Social Work: Rich History, Bright Future

James J. Kelly, Ph.D., ACSW, LCSWFrom the President

The 2010 Social Work Congress was held April 22 and 23 in Washington and I am so proud of what hundreds of social workers from across the country were able to accomplish during those two days. First, this event brought together social workers ranging from new to seasoned professionals, from every state and U.S. territory, representing numerous cultures and organizations. We were pleased to be joined by direct practitioners, community organizers, social work educators, clinical social workers, social workers involved in policy and politics, directors of agencies and associations and hundreds of other social workers doing amazing and diverse work. For two days we each joined together to craft a plan for the future.

One of the most important moments of the Congress was our celebration of the life of Dr. Dorothy I. Height. NASW planned to give Dr. Height the Lifetime Achievement Award, and she was prepared to join us for the event; however, we were devastated to learn of her death on the morning of April 20. Dr. Height’s legacy was infused throughout the entire Congress, and it is now our hope to honor her through the successful passage of the Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act (H.R. 795, S. 686). Dr. Height viewed this legislation as part of her legacy and social work as her profession and we are honored to call her one of our own.

The Social Work Congress began with several social worker members of the United States Congress and the executive branch offering powerful words about the role that social workers can play in public policy and how their own social work education and training prepared them for public service and leadership roles. As California Congresswoman Barbara Lee said, “If more of my colleagues in Congress understood social work principles, our national priorities would be different.”

The Congress included two phenomenal keynote speakers. The first, Kirstin Downey, is author of The Woman Behind the New Deal: The Life of Frances Perkins, and she provided a glimpse into our past. Frances Perkins was not only the first woman to serve on a U.S. president’s Cabinet (for FDR as Secretary of Labor from 1933 to 1945), but also she was responsible for making sure that buildings had sprinkler systems to prevent fire-related work injuries, helping to establish child labor laws, ushering in the Social Security Act, writing the minimum wage laws, and much more. She was truly a social worker for all time.

Our second distinguished speaker was Daniel Brook, author of The Trap: Selling Out to Stay Afloat in Winner-Take-All America, who examined the challenges facing current and future generations of social workers.

The difficult work occurred in eight breakout sessions where leaders were randomly assigned to address the issues of leadership development, common objectives, the business of social work, technology, influence, education, recruitment and retention. Each breakout session was led by a professional facilitator and social work content expert.

Participants first brainstormed significant challenges in these topical areas. They were then encouraged to individually craft imperatives that addressed these challenges and present their imperatives to their small group. Finally, the agreed-upon imperatives from the group were brought forth to the entire breakout session. Participants then voted on the imperatives they thought most adequately addressed key challenges.

More than 400 students at 16 schools of social work nationwide voted virtually, while attendees physically present voted on site. The top three imperatives from each breakout session, for a total of 24 imperatives, were presented at the end of the Congress for a final vote. Social Work Congress attendees chose 10 imperatives for the future of the profession. These imperatives can be found at: 2010 Social Work World Congress.

My hope is that every social worker will take these imperatives and work to make them a reality. First, we must disseminate and discuss these imperatives within our workplaces, communities and schools. People cannot decisively act upon them if they are not aware of them. Next, the imperatives are broad, so we must determine specific action that can be taken to achieve them. Many of you are probably already well under way in your work toward these goals. Finally, we have to have an open dialogue about the progress that we are making and how we can best work together to succeed.

In the spirit of Frances Perkins and Dorothy Height, and with the support of thousands of emerging leaders, I know that we have the foundation to learn from and a bright future to look toward as we seek to overcome professional obstacles. We have the expertise and passion to continue to transform our communities and our nation in great ways, and I hope we use the 2010 Social Work Congress as the catalyst to do just that.