Forum Gives Glimpse Inside Political Process

Ed Towns“I am a social worker and I view this [health care reform] bill from a social work perspective,” Rep. Ed Towns told the forum.

Students spent a day on Capitol Hill learning the ins and outs of public policy from social workers involved with the political process.

NASW cosponsored the Sixth Biennial Social Work Policy Practice Forum in late October, which featured keynote speaker U.S. Rep. Edolphus "Ed" Towns, D-N.Y., who is among nine social workers currently serving in Congress.

Towns told the students that their social work training is an excellent stepping point to a public office career.

"I would recommend you get involved in activities in your community," he suggested as a way to get started in politics.

"We need social workers to become elected officials," he said. "You're more qualified than anybody else. Take your training to serve others. Social workers are eager to improve lives."

Towns said it is vital for social workers to advocate for causes and legislation that affect their profession as well as the lives of the people they serve.

As an example, Towns discussed his support for the Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act (S. 686, H.R. 795), a bill he reintroduced in early 2009. The proposal calls for the creation of a social work reinvestment commission to develop long-term recommendations and strategies to maximize the ability of America's social workers to serve individuals, families and communities with expertise and care.

"I want you to write your members of Congress about this important legislation," he told attendees. "I am working on getting more co-sponsors. Ask your legislator to co-sponsor this bill. We hope to make an influence this time around."

Evaluating the profession and its future needs is paramount, Towns noted.

"Social workers are needed now more than ever," he said. "They are the fabric of our society."

The health care reform debate was a hot topic in Washington during the forum and Towns was asked by one student how he felt about the latest bill.

"I am a social worker and I view this bill from a social work perspective," he said. "We fight for social justice and change. It's important you learn about the legislative process."

A keynote speech was also given by Dr. Dorothy Height, an NASW Social Work Pioneer as well as chair and president Emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women.

Forum attendees heard from other social workers directly involved in Washington politics.

Elizabeth Hoffler, lobbyist and special assistant to NASW Executive Director Elizabeth J. Clark, gave a presentation about Lobbying 101.

She noted that the NASW Code of Ethics specifically states that social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs to develop fully.

Hoffler explained that while lobbying involves the skill of persuading legislators, it can also include other duties such as researching and analyzing legislation or regulatory proposals.

Lobbyists can also monitor and report on developments, attend congressional or regulatory hearings, work with coalitions interested in the same issues and educate members.

"With advocacy, social workers serve as a vital bridge between constituent concerns and their legislators, enabling individual citizens and coalition groups to more effectively petition their government and ultimately work to build a more responsive and effective system of policies and programs," Hoffler said.

She gave tips on grassroots lobbying as students were given time to meet with their respective representatives and staff while visiting Capitol Hill.

Social worker T.J. Sutcliffe is director of advocacy and public policy for The Arc of the District of Columbia, a nonprofit organization that serves people with developmental disabilities and their families in Washington. She discussed how her job requires lobbying skills.

"A majority of the things I do is advance policies and initiatives that involve people with developmental disabilities in the district," Sutcliffe said. "I also help people get involved in the process, such as helping them look at a proposal, testify at hearings and talk with officials. I help them become active and knowledgeable."

Sutcliffe said social workers are ideally suited in advocacy efforts because they serve on the front lines and have a real-world perspective when such things as proposed budget cuts become a possibility for lawmakers to consider. "Social workers connect the person with the policies," she said. "They can help [legislators] understand how their policy issues affect people's lives."

Forum attendees also heard from social workers who represented affordable housing, child welfare, immigration, older adults, veteran's issues and health care reform.