The 16th annual NASW Social Work Pioneers® program returned to Washington, D.C., in October, following two years of restricted in-person meetings due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“A Time for New Lenses: Striving Toward Progress” was the theme for the event that drew about 120 people. Attendees included newly elected Pioneers and their families, deans, directors, and faculty of social work schools, students, NASW leadership, event sponsors, and community leaders. Former U.S Rep. Edolphus “Ed” Towns gave the keynote address (pictured at right).
Students from Fordham University (Linda Levin), San Diego State University (Elena Metz), Clark Atlanta University (Aaron Quick) and University at Buffalo (Meschelle Linjean) formed a panel to explore a wide variety of social work issues. Topics included post-COVID social worker burnout and impacts on low-income clients; Native American children’s rights when removed from families for adoption; lack of mental health intervention for police officers; and nationwide trends in social welfare program funding and sustainability. The students presented possible solutions to the problems, including calls to action, legislative recommendations and social mobilization efforts.
The NASW Social Work Pioneers® program honors members of the social work profession who have contributed to its evolution and enrichment. It recognizes individuals whose unique dedication, commitment and determination have improved social and human conditions.
Being elected by one’s peers as a Pioneer is considered one of the profession’s highest honors.
The Pioneer inductees from 2020 and 2021 were celebrated at the October gathering. Visit this page for a list of inductees, who have made contributions in a variety of practice settings, including financial social work; national and international child welfare policy; social, economic, and environmental justice; advocacy for Indigenous people and communities, substance abuse, and hospice services for pets. Pictured at left: Newly elected NASW Social Work Pioneers® who attended the 16th annual program in Washington, D.C., pose for a photo.
In his keynote address, Towns, MSW, a Democrat who represented New York in the U.S. House of Representatives for 30 years, stressed the need for more social workers in Congress and other legislative bodies. “We must stop spending all of our time solving problems, and begin to focus on preventing problems,” he said. “We need to realize it is time to step into the political arena.”
In fact, the field of social work can serve as a stepping stone into politics, he said. “Social workers are more equipped to deal with the community situation and community problems than anybody else. We just need to recognize the fact that we need to step out there and begin to do it.”
“In the days that are coming, we need to make certain that our product is better than anybody else’s product so that we can bring about true democracy,” Towns said. “Our democracy is being threatened, and we need to make certain that social work can stand up and make certain that we can turn things around.”
Young social workers provide the lens of the future, he said. “Even now, they see many things differently than those of us who have been in the field a while. Oh, yes, they need our help and guidance, but we need their vigor and enthusiasm. Despite all of that, we cannot sit back in amazement. We have to be involved.”
“Let me remind you, our democracy is being threatened,” Towns said. “And our Code of Ethics is being questioned. We need to let them know we have been trained to stand up for what is right today and every night.”
“Let us look through the lens and say to ourselves, ‘If I can help somebody, then my living is not in vain,’” Towns said. “Let us find a solution to the problem. We need to turn night into day, despair into hope, the trampled down into the upward bound, keep looking through the lens and keep hope alive. And dream of a world free of war and racism.”
Towns, who himself is an NASW Social Work Pioneer®, added that many people are not aware of the “tremendous work” NASW does. “You are preserving our history, supporting students with scholarships, and honoring the contributions of many workers who have dedicated their lives to the profession all across this nation.”
In a surprise announcement, NASW CEO Angelo McClain, who previously announced his retirement from NASW at the end of 2022, was inducted into the Pioneer Program as a special 2022 honoree. Pictured at right: NASW CEO Angelo McClain, center, accepts his induction into the NASW Social Work Pioneers® program with Betsy Vourlekis, left, chairperson of the NASW Pioneer Steering Committee, and NASW President Mildred “Mit” Joyner.
“We cannot think of anyone more deserving of this very high honor, said NASW President Mildred “Mit” Joyner, who presented the honor to McClain. “You are the social work profession’s human lighthouse. Over the years, you have guided, protected, and defended honorably the profession and NASW.”
McClain said he was surprised and honored to be inducted.
“The Pioneers who came before us, thank you for giving us shoulders to stand on,” he said. “We are going to do everything we can to help the next generation be the shoulders for the social workers coming 30, 40 years down the road.”
The NASW Foundation thanks all of the event sponsors.
View a Facebook Live video of the event here.
To learn more about the NASW Foundation, visit naswfoundation.org.