One of the unique aspects of social work is that we are not just counselors or therapists, we are also advocates. We understand that the environments individuals live in have an effect on how their lives may be playing out. We advocate on both the level of individual client and at the larger macro level. We are encouraged and even expected – as is written in the Social Worker Code of Ethics– to fight against exploitation and ensure people have access to their basic human rights. Being involved in social justice issues and policy is all part of being a social worker. I have always thought it was a bit freeing that not only can I question authority and status quo but that it is expected!
There are many ways Social Workers can advocate at the micro and macro levels. Don’t worry if you are not interested in picketing outside legislative buildings or running for office – there are many ways to be an advocate.
- Speak up – Let your voice be heard. A social worker speaks up for those who are vulnerable or can’t speak for themselves. One of the best bits of advice from my social work education was given in my undergrad BSW program. The professor said that as a social worker you will often be the only person in the room with your viewpoint. You may be sitting with other seasoned professionals – doctors, psychiatrist, psychologists, and others and as a social worker you might find yourself to be the only one in the room looking at the member’s environment as part of the whole picture. There will be things that seem so clear to you that no one else has considered. It is our ethical duty to speak up. Sometimes, especially when someone is a young or new social worker, it can be intimidating to speak up with other seasoned professionals – do it anyway. An example of this may be a client who isn’t taking his desperately needed, prescribed medication. It is easy to be frustrated and talk about how the client just doesn’t care enough to take care of himself or that he is lazy. A social worker may look at it and realize the client doesn’t have the resources to pay for the medication or maybe the client doesn’t have a place to store the medication or maybe the member can’t see well enough to read the bottles. There are tons of different options that a social worker can assess for and then help the member.
- Sometimes advocacy is walking a client through a process or system. For example, if a client is struggling with getting public aid, and I go with them to the office– they may get served quicker. They may be less overwhelmed and not confused with someone there to explain the process to them. Even I can’t go with them to public aid – I can explain to them exactly what will happen and even tell them that it will be a long wait and the staff will probably be cranky and not nice. Another example is that I work a lot with residents of nursing homes. My advocacy as a social worker is sometimes just pushing to get a client’s diagnosis correct on the chart or reminding the nursing home that the client has self-determination. In one of my jobs, we advocate just by helping the member get their identification documents. There is almost nothing you can do without an ID. Until I worked at this particular job, I had no idea how hard it is to get many people just the basic documents many of us take for granted. We advocate for clients each time we assist them in working within a system or making sure their rights are being respected.
- Volunteer or Join Social Justice Organizations – There is plenty of social injustice in our society and I’m sure there is some issue that sparks you. Volunteer with those groups working on those issues. Join those organizations and get involved in their projects. Just a little involvement is a way to both feeling satisfaction and helping out and actually changing the world little by little.
- Vote – I know it is election time so this seems apropos. I just want to encourage social workers not to be apathetic. African-Americans and women have not always been allowed to vote and even when it was legal, barriers were sometimes (and often still are) erected. People fought and even died for many of our rights to vote. I don’t care who you vote for. Well, that isn’t true – I would hope you would learn about candidates and their values and make an informed decision – but vote. You may think your vote doesn’t even count but using your voice to vote does count. Don’t forget to vote in state and local elections. I live in a fairly large town and there are referendums that have lost by just a couple of votes. The smaller the election – the more you can see how your vote counts. Vote!
Social workers are advocates. In this field, you can look forward to fighting the fights the client’s need fighting and really making a difference.