Social work’s powerbroker: ‘What can I do?’

Angelo McClain, Ph.D, LICSW

In the wake of the Women’s March on Washington, the federal court ruling delaying President Trump’s executive order on immigration, and tremendous turnout at ACA town hall meetings, there is quite a bit of excitement across social work regarding efforts to preserve our democracy and advance social justice.

There is a growing sense of hope (and empowerment) that the social justice progress made over the last half century will not be swiftly eroded with the stroke of a pen or through a series of ill-fated Cabinet appointments.

The lyrics to “We Shall Overcome,” the spiritual that became the anthem for the 1960s civil rights movement, echoes sentiments that are still relevant today: “We shall live in peace, we shall organize, we shall walk hand in hand, we are not afraid.”

Despite the trepidation these times represent, the recent surge in activism has many confidently humming the chorus of that song, “… Deep in my heart, I do believe we shall overcome some day.”

As social workers face the social challenges of today, there are lessons from an iconic 1960s social work leader that are still applicable.

Whitney M. Young Jr., when faced with dealing with President Richard Nixon—who, with his Southern Strategy, sought to roll back the gains of the civil rights movement—was able to convince the president to continue supporting his social and civil rights programs.

In his eulogy of Young, Nixon stated, “In an age when we see so many people who want to be for the right thing, we also find that it is very difficult to accomplish the right thing. It is really easy to be for what is right. What is more difficult is to accomplish what is right. And Whitney Young’s genius was, he knew how to accomplish what other people were merely for.”

In the May 1969 NASW News, Young wrote, “First of all, I think the country is in deep trouble. We, as a country have blazed unimagined trails technologically and industrially. We have not yet begun to pioneer in those things that are human and social … I think that social work is uniquely equipped to play a major role in this social and human renaissance of our society ...”

Young spent his tenure as NASW’s president ensuring that the profession kept pace with the troubling social challenges of the 60s and 70s. He encouraged social workers to be politically active and stressed that inherent in the responsibility for leadership in social welfare is responsibility for professional action.

Young was strategic in his approach, believing that ground-level activism had to be supplemented with social engineering at the level of policymaking, policy implementation, the highest echelons of the corporate community, and the highest echelons of federal, state and local government.

Young drew criticism from some blacks because of his calm demeanor and his ability to put some folks within the white power structure at ease, wanting him instead to raise his voice, be far less accommodating and take stances that were more in-your-face strident.

Young opted to operate from a strategic perspective, knowing that his tactics would complement the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the streets and Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall in the courts. He reasoned that one couldn’t be successful without the other.

Through the hindsight of history, Young’s methods (strategic, intelligent action and coalition building) have stood the test of time.

Today, in order to preserve our democracy and advance social justice, we know that we must organize, oppose, resist, cooperate (when it makes sense) and educate. In order to send a clear message that We The People will not tolerate injustice, the protest and marches against the most egregious Trump policies must continue.

Our efforts to organize must be focused on building real political opposition with an eye toward the 2018 midterm elections, which includes supporting local, state and national candidates.

It costs money to build an effective nationwide design for opposition; Social workers must be willing to contribute financially by joining organizations like NASW or making charitable contributions to social justice causes.

Young was known to wear a little button that read “Equal” in his lapel. He didn’t just wear it on his lapel, however, he also wore it in his heart. His message was clear: Every man and woman in this country is equal.

Young asked himself, “What can I do through helping others, through recognizing their equality, their dignity, their individuality, to realize the American dream? What can I do to make this country better?”

Whitney M. Young Jr.’s fight for civil rights is the focus of a 2013 PBS documentary “The Powerbroker.”

Contact Angelo McClain at