From the President: Student leadership, advocacy inspires

Kathryn Conley WehrmannAs I am writing this column, the spring semester is winding down and I have a few minutes to reflect on recent events.

The theme that emerges is the leadership demonstrated by young people in social advocacy efforts.

The students of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School have kept up their efforts and have been joined by many more students across the country.

They have worked with great intention to maintain the focus on gun safety in our schools and in our country, and found their voices in a cause that touches many Americans.

At the end of April, I had the opportunity to participate in a Healthcare Education and Leadership Scholars (HEALS) event held at the University of Illinois, School of Social Work at Urbana-Champaign (UIUC). It was truly an outstanding example of student leadership.

The HEALS program is made possible through a grant from the New York Community Trust and a partnership between the NASW Foundation and the Council on Social Work Education.

The goal of HEALS is to educate and train social workers to strengthen the delivery of health care services in the United States by creating a cohort of health care social work leaders at every professional level (including BSW, MSW and Ph.D./DSW students.

The four MSW HEALS scholars — with the guidance of faculty and NASW members Janet Liechty and Sandra Kopels — selected and organized a one-day conference titled “Social Work Policy and Practice Responses to the Opioid Crisis: Opportunities for Advocacy, Intervention and Community Empowerment.”

UIUC SSW scholars Ramey Sola, Jacqueline Bingham, Abigail Lee, Nancy Perez-Flores and program associate Humna Shahid determined that the opioid crisis affects all units of health care and requires attention at both the practice and policy levels.

They worked to identify a short list of speakers that included practitioners, public health officials and Illinois Lt. Gov. Evelyn Sanguinetti, who heads a special task force on the opioid issue in the state. Planning for the daylong event put students front and center in leadership roles.

On the day of the event, social work students were leading roundtable discussions on all aspects of the opioid epidemic. These students also led a session that enabled participants to go through an advocacy capacity checklist that included a briefing on two pieces of proposed opioid-related legislation.

The conference was created by students for students, and really established a clear link between policy and practice that I think will be memorable for the many students who participated.

The event was a great return on investment of HEALS dollars. It also helped prepare students for the NASW-Illinois Advocacy Day that occurred two weeks later.

The advocacy days our state chapters hold annually are training grounds for social work students, who learn to take up their ethical and civic responsibilities to advocate for socially just legislation intended to create better opportunities, access to resources, and stronger communities for all.

Advocacy days provide an authentic opportunity for our up-and-coming social work colleagues to practice in the spirit of Mary Richmond, who said: “The good social worker doesn’t go on mechanically helping people out of a ditch. Pretty soon, she/he begins to find out what ought to be done to get rid of the ditch.”

This year at NASW-Illinois’ Advocacy Day, I was able to hear a variety of great speakers. but the one who really stood out to me was James McIntyre, co-founder of the Foster Care Alumni Association of America, Illinois Chapter.

McIntyre was not originally on the main program, but as the agenda shifted to accommodate legislators’ schedules, an opportunity opened for him to speak to the large group of about 1,000 social work students. Without notes but with great heart and intelligence, he spoke to the audience about what it was like for a young person who had grown up in the foster care system to try to get a college degree — especially in a state where the scholarships for eligible foster youth had been terminated.

One of his statements that will remain with me forever was, “The easiest thing for a young person who ages out of the foster care system to do is to find another system.”

We need to provide options for foster youth to enter a system that supports them in achieving educational and employment goals rather than systems that involve incarceration.

It is important to know that advocacy by NASW and its members helped move the legislation to restore the tuition waivers.

I am proud of NASW and its continuing efforts to create opportunities for our younger colleagues to step into leadership and advocacy roles.

I hope we continue to support and mentor them as they develop their talents and expertise and move us forward to a more just society.

Contact Kathryn Wehrmann at