Being Thankful for Our Profession

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

November is a short month. Its claim to fame is its fourth Thursday, when we celebrate Thanksgiving. For many years Thanksgiving, also known as”turkey day,” has been mainly a secular holiday that includes a big meal, Black Friday, football games and parades. Almost 80 percent of business and government workers are given both Thursday and Friday as paid holidays. It has become a long weekend to spend with family and friends.

As with other customs, there are historical explanations for the holiday. In grade school we learned that Thanksgiving began with a meal between Pilgrims and the Wampanoag Indians in 1621. The day was later proclaimed a national holiday by President Abraham Lincoln during the Civil War in 1863, and it has been celebrated annually since then. It was originally a day marked by giving thanks for a bountiful harvest, for peace or for those in the military fighting to keep us safe. For a few years, President Franklin Roosevelt made the holiday a week earlier with the hope that a longer time between Thanksgiving and Christmas would assist merchants with increased sales and might help end the Great Depression.

There are similarities between the holiday today and Thanksgivings of the past. This year, we are grateful that most of our troops have left Iraq. We are relieved that oil is no longer spilling into the Gulf of Mexico. We are happy to see some positive bounce in the stock market and lower prices for gas. But we know that many people in our country are struggling — that houses are being foreclosed, the unemployment rate remains near double digits, people are still uninsured and food pantries can’t keep up.

Social workers provide society’s safety net. We touch 10 million lives each day, and we use all the resources available to us to try to help people improve their standard of living and their quality of life. We advocate for fair policies and adequate funding of social services. We work for peace and social justice and work with those who are marginalized and forgotten.

We have never been more needed.

Sometimes, though, we feel like the profession, and by extension those of us who are part of it, have also been marginalized and forgotten. As state governments and employers work to balance their own budgets or their bottom lines, social work jobs are frequently seen as “value added,” not essential. The cuts are deep, the caseloads are high.

We find hope in remembering that the social workers who came before us brought about great change even in the face of great adversity. Social workers like Frances Perkins and Harry Hopkins helped to end the Great Depression and World War II. Whitney Young and Dorothy Height changed the way the country viewed civil rights. Delwin Anderson was instrumental in changing the way we care for our veterans, and Dame Cicely Saunders forever changed how we help those with terminal illnesses. Other social work pioneers have had a positive and long-lasting impact on areas such as mental health, child abuse, foster care, long-term care and chronic diseases.

We are grateful for the paths these historical social workers forged and the legacies they left. Most importantly, we continue to be inspired by them — to try harder, reach higher, keep moving forward, continue working for change.

As a profession we are tenacious and resilient. We don’t give up. We don’t quit. We don’t stop trying to make a difference in people’s lives, in our communities or in our nation. So this Thanksgiving, on our list of things to be grateful for, we should include the collective commitment and undaunted determination of our chosen profession.