Why social work? It’s a question I’ve heard throughout my professional career. For me, the question is not “Why social work?” — but rather, “Why not social work?”
What other profession could allow someone to help at-risk inner-city youth chart a better future for themselves? Or help the vulnerable migrant populations of this country learn English in an afterhours ESL course? What other profession allows someone to advise foster parents who want to save the world and guide adoptive parents who want to do the same? Or to work hand-in-hand with Native American populations in the most rural and neglected areas of this Nation? Finally, where else could someone have the privilege of spending the last two decades working with military families and veterans during the one of the most critical years of our nation’s history marked by the longest period of combat operations following the devastating attack on September 11th, 2001? These are just a fraction of the opportunities I have been trusted with during my more than 25-year career as a social worker.
My interest in the field of social work began when I was a very young. Growing up as a military brat with a younger sister who was born with cerebral palsy and epilepsy presented my family with challenges I could not appreciate at the time. Thankfully, the United States Navy, even in the early 1970s, offered many services for families like ours. So as a young girl, I witnessed a constant parade of helping professionals come and go from my home. It wasn’t until much later that I learned that there were “helpers” like social workers who could work with people to overcome their challenges. Early on, I saw many that were smart, confident, and compassionate. And the gift they selflessly gave to families in need was a gift of hope.
Today, I am beyond fulfilled having built a lifelong career out of helping others and providing hope as a social worker, just like the social workers before we who have helped so many families across our Nation. So, as we celebrate National Social Work Month, I offer my perspective and lessons learned from my career as a social worker. I hope young social workers or those contemplating a career in a helping profession finds these lessons learned useful.
Social work is not just a job. Social work is a way of living — a profession that gets into your heart and your soul, whereby you live your life in such a way that you are always looking to help others…looking for strengths in others, willing to help others that might need a listening ear…
Social work is not a skill you can just turn off at the end of the day.
If I’ve learned anything from my 25 plus years in social work, it’s that there is always more to learn. However, there are some things I know for certain:
- Hard work does pay off. — There are times in your career where you will have to be the first one to the office and the last one to leave. You will put in work on weekends, evenings, and holidays…and it is worth it! The joy and relief you will bring those in crisis will carry you through the tough times.
- Get involved and look for opportunities. — When people invite you to lead new projects, develop and share your ideas with others. We all bring unique perspectives on how the system can be improved. These are not things we should keep to ourselves. You may be sitting on the next innovative idea that we need to help a family or a community.
- Build your tribe. — This work is hard. Surround yourself with people you can trust, people that support you, and people that want your support as you do this work. This is likely the most important element to your future success. It’s not just “fluff” or “networking” — It’s building your capacity to be able to do this work for the long haul.
- Don’t take “no” for an answer. — Not on behalf of clients, not on behalf of systems. Keep looking for creative ways to get to “yes.”
- Don’t let the system wear you down. – Because it will try…
- Practice good self-care and keep fighting the fight. — We must never forget that our clients and our systems need us! Often, we are the only ones fighting for the interests of the most vulnerable populations in this Nation.
- Stand up for what you believe in. — And be ready to put your feet into action if you disagree with the way organizations or bureaucracies are treating clients or systems.
So, as I close out my thoughts on the importance of social work as part of National Social Work Month, I offer that we should collectively always remember why so many of us have come into this profession and that we should think through the future needs of the profession.
We will continue to need social workers that are passionate about helping others, but we will also need social workers that are willing to work outside the box, to innovate, to push boundaries, to take risks, to lead interdisciplinary teams — to model for other professions the value of interdisciplinary work, to help women, and children, LGBTQ and minorities, and other at risk populations to reach their full potential — grounded in all that we know about social justice and cultural humility. And while doing all of this, let us make sure we support one another. Let us celebrate one another’s success and pick one another up on the days when we need it most. The populations and systems that we work with will benefit from our collective support and mentorship.