Editor’s Note: To access NASW-NYC’s special issue of the newsletter on Social Work in Communities of African Descent, please click here.
As we come to the end of Black History Month 2012, aware of the collective history that precedes the need for a special month, and a current media propensity to frame this era as post-racial, it seems appropriate to take stock.
Assessing where we are now in 2012, as social workers, and identifying the most important issues for our attention at this momentous point in time, the enormity and volume of social issues is overwhelming. And the stakes couldn’t be higher. Record high unemployment rates, home foreclosures, homelessness, food insecurity, family and community violence; a crumbling public education system; problematic health care, elder care provision; and returning veterans with attendant needs for social services and mental health services – these are but a few of the issues that need the attention of social workers at this time.
A Context for this might lie in the fact that these structural issues are inter-connected and advocating for change in one area could potentially produce a ripple effect in others. Note the multiple focus of a variety of groups brought together in the national and international Occupy Wall Street movement.
From the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s through to the first Black Presidency in 2008, the myth of color blindness and post racialism now stands exposed. The foreclosure crisis has been described as “the largest transfer of wealth” from the middle class to the wealthiest 1% of the population and disproportionately affects people of color, countering many of the gains made since the 1960s.
The Advocacy Voice theme of the recent Black History Event of the NASW–NYC Task Force for Social Workers of African Descent was convened with a panel of gifted and knowledgeable speakers led by Dr. Robert Hawkins of NYU. This event underscored the still-existing need, in 2012, for social workers in the advocacy role and their need for support by structures that will sustain them.
Integrating Services is a current focus which appears to be a step in the right direction. Case work in this context is ideally suited to social workers. With the advent of Health Homes, our clients will be required to learn new concepts and new ways of receiving services that are integrated. How will this new required learning further complicate the lives of our clients? And how will we work to alleviate that?
The advocacy aspect of practice could easily become subsumed behind other social work priorities in the daily struggle for survival – that of ourselves AND our clients. Yet, as social workers, we cannot lose sight of the big picture. Our good intentions amount to nothing if we are no longer able to make a tangible difference in the lives of our clients.
Re-awakening our Advocacy Voice by being a beacon for social justice, which brought many of us to the profession of Social Work. Where do we start in the face of the above issues? How might we re-energize?
As Dr. Martha Sullivan, Executive Director of Fordham Tremont Community Mental Health Center, Vice President of St. Barnabas Hospital, and President-Elect of NASW-NYC, said at a St. Barnabas Hospital Black History Month event, “As clinicians, if you’re going to be working with Black families, taking care of Black patients, you have to know their history. You have to know who they are.”
Deeply educating ourselves on the issues, the ways in which issues inter-connect and bear on other issues, fully understanding what is gained and lost in a particular action, are good starting points – paralleled with the move to action. Take a training, join other like-minded individuals, get involved in social policy.
Collaborations, Coalitions, Partnerships & Allies are necessary, since little can be achieved alone and there is strength and support in numbers. Let us reach out and join forces across boundaries with other like-minded folk. As social workers we can collaborate across labels, disciplines, job descriptions, cultural descriptions, and create allies within and outside of our discipline. We know how to do that.
In seeking the far grander description of social worker as humanist, as caring, as advocate for those who have less privilege, who have less voice, who cannot speak out for themselves, we must stay true to the cause of social justice for all.
These times call upon us to grow stronger – stronger than even we know ourselves to be; to reach farther, to think bigger, to collaborate with community organizers, to BE community organizers, to see the connections between the divisions, to help connect the dots.
Social worker is much more than just a label. We chose this profession. We are more than our current labels and titles. Social workers are smart, educated, aware. If social workers don’t step in front, ask the questions, lead the way – who will? And ‘if not now – when?’
The NASW-NYC Task Force for Social Workers of African Descent will continue this conversation around advocacy, is open to collaboration with others, to new members, to new allies, to your thoughts, committed to the journey ahead and we invite you to join us.
Jennifer Elliott, MA, R-DTR, LMSW, earned her MSW at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, New York City. She additionally holds an MA in the clinical use of the Creative Arts in Therapy from Hahnemann Medical University/Drexel, Philadelphia, PA. Jennifer earned a BA Hons. at London University, UK. Ms Elliott is a Program Manager at Fordham Tremont Community Mental Health Center and Co-Chair of NASW NYC’s Task Force for Social Workers of African Descent