OPINION: The State of Social Work in 2020 And Beyond

By Alex Michel (she/her/hers)
NASW-CA Chapter Membership Intern 

It is not enough to say that there is currently a crisis in America. The truth is that the broken systems that have become so apparent in the last few months have always been there, created in a strategic way to oppress and exploit BIPOC communities. COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter Movement have brought to the forefront the social, racial, and economic inequality that this country was constructed upon. They remind us of how Colonialism expanded white control, dehumanizing and exploiting BIPOC communities, specifically Black and Indigenous folx.

That burden and violence has not been alleviated rather continues to oppress communities of color. We see it in policies and legislation: from slavery, to boarding schools for Indigenous folx, to redlining, to the so-called “war on drugs,” and the ongoing murder of Black and Brown people by police. We see it in the lack of resources, including education, healthcare, mental healthcare, and housing that is disproportionally refused to BIPOC communities. What COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter Movement have done is expose these long-standing structural inequalities – the disparity between the wealthy and the poor, the valued and those deemed disposable, and most significantly, the disparity between the (white) privileged and oppressed communities of color.

I believe that we are in a historical conjuncture – a moment where issues emerging as public concerns resemble a crisis, yet these are issues that have been present all along. It is during these moments that the opportunity for reconstruction arises. It is a political opening that presents the opportunity to reinvent the systems that have continued to oppress and marginalize BIPOC communities, for centuries. Doing so will require collaboration and all hands-on deck, including those of social workers. Yet, we must not let social work’s long history with the savior complex define how we move forward. We must recognize that social workers do not have the power to save people but rather have the opportunity and privilege to walk alongside individuals and communities in the healing and rebuilding process.

This moment is then not only an opportunity to dismantle and transform the current systems that reiterate and perpetuate injustice, but it is also an opportunity to re-imagine the role of social work in such moments, and beyond. I believe we need to focus on engaging in social justice advocacy and activism through political involvement. This will require not only voting but also organizing and mobilizing. It will require showing up to local government meetings and utilizing our voices to hold elected officials accountable. It will require actively challenging politicians whose political agendas deviate from the interests and needs of our communities. Even further, we must step into positions of leadership, working by and for the people.

The idea that social workers must follow a certain path of practice, whether it be micro, mezzo, or macro, is antiquated, and this moment calls for the full acknowledgement and activation around the fact that social work is all encompassing, as embedded within the Code of Ethics that guide our work. Our value of social justice requires that we act as movers and shakers in spaces where marginalized communities are often excluded – spaces like the current conversation around police brutality and what it means to re-imagine public safety. It is essential that we not only support but lead the way in drafting progressive polices that call for divestment from law enforcement and investment in communities and in community-led safety models that focus on creating a more just and equitable future for BIPOC communities, ensuring they are provided the resources and opportunities to thrive.

The disconnect between those writing policy and the communities who are most impacted by such policies is clear. Social workers’ unique perspectives on how political agendas and processes impact and manifest in our communities can help disrupt that disconnect and challenge political power. We have the opportunity to shift from our common position between policy makers and communities, and step into spaces where we can influence legislative changes to meet the needs of our communities, as determined by communities.  

Alex Michel is NASW-CA’s Membership Intern and can be reached at AMichel.naswca@socialworkers.org.