This op-ed was originally published in the Lexington Herald-Leader.
For more than 35 years, March has been officially designated National Professional Social Work Month. Many find this a solemn time to contemplate and celebrate the significant impact of social work practitioners, educators, researchers and students.
Recent designation notwithstanding, social work has a rich and storied history. In the early 1900s, the pioneering work of Jane Addams, a social worker, established settlement houses for immigrants in Chicago. She went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.
Dorothy Height, a social worker, was a civil rights leader who served as the president of the National Council of Negro Women. Her work with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Roy Wilkins and others, led to impacts that have reverberated throughout the decades. In 2004, she was awarded the Congressional Gold Medal for her work.
Whitney Young Jr., a Kentucky native and social worker served as the executive director of the National Urban League and president of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW). His influential legacy is memorialized via the many buildings, centers and programs that bear his name. The Whitney M. Young Jr. Job Corps Center in Simpsonville, Kentucky, and the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Public Library in Chicago, Illinois, are but a few examples. He was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1968.
More recently, Wendy Sherman, a social worker, served as director of Maryland’s child welfare office, CEO of the Fannie Mae Foundation and the director for the Center for Public Leadership at Harvard. During the Clinton administration, she was an advisor on relations with North Korea, among a host of other official posts. She also served as the lead negotiator for the U.S. in the Iran nuclear deal. Now, she serves as the deputy secretary of state. President Barack Obama awarded her with the National Security Medal.
The list of influential social workers goes on.
Whilst often unheralded and sometimes misunderstood, social work is a distinct, noble profession. Social workers practice with undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees. Social work practice is regulated and licensed in all 50 states. Practitioners receive specialized education and training in an array of areas, including advocacy, community organizing, administrative leadership, and clinical mental and behavioral health, among others. As codified by NASW Code of Ethics, “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people.”
Without question, contemporary societal challenges necessitate an increasing need for social workers and the professional services they provide. Be it child abuse and neglect, substance misuse, homelessness or other inimical social conditions, social workers are uniquely poised to deal with society’s most pressing challenges.
Now, more than ever, social work is steadfastly committed to actualizing its mission. In a time rife with divisiveness, political animus and tribalism, social workers stand ready to engage, empower and embrace. Social work’s commitment to the well-being of individuals, families, groups and communities — specifically those who are most vulnerable — will never waiver.
So now, as I do every year, I issue a clarion call to all Kentuckians: Take stock of the impact that social workers have on our communities. Take time to honor and celebrate social workers — not just this month, but every month. Though months change, social work’s commitment to strengthen communities and enhance human well-being most certainly will not.