The Valley Community Center staff explains Competency #5: engage in policy practice. Staff members discuss how Jane Addams set a precedent of policy practice in social work.
Since the beginning, social work has been committed to both individual well-being and social justice on a broader scale. This interlocking dual purpose has always given it a unique position in society.
We have the opportunity to use the individual cases we take as indicators of what’s happening on the community level and beyond. How are current policies affecting our client’s well-being and what needs to change? We’re in the trenches fighting to help each client secure a chance at a fair and fulfilling life, but it doesn’t end there.
One client’s problem is rarely only that one client’s problem. When a vulnerable group of people has been systemically disadvantaged, change will need to occur on that same systems level.
Engaging in policy practice is crucial to making lasting change for the populations we serve.
When we consider the role of policy in social work, I like to remind the team of our roots. In the late 19th century, Jane Addams helped foster the moral mission of social work. She viewed the relationship between private cases and public issues as deeply intertwined. She pioneered a profession that would address both simultaneously.
Jane Addams’s famous settlement house in Chicago, the Hull House, is truly a perfect example of how individual well-being and broader social justice policy issues are interrelated.
With the goal of reducing poverty, Addams initially opened the mansion to provide social and educational opportunities for European immigrants and other working-class people in the area. It began as a kindergarten, expanded to include a nursery, added secondary and college level classes and so on until the mansion became this enormous complex offering civic, cultural, recreational, and educational activities for anyone who was interested.
Addams and her Hull House associates studied the individuals who passed through the house and used what they learned to become more effectively involved in city and statewide campaigns. They helped enact legislation for improvement in housing, public welfare, education, child labor laws, and the protection of working women.
Point is by simply listening– and I mean really listening– to the needs of the neighborhood, Addams and her colleagues came to realize what type of mezzo and macro level changes were needed to impact the entire community through changing policy. And her position as one of the first American leaders of social reform provided a legitimate platform from which to take action.
Addams saw the big picture. She wasn’t only thinking about who needed help but how they ended up in that position. She wasn’t trying to just change one person’s life. She was trying to fix the system from top to bottom.
We should all approach our work today the same well-rounded way Jane Addams did, not just because it’s part of our history. But because we always need to consider our clients in the context of which they live. If the source of their problem is environmental, is it illogical to solve that problem by just working with the individual? And changing how things happen in our communities often requires changes in policy.
While many of us in social work practice directly with clients, others in social work practice directly with policies. That is, they specialize in policy development and change. Some of you might decide to specialize in that. Excellent. But even those of us who are direct service practitioners need to be partly involved in policy development.
Our understanding of people’s needs puts us in the perfect position to advocate for clients in more ways than one. Take the area of mental illnesses for example. In an agency setting, social workers offer clinical mental health services directly to the people in need. But in order to address the economic and political forces that exacerbate mental illness, our services must take different forms that reach beyond the walls of our offices.
How? Well, we can advocate for those affected by testifying before legislative committees to ensure funding for much needed services, or we can network and lobby for fair insurance coverage. We can also encourage and participate in research to help document the extent of the problems. We can work to reduce stigma and discrimination toward people with mental illness through education. And some of us will even run for elected offices, using our practice expertise to help design and reform public policies from the inside.
Think of where we might be without initiatives like social security, unemployment insurance, and civil rights legislation, all of which needed the contributions of social workers to be catapulted into existence. We have the chance to take the injustice and neglect that we come into contact with and use the experience to serve the greater good. So think critically, strategize, and then speak out.