NASW's 2022 National Conference Proves the Time is Right for Social Work

By Paul R. Pace

four conference attendees chat

More than 1,000 people attended NASW’s 2022 national conference in June with the theme “The Time is Right for Social Work.”

Held in Washington, D.C., and virtually, the event was an opportunity for like-minded professionals and social workers to network, hear thought-provoking conversations and participate in continuing education. Attendees could choose from an array of presentations and workshops, with topics ranging from social work policy and trauma to ethics and aging.

Among the keynote speakers was Dr. Rachel L. Levine, M.D., admiral with the U.S. Public Health Service, and assistant secretary for Health at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

“I know from my clinical work and my work in public health how absolutely essential social workers are,” Levine said. “In my work in pediatrics and internal medicine, I have worked with so many expert social workers in many different capacities in all levels.”

woman presenter at whiteboard

“I want to thank all of you — and by extension your families — for the extraordinarily difficult work you have been doing over the last two and a half years,” she told attendees. “You have been able to continue to see the dignity, worth and potential of all people, regardless of their circumstances, their beliefs, their ethnicity, whom they love, throughout the COVID-19 pandemic.”

She noted social workers have supported people, families, communities, and the nation. “You have my personal gratitude and the gratitude of the United States Department of Human Services.”

The pandemic has been the biggest public health challenge the nation and world have seen in more than 100 years, she said. It has been especially difficult for vulnerable communities — the types of communities social workers support.

“One important lesson of the pandemic is that we are all interconnected,” the admiral said. “COVID-19 has taken more than a million lives in our own country alone, and this experience has reminded us over and over again of a fundamental truth: that we truly need each other. Our happiness and our very survival depend upon our connection to one another and to our community.”

That community is what we need now more than ever to bring the pandemic to an end, she said, adding that an important lesson from the pandemic is caring for our mental health. The grief, trauma and isolation of the last two years have brought many Americans to the breaking point. “We have to promote better pathways to care, making it as easy as possible for all Americans with behavioral health needs — including pervasive conditions like anxiety and depression — to access resources that will improve their well-being.”

man at podium on stage, group of people cheering him on

Keynote speaker Reverend Dr. William Joseph Barber. II on stage at 2022 NASW National Conference

America Still Needs Social Work

Another keynote speaker at the conference was the Rev. Dr. William J. Barber II, president and senior lecturer of Repairers of the Breach and co-chair of The Poor People’s Campaign in Goldsboro, N.C.

He explained the evolution of social work as a profession in the U.S. Alongside increasing prosperity in America, money went into the hands of the few and the problems went to the many, Barber said. Social work began as a movement, but it was not until the 1900s that working for social betterment became an occupation.

four conference attendees with abortion rights placards

Despite this progress, Barber said America still needs a social movement “to address the areas you all deal with every day as social workers.”

“I want to suggest the movement and the methodology is all social work and I want to suggest America has to be your primary client,” Barber said. “You have to work on the policies that cause the problem.”

True social work is three-dimensional, Barber said. “You have got to have a social conscience, you need social care, and you’ve got to be on the front line of social correction.”

Much of what was happening at the beginning of social work is still an issue, he noted.

Barber said there are 140 million poor and low-income people in the U.S., including 52 percent of children (39 million), 45 percent of women (74 million), 60 percent of Black people (24 million), and 64 percent of Latina/o people.

woman holds the mic while asking a question

“This level of greed in this country — the richest nation in the history of the world — constitutes a moral crisis and a fundamental failure of the policies of greed,” Barber said. “America still needs some social work. Somebody has got to have a social conscience. Somebody has to have social concern. And somebody has to engage in social correction.”

We are in a shared failure to center poor and low-wealth people, he said. “We don’t have a scarcity of resources, we have a scarcity of moral consciousness, and our political will.”

The National Academy of Sciences said 330,000 people died during COVID because America refuses to have universal health care, Barber noted. “And we are the only nation of the 25 wealthiest countries in the entire world that doesn’t offer some form of universal health care. I declare, America is still in need of some social work.”

Learn more about the NASW 2022 Annual Conference.

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