While some professions may occasionally confront the impact of social injustice, social work is among the few careers that deal with it as an intrinsic part of their job function.
It’s a social worker’s responsibility to empower their clients and help them find the resources and services they need. However, it can be easy to overlook a social worker’s responsibility to act as a social justice advocate on a larger scale. It’s their responsibility to support and promote the policies that improve the lives of their clients and to raise awareness of the challenges those clients face.
Social work as a profession has a deep tradition in advocacy dating back to Jane Addams, but there have always been conflicting views about what the profession’s primary role should be. Today, there are many obstacles facing social workers if they choose to focus exclusively on “macro” social work, including lower salaries and a lack of funding for advocacy organizations.1
Social workers who pursue more traditional clinical practice or community work are still responsible for advocating for large-scale change. From promoting policy changes to joining social movements, there is no shortage of ways for a social worker to make room to fill this vital part of their calling.
Social Work Advocacy Today
Advocacy in social work takes many forms. What’s known as case advocacy, or micro social work, is probably what most are known for doing: helping clients navigate institutional systems, connecting them with resources and acting as emotional support.2
Social workers have an important voice: In legislation and policy debates, they can speak from a place of knowledge. Social workers are in a unique position to understand how larger issues and policies impede, and sometimes prevent, their clients from finding success.
Macro and mezzo social work focuses on making changes on the community level and beyond. For many social workers, taking up what’s known as cause advocacy often starts with a case. As a social worker aids their clients, they might notice certain systemic hurdles or a lack of resources that make their clients’ challenges worse. They also might notice negative changes in their community and offer their support and expertise to community organizers working to address it.
While it may be easier to be aware of the issues that directly impact your community, staying up to day on the ones happening on a national or international level is much more difficult. Even more challenging can be knowing how you can make the most difference. This is why being a member of a professional association can be useful. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers its members a number of resources to better advocate, from webinars to educational materials. Their priorities include issues at the top of the news cycle such as immigration and criminal justice, and ones that are more long term, including economic injustice and environmental justice.3 NASW also puts out regular updates on their lobbying efforts and today’s big issues, so it can be an extremely useful resource for those who are struggling with where to begin.
Starting Advocacy in Social Work
As a social worker, you have other opportunities besides having a full-time position with a macro focus. Advocacy can take place in smaller ways in your career and personal life. You can join other professionals and activists as a vocal supporter or “active citizen.”1 Speaking as a member of the profession can add more credence to your beliefs as you call your representative, speak out on social media or vocalize your opinion in other ways.
Within your own organization you can also lobby to make a difference. Are there opportunities for your organization to better help clients or be active in the community? You can also take the lead on educating colleagues about new research or changes in legislation, or seek approval to conduct a survey with your clients to hear what they need help with.4
As a social worker, you can also choose to engage with big issues as well. From its beginning, the NASW has mobilized social workers on issues like voting rights. While working with a client, you can take the step to educate them on their right to vote, in addition to helping them gain the right identification their state requires.
Be prepared to serve those in need.
Many social work students feel like they need to choose whether they want to focus on individuals or the big picture. It’s important for them to understand how national and local issues can impact their clients. Legislation, policies and funding are interrelated with an individual’s environment and circumstances. By understanding that larger context, social workers are more capable to help those who are vulnerable.
At Yeshiva University, students are taught by experienced faculty and gain a comprehensive understanding of their field, so they are prepared to work with individuals and families as well as communities. In addition, our virtual environment, The Heights, offers online students the opportunity to experience real world scenarios in multiple different environments, gaining a true understanding of the systemic issues their clients face in suburban, rural and urban environments. Learn more about the difference of Yeshiva University’s online Master of Social Work.
1 Retrieved on June 15, 2020, from socialworktoday.com/archive/031912p20.shtml
2 Retrieved on June 12, 2020, from vcn.bc.ca/seatosky/advocacy.pdf
3 Retrieved on June 18, 2020, from socialworkers.org/Advocacy/Social-Justice
4 Retrieved on June 15, 2020, from socialworker.com/feature-articles/practice/The_Difference_Between_Case_and_Cause_Advocacy_isU%28You%29