Traditionally, social workers work in the areas of foster care, adoption, mental health and poverty as counselors and advocates and are often employed either by government agencies or nonprofit organizations. Social workers are experts in navigating social systems and in advising their clients on their rights within these systems. Social workers also help their clients about get access to basic needs such as food, housing and health care. But historically, social workers have also done even more. The mission of social work, according to the National Association of Social Workers, is “to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic needs of all people, with particular attention to the necessities and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed and living in poverty.” This broad mandate has frequently shifted the focus of social workers from their individual clients to broader civil rights movements that seek to ensure the well being of large populations. Understanding this important historic role that social work has played in the battle for civil rights can not only provide inspiration for social workers, but it also illuminates the influence social work has had on society as a whole.
The Shift from Private to Public
Historically, social workers have played a radical role in the battle for civil rights. Before the Great Depression of the 1930s, welfare for the poor was provided by private charities. When the Great Depression hit, however, it became clear that welfare was a public concern that must be the responsibility of the federal government. During this shift, many social workers moved from working for private charities to public service. When New York’s unemployment rate topped 40 percent, Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt surrounded himself with a group of talented social workers, and, together, they created public work and unemployment programs that were then mimicked throughout the country. Later, when he became president, Roosevelt instituted these types of programs nationwide to create the New Deal, which played a huge role in ending the Depression.
Social Workers in the ‘60s Civil Rights Movements
Social workers continued playing an important role throughout the 1940s and 1950s, and during the 1960s, social workers were involved both professionally and personally in the fight for civil rights. Ralph Fertig, a clinical professor at the USC School of Social Work, was one of a group of activists that formed the Freedom Rides in 1961 to protest segregation and racial inequality. Freedom Rides on public transportation into the southern states became pivotal in drawing attention to the fight for racial equality and exposing the rampant violence against such peaceful protests.
Social Work and Civil Rights Intertwined
The nature of social work is such that it attracts men and women who are activists not only at heart, but in their personal lives as well. It is not a career that one pursues without the desire to change systems that are already established. It is also perhaps one of the most mentally and emotionally challenging occupations insofar as that change does not often happen quickly. If, however, history proves anything, it is that social work is also one of the most rewarding, most influential careers one can pursue.