To quote the Beatles, I saw the news today. Oh boy.
As social workers we are horrified at the daily and deeply divisive challenges to our democracy, social mores, and societal contract. I cannot think of a time in my memory when there has been so great a determination to seed dissension and conflict in our midst. How do we as social workers, with our commitment to social and economic justice and to the rights and respect for all people, learn to navigate in an environment that is so hostile to our values and commitments? Every day I ponder what we should be doing to confront the destructive messages that have sown so much discord and anxiety among us.
I offer a few guidelines I’m trying to use these days.
1. Rather than demonize others, understand and normalize their experience. Empathy for others is the bedrock of our profession. We are trained to “live in the shoes” of others, and use that experience to reach across divides. We have learned to understand those who are very different than us, even those who are anathema to us. Those finely honed skills are critical today.
2. Call out hate whenever or wherever you see it – on line, in public, in your workplace, in the media. As people we must have zero tolerance for hate, but as social workers we are ethically and professionally obligated to stand for the dignity and respect of all. We are witnesses! Most social media has policy for dealing with offensive content and allow you to report it. Most workplaces have policy for dealing with harassment and diversity. The Southern Poverty Law Center has a very helpful website on what to say in instances to counter bias, even when you are uncomfortable.
3. Work on issues, not people. Since the earliest days of our profession social workers have striven to make the United States a fairer and more equitable society. Think Jane Adams working on clean water and tenement housing. Inequality is as costly to our society as it is to the individuals within it. Our profession requires us to understand, propose, advocate, and implement equity in areas critical to social and economic well being. Whatever our other differences, we must advocate for the right to housing, health care, income supports, and food security. It’s not about the person or party. It is about the issues.Furthermore, you are always on firm non-partisan ground if you stay to the issues. On issues there is no divide between the personal and the professional. That is especially true for social workers because these issues are in line with our historic mission.
4. Use facts. It is dangerous for a society to act in ignorance. As social workers, we are committed to use knowledge and evidence to ground our thinking and actions. We do not support “making stuff up”. Every issue requires us to learn deeply about it, to listen, to read, to study, and to evaluate. Our positions and actions must be grounded in data. The undermining of facts as a basis for action is as dangerous in social work as it would be in medicine or engineering. Since so much supposed “information” is on the internet, we must be even more vigilant to grounding our work in facts.
5. Work across differences. Another foundational principle of social work is our respect for dialogue. We’re actually pretty good at working across differences. Our belief in respect for the “lived experience” of others is bedrock to our profession. Use these skills to find out what people are really thinking about an issue, and help them express what they feel. A lot of how people react is a result of their own life experiences and fears. And once they’re out on the table it is easier for people to move ahead. Finally, avoid using jargon in these conversations. That tends to intimate or anger people rather than build the bridges.
6. Find the consensus that moves an issue forward. As social workers we believe that the free and respectful exchange of ideas will find the compromise and consensus that creates enduring change. I know– easier said than done. As a community organizer, it has been really hard for me to accept, but incrementalism is a successful strategy. Change is mostly made (with a few key exceptions) step by step. When Social Security was first enacted in 1935, exclusions exempted nearly half the working population including women, people of color, government employees, teachers, nurses, hospital employees, AND social workers. Social security was litigated in the courts for many years, and has been amended consistently to broaden coverage for retirement and long term disabilities. Today it is the only social entitlement that has widespread support and is considered as politically untouchable! Change is a work in progress requiring compromise to get off the dime and then slowly improving the policy/program as we go. Despite what’s happening at the moment, I believe the same will be true for the ACA. Too many people have benefitted for it to disappear.
7. Universalize your proposals and emphasize the most vulnerable. The issues that concern social workers are clearly universal. Everyone wants housing and health care, but on every issue although many people may fare poorly, some people do worse. On every relevant indicator—housing, health care, education, employment, African Americans fare worse, followed closely by Latinos. Women and people with disabilities fare worse. Older adults and children fare worse on some important indicators. So make a universal case, and then a specific case based on those most vulnerable.
8. Educate, educate, educate. Education is a very powerful tool. It is far easier to accept what is familiar, what we understand, what we have experienced ourselves. Experience helps one develop empathy. When someone comes out to their family, even very resistant relatives became more tolerant of gay rights. Cancer survivors become more supportive of health insurance. The goal is to educate people so that they can have a better understanding and closer experience of what these issues mean to people. Help people to “walk a mile in my shoes” (Oh and remember to walk a mile in theirs too).
I offer these thoughts to you in friendship and solidarity always,
Dean and Assistant Vice President for Social Determinants