SWPI event examines social work policy field

Linda Plitt DonaldsonLinda Plitt Donaldson, associate professor at the National Catholic School of Social Service at the Catholic University of America, speaks to attendees at the NASW Social Work Policy Institute's “Critical Conversation II — Influencing Social Policy: Positioning Social Work Graduates for Policy Careers.”

Social work students need inspiration and training to be key players in the policy arena.

That was among the suggestions by leaders who are involved in analyzing and drafting public policy, many of whom have a social work background. They attended the NASW Foundation’s Social Work Policy Institute’s “Critical Conversation II – Influencing Social Policy: Positioning Social Work Graduates for Policy Careers.”

The event, planned in conjunction with the George Mason University Department of Social Work, was held Dec. 13 at NASW’s national office in Washington, D.C.

Three panelists highlighted some of the skills, knowledge base and attributes that social work graduates should possess to better position themselves for the challenging field of policy practice. Attendees included social work educators and those involved in policy work on Capitol Hill, in professional associations and in government agencies at the federal and local levels.

Participant Jamie Liban is the executive director of The Arc of Virginia. Her efforts focus on grassroots advocacy, public policy and chapter development. She said it is important that social work students understand how macro and micro social work intertwine in real-world situations, and they have an obligation to understand the value of policy practice.

“We help students understand how (state) budgets work,” she said.

Participant Linda Spears is vice president of Policy and Public Affairs at the Child Welfare League of America.

She said her staff focuses on advocacy at the federal and state levels and that since the organization has a broad membership base, it requires her team to possess skills in diplomacy and the development, analysis, implementation and evaluation of policy.

She said students should be trained in comprehending how policy has an impact “up and down the line,” as well as learning how to persuade others.

Social workers need to possess social networking skills if the profession intends to play an active role in developing and promoting policy issues, she added.

Also addressing the group was Marco Villagrana, an associate director for federal relations for The Joint Commission. He is responsible for a range of activities that foster productive relationships with health care policymakers, federal agency officials and key elected officials.

He said social workers need to identify themselves and their profession whenever they are invited to discuss policy issues.

“We need to do a better job of it, including myself,” Villagrana said.

Attendees were urged to inspire their social work graduates to apply for policy positions.

“You need people who know how to ask questions,” Villagrana said of personality types best suited for policy practice. “You need someone who understands who the audience is and understands the purpose of the communication.”

Participants were divided into small groups to discuss key questions and report recommendations.

Sunny Harris Rome, associate professor of social work at George Mason University, said she and Joan Levy Zlotnik, SWPI’s executive director, will develop a set of recommendations based on the discussion that can serve as an action agenda to ensure that social workers are better prepared for success as policy leaders.

“This is a rich conversation,” Zlotnik told attendees. She said a goal is to draft a brief on the importance of social work and policy practice that could be distributed to schools of social work.

Participant Daphne McClellan, executive director of the NASW Maryland Chapter, said that it is important to urge schools of social work to train students on policy practice.

“We have to respond to market demand for our students,” she said.

Get more information: The Social Work Policy Institute.