Speakers, activities and more highlight conference theme

Angelo McClain, left, and NASW President Darrell Wheeler prepare to deliver opening remarksNearly 2,000 people apttended the NASW national conference, held June 22-25 in Washington, D.C., where the theme was “Leading Change, Transforming Lives.”

The theme highlights what we do for families and communities, and also highlights social work leaders who do this work, NASW President Darrell Wheeler said in his opening remarks.

“In this year of all years … with all that’s going on in the world, the world needs social work and social workers more than they ever have,” Wheeler said.

Attendees heard from keynote speakers like journalist Soledad O’Brien, who discussed some of the major world events she has covered and how she strives to tell the real stories of people and the issues they face.

There were also workshops, plenary sessions, an advocacy program on Capitol Hill, poster presentations, movie screenings and more than 100 breakout sessions for conference attendees to choose from.

“A Night at the Awards” took place during the event, where the 2016 recipients of the NASW National Awards, the NASW Foundation Awards and the Veterans Administration Jill Manske Social Work Pioneer Award were honored.

Contemporary composer and innovator Kai Kight was the opening presentation performer.

“The conference response was tremendous,” NASW CEO Angelo McClain said after the event. “People were excited to be there.”

He said a highlight was having leaders from the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs join NASW at the conference in celebrating the 90th anniversary of social work at the VA.

Robert A. McDonald, secretary of the VA, shared how important social work is to the growing effort to make the VA the best it can be.

“In 1926, the VA started with 36 social workers,” McDonald said. “Today, we have more than 12,000. They are incredibly important to the work throughout the VA.”

Attendees heard from U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., who is also a social worker. She said it’s vital that social workers find common ground in public policy in an effort to help families in need.

“You all are on the front lines, working with clients who are hit the hardest,” she said. “You understand the challenges that families face. They need you to bring their voice into the political and legislative process.”

Other keynote presenters were Nancy Lublin, founder of Crisis Text Line, the world’s first 24/7, free nationwide text line for people in need; and Wes Moore, youth advocate, U.S. Army combat veteran, social entrepreneur and founder and CEO of BridgeEdU.

Keynote Speakers

A common theme among speakers at NASW’s national conference was that while we’re here, we should do more to make a difference in the world. Another was that things we think are our greatest deficiencies can be our greatest assets.

Soledad O'BrienSoledad O’Brien

Award-winning journalist O’Brien, the first keynote speaker, shared her own stories — both personal and career — which described how she has evolved in her journalism coverage.

“I believe we have to tell stories that humanize people,” she told attendees.

She admitted that during her early years of reporting — starting with TV news in 1987 — her coverage, as well as other media coverage of that time, lacked context.

“We didn’t dig into it,” she said. “I’m ashamed to say, we just reported (stories) as stagnant facts.”

When O’Brien was sent to cover Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005, she said she really started to think about the social aspects of her stories.

“For the first time, I realized the headline was not the story,” she said. “But the impact was.”

She said she also realized the Katrina disaster was about race and class. “Katrina reporting made me feel that I had a job where I was ultimately doing something that could move people, force people to care about issues,” she said. This realization also led her to believe in hope.

“I believe social workers trade in hope, too,” O’Brien said. “You believe there is value in knowing the truth. In knowing, there’s an opportunity to fix it. But it requires courage, to be brave.”

O’Brien described growing up as one of six children with a black, Cuban mother and a white, Australian father. She said at times it was tough — she and her siblings were even spit on. But her mother always told them “America is better than that.”

“We all add value to America,” O’Brien said. “Being different can have value if you value it.”

This ultimately led to her 2008 documentary “Black in America,” where she said she wanted to tell the stories that black people didn’t normally get to tell. She showed a clip of a young black girl who wanted to become a social worker, and work with children and families.

“She wanted to be a social worker, because she had social workers in her life,” O’ Brien said. “They were saviors. Social workers to her represented hope and were the only professional people she saw other than her teachers. They showed her that if you want to help people, you can do this too.”

In her final words to social workers, she said: “You find hope in hopeless situations. You find solutions. Like journalists you are not in it for the kudos, or the gobs of money … You believe in the basic humanity of individuals. And if you invest in people, you can make a difference.”

Wes Moore

Like O’Brien, Moore shared personal stories, including one about the title of his book — “The Other Wes Moore.”

Moore shared the same name and similar circumstances to another young man named Wes Moore while both grew up in the same Baltimore neighborhood.

Moore went on to become a U.S. Army combat veteran, Rhodes Scholar and author, among many other accomplishments, while the other Wes Moore is serving a life sentence in prison.

Moore wondered what had made their paths turn out so differently, and he ultimately contacted the other Wes Moore in prison. He discovered that each could have had the other’s life had any circumstances been different.

His message to social workers was that while we are here on Earth, we should push harder and do more than we think we can.

“While we’re here, we’re going to advocate with all of our might for someone who’s been advocating with all of theirs — and going nowhere,” he said. “While we’re here, let’s love a little bit harder … .”

He added that he is thankful not just for the work social workers do, but for their inspiration. He said social workers help people until the shoulders of those people get broad enough to help themselves.

“You wake up each day, and you’re willing to carry a little bit of that weight for others,” he said. “Bless you guys for all you do, and thank you for all of your work.”

Robert A. McDonald

McDonald, secretary of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, highlighted that this year marks the 90th anniversary that social workers started with the VA.

As the general population comes to grips with the needs of an aging baby boomer population, the VA will face similar challenges for treating veterans, he said.

In 1975, there were 2 million veterans over the age of 65. In 2017, there will be 10 million veterans over that age, McDonald said. In 2009, the VA had roughly 90,000 disability claims. In 2017, it will have 1.7 million disability claims.

“This is something we have to be ready for,” he said.

In addition, in the next five years, the agency will have about 1 million service members leave the military and enter the veteran population.

Because of these challenges, the VA is embracing partnerships more than ever, McDonald said, and the effort is making a positive difference.

For example, he said VA social workers are leading the way to eradicate veteran homelessness and create support systems for caregivers.

“The heroes are the social workers who help veterans with wrap-around services, not just housing issues,” McDonald said.

“I am here to honor you and thank you for all the work you have done for us,” he told attendees in his closing remarks. “Where would we be in this country without social workers?”

U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz.U.S. Rep. Kyrsten Sinema

“I take my job in Congress very seriously,” said Sinema, D-Ariz., a social worker in Congress. “I go to work every day with a single job in mind, to find solutions and get stuff done.”

In her keynote message at the NASW national conference, Sinema focused on the importance of finding common ground when it comes to helping people in need.

She noted that after her parents’ divorce, her family lived in an abandoned gas station with no electricity or water for three years.

“While my story may sound unique, the truth is, there are thousands and thousands living in circumstances like (I did) when I was little — and some even worse,” Sinema said.

Determined to get good grades and never miss school, Sinema said she got out of the cycle of poverty to become a social worker, then a state representative and finally serving in Congress.

“I made it,” she said. “I want every kid in America to have the same shot at the American dream I had.”

There are so many families struggling to get by in this country, she said.

“I need your help,” Sinema told attendees. “You all are on the front lines, working with clients who are hit the hardest. You understand the challenges that families face. They need you to bring their voice into the political and legislative process.”

Advocacy Day

Thirty-four NASW chapters participated in nearly 150 office visits to their federal representatives as part of the NASW Advocacy Program on Capitol Hill, which was part of the preconference activities.

Before heading out to meet with lawmakers, participants received special visits from two U.S. representatives from California who are also social workers: Karen Bass and Barbara Lee.

Bass told attendees their physical presence in Washington helps the cause for the social work profession and social work clients.

“It’s so critically important, because all of us come from vastly different backgrounds,” said Bass, a member of the Social Work Caucus in Congress. “… We do hear, and it is very meaningful.”

Lee, who chairs the Congressional Social Work Caucus, said social workers help improve society’s challenging issues, including alleviating poverty and helping those with mental health challenges. She told attendees to urge their representatives to co-sponsor the Improving Access to Mental Health Act (S.2173, H.R. 3712).

It aims to raise the rate for clinical social workers who provide Medicare services from 75 percent of the rate reimbursed to psychiatrists and psychologists to 85 percent; ensure that clinical social workers are among the listed providers that are exempted from skilled nursing facility consolidated billing; and allow clinical social workers across the nation to bill Medicare Part B for health and behavior assessment and intervention services.

“It’s about time,” Lee told attendees. “Medicare needs to revamp the formula. We provide a large percentage of these services.”

She said it’s also time to tell Congress to pass the Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act (S. 789, H.R. 1378).

“Be sure to ask your representative to be a co-sponsor,” Lee said. “Sooner or later we will get to 218 (co-sponsors).”

Before heading out, NASW CEO Angelo McClain urged participants to share their enthusiasm of being social workers when they met with their representatives.

“We are a powerful profession,” McClain said. “We’ve got members in Congress. We have members in the Senate. We’ve got social workers doing all kinds of wonderful things. We’re a significant part of this country.”

A Night at the Awards

John Cowart, NASW‘s Social Worker of the YearNASW’s Social Worker of the Year, John Cowart, took a break from hiking the Appalachian Trail to attend “A Night at the Awards,” a ceremony honoring the recipients of the NASW and NASW Foundation annual awards. The event took place during the association’s national conference in June.

“I’ve been hiking the AT and climbing mountains, and have seen some beautiful views,” Cowart said in his acceptance speech. “But this is a pretty awesome sight right here. What better place to be than in a room full of social workers, and people who understand what social workers do?”

“I’m proud to be one of you and proud to be a longtime member of NASW,” he said.

Former NASW President Gary Bailey, who emceed the ceremony, said honoring the award recipients not only showcases their accomplishments, but also the impact they’ve had on people and communities.

“Tonight, we come together to celebrate the best of social work,” he said.

Joan Ditzion, Pamela Wright, Mercedes Bern-Klug, Susan Gray, John Cowart, and Stephen Baron.Nine people were recognized during the ceremony: four NASW national awards, four NASW Foundation awards and, for the first time, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Jill Manske Social Work Pioneer Award.

A list of award recipients follows.

[PHOTO: Six of the nine award recipients pose for photos before the ceremony. From front to back are Joan Ditzion, Pamela Wright, Mercedes Bern-Klug, Susan Gray, John Cowart, and Stephen Baron.]

  • NASW National Awards – Social Worker of the Year: John Cowart; Lifetime Achievement: Susan Gray; Public Citizen of the Year: Mildred Richard-Edwards; Public Elected Official of the Year: Luis Alejo.
  • NASW Foundation Awards – The International Rhoda G. Sarnat Award: Brene Brown; Knee/Wittman Outstanding Achievement: Mercedes Bern-Klug; Knee/Wittman Lifetime Achievement: Stephen Baron and Joan Ditzion.
  • U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs – Jill Manske Social Work Pioneer Award: Pamela Wright.

By Paul R. Pace and Laetitia Clayton, News staff