By Malka Sigal, MSW/PhD student at Yeshiva University
Advocacy is a key social work activity, reinforced by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics, which calls on social workers to “pursue social change” and “challenge injustice.”
Advocacy or social advocacy is the process of influencing an individual or group to make a decision that would not have been made otherwise. Social work advocacy often attempts to influence decision-makers or lawmakers and is frequently done in order to increase the power or resources available to a group in need.
As a social work student, I had the opportunity to travel to the New York state capitol, Albany, along with hundreds of other social work students, faculty members and practitioners as part of Social Work Legislative Education and Advocacy Day (LEAD) in February 2020.
Collective advocacy, which brings many people together to work in tandem, is a key social work technique. Our social advocacy was divided into three parts: education, action and reflection. At the beginning of the day, we gathered together to hear from political social workers and policy advocates such as Claire Green-Forde, DSW, of NASW-New York City; State Senator Diane Savino; and Shannon Lane, PhD, associate professor of social work at Yeshiva University.
We split up into teams for “blanketing” and meetings with legislators and their staff. In blanketing, the goal is for at least one social worker or student to talk with someone from every legislator’s office, and therefore blanketing the building with our message. Each team was assigned several legislators to find and speak with. With so many students present, we were able to split into groups of four or five and cover the whole building in just a few hours.
During this time, we also scheduled meetings with individual lawmakers. The Yeshiva University students in attendance met with Hudy Rosenberg, a YU alumna working as the legislative director for Assemblywoman Nily Rozic. Rosenberg talked to us about what her job was like and how she worked her way up from a community liaison position to her current role. She asked us questions about the causes we were speaking about, prompting us to be thoughtful and give more background about why they were important. Some of the suggestions below are based on that conversation, as she directed us to share the things that would make the biggest impact on her as a representative of the assemblywoman.
Practicing Social Advocacy
As part of my reflection on this event, I realized that since this was my first time engaging in political advocacy, I wasn’t sure what to expect. If, like me, you’ve never advocated in a political setting before, you might have the same uncertainty. Here are some tips based on my experience:
- Know your subject: Be prepared with the facts on the issue you’re speaking about. You never want to show up to a meeting and suddenly forget the name of the bill you’re arguing for. Make sure you know the name of the bill, the problem it addresses, and how it helps others.
- Feel your subject: Think about how the issue affects you personally or the clients and communities you work with. Do you have a personal story about the issue that impassions you? Share that story—briefly!—with the legislator to give a human side to the issue. If there’s no time to share the story, keep it in the back of your mind. Use it to fuel your voice and show that you care.
- Identify your audience: Sometimes, you’ll meet with the legislator themselves! Most of the time (especially if you don’t have an appointment), you’ll speak with someone on the legislator’s staff. Make sure to introduce yourself and ask their name. When it isn’t a global pandemic, shake their hand. And don’t forget to take a business card from them—that will be important for step 5, following up.
- Connect with your audience: Are you a constituent (someone who lives in that legislator’s district) or do you have a connection to the district? If so, start with that. Explain why the subject is important to you and important to the legislator.
- Follow up: Reach out to the legislator or staffer you connected with afterward. Thank them again for their time and for speaking with you, and remind them of the key points you spoke about.
Although in-person social advocacy is hard to do during the COVID-19 pandemic, you can use these tips right now for remote advocacy. Is there an issue that’s important to you? Call or email your state legislators to tell them how you feel and what you want them to do about it, using these same steps. You can look up your state legislators’ contact information here.
Advocacy is a key skill and an ethical responsibility for all social workers. Social workers fight injustice and support vulnerable populations. When laws and policies don’t provide for the needs of your clients and communities, you can use these tips in your advocacy to make a difference.
Practicing Social Work Advocacy
Being an advocate requires a strong understanding of cultural diversity and the impact public policy has on the lives of individuals and communities. Learn more about how social work advocacy is a critical component of Yeshiva University’s online Master of Social Work curriculum.