Strength through association needed now

Angelo McClain, Ph.D., LICSW

The 2016 election exposed and exacerbated divisions between class, race, sex, gender, and ideology in the United States.

It accentuated the gap between left and right, between Democrats and Republicans, between “elites” and the rest of the population.

Many things that we believed were cherished by all Americans turned out to be significantly less valued by almost half of the voting public: a free, objective press; respect for women; respect for the Constitution; civility.

So it’s not surprising that many people are appalled that Donald J. Trump won the presidency.

During these difficult and unsettling times, the social work mission is as important as ever. Obviously, this is a time to fight back where necessary and an opportunity to define who we are—a moment in which we need to express our collective values and speak truth to power.

During the Trump Administration, we will likely see a sustained attack on the role of government, lack of attention to the issues facing the most needy families, and programs for vulnerable people under threat of cuts or elimination.

We’ve always known that the fight for economic, social and environmental justice isn’t easy. Vulnerable people will need us now more than ever; the next four years will be an immense challenge.

So what is to be done?

The answer lies in our professional code of ethics. Our collective commitment to vulnerable populations is clearly articulated in the NASW Code of Ethics preamble:

The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.

The code clearly states that now is not a time to despair, but a time to organize with hope and vision around our shared commitment to support and enable vulnerable people.

Now is the time for social work to exercise its strong political voice and engage its most uncompromising approaches to advance social progress. Our collective actions in the weeks and months ahead will determine and define who we are as a profession now and for future generations.

President-elect Trump’s first 100 day agenda* includes repealing environmental regulations, Obamacare, and the Dodd-Frank Act, giving the rich a huge tax cut, and much worse. There’s a role for social workers to lobby national and local politicians, talk to the media to highlight issues and concerns, publicly defend the need for government services, humanize the recipients of social services, and ensure the economy works for everyone.

In fighting the new administration’s most egregious policies, we must have a sense of urgency that compels us to organize, oppose, resist, educate and, when appropriate, to cooperate.

To accomplish this, we must raise our game. We need to establish common goals. Fortunately, our consistent touchpoint is the Code of Ethics.

Our code directs us, as social workers, to be a profession that protects vulnerable populations—including children, undocumented young people and recent immigrants, people of color, the LGBT community, women, families with limited resources, and people of all religions and faiths—from harassment and exclusion.

As a profession, we must do everything possible to advance a progressive agenda at the national, state and local levels to expand health care for all Americans, while fighting proposals that dismantle Obamacare and threaten Medicaid and Medicare; protect safety net programs that help struggling families survive; and reduce widening inequality among marginalized groups.

We must also acknowledge and condemn racism when we see it; protect immigrants and refugees against deportation; defeat any movement to register Muslim Americans; fight for higher minimum wages and expanded overtime pay; and help reverse climate change.

In addition to a focus on the immediate work required during the first 100 days of a new administration, we need to look to the near future as well: the 2018 midterm election, the 2020 presidential election, and the 2020 census. Social work needs to lead efforts that will help more Americans understand and resist policies that harm people and communities.

NASW Social Work Pioneers®, who often recall 1968 and 1981 as critical moments for the social work profession, say they “can’t think of a time when a robust association was needed more than now.”

NASW membership should be emphasized in all sectors of our field, they urge. A strong social work association is essential in difficult times.

Since Election Day on Nov. 8, I’ve found myself thinking and saying, “There is strength in association, strength in numbers, strength in focus, and strength in collective purpose.”

I firmly believe that the social work profession—including NASW and numerous other social work organizations—can help our nation respond to the very serious challenges ahead.

Contact Angelo McClain at


*Robert Reich, one of the nation’s leading experts on work and the economy, professor of public policy the University of California at Berkeley, offers a 100 days resistance agenda.