“Getting It Right” in Social Work



“Getting It Right” in Social Work

A Social Work Month Message From Darla Spence Coffey, CSWE President & CEO


We have to improve life, not just for those who have the most skills and those who know how to manipulate the system.  But also for and with those who often have so much to give but never get the opportunity. -Dorothy Height


These words of Dorothy Height, administrator, educator, and champion for social justice (as well as NASW Social Work Pioneer), can serve as a guiding force for social workers navigating the new political landscape in which we find ourselves. In my role at the Council on Social Work Education  (CSWE), I spend a lot of time thinking about what it means to prepare social work students for this landscape. Given that there is so much at stake, it is vital that we “get it right.” Here are some of those thoughts.


  • We need to stay grounded in our theory, research, and history. Events that threaten our foundational values and principles are deeply disturbing, and yet giving in to purely emotional reactions is a luxury that we – and our world – cannot afford. Social workers often “lead” with our values, and that is admirable. But we must also rely on our body of theory and research to guide a deeper understanding of these phenomena in order to develop strategic and deliberate actions. We need to remember that the social work profession was born out of the need to respond to social and economic disruptions. We have a rich history of the key roles that social workers have played to create large-scale social change that can provide guidance for actions in this contemporary environment, such as the settlement house movement, the civil rights and women’s movements, deinstitutionalization of dependent children and persons with mental illness, to name a few (American Academy of Social Work and Social Services, 2015). Knowing our professional history is particularly critical today, as it empowers and provides direction for the kind of action that is required. The leaders of our profession, and the champions for social change that we look up to, were able to hold on to a vision for a just society as a way to manifest that change (for example, Frederick Douglass, Jane Addams, and Martin Luther King, Jr., among others).


  • Policy, policy, policy. These times underscore the need for social workers to be prepared to act on the political and policy context(s) of their practice. For some time in our country, there has been a decided “tilt” toward clinical practice in social work. We need to do more to bridge the micro-macro practice divide in social work practice and education. Recent political events have engendered a great deal of passion in many social workers who are moved to demonstrate, create position statements, and engage in other forms of protest. While protest is an important and valuable means of civic engagement, we need to be sure to channel our passion into critical thinking and strategic action at the policy level.


  • Step up to leadership. Finally, there will undoubtedly be opportunities for leadership that we must be prepared to step into. We must be willing to provide the kind of thought leadership that will engage others, bridge divides, and expand possibilities. We need to reach across disciplinary, professional, and geographical boundaries to find allies, supporters, and mentors for the work. The way in which we respond and lead will create opportunities to advance human progress and the profession – as it did for our foremothers and forefathers.


A lot to think about this Social Work Month! Thanks for joining me.

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