Social Worker Thought Leaders: Barbara Mikulski

From their advocacy skills to their passion for justice, social workers make natural leaders. In this series, we profile social workers who are leading change on the national level as members of Congress. Meet the individuals who, with the social worker’s firsthand understanding of public policy’s impact on private lives, strive to support stronger families, schools and communities.

In 1968, a young social worker with a big voice stood up to Baltimore’s old-boy political machine. Her goal: to save two communities from being plowed under to make way for a 16-lane freeway through the heart of her city. She won that fight and, in the years that followed, she’d battle many more times for her city, state and country.

Meet Barbara Mikulski, former social worker, first woman Democrat elected to the Senate, first woman chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee and the longest-serving woman in the U.S. Congress.

From Social Worker to Senator

Smart and tenacious, this granddaughter of Polish immigrants grew up in East Baltimore’s Highlandtown where, as she often likes to say, “neighbor looked after neighbor.” She carried that spirit into her early social work career. Earning a bachelor’s degree in sociology from Mount Saint Agnes College and her Master of Social Work from the University of Maryland, she spent years in the field — organizing communities, explaining Medicare to senior citizens and helping at-risk children.

While blocking the freeway gained her local affection in 1968, speaking at Catholic University in 1970 set the stage and tone for her future political career – one that has been driven by passion for social justice and for serving her community that she developed as a social worker. In a speech that still resonates today, Mikulski said:

“America isn’t a melting pot. It’s a sizzling cauldron. … The ethnic American also feels unappreciated for the contribution he makes to society. He resents the way the working class is looked down upon. … The public and private institutions have made him frustrated by their lack of response to his needs. At present he feels powerless in his daily dealings with and efforts to change them. Unfortunately, because of old prejudices and new fears, anger is generated against other minority groups rather than those who have power. What is needed is an alliance of white and black, white collar, blue collar and no collar based on mutual need, interdependence and respect, an alliance to develop the strategy for new kinds of community organization and political participation.”

A year later, she successfully ran for Baltimore City Council and, in 1977, she went on to the U.S. House of Representatives. In 1986, she was elected to the U.S. Senate.

Over the next 28 years, she’d serve as mentor to the women who eventually followed and make her mark as a member of the Appropriations Committee; Select Committee on Intelligence; Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; and numerous subcommittees.

You Can Take the Senator Out of Social Work, but…

Summarizing her career, Mikulski told the National Association of Social Workers, “Even though I have been a United States senator for more than two decades, I still think of myself as a social worker. I listen to the people and when there are problems, I try to find ways to help. … My experience as a social worker taught me valuable lessons that I still draw on today.”

Those lessons and her deeply rooted sense of social justice led Mikulski to fight for legislation that:

  • Prevents seniors from going bankrupt while paying spouses’ nursing home bills.
  • Enables uninsured women to get screenings and treatment for breast and cervical cancer.
  • Increases funding for Alzheimer’s research.
  • Includes women in National Institutes of Health research for the first time.
  • Seeks to make higher education more affordable.
  • Improves health care services for military veterans.
  • Protects workers against pay inequities based on gender.
  • Provides block grant funding to help low-income parents afford child care.

Noting her role fighting domestic violence, Vice President Joe Biden said, “It was her leadership that brought the nation’s attention to the need for shelters for victims of domestic violence, helping countless women escape the worst prison on earth — the four walls of their own home. She helped me pass the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, and she successfully fought for every reauthorization since.”

These and other efforts won her election by wide margins for five terms, high public approval ratings in Maryland and honors from her peers at the National Association of Social Workers.

Retiring But Unyielding

On March 2, 2015, Mikulski announced she would not seek re-election in 2016. In her typical style, the 78-year-old said she’d leave the Senate the same way she came in — fighting.

“I had to decide whether to spend my time fighting to keep my job or fighting for your job. Do I spend my time raising money or raising hell to meet your day-to-day needs? Do I spend my time focusing on my election or the next generation? Do I spend the next two years making promises about what I will do or making progress on what I can do right now?”

As good as her word, Mikulski just a few days later introduced Senate Bill 789, the Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young, Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act.

Addressing the nationwide shortage of social workers, high caseloads and escalating social needs, the bill would:

  • Establish grant programs to address workplace improvements, research on effective interventions across community and service settings, education and training, and community-based programs of excellence;
  • Create a commission to study services provided by social workers, recruitment, retention and compensation, workplace safety and state-level licensing reciprocity;
  • Open a National Coordination Center to work with education, advocacy and research institutions, as well as gather and disseminate information on social work research and best practices;
  • Create a media campaign promoting social work.

View the bill’s full text and current status here.

Mikulski prepares to close her political career with this final tribute to the social work values she has exemplified throughout her time in Congress. This dedication to her social work roots has not only served her constituents, but also has set an example for her colleagues, demonstrating that social workers can be national thought leaders at the highest legislative level.