For many years now I have been on this path, constantly aspiring to be a social worker. Even after graduating with a BSW, I was reluctant to call myself a social worker. To me that title holds a lot of a weight. It’s a powerful title, to be able to identify oneself as a social worker. Since attaining my BSW, I’ve done a couple of little things: visit homes of lower income families and tutor the children there; work mostly overnight shifts at a homeless shelter; solicit interior designers to donate their time and products to a grassroots non-profit organization in NYC; canvass for a political campaign combatting inequality of LGBTQ individuals. At no point during this did I ever consider myself a social worker, but just someone so passionately aspiring to be one.
Social work is a profession I have such deep respect for. Sure I have quite a number of gripes about what the profession has failed to do, and where I think the profession as a whole has come to be neglectful in, but overall, I am left inspired when I’m with social workers. When I’m in a class full of aspiring social workers such as myself, there’s this intangible raw power lingering in the air that I want to grab onto. We have gathered here for a calling, to reach out to the kinds of people the rest of society would rather not bother dealing with. These are the people living with mental illnesses, with disability, with a criminal record, with a history of abuse and neglect, in poverty, without a home, addicted to substances, with loneliness… So many desperately need empathy, especially the children and the mothers, especially the men in isolation, and social workers are the type of people willing to reach out to them.
To me a social worker is someone who’s driven by this passion to reach out to the most vulnerable, to the most invisible, to the least sociable. Beyond this passion though, a social worker holds him/herself accountable. A social worker doesn’t work alone in a vacuum. Even when working alone in a private office, s/he is connected to a network of other social workers that can assist in ethical dilemmas of the professions, and sometimes when needed, render a judgment that determines if the social worker’s actions were ethical or not. Anyone who’s willing to become a social worker must be keenly aware of the maxim that good intentions carried out haphazardly can have disastrous consequences. Social work is thus not just about going out there and doing something to help people; the additional component is that the social worker must make sure that the help provided is accepted by the target audience, that it actually works, and that it has not resulted in any harms. Like how a doctor who mistreats a patient should be held liable so should a social worker who mistreats a client. A social worker is not just any helper or a volunteer; a social worker is a helping professional held to a high ethical standard.
What really distinguishes a social worker from the other helping professionals is that while social worker interacts directly with people and focuses on their strengths and their capabilities, the social worker understands the bigger picture. S/he is aware that in order to help a client, what must change is not only the client, but also the social worker him/herself, and the overall environment – the society itself – must also change. A social worker is not only interested in psychology, confining the focus to the mental wellbeing of the individual, but is versed in sociology to understand how societies work; in political science to be aware how larger systems such as local and federal legislation affects people; in anthropology to understand how people establish power dynamics in societies and how that is maintained; in history to be able to put all human actions into context; and all other disciplines useful in understanding the behavior of human beings and the environments they live in.
These are the ideals of a social worker in my opinion. I assume all who undergo social work education and training get exposed to this ideal. That’s why I think it’s easy to regard as social workers those who have graduated with a BSW, MSW, or a DSW and are out in the working world.
But that begs the question, is social worker just someone who has a social work degree or is licensed in social work? Is the definition of a social worker based on the person’s credentials?
I can’t speak for anyone else. It can cost a lot of money and time and sweat and stress and tears to attain the credentials so I can understand any social work degree holder cringing and feeling upset at my personal notion that a degree or even a license wouldn’t make me a social worker. However one wants to identify oneself, that’s on the person. Social work in comparison to many other professional fields is kind of looked down upon and not regarded with high prestige so I can understand if a person with a social work degree will not identify as a social worker.
For me, the two pieces – ideals on the one hand and actions on the other – should be aligned. Credentials and licensure are tools, not determinants. This means for me that even after I graduate and attain my MSW and even after I pass the exam and become licensed, it’s not until I actually practice my ideals and use those credentials that I will be able to consider myself a social worker. This also means that even if technically my job title isn’t a “social worker” but instead something like “client advocate,” “grant writer,” “program administrator,” “caseworker”, “community organizer”, etc., I can still self-identify as a social worker.
In my current internship I’m crossing paths with professionals of various backgrounds. Some are lawyers by trade and training, some are accountants, business managers, human resources administrators, labor leaders, data analysts, advocates. Most do not have social work degrees or any other related human services/public service education. But even without that proper title and degree, here they are, passionate about and active in working to reduce and eliminate homelessness and poverty in NYC. If any of these individuals would self-identify as social workers, I’d gladly support their identification, and I am honored to be working amongst them.
The title of social worker is important because of all that tends to come with it- expertise, the awareness, the cultural sensitivity, passion to serve the underserved, the commitment that goes beyond a nice salary (though of course that helps and is needed), the ethical willingness to be held accountable. Without any of this, the title is meaningless. Without any of this, the title is just another job position. Without any of this, the history of this profession ends because the potential for social work is so much beyond landing a nice-paying job and making clients feel better. If that was the point of earning a social work degree, why choose MSW over a medical degree, an engineering degree, a law degree, a counseling degree, a nursing degree? Those degrees will lead to much better paying opportunities, will tend to offer better benefits, and those professional fields also contribute greatly to society and helps people in so many important ways.
Considering all that, why would anyone choose social work over all the other helping or technical profession?
I hope that all social workers can answer that question in their own confident manner. For me, I aspire to be a social worker over all the other profession because I am not only interested in getting a good salary and helping people; for me, even at the sacrifice of a nice salary, I want to be committed to social justice. I believe strongly that any human being should not be ignored and tossed aside because he/she lacks money. Poverty and homelessness are man-made problems that society itself is responsible for. Society itself must work to fix it. I want to be part of that societal effort. For me, that’s what being a social worker is all about.
Social work is a helping profession that does not limit itself to one narrow area, whether that be mental health, criminal justice, immigration, racial/gender/LGBTQ equality, education, employment support, disability, poverty… It does not limit itself to a particular method whether that be narrative therapy, Framework for Enabling Empowerment (FrEE), protest rallies, community organizing, political lobbying, grant writing, educational group workshops, distributing of clean needles, consulting lawyers… A social worker is not limited by a job title whether that be therapist, social worker, program director, CEO, defense attorney, senator, journalist, professor, community organizer, political activist, social media manager… The potential for social work goes beyond any one of those things. In my opinion, to try to limit this potential is to cripple the real change-making power of this profession.
As long as the ideals, the ethics, and the potential of the social work profession can be considered as thus, I am greatly looking forward to the day I can consider myself a social worker. Should those days finally arrive, I will be fulfilled, not just in pride, but also in my commitment. To me that’s what being a social worker is all about.