It's true. I am a better social worker because of Donald Trump.
I will never forget the day after the election, November 9th, 2016. I was teaching a course in Clinical Social Work Practice in Newark at the time, and I remember getting up and preparing for class feeling raw, tired, and worried about how I was going to face my class full of hopeful young social workers in light of such a surprising end to a contentious, debasing, abusive, and vitriolic campaign.
I decided I would allow the class to process their feelings however they wanted. I would leave the floor open for questions, concerns, ideas, and anything the students wanted to share about their feelings regarding the election. I prepared myself for questions about how this would impact our clients, how this might impact our families and friends who are immigrants, how we could join activist communities to make a difference. What I got was something very different.
Although my students were definitely concerned about the welfare of their communities and the people they serve, the more notable reaction I got from my students was total confusion. How did this happen? What is the Electoral College? What does it mean to run a campaign and win the presidency without winning the popular vote?
What is the Electoral College?
Being that my undergraduate degree was in political science, I answered their questions and tried to educate them about how our government works (and doesn't work). But I was surprised that these second year masters students knew so little about how the government functioned.
The next semester, I had the pleasure of teaching a class called Women's Issues. Despite the fact that the title seems to insinuate that structural problems that have largely been created and sustained by men are a woman’s issue alone, the course was a dynamic study of intersectionality and the ways in which intersectional identities impact people's experiences of themselves, and how we as social workers encounter individuals at the various intersections between their lives and larger systems.
As such, we discussed many of the structural issues facing women and other marginalized communities in modern American society. My students, full of concern and frustration, would often ask me, "What can we do?! How can we change these things?!" My response was always the same:
You can start by not hating your policy classes.
I responded this way to my students because, in my experience, too often, social work students bemoan the fact that they have to take policy classes in the first place. These same students who were so energized by analyzing structural issues were the same students who report wanting to focus on clinical skills and not focus on policy. But being knowledgeable about policy, the systems of governance, and the inequalities our government perpetuates is central for being able to effect real change.
If we want to make change, we as social workers have to do better at being political and being advocates.
I began asking myself hard questions about both my own professional journey and the location of social work in the larger social picture. Although I have spent many years as a social worker in clinical practice, my work has always involved a larger, structural component. For example, the work included working with individuals directly impacted by arbitrary decisions made by HMOs regarding care, individuals influenced directly by the ACA debate, individuals living on the brink of poverty, homelessness, foster care, jail, the list goes on. Policy and structural influences where always present.
In my latest role as a clinical social work supervisor in a community residence family shelter, my interaction with larger systems and policy has become more acute. Our work is directly impacted by which administration is in office-- in NYC, Albany, and DC. The clients that we serve exist at the intersection of nearly every system imaginable-- child protective services, department of education, public assistance/food stamps, Medicaid, criminal justice, and, ultimately, the department of homelessness.
Policy decisions come into sharp focus when policies take the form of the clients we serve every day.
I would venture to say that most social workers can call to mind different times when our hearts have been broken watching our clients (or our own family members, for that matter) struggle in a system that is stacked against them. I can recall watching a client of mine struggle deeply with depression and self-esteem issues after he was chronically unable to find work due to his criminal history—emphasizing the human cost of our criminal justice system policies that make rehabilitation a fantasy more than a reality.
As we watch the politicians around us make decisions that will significantly and directly impact us, the people we love, and the people we serve, we have to do more. The policies that are up for debate at this very moment on the local, state, and federal levels will influence the trajectory of our lives and the lives of our clients for years to come. Take that concern and make it matter.
My anger about our current political climate and the state of American society in general has inspired me to move beyond the divide of micro practice and policy-- they are not mutually exclusive, they cannot be mutually exclusive. My anger towards Donald Trump, his administration, his policy decisions, and the groups he has emboldened with his rhetoric, has inspired me to care more, to pay closer attention, and to be a better social worker by more actively merging my macro and micro practice, and by holding myself accountable to the ways in which I have benefitted from my own power, positionality, and privilege.
I hope this page helps you to understand what policies mean, how the government and policies perpetuate inequality, how social work practice interfaces with policy on a regular basis, and what you can do about it.