Social Work Month goes global

From the President

This year, the celebration of Social Work Month in the United States incorporated an international flavor.

Three organizations representing social work and social development — the International Federation of Social Work, the International Association of Schools of Social Work and the International Council on Social Welfare — issued a statement on The Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development: Commitment to Action.

At a reception celebrating Social Work Day on March 20, the Congressional Social Work Caucus, led by Rep. Edolphus “Ed” Towns, D-N.Y., received a copy of the statement from Gary Bailey, former NASW president and now president of IFSW. The document also provided the framework for the program at the annual Social Work Day at the United Nations on March 26.

There are four priorities for social work outlined in the global agenda:

  • Promoting social and economic equalities
  • Promoting the dignity and worth of all peoples
  • Working toward environmental sustainability
  • Promoting well-being through sustainable human relationships.

In social work in the United States, we may more often speak of addressing specific problems and goals rather than human rights issues generically.

For example, when it comes to addressing injustices, we talk about eliminating health disparities and increasing access to high-quality, comprehensive health and behavioral health care through health insurance reform efforts, like the Affordable Care Act.

However, the priorities in the global agenda are clearly expressed in NASW’s code of ethics’ core values: service, social justice, the dignity and worth of the person; the importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. In addition, NASW has a policy statement on the environment in “Social Work Speaks” that specifically addresses pursuing environmental justice and combating environmental racism as goals for the profession.

This concern goes back to the beginning of social work in the United States in the Progressive Era, when leaders like Jane Addams, Frances Perkins and Harry Hopkins, among others, fought to improve neighborhood sanitation and workplace safety for all.

I recently co-led an NASW-sponsored People to People Social Work Delegation to India. Traveling by bus to our various destinations, every day we saw hundreds of people living in makeshift tents on construction sites; settlements built on highway medians without infrastructure like electricity, water or sanitation; and families living in the open on the side of the road.

As difficult as it was to witness this human suffering, these problems are similar to many of our own, although, in a nation of over 1 billion people, the numbers of those affected in India are much larger.

Speaking as someone who passes one or two homeless people on the streets of New York City on my way to work each day, we all get too accustomed to the evidence of injustice and social exclusion in our own social context, even though similar problems seem shocking when seen overseas.

In India, we also met inspiring social workers providing the first government-funded shelter services in New Delhi and working with patients’ families to provide care for their severely mentally ill family members, both in the hospital and once discharged.

These are roles that social workers fulfill around the globe that directly address the priorities of the global agenda, which calls for action within the United Nations and other international bodies, within our own communities and governments, and within our own organizations and practice.

There are dozens of specific areas for action described in the agenda, including attending to the rights of women and girls, of indigenous peoples, of the elderly, of migrants and refugees — the list is long.

Perhaps we can all consider recommitting ourselves to thinking globally and acting locally to “create a more socially just and fair world that we will be proud to leave to future generations.”