.”
U.S. Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif., told the audience that social workers are part of America’s safety net, adding that she was once the recipient of that care through welfare.
She eventually studied for an MSW at the University of Southern California and performed her internship in Washington.
“I decided I needed to do more,” she said. “I started a community health center. I wanted a center that was accessible.”
She said social workers are needed now more than ever. “We provide those in need with hope,” Lee said. “We have to speak to people and hear the message.”
She continued: “We’ve got to make sure we’re training our new workforce to take our place.”
She noted that she is a proud cosponsor of the Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act (H.R. 795, S. 686). “Let’s work to pass that bill,” she said. “Let’s do that in [Dr. Height’s] honor as we work to reaffirm and revisit our profession.”
U.S. Rep. Ed Towns, D-N.Y., also spoke about Height and the bill that he introduced, which was named in part after the legendary social worker. When Towns hosted a ceremony to introduce the bill, he said Height called him over to demand a hug.
“Dorothy Height said we have to realize that we are building a movement,” Towns said. “She advocated for the needs of others. We’ve come a long way. We’re walking in Dr. Height’s footsteps.”
Jared Bernstein, chief economist and economic policy adviser to Vice President Joseph Biden, also spoke to the attendees. Bernstein has an MSW from Hunter School of Social Work, and a master’s degree in philosophy and Ph.D. in social welfare from Columbia University.
He explained that his unusual path to the field of economics was his way of helping people on a systemic level.
The skills of social workers will be vital to America as it recovers from the effects of the recession, he told the social workers.
“Society needs social workers in good times as much as the bad ones,” he said.
Bernstein is the executive director of the Middle Class Working Families Task Force. He asked the Social Work Congress participants to view the advocacy efforts outlined in the task force.
“We need you to help to achieve these goals,” he said. “We want better compensation for social workers and better help in reinvestment and retention. You are part of the solution and thank you for the work you do.”
Mona Shah, staff member for U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., spoke on behalf of the long-term senator, who could not attend in person.
Shah said Mikulski wanted to thank the Social Work Congress for the work its participants do, including helping veterans and advocating for others.
“Her social work roots are what drive her in the U.S. Senate,” Shah said, noting that Mikulski is the lead sponsor of the Senate version of SWRA. Having a social work background helps ensure that Mikulski “understands the issues she works on,” Shah said.
She noted that Mikulski devoted exceptional energy to the long debate for health care reform legislation. “She made sure social workers were at the table in the health care bill,” Shah said, adding that the health care reform act includes training grants for social workers.
Closing the congressional briefing was U.S. Rep. Allyson Schwartz, D-Pa. She said it was her mother, a teenage survivor of the Holocaust, who inspired her to help others. Schwartz said her mother escaped to the U.S. at age 16 completely alone, and eventually found support in the Philadelphia area. Her mother’s experience formed “who I am,” Schwartz said.
Her mother taught her another lesson: that children need to be raised in supportive and nurturing environments. “My interests in children and families come from that,” Schwartz explained.
“As social workers we need to make sure we can do all we can to help people,” she added. “We know that giving people opportunity with the same basic needs attended to can reach success. You help make that happen.”
There are currently nine social workers in the U.S. Congress and numerous social workers in key federal government positions. The NASW External Relations team is working to make sure that social work issues are on their radar and part of the national agenda.