Congressional candidates rely on social work skills

On Jan. 21, 2017, Kathy Ellis met a woman at the Women’s March on Washington who planted a seed that grew into a run for the U.S. House of Representatives.

men sitting at a cafe with coffee

Steve Friday, right, talks to constituents at a coffee shop in Dundee, Mich. NASW PACE has endorsed Friday.

Ellis was walking toward the main stage when she saw a young woman wearing a surgical mask and dragging a sign because she was having difficulty walking. The sign said: “I have a terminal illness. What’s going to happen if they take away my health care?”

She went over to the woman, thanked her for being there and asked if she needed assistance. The woman replied, “Oh, don’t worry about me today. I’m here.”

Ellis thought, “I need to do more,” and that thought remained in her mind as she listened to the speakers that day.

"There was a delayed roar from all directions as we stood there and couldn’t move, and people swirled around us,” she said. “I remember the speakers but saw the signs, and the signs told the stories. I kept thinking, ‘There has to be something I can do to move things in the right direction.’”

That “something” became clear later on, back at home in Missouri during a meeting of a community board Ellis serves on. Someone told her, “You’ve got to run. You are the kind of person who needs to run.”

Now Ellis is one of the social workers running for Congress this year, and she is using what those in the field do best: listening to people’s concerns to better address and push for what they need.

At stake this year in the U.S. midterm elections are all 435 seats in the U.S. House of Representatives and 34 of the 100 U.S. Senate seats. In addition, 39 state and territorial governorships and numerous other state and local elections are set for November. Many are contested races, and social workers are stepping up to the plate.

NASW’s PACE (Political Action for Candidate Election) trustees so far have endorsed four social workers running for U.S. Congress as Democrats: Ellis (Mo.), Steve Friday (Mich.), Sylvia Garcia (Texas), and John Boatner (Tenn.).

“Social workers, if we vote, can have a major influence on election results and, therefore, legislation, government and policy,” NASW’s PACE states. “Elections matter.”


Kathy Ellis

Kathy Ellis

Ellis, MSW, LCSW, a certified reciprocal advanced alcohol and drug counselor and certified experiential therapist level 3 trainer, said her district — District 8 — is the 11th poorest in the country. Anyone who has seen the film “Winter’s Bone,” starring Jennifer Lawrence, has seen the district, because it was filmed there, she added. 

“It’s accurate,” Ellis said. “It’s indicative of what’s going on in our district. For some areas of my district, they have a better survival rate in Honduras.”

Ellis grew up there, where towns are now dying, she said, the opioid addiction rate is “sky high,” and the main courthouse in the southern region is falling apart. There are places with big stores, but “five miles down the road, you’re going to see intense poverty,” she said.

“If you have a heart attack and need help, it’s two hours south to Arkansas or two hours north to get to a hospital,” Ellis said. “It’s such a critical issue. They closed down labor and delivery years ago, and other hospitals are closing. It’s dire, and we have a Republican-controlled (state) legislature that refuses to pass Medicaid.”

There are some community health centers, but they don’t provide everything the region needs, she said. Broadband could provide tele-medicine, which would help not only health care, but public education and jobs, but “there is no broadband. People want it because it’s opportunity.”

The district is large, 30 counties stretching from the outer southern suburbs of St. Louis to the bottom of the boot heel, and from the Mississippi River west to near Branson.

“Some areas are pretty isolated,” Ellis said. “It takes four hours to get to the furthest part of the district. The district is like a patchwork quilt. If someone can sew all these patches together, we’ll have something that works.”

Ellis uses what she learned in social work to connect with widely varied constituents.

“When I see people, I sit down with them and we talk,” she said. “They have my attention. I think that means a lot to people. That’s what people need — they want to see their vote has meaning. Bringing people together to find consensus is what (social workers) do.”

woman on left watches man point into the distance

Kathy Ellis, left, talks with a constituent while on the campaign trail in Missouri. Ellis is a social worker running for Congress this year. NASW PACE has endorsed her.

About 90 percent of people do not want assistance, Ellis said, “they want to be part of something.” 

She plans to work the same way in Washington.

“When the dynamics are polarized, the question is how do you bring people together?” Ellis said. “You listen, and you find one point they might agree on. You have to be open and talk about where you do disagree, but just about every time you do that, you find some common ground.”

She thinks more social workers should run, and she views her run as a duty.

“We see people in their environments,” Ellis said. “I think that gives us a much broader perspective. This is a responsibility that I’ve taken on. It’s become a labor of love now because I know these people. That makes a difference.”


“At last, Friday is here!” it proclaims in all capital letters at the bottom of the “About Steve” section of Steve Friday’s campaign website.

Friday, MSW, had not planned to run for Michigan’s 7th Congressional District seat. Then a group of people looking for a new voice, who had approached someone else who declined, asked Friday if he would run.

Steve Friday

Steve Friday

“I had just lost my job — and my wife approved — so I did,” he said.

The U.S. Air Force veteran had been working as a researcher for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Friday’s very first jobs were in service industries like fast food, retail and manufacturing. After becoming a social worker, he worked with children with health care needs, adults with mental illness and veterans, many of whom had PTSD or had committed violent acts.

“There was a lot of going into homes and sharing stories,” he said. “With social work, there’s an unconditional positive human regard. When you look at the political system right now, it’s time for social workers to step in and say, ‘Enough of that.’ It’s a natural fit.”

Friday adheres to what he calls a “human first’ philosophy, which includes fairness and equality for everyone. “We have to see people for who they are — as human beings. We have to start there, and I can’t think of a better time than now.”

Although Friday considers himself a lifelong Independent running as a Democrat, some suggest he is a “Berniecrat” because of his platform. He aligns with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders on many issues, including health care for all and high-quality, free education as a human right.

“When people see ‘Republican’ or ‘Democrat,’ they can question the causes and not talk to each other,” Friday said. “I didn’t want that. I want to get past a label. It’s important for people to know what I believe in.”

He said people in his district have lived lives similar to his and hold similar beliefs, like the importance of service and justice. And many are experiencing hard times. He talks — and listens — to them. Many are working two or three jobs for low pay, trying to make a living.

“It’s a very working-class district,” Friday said. “It has rural areas, and you can see the small towns struggling. The cities once had manufacturing industries. That’s gone. It’s like most places in the rust belt: Now that manufacturing is gone, what’s left? A lot of big, empty buildings.”

He said there are bright spots, but they do not benefit those in need.

“Only the wealthy can afford to live there,” Friday said. “I think one of the keys in this is getting people who live in the district involved in the conversation.”
If elected, there are social work ideals and approaches that will be useful. Friday said those include valuing the dignity in work; appreciating all people, no matter how poor they are; and helping put things in place that benefit the communities where people live.

“Many are trapped when they could be contributing,” he said. “We’re not even using those resources.” Leadership is needed to get us there, he added.

“Social work policy and evaluation gives us the ability to work in that area well,” he said. “We see where the pitfalls are, the traps. We focus on people, not corporations, and we are taught to examine things, evaluate them. And if we don’t know the background on something, we know who to ask.”

“I truly believe social workers are change agents,” Friday said. “We can bring about things that make life better. It’s something we’re serious about, and that’s what people want.”


Growing up in a southern Texas farming community as the eighth of 10 children, Sylvia Garcia’s parents taught her with hard work and a good education, she could accomplish anything, she states on her campaign website.

She did just that, earning first a BA in social work and political science, then a law degree. She worked as a social worker and legal aid lawyer, then became director and presiding judge of the Houston Municipal System. Next, she was elected city controller, and then she became the first woman and Hispanic elected to the Harris County Commissioner’s Court. 

Sylvia Garcia

Sylvia Garcia

Now serving as District 6 state senator and running for U.S. Congress, she said her social work background led her down the path she has traveled.

“The crux of the matter is, I went into public service because I saw it as an extension of social work,” Garcia said. “I went back to my own roots of growing up poor in South Texas.”

She became a lawyer after seeing how often social work intersects with legal issues.

“I became a lawyer thinking I could make change on a broader scale,” Garcia said. “I did that for a number of years and decided it’s not the lawyer making decisions, it’s the judges.”

She worked as a judge for about 10 years before realizing “it’s the laws.”

“I decided it was time to take the plunge and get into elected office,” Garcia said. “Social work is about helping people. It’s about sitting and listening to their issues and problems and challenges. It’s always about trying to find solutions to make a difference in their lives.”

She has a successful record in her three state senate terms of working across the aisle to get laws passed. 

As outlined on her campaign website, those include the Relationship Privacy Act, which outlaws revenge pornography; the Truckers Against Trafficking Bill, which requires human trafficking training for commercial drivers; and the School Bus Safety Act, which requires school buses in Texas to have seat belts.

“I’m a Democrat, and here in Texas, we’re a minority, but I still managed to get some bills passed,” Garcia said. “I’ve always found a way to talk to people across the spectrum and found a way to come to agreement. You’ve got to find some commonality. When you’ve got that, you can get things done.”

Social work is based on social justice — “treating every individual with dignity and worth,” and she said its values are about honesty, integrity and professionalism.

“That’s good progressive politics — making sure everybody is getting a shot at the American Dream,” Garcia said.

Because of social work, she learned how to knock on someone’s door, go in and sit down, and listen to their concerns.

“To me, that’s what a member of Congress, a member of the Senate, someone in almost any elected position should do now — go back and learn how to reach families to make sure they can do what’s good for them,” Garcia said. “It’s still my favorite part.”

Knowing the first year for freshmen in Congress is about building relationships with other members, that is what she plans for her first year, if elected. 

Issues important to her constituents include any bill for DACA youths to find a path to citizenship, getting more jobs and boosting wages.

“That’s what holds families together, so every child can reach their potential and have a shot at the American dream,” Garcia said.

Remembering her “evolving role as a social worker,” she always hires one or two social workers as office interns.

“I’m about making sure we are nurturing and helping the next generation of social workers,” Garcia said. “I think there is a place for social workers in politics and in public policy. We bring a different perspective to everything we do. If you look at a bill, it’s more than words. It’s about lives.”


“After the 2016 election, we saw the power of local offices,” said Danielle Smith, MSW, LSW, the executive director of NASW’s Ohio Chapter.

Danielle Smith

Danielle Smith, MSW, LSW

“At the state and federal levels, it’s harder to get through to win office,” she said. “In 2017, we focused a lot on local offices, including chapter endorsements for social workers running for city councils — as low-level as we could find. There were a good number of social workers running for those offices.”

Those runs — and voting for social workers vying for those seats — is important, Smith said.

“Social workers have a commitment to social justice, and their training makes them highly qualified,” she said. “They have experience building rapport and can apply that. They know how policy directly affects and has an impact on people on many issues, like poverty.”

That makes social workers especially effective, Smith said, although the idea of being a public official sometimes intimidates them.

“They think they’re not qualified,” Smith said. “They absolutely are. And it’s what our code of ethics teaches. It’s their responsibility as social workers.”

Social Work Is Politics

Everyone always talks about presidential campaigns, but that’s just one race, said Tanya Rhodes Smith, MSW, director of the Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work in Hartford, Conn.

“Elections for states and municipalities often have far more impact on peoples’ lives,” she said. “When people don’t vote in these, they lose power.”

That’s because lower turnout can result in fewer candidates, and “that can really concentrate power in bad ways,” Smith said, adding that generations of families can hold locks on power or determine who can run.

Tanya Rhodes Smith

Tanya Rhodes Smith, MSW

“If 10 to 20 percent of the electorate is voting, it’s not representative of the community,” Smith said. “We really support the idea of an inclusive democracy, a democracy that respects and responds to all. Social workers have a strong role to play. They not only can build their own political power, but also the political power of the community they serve.”

Social workers can serve their communities without running, she said.

“The Humphreys Institute supports the idea that all social workers should be giving their clients and their communities all the tools they need to vote,” Smith said.

There are areas across the country with movements to suppress voters, she said. “There is inconsistent registration in every state and there is intimidation at the polls. And a person’s vote is diluted where they have heavily gerrymandered districts that reduce the power of people.”

The NASW Voters Social Work Campaign calls on all social workers and the agencies in which they work to include nonpartisan voter registration in their delivery and practice, Smith said.

Voting rights also is one of NASW’s five social justice priorities.

The Humphreys Institute has been doing voting work for more than 20 years, Smith said. “We believe every student should have training and bring these ideals to every agency.”

It’s not just registering people. It’s helping them know who’s on the ballot, what the issues are and helping them get to the polls, Smith said.

“It is not who to vote for,” she said. “It’s nonpartisan. It’s important because without voting, people will not have the political power to change their community. When you look at voting, it’s really a social determinate of health.”

Smith suggests all social workers should ask all clients if they are registered to vote.

“They can check registration on their intake forms,” she said. “We can play a big part by checking registration status.”

That also means helping them check their address on voter rolls to make sure they are currently listed at the correct address.

“The other thing that really needs to be done is to make sure people with a felony conviction know the rules in their state,” Smith said. “Nearly six million are disenfranchised. For another 14 million, there’s widespread confusion. Why? Rules differ, and in some states, they don’t lose their rights.”

She pointed to the woman in Texas who in March was sentenced to five years in prison because she voted, not knowing that a prior conviction made her ineligible to vote.

“The answer for social work is to get laws changed and make sure those who can vote do vote,” Smith said. “It’s a right, and every social worker should be addressing it.”

“I’m not political — it’s not appropriate — but when social workers fail to be active in nonpartisan voting assistance, they’ve failed the people they serve to help them change their own circumstances.”

The Institute, in a collaborative effort with partners, including the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work & Policy (CRISP), has developed a model for social work schools to integrate this into their curriculum, she said, including a two-hour training that includes sample assignments, information for field instructors and evaluations.

“We will work for everyone to integrate this into their curriculum,” Smith said. “It’s free — and we will provide everything you need. The more people are involved in the system, the more likely they are to stay involved.”

“We are driven to change the political arena and expand the right to vote through work on programming and policies, and in communities and schools of social work.”

The Humphreys Institute also holds campaign school — workshops to train social workers what they need to know about running for office, including topics like fundraising, how to communicate the message, public speaking and how to use social media.

“In 22 years, we have trained nearly 1,200 social workers to run for office, to work in political settings and to be social advocates,” Smith said. “We want social workers involved in politics.”

Social work was founded as a political profession, and many social workers made their way into history books.

“We have a rich history in political social work,” said Smith, mentioning first Jane Addams — who seconded Teddy Roosevelt’s nomination at the convention, becoming the first woman to take on that role.

“Another first is Jeannette Rankin, who ran for Congress in 1916 and won — before women had the right to vote,” Smith said.

Rankin also pushed for — and won — the right for women to vote in both Montana and Washington state, then again won the Montana congressional seat in 1940.

Frances Perkins was the first woman cabinet secretary, Smith said. She was U.S. Secretary of Labor, appointed by Franklin D. Roosevelt, and she became the longest-serving person in that position, holding the office from 1933 to 1945. 

And, she said, when U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., retired in 2017, she had become the longest-serving woman in the U.S. Senate. 

A flier for a March campaign workshop posted on the Institute’s website includes a quote from Mikulski, who stated: “Politics is social work with power.”