Consider lessons learned as new year begins

Darrell Wheeler, Ph.D., MPH, ACSWThe beginning of a new year is for many a time of reflection and resolving to do things not accomplished in the year gone by.

In this, my opening column for 2016, I too would like to take time to think aloud about lessons learned from the past year and things that I am committing to for the coming year.

One of the big lessons for me in 2015, and especially as president of this vast professional and wonderful association, is to not take every issue on the table so seriously. This one is difficult, because being a professional social worker is not only a serious matter, but also a personal matter.

I imagine most of you reading this can relate to this on multiple levels and through many experiences. After all, effective use of the self to promote social good for the client systems with which we work is core to our professional training.

This lends itself well to being sensitive to the nuances of context, person-in-environment and active engagement with clients. It also makes us vulnerable to the potential of internalizing messages as critiques, conflicts, and combative positions, when, in fact, they more simply reflect differing perspectives in a complex social milieu.

Certainly, 2015 had its opportunities for me to experience this in my role and duties as NASW president. Whether it was dealing with programmatic priorities, preparing for meetings and presentations, or addressing issues of organizational restructuring and fiscal accountability, I experienced moments where I asked myself, “What did I do wrong to create this type of feedback?”

At the time, these experiences could feel harsh and insurmountable. But now as I reflect back over the year, they were necessary moments in both my personal and professional growth and evolution.

Further, they represent more broadly the evolution of our association and the context in which our profession is experiencing pressures to evaluate itself and demonstrate its utility.

I know that I have written this before, but it warrants stating again: The need for social work and social workers to address problems for individuals, communities and systems has never been more urgent.

Not only are our services needed, but it seems that so many other professions have incorporated our “persons exist in context” and “context affects outcomes for persons” orientation.

The fact that contemporary and vanguard approaches to addressing social, health and human needs are increasingly anchored to person/system in context makes it an exciting time to be a professional social worker. It also makes it a time of unparalleled competition for apparent control of the discourse, practice methods and associated resources.

As I reflected on the past year, the clarity of this became more evident and helped me to re-examine situations that initially felt irreconcilable and hostile.

Now, they feel more like necessary parts of the overall growth and expansion of our “one association” as we move forward to enhance member services and to provide impact client outcomes.

Through this period of reflection in the first days of 2016, what comes to mind for me is that in order to move forward, I (we) have to be willing to accept that tensions can be a natural and important part of the process. I have to understand that growth is not easy, and, ultimately, that I cannot let the problem become the reason for being.

Rather, I have to keep my eye on the solution and recognize that problems emerge as I move closer to achieving the goals needed to promote that more just and equitable social system we so fervently desire.

My resolution for 2016 is to strive to be that person and to embody this in my personal and professional spheres, and to do this especially in my service to our professional association.

Wishing you each a wonderful start to the new year.

Contact Darrell Wheeler at