By Valerie Radu, Program Director, Master of Social Work
Social work is a historic profession connected to the history of America – our roots go back to Hull House, one of the first settlement houses in America, founded in Chicago in 1889 by Jane Addams and Ellen Starr. Hull House programs included providing recreational facilities for poor children in the slums, fighting for child labor laws, literacy programs, and helping immigrants become U.S. citizens.
In the South, settlement schools were founded in Alabama, Kentucky, and Tennessee to address literacy and empowerment.
Social workers were essential parts of these early movements to address social problems, empower people, and build community. Social workers were also instrumental in the founding of the NAACP and the Urban League – two historic organizations that continue to advocate for social justice and equity.
Medical social work, an essential area of practice during the pandemic, was created in 1905 at Massachusetts General Hospital when a physician recognized that patients needed support, resources, and information about many social issues contributing to their health concerns.
Social workers can be found in every area of society, from working one on one with an individual to working with families, groups, communities, and leading organizations. The Generalist Intervention Model (GIM) is the framework that guides the roles and tasks of social workers within larger society. This model trains social workers to recognize the variety of systems that interact with one another and with people and “conceptualizes practice as comprised of engagement, assessment, planning, implementation, and evaluation. This model also assumes that social workers will have diverse roles such as educator, advocate, counselor, planner, organizer, and administrator.” (Miller, S. E., Tice, T. J. & Harnek Hall, D. M., 2008, p. 80).
In 2020 the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics counted 715,600 professional social workers with a predicted growth of 12% over the next decade. The pandemic has resulted in ongoing shortages of social workers, mental health providers, and therapists across the US. As the mental health needs of people are increasing because of the pandemic, there are not enough professionals to meet the needs, resulting in long waiting lists, limited services or no availability. As the US population ages, the need for professional social workers to meet the needs of aging families is one of the fastest growing areas of practice.
Social workers also care deeply about and embrace diversity and difference as strengths within individuals, families, groups, and communities. Cultural competence is a key component of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics and all state social work licensure entities. In response to the protests for justice in the summer of 2020, NASW released a statement, titled “Social Workers Must Help Dismantle Systems of Oppression and Fight Racism Within the Social Work Profession” (Aug. 21, 2020; https://tinyurl.com/y98yutma). Social workers have also advocated for policy changes to remove barriers to mental health and healthcare access across the US during the pandemic.
My professional career path (and the career paths of all the NCU Master of Social Work faculty) is a good example of why social workers are trained in the Generalist Intervention Model (GIM) so they can work at all levels of practice. I’ve worked as a trauma social worker in a children's hospital, a home health social worker in the rural South, a clinician in a geropsych unit, a community organizer, and a clinical social worker in private practice.
In the early 1990s I served on a statewide committee that developed the multilevel social work licensure law in Tennessee. I’ve also created an innovative domestic violence organization from the ground up in my community and secured over $2 million in state and federal grant funding for programs/services for families experiencing domestic violence and elder abuse. In 2018 I completed a program to be a certified ecotherapist, focusing on integrating nature-based interventions into therapy. I would not have been able to be successful at any of these endeavors without the strong, broad foundational training of my MSW program.
As an educator I’m always looking for practical ways to connect students’ learning with their lived and professional experiences since many of our MSW students are working in the field. They know their communities, the strengths and challenges, the resources, gaps in services, and why hope and resilience make all the difference in their lives and the lives of client groups.
They have innovative ideas and solutions to address the complex issues they care about – it’s so exciting to see the next generation of professionals be as inspired and motivated as I was 30 years ago! Supporting students in scaffolding these experiences into the foundational knowledge and skills to develop into an MSW professional is a task I enjoy and am honored to do in my role at NCU. Social workers are known for giving back to their communities and to their profession – I am here now because years ago, social workers saw my potential, mentored me, and believed in me.
March is National Social Work Month, and the theme this year celebrates the unique and essential roles of social workers: The Time is Now for Social Work! I stand with my colleagues in celebrating our historic profession, our exceptional students, and the future of our profession where social workers will always be essential.