Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Advocacy and Social Work

As social workers we talk about advocacy a lot. We advocate for our clients, making sure they can access services they need and are entitled to, that their rights are respected, and the like.

But larger-scale advocacy at more political levels, and advocacy for ourselves as a profession—for some reason that seems harder to do sometimes. Things like lobbying the General Assembly or writing op-eds can be intimidating at first. So how do we do the positive self-talk needed to push ourselves to advocate...why should we as social workers advocate at political and public levels?

As I think about this I am reminded of an old TV commercial for Quaker Oats where a wizened Wilford Brimley told us that we should eat oatmeal because “it’s the right thing to do.” It was true, but I never found that a very compelling reason to consume bland breakfast cereal. Similarly, I think sometimes the only reason we are given for why we should engage in advocacy is because “it’s the right thing to do.” Our Code of Ethics says we should promote social justice (e.g. through advocacy), our chapter Director of Advocacy and Legislation tells us we ought to, emails from NASW national office tell us we ought to.

All of these are true and good reasons—advocacy is the right thing to do. But I’d ask you to think about it differently. Advocacy is also important for each of us to do because it is a form of self-care. Let me explain a little. One of the hardest things about social work practice (at least for me) is feeling helpless as I watch clients struggle with an illogical and unfair system. That feeling of helplessness is stressful—it can make us sick. Advocacy to change the illogical and unfair systems is a way to fight the helpless feeling, to know we can make change and not have to feel stressed and powerless.

Advocacy is also the only way that we will improve our own working conditions as social workers. When we advocate for fair systems that provide good services with quality providers we are advocating for healthy places where we can offer services, places that are safe, that provide a respectful service context (for clients and for providers), that ensure that provider turnover is low. Fair systems benefit social workers and clients alike, so when we advocate for these we advocate for ourselves.
Finally, advocacy is a way to claim our voice and thus our power as professionals. When we advocate we demand attention, we say “we are here and we have valuable things to say”, we own our power. Advocacy is a way for each of us to do this, to become more empowered as individual social workers. It is also a way for us to do this as a profession.

So, I’d invite you to think about all of this, to talk with your colleagues and join in advocacy efforts. Do this because it is ethical, because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it’s a way to take care of ourselves, of each other, and other the profession to which we’re dedicated.

(Taken from an NASW NC newsletter article I wrote)

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