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Hope is key message of NASW conference

Leymah GboweeBy Paul R. Pace and Rena Malai

Speakers at NASW’s Hope Conference in July included 2011Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and a social worker from Liberia Leymah Gbowee, top right; and “ABC News” anchor and reporter Bob Woodruff and his wife, Lee, below right, a journalist and author. (Photos by Kea Taylor/Imagine Photography)

Nearly 1,000 social workers from 12 countries carried home the message that “social work is the profession of hope” from NASW’s national practice conference “Restoring Hope: The Power of Social Work.”

The gathering, held July 22-25 in Washington, D.C., provided an opportunity to learn, network and renew social workers’ commitment to the profession and to clients, said NASW President Jeane Anastas.

Bob Woodruff and Lee Woodruff“Our goal is to restore your passion for the profession, and (to remind you) why you became a social worker in the first place — your belief that all people and all societies have the capacity to change for the better,” she told an enthusiast crowd.

Anastas said she was pleased by the number of attendees who stopped to tell her how much they were enjoying the conference.

“I was told this was the best conference they have been to in a long time, or ever,” she said. “I am so proud of the staff who put together this event. The positive response was overwhelming.”

NASW CEO Elizabeth J. Clark said the theme for the conference was partly inspired by her social work delegation visits to other countries, such as India, Russia, Brazil and South Africa.

“No matter the magnitude of the problems, in each country our social work counterparts were committed and hopeful,” Clark said. “They said their clients, their cities and their countries were resilient and that hope underpinned all of their work — that it was the foundation upon which their change efforts were based.”

Conference attendees heard inspiring stories of resiliency and hope from speakers from across the U.S., as well as from Brazil, Liberia and Cambodia.

Leymah Gbowee, 2011 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate and a social worker from Liberia, was a keynote speaker at the conference. She talked about her introduction into social work, and how hope is instrumental in practicing social work from the heart.

As one of the leaders of Women of Liberia Mass Action for Peace, Gbowee started her own peace revolution by gathering a group of neighborhood girls in her home every week.

“Many years ago, I lived in a community that was destroyed in every way by war,” Gbowee said. “We woke up in the morning and poverty stared us in the face.”

At the time, Gbowee was personally struggling and said she braided hair to put food on the table for her family. However, she still had her eyes open to the hardships of people around her — in particular, five young girls in her community.

“My worry was that these girls were growing up with mothers lost in their own world of problems and frustrations,” she said.

Gbowee said she had no idea what social work was at the time, but she said she “saw misery, and that first night I spoke to them I felt good and I wanted to talk to them again. Every Sunday I invited them over.”

One day a friend told Gbowee about a social work program offered at a Liberian college. She went to school and eventually became a caseworker in Liberia for ex-child soldiers.

“Those days, I did social work by the books,” she said, but when bureaucracy got in the way of helping a young ex-combatant, she learned to practice social work in a different way.

“The only thing I could think about was moving past bureaucracy, and doing social work from the heart,” she said. “Over time what we've seen in this world, every professional situation that used to be people-centered has now been replaced by policy, institution and some guidelines.”

The first step to practicing from the heart is to work in an area you are passionate about, she told Hope attendees.

When you do social work from the heart, she said, you don’t just touch lives, your print is stamped on their lives forever.

Other keynote presenters and guest speakers included:

  • Donna Brazile: CNN and “ABC News” contributor and vice chairwoman for voter registration and participation at the Democratic National Committee. Brazile praised social workers for their work and encouraged them to continue to be advocates for what they believe, and to not let fear stop them. “Don't just restore hope, define it,” she said. “Instill it in others and to each other. Through those small acts of goodness and kindness, those who hope for a blessing will have the blessing of hope fulfilled.”
  • Dr. Kenneth Doka: professor of gerontology at the Graduate School of the College of New Rochelle, in New York, senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America, and editor of the “Living with Grief” series. Doka spoke about grief and the coping strategies that can be adopted in order to deal with the feelings of loss. He talked about his pioneering work on disenfranchised grief and continuing bonds.
  • Tony Keith: Spoken word poet and student success specialist at the University of the District of Columbia. Keith was one of the opening presenters, providing socially conscious spoken word poetry.
  • Roberto “Betho” Pacheco: Special projects coordinator for the AfroReggae Cultural Group in Brazil, a nongovernmental organization that focuses on the use of social and cultural activities such as music, dance and percussion to prevent and help young people escape from drug trafficking and violence.
  • Bob and Lee Woodruff: As anchor and reporter for “ABC News,” Bob Woodruff survived life-threatening injuries in an Iraq roadside bomb attack while on assignment in 2006. At the conference, he joined his wife, Lee, a journalist and author, to explain their personal journey of hope when facing his long road to recovery from traumatic brain injury. Lee Woodruff said the experience helped her understand how vital social workers are for those suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder and TBI. The Woodruffs’ triumph over tragedy inspired them to create the Bob Woodruff Foundation, to provide resources and support to injured service members, veterans and their families.
  • Social worker and U.S. Rep. Edolphus “Ed” Towns, D-N.Y., was a guest speaker at the conference. Towns, founder and chairman of the Congressional Social Work Caucus and original sponsor of the Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act, spoke at the opening ceremony to welcome attendees and provide inspirational remarks about the profession and the caucus. Towns has led the Social Work Caucus on Capitol Hill since 2011. The caucus educates members of Congress on the vital role professional social workers play in helping improve the lives of the middle class and the most vulnerable members of society. “I have enjoyed leading the caucus and it is making a difference,” Towns said. He encouraged attendees to ask their representatives in Washington to join the caucus, which has 69 bipartisan members. He noted that while he will not seek re-election in November, he will play an active role in supporting the caucus in the next Congress. “We will be keeping the caucus alive,” he said.
  • Dr. Jill Biden, wife of Vice President Joe Biden, was a guest speaker on the final day of the conference. She spoke about the Joining Forces initiative she started last year with first lady Michelle Obama. (For more on Biden’s speech, see accompanying article.)

“It was great that Dr. Biden took time out of her busy schedule to talk about the social work commitment to our nation’s service members, veterans and their families through Joining Forces, and that Rep. Towns came to speak to us,” Anastas said. “This shows how in recent years NASW has strengthened social work visibility in the executive and legislative branches, and that is an incredible achievement in itself.”

Gary Bailey, former NASW president and current president of the International Federation of Social Workers, was a conference presenter. He said he enjoyed hearing social work speakers from around the world.

“To listen to social workers tell their stories and discuss their journeys was not only rejuvenating, it was very spiritual,” Bailey said.

Elizabeth J. ClarkNASW CEO Elizabeth J. Clark addresses Hope conference goers. (Photos by Kea Taylor/Imagine Photography)

In addition to the keynote presentations, the conference included plenary speakers (see accompanying sidebar), individual and symposia presentations, poster presentations and pre- and post-conference workshops — all covering a wide variety of social work topics.

Plenary speakers

Leadership and the Power of Social Work, Nancy A. Humphreys, professor of policy practice and director of the Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work; and William Pollard, president of Medgar Evers College in New York. Humphreys and Pollard discussed how their social work skills led them to their current positions in the profession, and how other social workers can become leaders as well.

Building Resiliency After Trauma, S. Megan Berthold, assistant professor of casework at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work; Roberta Greene, professor and the Louis and Ann Wolens Centennial Chair in Gerontology and Social Welfare at the School of Social Work at the University of Texas in Austin; and Ellen Minotti, director of Social Services of Cambodia. Berthold discussed the social work community’s efforts in helping those who have overcome torture.

She explained that such victims have a high-risk factor for suicide. Minotti spoke about her experiences of being a social worker in Cambodia for the past 20 years. She said she is concerned that the gap between the rich and poor continues to widen in the country, but that social work efforts there offer hope for those in need. Studying the stories of resilience, hope and survivorship among Holocaust survivors has been Greene’s work. Survivors teach us that a person must have a resolve to live, Greene said. She learned that this group thrived when they focused on re-forming their families, establishing their careers and engaging in community service.

Hope for Our Children, Terry Cross, executive director of the National Indian Child Welfare Association; and Sheryl Brissett-Chapman, executive director of the National Center for Children and Families. Cross said there is no shortage of need for social workers to address child welfare issues and noted that the need for racial healing and racial equity across America is still great. He said children do better if they know and are encouraged to experience their culture. Brissett-Chapman urged attendees to focus on the positive changes in child welfare.

Building Hope with Honor for Veterans and Military Families, Anthony Hassan, clinical associate professor and director of the USC Center for Innovation and Research on Veterans and Military Families at the University of Southern California; Carol Sheets, national director of social work for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; and Lt. Col. Jeffrey S. Yarvis, deputy commander for behavioral health at Fort Belvoir Community Hospital.

This session highlighted how social workers are uniquely equipped to address the needs of service members, veterans and military families. Speakers discussed the physical injuries of service members returning home from war, as well as the mental health issues they can experience. Psychosocial challenges such as homelessness and reintegration after deployment are other critical issues for social workers to understand and address.

Sheets said the VA, the largest employer of social workers in the U.S., uses a team-based approach in addressing these issues. Suicide is becoming an increasing risk for those returning from recent wars, she said. Yarvis and Hassan, both with social work and military backgrounds, talked about the role professional social workers can play in helping military families. Social workers are trained to deal with poverty, social justice, child welfare and domestic violence, to name a few, Yarvis said, and they bring the “ability to address all these issues to the table.” Hassan pointed out the importance for social workers to understand military culture.

Social Work is the Profession of Hope, Lacy Fetting, a clinical social worker at Sidney Kimmel Comprehensive Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins University; Lt. Cpl. Christopher O’Connor (ret.); and Rafiq Raza, global war on terrorism outreach therapist at the Orlando Vet Center in Florida.

This session highlighted speakers who decided to pursue a social work career based on their challenging life experiences. Attendees heard the inspiring story of Rachel Minkove, a social work student who was diagnosed with Hodgkin's lymphoma at age 25, and lost her battle with cancer on July 29. She was 28 years old. Minkove was originally scheduled to speak at the conference, but her mentor, Fetting, spoke on her behalf after attendees watched a video about Minkove’s journey.

In the segment, Minkove said she decided to focus on the positives in her life after her diagnosis and to be upbeat during her chemotherapy treatments. The former Jewish day school teacher was so inspired by Fetting, she decided to go back to school and study to be a hospital oncology social worker.

Raza and O’Connor came from different backgrounds, but ended up following the same path in life — first as members of the military, then as social workers. Raza, who was in the Army and served in Afghanistan right after 9/11, moved to Florida when he left the military after four years of service. He worked as a civilian, but said he began to feel like he had no purpose. “There really wasn’t awareness of what returning veterans were going through (in 2004),” he said. He eventually landed at the Orlando Vet Center, where he used the various resources they offered — and he ended up working there as a global war on terrorism outreach therapist.

Raza became O’Connor’s mentor after O’Connor walked through the center’s doors one day. O’Connor was retired from the Marine Corps at age 20, after he was seriously injured in Iraq. He had earned the Purple Heart, yet said he felt alienated and detached after he returned home. “I didn’t feel comfortable in my own skin,” he said. O’Connor was diagnosed with post- traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injury. However, he said he still longed to go back overseas to fight in the Iraq war. O’Connor said Raza convinced him he could help hundreds of veterans like himself if he stayed home. From that conversation, “I had a new mission,” O’Connor said. “I pursued my degree in social work.”