NASW Executive Director Elizabeth J. Clark was a keynote speaker at the opening ceremony of the Navajo Nation Division of Social Services 25th annual conference in Arizona in late July.
The conference focused on promoting health and safety for children and families for the next 25 years. The host tribe for the event was the Fort McDowell Yavapai Nation, which has about 1,000 members. The Navajo Nation is the largest federally recognized Indian tribe in the U.S.
Like other members of the more than 500 federally recognized tribes in the U.S., leaders of the Navajo Nation face serious challenges. While the national average of people living at or below the poverty line in the U.S. is 12.4 percent, for Native Americans the figure is 25 percent. For certain Native Nations, such as the Dine, the figure is an alarming 37 percent.
Native Nations typically have their own forms of government, systems of law enforcement and social services systems, according to the Encyclopedia of Social Work, 20th edition. The encyclopedia notes that because Native Americans have been recognized as members of distinct nations, they have legal standing that is different from other ethnic or cultural groups in the U.S. It is therefore important for social workers to understand the concept of sovereignty. Social workers must recognize the crippling effect of colonization, not just as a historical artifact but as a contemporary and extraordinarily powerful force that stands in the way of enhancing the lives of Native Americans.
While Native Nations such as the Navajo Nation continue to face challenges in overcoming diversity, Clark said she focused her presentation on the benefits of social work and how believing in hope can result in positive outcomes. Clark said she was moved by a quotation she read by the Honorable Robert Yazzie, chief justice of the Navajo Nation from 1992-2003, who has been a powerful force in integrating traditional Navajo law and peacemaking techniques into the Nation's court system. Yazzie said, "The element which is common to all stated problems is a loss of hope."
Social workers can offer hope in helping Native Nations, Clark said.
For example, Clark spoke about how social workers and social work organizations such NASW have been working to improve conditions in Hungary, Cambodia, Appalachia, as well as the Navajo Nation. Common themes for social work across all nations include social work values, social work advocacy, social justice and hope, she said. Social work includes a code of ethics that promotes service, social justice, dignity and worth of a person, the importance of human relationships, integrity and competence.
"Advocacy is the cornerstone of the social work profession," she said.
Clark explained how NASW is involved with the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, which are to eradicate extreme poverty; achieve universal primary education; promote gender equality/ empower women; reduce child mortality; improve maternal health; combat HIV/AIDS, malaria and other diseases; ensure environmental sustainability; and develop partnerships for development.
Clark said hope is complex and often misunderstood. Hope is not denial; hope is not wishing or optimism. However, hope is a psychological asset: It is a guard against despair, a way of coping, a quality of life enhancer, an essential experience of the human condition and a prerequisite to action, she said.
"Social work is the profession of hope," Clark said.
The executive director's visit to the Navajo Nation in July was the latest effort by NASW to work with the Native Nation. Members of NASW's National Committee on Racial and Ethnic Diversity met with the Navajo Nation President in 1995 to discuss ways the association could help the reservation's 219,000 residents at the time. The meeting included three days of site visits.