Social Work Congress Reviews the Profession

By Paul R. Pace and Matthew Malamud, News Staff

Kirstin DowneyPulitzer Prize-winning journalist Kirstin Downey, left, inspired congress participants with accounts of the life of social worker and presidential Cabinet member Frances Perkins.

Four hundred social work leaders from coast to coast gathered in Washington April 21-23 to vote on a list of imperatives for the profession during the next decade.

The 2010 Social Work Congress aimed to reaffirm, revisit and reimagine the profession, said NASW Executive Director Elizabeth J. Clark.

“This was a great opportunity to address the challenges facing the profession,” she said. “We will now work together to continue the legacy left by those who worked so diligently before us.”

Mike Daley, president of the Association of Baccalaureate Social Work Program Directors (BPD) and professor and director of the Social Work Program at the University of South Alabama, said he was impressed.

“I think [the co-conveners] did a great job of coordinating a very large undertaking,” he said. “It was a great experience.”

The presenting sponsor of the congress was NASW Assurance Services Inc. The event included a concurrent virtual 2010 Student Social Work Congress in which 400 social work students participated. (See separate story, p. 9.)

Co-convening organizations of the congress were BPD, the Council on Social Work Education, the National Association of Deans and Directors of Schools of Social Work and NASW.

Before the congress addressed a future agenda, attendees honored the noble efforts of its past leaders. The opening night reception showed clips of an upcoming documentary about former NASW President Whitney M. Young Jr., who helped lead the civil rights movement. Finding Uncle Whitney: The Search for Leadership in America is being produced by Young’s niece, journalist Bonnie Boswell. Clark noted that NASW and BPD created a teaching guide to complement the documentary.

Attendees were also given a complimentary DVD called How NASW Mobilized for Civil Rights, a narration of the social workers’ role by former NASW President Kurt Reichert.

Patricia Hilton, Lucinda AcquayeFacilitator Patricia Hilton, right, holds the microphone for participant Lucinda Acquaye, a doctoral candidate at Howard University’s School of Social Work, during the first day of the congress.

The next morning, participants heard from social workers who are also members of the U.S. Congress and the executive branch. (See separate story, p. 9.)

During its second general session, congress participants heard a presentation by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Kirstin Downey, author of the recently published biography of social worker and first female presidential Cabinet member Frances Perkins, titled The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience.

Boston College Graduate School of Social Work Dean Alberto Godenzi introduced Downey, saying: “We all know that social work’s history is rich and inspiring, but today’s keynote speaker has helped thousands understand the enormous impact one dedicated social worker made in our nation’s history.”

Downey, who spent the last 10 years researching and writing her book about Perkins, had much praise for the iconoclast and social workers in general.

“Social workers are remarkable people with remarkable skills,” she said, adding: “Social work has been a maligned profession and indeed, a bad social worker can be nothing more than a bureaucrat, and we all know that to be true. But a good social worker is the most valuable kind of American citizen we have.”

She drew parallels between the struggles of Perkins’ generation, including the Great Depression, and the current recession, pointing out that Perkins believed her social work experience was key to understanding the nature and causes of complex problems and designing solutions to solve them. “I believe social workers are going to be needed more than ever in the coming years,” Downey said.

Ralph Belk, a member of the Washington Metro Chapter who attended, captured the emotion of many after hearing about Perkins. “I left feeling very inspired,” Belk said.

Following Downey’s presentation, the congress divided into groups of about 50 to discuss and develop social work profession imperatives. Belk attended the technology breakout session. The other breakout sessions that day dealt with leadership development, common objectives of the profession and the business of social work. Friday’s breakout sessions addressed influence, education, recruitment and retention.

“It went very well,” Belk said. “We had a good dialogue and we heard from many different perspectives. I left invigorated and encouraged that the profession is dealing with these complex issues.”

Richie HavensA 1960s-themed gala featured Woodstock performer Richie Havens and others at the National Museum for Women in the Arts.

On Thursday evening, congress participants traded their business attire for tie-dyed shirts and bell-bottom jeans to attend the NASW Foundation gala celebration of the 1960s at the National Museum for Women in the Arts. Upon entering the museum, guests were adorned with hippie beads and temporary tattoos, which helped promote the gala theme of “Peace, Love and Social Work.”

The event featured performances by classic rockers and Woodstock performers Richie Havens and John Sebastian, as well as color commentary by peace activist and Woodstock emcee Wavy Gravy, official clown of the Grateful Dead.

Kevin Lotz, an at-large board member of the New York City Chapter of NASW who just turned 31, was selected by NASW as one of its 30 Under 30 emerging leaders of the profession. An important theme of the congress was ceding the way for the next generation of social work leaders.

When asked about his concerns for the future of NASW and the social work profession, Lotz told NASW News, “NASW must focus on recruiting new members, while issues like working conditions, wages and loan forgiveness must be addressed by the profession.”

Sarah Dolan, another emerging leader, said she thinks the profession needs to be more inclusive. “Even in New York City, white middle-class women dominate the profession,” she said. “I’d like to see more men and people of color.”

Kendra Hayes, 28, the New Jersey Chapter’s advocacy coordinator, said the profession needs to acknowledge that civil rights are still a problem and that there’s a need for community organizers.

Robert MittmanFacilitator Robert Mittman kept participants focused.

On the second day, the congress participants heard from author Daniel Brook, who discussed his book The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America.

Brook pointed out that there has been a growing trend to offer less financial support for those who choose a career that helps society, such as social work. This has led to an erosion of the middle class, he said.

“Social workers like their jobs; they just don’t like their pay,” Brook said, adding that 65 percent are in debt to pay for their education and 31 percent of students use credit cards for education expenses.

“Social work (education) debt is unreasonable,” he said. “It’s unreasonable to go in debt, especially on a credit card.”

Brook encouraged attendees to challenge the system and continue to fight for student loan forgiveness. “Being able to articulate why social work is important for students is important for recruitment,” he said.

Later, attendees heard a panel presentation by a variety of social work leaders called “Shaping the Future of Social Work: Leadership in Transition.”

The panelists were Ruth Mayden, director of the Program for Families with Young Children at the Annie E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore; Andrew Safyer, dean and professor at Adelphi University School of Social Work in Garden City, N.Y.; Renee Rivera, executive director of the NASW Colorado Chapter; and Ann Widger, White House assistant director of public engagement. The panel facilitator was Mit Joyner, professor of undergraduate social work at West Chester University in Pennsylvania.

Widger said her job derived from building strong relationships during her career, including working for labor unions and as a senior citizen advocate. “I took my social work skills and my organization skills to the political arena,” she said.

Safyer said it’s important that the current generation of social work leaders and those who want to lead meet with each other to move the profession forward. “We need to form collaborative partnerships,” he said.

Mayden explained that accepting help from others was her way of gaining leadership know-how.

“You have to be willing to take a chance,” she suggested. “Get to know yourself. To be a leader you have to be comfortable with who you are. Surround yourself with people different from you.”

The congress voted on the final list of 10 imperatives from a selection of the top 24, with results instantly displayed on monitors.

Participant Linda Moore, professor of Social Work at Texas Christian University in Fort Worth, said the congress was one of the most intellectually stimulating experiences she has had.

“I believe it was because NASW and the amazing staff put together a wonderful event that allowed for communication and debate, while providing enriching speakers,” she said. “It was truly an exceptional experience and I loved it. The variety of people there, and particularly the different age groups, helped bring energy to the congress.”

Moore said despite the variety of affiliations and backgrounds of the attendees, “we were committed to the social work profession and spoke with unity.”

Clark said a final report of the congress will be released later this year. It will also include a final list of imperatives drafted by each class participating in the 2010 Student Congress.

Supporters of the 2010 Social Work Congress included the Clinical Social Work Association; the Society for Social Work and Research; the National Association of Black Social Workers; the Association of Social Work Boards; the National Network of Social Work Managers; the Clinical Social Work Association; Group for the Advancement of Doctoral Education; the Society for Social Work Leadership in Healthcare; and the Association of Oncology Social Work.

2010 Social Work Imperatives

  • Technology — Integrate technologies that serve social work practice and education in an ethical, practical and responsible manner.
  • Business of Social Work — Infuse models of sustainable business and management practice in social work education and practice.
  • Leadership Development — Integrate leadership training in social work curricula at all levels.
  • Common Objectives — Strengthen collaboration across social work organizations, their leaders, and their members for shared advocacy goals.
  • Influence — Build a data-driven business case that demonstrates the distinctive expertise and the impact and value of social work to industry, policymakers and the general public.
  • Retention — Increase the number of grants, scholarships and debt forgiveness mechanisms for social work students and graduates.
  • Education — Clarify and articulate the unique skills, scope of practice and “value added” of social work to prospective social work students.
  • Recruitment — Empirically demonstrate to prospective recruits the value of the social work profession in both social and economic terms.
  • Influence — Strengthen the ability of national social work organizations to identify and clearly articulate, with a unified voice, issues of importance to the profession.
  • Retention — Ensure the sustainability of the profession through a strong mentoring program, career ladder and succession program.