Social workers use skills on the Hill

Michael Collins, left, and Diane DiSantoMichael Collins, left, and Diane DiSanto are both social workers who are transferring the skills they learned to their political careers. Collins is chief of staff for the office of John Lewis, D-Ga., and DiSanto is a legislative assistant to Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska.

The political bug can bite anyone — even a social worker. That’s what happened to NASW member Kristen Pendergrass.

“I graduated with my MSW in 2008, about the time of the Obama campaign,” said Pendergrass, who is the legislative aide to Massachusetts state Rep. Thomas P. Conroy. “The political bug bit me.”

Christie Getto Young, policy and budget director for the office of Massachusetts state Sen. Sal DiDomenico, earned her MSW and wanted to focus on policy.

“I came into this work for the policy,” said Young, also an NASW member. But she, too, was drawn to the world of politics.

The terms “social worker” and “politics” may not always be associated, said Julianne Hines, but a social work education and skills can provide a good foundation for a political career. Hines is district director of the 44th Assembly District in California under Assemblyman Anthony Portantino.

“Social workers have many skills that can be brought to the table,” said Hines, an NASW member. “The ability to advocate, teach and communicate needs are all effective social work tools that can be a great backdrop in the political arena.”

John Lewis, Michael CollinsRep. John Lewis, D-Ga., left, stands with his chief of staff, Michael Collins, on Capitol Hill.

Social work can have a stigma attached to it in the political world, said social worker Michael Collins, chief of staff for the office of Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga. But he says that many social work dynamics exist in the policies that he works on every day.

“Social workers are perfectly positioned and really should go to the next level; the best lawmakers are people who interact with policy, work the front lines and who are involved with direct service,” Collins said. “Being a social worker in this role places me in a unique opportunity and position to directly enact legislation.”

Actively advocating is an important component of social work, Pendergrass said, and being involved in government can facilitate this.

“Many of the people who I work with don’t actually know what social workers do,” she said. “Social workers advocate hard for clients, and it’s important to remember to advocate for themselves at a government level. Advocacy is part of our jobs.”

According to Hines, getting started in a political career armed with social work training wasn’t easy, but in time her colleagues started to see the benefits of having a social work background.

“As early on as my second-year internship in my MSW program, I knew I wanted to get into more policy and political work,” she said. “It was suggested I do an internship in a legislative office, and I made many calls. And I kept having to explain why I was calling. As soon as I said ‘social work background’ … they thought it was odd. Everyone assumed I was offering or seeking social work services.”

Hines said her office now has another MSW on staff and two MSW interns.

“My boss is always saying he’s a sold-out believer of social workers, and people we work with comment on how our skill sets make us superstars,” she said.

Maria WorthenSocial worker Maria Worthen, education policy adviser to Sen. Thomas “Tom” Harkin, D-Iowa, sits at her desk.

“Although having an MSW may initially catch people off guard, it’s the best possible degree to have,” said Maria Worthen, education policy adviser to Sen. Thomas ‘Tom’ Harkin, D-Iowa, chairman of the committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

“An MSW teaches us to operate on different levels, be a good listener, how to start where other people are to assess needs,” Worthen said. “Those are essential skills critical to any workplace.”

And pursuing an MSW was the best way to get into the work she wanted to do, she said.

“I started getting interested at an early age with volunteering in the community, and I became aware of the systematic things people were up against,” Worthen said. “I always knew I wanted to go into policy. Social work was the best way for me to get there.”

As an LCSW, NASW member Diane DiSanto said she is one of the few social workers on Capitol Hill who has professionally practiced. She sees being in a political position as a useful tool for effective change, as tasks and issues she comes across are viewed through her social work lens.

“You always have social work in your heart and in your head,” said DiSanto, who is a legislative assistant to Sen. Mark Begich, D-Alaska. “I feel I can play a hand in shedding (light) on certain issues — such as violence against women — because of the social work background that I have. I can bring things to the attention of Sen. Begich that may have otherwise been overlooked. I look at things differently.”

Pendergrass feels her social work voice was heard in her role, as she explained the outcome of a recent budget debate on Electronic Benefit (EBT) cards in Massachusetts.

“At the end of one of our budget weeks, there was a debate on EBT cards for the poor and what the cards can and cannot cover,” she said. “Some of the restrictions were, in my opinion, too strict, such as limiting the purchase of cosmetics which could include essentials like diapers and shampoo. I felt that some of the people debating the issue weren't aware of the real-life implications of the policy, which, as a social worker, I understood. Because of the hard work of legislators, staff and advocates who understood the issue, some of the restrictions were lifted in the end.”

Young said her social work background is what she relies on most in her position, even though many people may think otherwise.

“Interestingly, I went to law school as well,” Young said. “Many folks think that those skills would serve me well in a political setting, and sometimes they do, but rarely. It is my social work training – coming at problems more from a mediation, negotiation, and ‘finding common ground’ perspective – that is more effective.”

The challenge of navigating through the political world can have social workers relying on skill sets they learned in their earliest classes, but the lessons are still just as effective.

“We were the focus of a political backlash after we stood behind (Portantino) for a decision he made to not support budget cuts to education in California,” Hines said. “We were notified that our office would be closed down, which meant we would all be unemployed for six weeks. The atmosphere was dire, morale was low … and then I remembered, wait a minute. You’re a social worker!”

Hines then went back into her social work education to pull up some of the basics.

“One of the first things I learned doing my MSW is that you can control your reaction to a situation,” she said. “We started doing brainstorming sessions in the office, our version of group therapy, and we decided to make lemons out of lemonade - literally. We started a project in the community called ‘Lemonade’ with a food drive benefiting our constituents and an open house, to share state resources with the community in case the office was closed. And the response was huge.”

Hines said because of their efforts, her office is in full operation and never had to succumb to the pressures to close down.

“We’ve had a very trying year in our office, and if I didn’t have my social work skills to fall back on, our office could have caved,” she said. “It’s easy to get frustrated, but we have to stick in there and find ways to move forward.”

Despite completing her social work education years ago, Tessa Charnofsky said she still uses skills she learned from that training.

“A number of concepts from my MSW program have stuck with me over the years, and I can most definitely say that the training I received in school, though it was many years ago, influences and affects my work today,” said Charnofsky, government affairs manager for First 5 LA, a child-advocacy organization based in California.

Although moving from social work into politics can be considered a career transition, Charnofsky said she feels like she’s still doing social work.

“I consider my current job to be a social work job, too,” she said. “My career has gradually moved from a focus on the individual client towards a focus on larger, systemic change.”

And DiSanto said she practices some social work daily on the Hill.

“I love my job, and I feel like I’m already in social work every day, especially at a macro level,” DiSanto said. “Intense casework, someone can’t get their social security check, someone else’s neighbor has an issue, managing stress that’s sometimes not even my own. I’m doing social work every day.”