Trends in Macro Social Work Education
By Sue Coyle, MSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 16 No. 2 P. 16
For macro social work to regain ground in the field, it must start in the classroom.
In today’s world, micro social work reigns supreme—or at least that’s how it appears.
Those entering the social work field most often do so envisioning direct clinical practice: counseling, case management, and other individual-focused work.
Darlyne Bailey, PhD, dean and professor at the Graduate School of Social Work and Social Research and special assistant to the president for community partnerships at Bryn Mawr College in Bryn Mawr, PA, estimates that “84% to 90% of our students go into what Bryn Mawr has been known for, which is our clinical or micro practice program. We have a very small macro direct practice concentration.”
The public perception of the field isn’t much different. “If I’m totally honest,” Bailey says, “I would say the public perception hasn’t moved off of the image of the social worker with the big black shoes standing on the corner with the welfare book.”
But with the assistance and perseverance of individuals like Bailey, that’s changing, and it’s starting in the classroom. Macro social work education helps shape students into professionals who, through their work, promote awareness of macro social work practice, not only to the general public but to future social workers, as well.
In this article, Social Work Today speaks with four professors of macro social work to find out what’s influencing their curriculum and how they see this concentration of the field continuing to grow.
What Is Macro?
To best understand macro social work education, one must first understand macro social work—a somewhat challenging task, as with many things in the field; it is a complex and layered subject.
“I think of macro social work on a couple different levels,” says Molly W. Metzger, PhD, an assistant professor at Washington University in St. Louis. “There are macro issues of public policy, which we could look at on a federal, state, or local policy level. Then there’s the issue of communities, which may or may not align with jurisdictional boundaries—neighborhoods, places where people come together. I see macro as everything from community organizing up to lobbying, coalition building, and political engagement.”
Jill Duerr Berrick, PhD, Zellerbach Family Foundation professor at the School of Social Welfare and codirector of the Center for Child and Youth Policy at the University of California, Berkeley, agrees. “When I think about macro social work, I’m thinking about the activities social workers engage in at the agency, organizational, or systems level to improve policies and practice. [This includes] community organization, management, planning analysis, policy, and policy practice.”
Bailey adds one more layer to the definition by referring to macro social work as “macro direct practice.”
“Unfortunately,” she says, “people think of direct practice as only clinical. There is nothing indirect about macro practice. We are directly focusing on communities, organizations, and policies.”
And in doing so, macro social workers are following in the footsteps of the field’s founders, for when the field first developed, macro social work was the dominant focus.
Rise and Fall
“Macro is kind of our birthright if you look back to Jane Addams and the settlement house movement,” Bailey explains. Addams was a pioneer in social work, founding the first social settlement in Chicago—Hull House—among other impressive achievements.
“But then, we started to sit on the sidelines,” Bailey continues, explaining that in the second half of the 20th century, the profession began to focus more and more on clinical direct practice while the field of macro faded. “In the ’80s, there started to be a clear decline in the master’s programs offering community organization. In the mid-’90s, we only had somewhere between 3% and 5% of our graduate students focusing on community or policy majors.”
Jennifer R. Zelnick, MSW, ScD, an associate professor and social welfare policy chair at Touro College in New York City, remembers noticing the shift from macro to micro. She began working in social services in 1988.
“When I was a student, it was the era of the book Unfaithful Angels: How Social Work Has Abandoned Its Mission by Harry Specht, which questioned not just the move toward clinical practice, but the move toward a clinical, narrow understanding of social problems,” she recalls.
“At the time, I was definitely aware of many students who saw the MSW as the most useful degree to obtain to ‘hang a shingle’ and go into private practice. And I think we (community organizing colleagues) saw this as a betrayal of social work commitments to communities,” she says, adding, “I have softened my position on that over the years.”
Fast forward, just a bit, to the present day, and macro social work is poised for resurgence, as evidenced on college campuses. An increasing number of students are choosing the macro concentration. Some do so after having already committed to the field and the school.
“I have always found a consistent, smaller, but significant subset of students who I would say are most interested in macro social work. Many students discover macro practice in a required course, and realize that it is how they define and practice social work already,” Zelnick says.
Others choose it before even starting school. “Our students select their area of concentration before they walk in the door,” Berrick says. “In most schools you come in as a generalist, then you choose your concentration. [UC Berkeley] market[s] very clearly what the shape and contours of the concentration are.”
Regardless of how they come to it, these students enter shaped already by their interests, experiences, and passion—something they are not lacking. “They come in with lots of passion, and, as we stay true to our code of ethics, they come out with some very specific hard skills,” Metzger says. Along the way, they help shape the macro practice curriculum—something as continuously changing as the field itself.
One such change is the move from passivity to action. In defining macro social work, Berrick differentiates between policy and policy practice, noting that the latter is a more active aspect of macro.
“I think that policy practice is about the action associated with changing and shaping policy,” she says. “When I think about policy itself, I think about how I learned policy: What is policy? What’s good [and] what’s bad about current policy? All of that is a very passive orientation to policy. It speaks to understanding what is.
“Our students and practicing professionals are pretty dissatisfied with what is. If we teach about policy only, we teach students to accept the status quo. Policy practice allows us to be strategic agents in shaping new, better policies.”
Zelnick agrees, broadening the activity she’s seen to include various levels of policy practice. “Over the last couple of years, policy practice, interest in policy advocacy, and working with political systems has been taken up by social workers, social work organizations, and schools and departments to a very visible degree,” she notes. “I think this stems in part from the clear attack on social work interests, values, and advances, such as attacks on Social Security or the anti-immigrant assault from some political candidates.”
And activity isn’t just focused on policy. It can also be seen in community involvement—something that more and more schools are pushing for from their students. For Metzger, it’s a must in her classroom. “I knew when I first came to St. Louis that I wanted my teaching to be community based,” she says. “I created an assignment called the public event journal, in which students have to attend a public event. It could be a city council hearing, some kind of public forum, or a protest, [as long as it’s] something that engages the public. It can’t just be a lecture. There has to be a participatory component to it. They go to the events and analyze the events.
“They aren’t required to go to a protest,” Metzger continues, “but those students have one less excuse not to.”
By being involved in the community around them, as Metzger and all of the professors ask, the students are able to see firsthand how the events of today affect all aspects of society.
For Metzger’s students this was abundantly clear in the aftermath of a police shooting in nearby Ferguson, MO. “After Mike Brown was killed, it changed the city,” she remembers. “That’s not to say that there weren’t amazing organizations before, but new organizations formed, new community groups. It created all these opportunities to bridge across divides.
“I talk about inside strategies like the formal policy process and outside strategies like civil disobedience [in my classroom]. All that was going on. It wasn’t just the unrest you saw on the news. [Organizations like] the Ferguson Commission were bringing hundreds of people together. It’s been something that I’ve been very proud to be in solidarity with and support of.”
From Michael Brown’s death and the deaths of many other young black men arose the Black Lives Matter movement, which all four professors note has greatly impacted their students and their classrooms. However, it is not the only thing to have done so. Culturally, the curriculum is broad and continues to broaden, including recognition of many different people and reaction to many different events.
“I think overall what was kind of narrowly thought of as ‘cultural competence’ when I was a student was represented in some kind of ‘diversity class,’ and I think things have really changed with new understandings of differences and identity. It was kind of ‘race, class, and gender’ when I was a student, and today considerations about different perspectives have become so much more sophisticated,” Zelnick says, “and more international.
“This impacts how macro practice is taught and who participates, and what social movements and policy areas are included in education. Today, our case studies include the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Abahlali baseMjondolo [the shack dwellers movement in South Africa], Occupy Wall Street and its international manifestations, and the Black Lives Matter movement.”
Advances in technology and how those advances shape the economy are also affecting students. “The Silicon Valley phenomenon of entrepreneurship allows for limitless opportunities,” Berrick says. “With an app, we can create something new and different.” Berrick continues, stating that in many classrooms students and professors look at what it would take to become a social entrepreneur and build a sustainable organization.
Among other issues that affect macro social work education are climate change, public health initiatives and crises, and, of course, the dominance of politics coupled with the lack of movement in the country.
“The political stalemate has created this urgency among students and faculty. It has shaped our curriculum and our orientation to how we best prepare our students,” Berrick explains.
With such a connection to society, to current events, and to the communities social workers share in, it is difficult to say how macro social work and macro social work education will continue evolving.
“Macro practice is responsive to the context in which it is embedded,” Berrick says.
“I don’t know what societal changes are going to happen in 10 years.”
Metzger agrees. “I can’t really say I know where it’s going,” she says. “I can only speak to where I want it to go.”
And where that is—for Metzger, Berrick, Bailey, and Zelnick—is forward. This is most evidenced by the Special Commission to Advance Practice in Macro Social Work, which was initiated by the Association for Community Organization and Social Administration (ACOSA), a membership organization for professionals, such as activists, policy practitioners, and community builders, that works to improve community organization. ACOSA founded the Special Commission in an attempt to elevate awareness of macro social work and increase its presence within the field and community. Bailey is cochair. “We have a goal,” she says of the commission. “We call it 20% by 2020,” meaning they hope to have 20% of social work students focusing on macro social work by the year 2020.
To do that, “The commission on macro practice has been looking at integrating macro practice, raising its profile, and highlighting not just its contribution to social work, but the idea that macro is integral to social work,” Zelnick says.
Through this continued integration of macro social work in practice and education, Bailey hopes to see less separation between micro and macro. “If I had my dream, we wouldn’t have these artificial divisions at all. There would be a program that would allow us to do a deep dive from one end of the continuum to the other from the individual to the community policy arenas. It would probably be a three-year program,” she says with a laugh. “We are talking about doing something close to that at Bryn Mawr through the increased accessibility and deeper engagement of our current students into our professional development (aka continuing education) offerings,” she adds.
Similarly, Berrick views macro practice as an all-encompassing structure whose evolution will simply involve growth. “Macro practice will continue to be a big tent,” she says. “There’s a lot underneath that tent, including management, community organizing, analysis, etc. It’s a lot of fields all under one tent. You could become a specialist in any one of those fields, but we expose our students to all of them. We keep our tent big. I don’t see social work making its work smaller.”
No matter what changes occur, macro social work education and macro social work will keep pace with dedication and determination, because they’re needed.
“We think about what’s going on in the world in terms of disease, terrorism, the ignorance around religion and fundamentalism and some of the other movements; we think about the issues related to gender identity and expression. There are so many issues, and with them all, it’s essential that we pay attention to the individual,” Bailey says.
“Yet, in so doing, it’s also our responsibility to ensure that we pay attention to the well-being of these individuals’ families, organizations, and their communities. That’s not only honoring what our profession continues to bring to the rest of the world; it also is the real world.”