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Social workers are ‘holders of hope’

Elizabeth J. Clark, Ph.D., ACSW, MPHFrom the Director

During my tenure as executive director of NASW, I have had the remarkable privilege of accompanying delegations of social workers to seven different countries. Each journey had its own map, each delegation its own blueprint, but the mission was the same.

We wanted to learn as much as we could about the country, the culture, and the problems facing the population. Perhaps even more important, we wanted to meet and exchange ideas and best practices with social workers from other countries. How were they solving social problems, how were they educating social work students, and what could we learn from them?

In each country we discussed human rights, heroic activists, and historical perspectives. And we heard the same message over and over again — there is hope for a better future in their country and in our world.

We visited places many of us had only read about in textbooks or newspapers; places like Red Square, Tiananmen Square, Robben Island, and the Killing Fields. We saw the favelas of Brazil, the shantytowns of South Africa, the “street children” of Cambodia, and the homeless in Delhi.

No matter the magnitude of the problems, in each country our social work counterparts were committed and hopeful. 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.

Hope is an important concept for our profession and for society. Four years ago, we heard President Obama speak about the “audacity of hope.” He said, “I’m not talking about blind optimism — the almost willful ignorance that thinks unemployment will go away if we just don’t think about it — I’m talking about something more substantial. It’s the hope of slaves sitting around a fire singing freedom songs. The hope of immigrants setting out for distant shores. Hope in the face of difficulty. Hope in the face of uncertainty. The audacity of hope!”

In his book, “The Anatomy of Hope,” physician and researcher Jerome Groopman concludes that there is an authentic biology of hope, and that belief and expectation are key elements of hope.

Philosophers, prophets and poets all define hope in their own genre. From a social work perspective, I think it is fair to say that hope is a way of thinking, feeling and acting. It is a cognitive asset, a prerequisite for action.

We know that a hopeless person becomes a helpless person, and that it is easier to prevent hopelessness than to reverse it. We fully understand the power of hope. We recognize its utility, its essential function in solving both individual and community problems. It underlies most, if not all, of our social work interventions.

Does this mean that social work can lay claim to the profession of hope? I believe we can. We are the holders of hope, dispensing it as a physician dispenses medicines, or as a judge dispenses justice.

This month a thousand social workers will convene for the national practice conference, “Restoring Hope: The Power of Social Work,” in Washington, D.C., to discuss and debate the power and functionality of hope. We will exchange best practices, discuss inspiring individuals, and work to restore our own hope.

For example, we will hear from remarkable speakers like Leymah Gbowee, the social worker from Liberia who won the Nobel Peace Prize last fall, and from ABC news anchor Bob Woodruff and his wife, Lee, who showed remarkable resiliency when Bob was severely wounded while covering the war in Iraq.

Additionally, almost 200 expert social workers will discuss how they use hope as part of their practices. The time is right to address issues of hope and resiliency for our nation and our world.

I look forward to seeing many of you there.