Engaging Social Workers in Activism: Where to Start?

Social activism doesn’t have to be about disruption and disobedience. More people, especially social workers, are discovering meaningful ways to shape policy and influence politics.

“We can sit and wonder what will happen or we can look for opportunities to make things happen,” said Charles E. Lewis Jr., founder and president of the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP) and an adjunct professor for the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work’s online Doctor of Social Work program. “We all have a chance to help protect democracy and improve our country.”

With more Americans politically engaged over the past year, social workers have an opportunity to lend their voices to national conversations and raise awareness about policies that could improve the lives of struggling communities. Lewis believes social workers’ unique experiences provide them with an understanding of what is happening among disadvantaged populations, enabling them to identify what residents need and how to address those needs.

“A lot of social welfare policy is devoted to vulnerable populations. … We know the struggles that people go through. We have this perspective of people in their environments. And we can look at how the environment impacts people, including laws and regulations.”

Lewis says addressing economic inequality needs to be a top priority for policymakers.

“[Inequality] hurts our society in a number of ways, particularly in terms of our democratic way of governing,” he added. “When you have too much wealth and income concentrated into the hands of the few, then you’re looking at oligarchy.”

Voter registration efforts are one area where he thinks social workers can help make a lasting difference. But he acknowledged breaking through the disillusionment many people have toward Washington and toward government in general can be a challenge, particularly for people who feel their needs and their communities have been overlooked for so long. Still, he stressed the importance of getting people to the voting booth.  

“Data shows that people who are not voting are not getting the policies that are important to them, such as health care and day care, addressed,” Lewis said.

Although voter participation is important, those working as social workers or thinking about a career in social work don’t have to limit themselves to civic engagement. Public policy is an important component of the social work field. The Grand Challenges for Social Work, developed by the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare, offer a number of arenas in which social workers can help make a difference through advocacy, political activism, public education and policy development.

Organizations Addressing Grand Challenges of Social Work

The National Association of Social Workers offers a number of resources and opportunities for professionals who would like to support public policy and legislation that improve the lives of individuals and communities. Social workers can also become involved in local NASW chapters. If you are interested in participating in advocacy efforts that specifically address one of the 12 Grand Challenges of Social Work, you can also learn more about the following organizations:

Ensure healthy development for all youth

Close the health gap

Stop family violence

Advance long and productive lives

Eradicate social isolation

End homelessness

Create social responses to a changing environment

Harness technology for social good

Promote smart ‘decarceration’

Reduce extreme economic inequality

Build financial capability for all

Achieve equal opportunity and justice

Citation for this content: The DSW@USC, the online Doctor of Social Work program at the University of Southern California.