Courage, hope, leadership messages resonate

By Paul Pace, Rena Malai and Laetitia Clayton, News staff

Brené BrownSteve PembertonRobert Reich

From left, keynote presenters Brené Brown, Steve Pemberton and Robert Reich speak during the 2014 NASW National Conference in July. Photos by Kea Taylor/Imagine Photography

The theme of NASW’s national conference, “Social Work: Courage, Hope and Leadership,” was delivered through speakers’ messages and personal stories throughout the four-day event in July.

Nearly 2,000 people from 50 states and 12 countries attended the conference in Washington, D.C., where they heard from expert speakers and had the chance to attend a variety of individual presentations, which ranged from topics such as mindful parenting and racial equity to holistic grief support and equine-assisted psychotherapy.

The event also included a ceremony that honored 10 individuals with NASW’s National, Foundation and Chapter awards; a film festival, which featured three social work-themed documentaries; preconference workshops; poster presentations; an exhibit hall; and several receptions and smaller gatherings that allowed for networking and socializing.

NASW CEO Angelo McClain opened the conference and noted that its theme highlights the many ways social work aids society’s progress.

“When I think about hope, courage and leadership, I think about what you guys do every day,” McClain said. “You bring hope in the face of hopelessness. You bring courage in the face of social injustice. You bring leadership in the face of indifference.”

McClain discussed the positive contributions social work has made since the 19th century, but he cautioned that the 21st century “challenges us to be prepared.”

“This (conference) will help you go home and prepare yourselves for the grand challenges and also the grand opportunities,” he said.

NASW President Darrell Wheeler also delivered opening remarks, saying that the conference offered a chance to learn more about the social work profession and opportunities to learn from colleagues.

One of his top goals as association president, he said, is to continue advocating for all fields of social work and to let people inside and outside of NASW “know what we do, why we do it and what difference it makes.”

Spoken-word poet Kane Smego was the opening presenter. Smego is a nationally recognized spoken-word poet and artistic director of Sacrificial Poets, where participants use the power of stories and voice as tools for self-transformation, nonviolent resistance and community engagement. Smego, from North Carolina, is also a National Poetry Slam finalist.

Wheeler said after the conference that the event as a whole energized him.

“The 2014 social work conference reinvigorated my enthusiasm and pride in both the profession and the great honor I have in serving the profession at this time.”

Keynote Presenters

Brené Brown

Brown, best-selling author, scholar and research professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, was the opening keynote presenter.

The focus of her message was that vulnerability does not equal weakness, and is instead a measure of bravery — even though that’s opposite from what most people are trained to think.

“Vulnerability is not about winning or losing — it’s the courage to show up and be seen when you don’t have any guarantee of the outcome,” she said.

The concept Brown promotes, “daring greatly,” is also the title of one of her best-selling books. She said it arose from a difficult period in her life.

Hurtful online feedback from her 2010 TEDxHouston talk on the power of vulnerability (one of the top 10 most viewed videos on, led her to discover a passage from a speech delivered by President Theodore Roosevelt in 1910, popularly known as the “Man in the Arena.”

Brown said the concept of “daring greatly” was included in that speech, and it helped her discover that she could choose comfort or she could choose courage, but not both.

“When we are being brave, it is usually uncomfortable,” she said. “That’s the basic law of courage — and social work.”

Brown also urged attendees to get a 1-inch-by-1-inch piece of paper and write down the names of people whose opinion of them truly matters.

“The people who love you, not in spite of your vulnerability but because of it, go on the list,” she said. “The minute you focus on those people, your life changes.”

While earning her MSW and Ph.D. in social work, Brown said she never studied concepts like love, belonging, joy, courage, trust and empathy. Yet these are social workers’ goal with clients and patients.

“We will be the ones who change the conversation,” she said, “by looking people in the eye and hearing their stories in our hearts.”

Steve Pemberton

Steve Pemberton signing booksSteve Pemberton, right, signs copies of his book,“A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home,” during the 2014 NASW National Conference in July. Photo by Kea Taylor/Imagine Photography

Pemberton is the chief diversity officer and divisional vice president of Walgreens and author of “A Chance in the World: An Orphan Boy, a Mysterious Past, and How He Found a Place Called Home.”

He told his personal story about growing up as a ward of the state in Massachusetts and how a social worker finally saved him.

Pemberton said he was emotionally and physically abused in the foster home he lived in for a decade. He turned to books as an escape, but said he had to hide them because his foster parents wouldn’t allow it.

“My advantage was that I loved to read,” he said, so he would take a book and hide behind a rock wall across the street from the foster home.

A woman in the neighborhood saw him outside reading the same book over and over, and began bringing him boxes of books, he said. This helped him become an excellent speller, who also did very well in school. He later entered a program called Upward Bound and eventually earned a scholarship to Boston College.

Pemberton said his foster family tried to prevent every success he had, and managed to get four social workers removed from his case in the decade he lived with them. But it was social worker Mike Sylvia who finally believed in him, he said, and saw through his foster family’s lies.

“He was the one,” Pemberton said. “Mike and I are the ones who orchestrated my release.”

There were others along the way who went above and beyond to help him, and Pemberton said they are examples of the difference one person can make in another’s life.

“I’m not extraordinary, but I was surrounded by extraordinary people,” he said, none greater than Mike Sylvia.

“I’m hopeful that you will see in me what is possible when you pour into the life of a child,” Pemberton told attendees. “Never underestimate how important you are. You have a purpose and place here after all. And for that I thank you.”

Robert Reich

Reich, an economic analyst, professor and commentator, was the final keynote speaker of the conference. He served as secretary of labor during the Clinton Administration and is one of the nation’s Top 10 thought leaders, according to The Wall Street Journal.

Reich said despite the middle class and those who are poorer losing ground and struggling to get ahead in today’s flat economy, he is optimistic about the future.

“When the economy is no longer working toward the benefit of the vast majority of its people, things have to change,” he said. “Every time a system looks like it is going off the rails, we roll up our sleeves collectively, just like we did in 1904 and 1914.”

Members of Wall Street are pointing out that inequality and a stagnant economy end up hurting everyone, including the wealthy, Reich said.

“When the top begin to understand this, you get the beginning of real change,” he said. He is also enthusiastic about the idealistic attitudes the younger generation brings to the future.

“Young people have big hearts,” Reich said. “This is a powerful, reformist generation.”

While many positive efforts have been made in social justice causes in recent years, Reich urged that more must be done to fight poverty, build quality education and raise the minimum wage. He offered tips on what it means to be an effective leader as well.

“Leadership means changing the political structure, saying ‘I am going to make the system work better,’” he said.

One way of combating today’s cynicism of political leadership is by giving people facts and stories to back up the claims, Reich suggested.

“You give them evidence and stories that (show) people are in trouble,” he said.

Reich ended his keynote by urging attendees to continue to fight against those that oppress others.

“It is the noblest thing you can do with your lives,” he said.

Plenary Presentations

Gary Bailey, Toni Naccarato, and Branden GetchellFormer NASW president Gary Bailey, left, presents the plenary session “Ensuring Child Well-Being in the Child Welfare System” with panelists Toni Naccarato, center, and Branden Getchell. Photo by Kea Taylor/Imagine Photography

The conference offered plenary sessions that covered four relevant social work topics:

“The Integration of Health and Behavioral Health: Are We Ready to Walk the Talk?” Presenters were Linda Rosenberg, Enola Proctor and Paolo del Vecchio.

Rosenberg, president and CEO of the National Council for Behavioral Health, said health care is moving to an integrated care system as a result of the Affordable Care Act.

“We believe that 70 to 80 percent of behavioral health disorders will be treated in the context of general health care,” she said. “We are seeing it already. It is very much a changing world.”

With advances in technology and same-day service expectations by clients, it is important that social workers prepare for service delivery systems that challenge the norm, she said.

Proctor, a professor and associate dean at George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University, said social work must champion its vital role in patient-centered health care and ensure that its value for clients is quantified in health care models. “The promise for social work is huge if we are at the table,” she said.

“The Interface of Ethics and Technology” was presented by Frederic Reamer, a professor at the Graduate School of Social Work at Rhode Island College. Reamer, who was chairman of the NASW Code of Ethics Committee 20 years ago, discussed how rapidly technology has advanced in recent years and how it has changed the face of social work practice.

One example is Facebook, which wasn’t around when he worked on NASW’s Code of Ethics. Today, can social workers use Facebook as a therapeutic tool? he asked. And should a social worker become friends with a client on Facebook?

Reamer said he is part of the Association of Social Work Boards’ Technology Task Force, which is working to find answers to ethical questions such as these and to draft new speech. The goal, he said, is to come up with model standards that anyone around the world can adopt. NASW and other social work organizations also are on the task force. (More information:

“I think this presentation is not about how to use Facebook or social technology,” Reamer said. “But, for me, it’s about — we’re at a crossroads. How do we answer these ethical questions?”

“Ensuring Child Well-Being in the Child Welfare System.” Gary Bailey, former NASW president and associate professor at Simmons College Graduate School of Social Work, sought insight from two community leaders who grew up in the foster care system.

Panelist Branden Getchell, founder of Aging Out and Showing Up, said that while he faced challenges, he learned early on that his situation did not define his future.

“I always had hope, I don’t know why,” he said. “I knew things could get better.”

He suggested that foster care children need to have a “northern star” or mentor to look up to, such as Steve Pemberton, who was a keynote speaker at the conference.

Panelist Toni Naccarato, assistant professor at the Center for Human Services Research at the University at Albany, SUNY, said foster children need to have their input and feelings validated. Involving foster children in the decision-making process is key, she said. Also, social workers can provide optimism and hope to these children.

“Social Justice 2014: We Aren’t Finished Yet.” Presenters were Guadalupe G. Lara, director of the Consortium of Hispanic Agencies; Doua Thor, senior adviser for the White House Initiative for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders; Karina Walters, associate dean for research and a professor at the University of Washington; and NASW President Darrell Wheeler, dean and professor at Loyola University Chicago School of Social Work.

The presentation focused on the grand challenges facing society in the achievement of social justice for all. Speakers focused on these issues and the actions that can be taken to move the needle forward on achieving social justice.

“Our Code of Ethics requires us not only to care about these issues, but also to lead the efforts to move our society toward solutions,” Wheeler said at the beginning of the session.