Social Worker Spotlight: Lisa Primm Highlights the Benefits of Macro Level Social Work

After earning her bachelor’s degree in psychology, Lisa Primm began her career providing direct service in mental health settings, where she developed a passion for serving people experiencing oppression. Sensing she could serve oppressed and disenfranchised populations in another way, Primm decided to return to school to pursue a master’s degree in social work, with the hope she could improve the lives of people at a policy level.

For seven years, Primm has served as executive director of Disability Rights Tennessee, a nonprofit focused on protecting the rights of Tennesseans with disabilities by providing them legal services on issues related to employment discrimination, safety in schools and access to community resources.

“We’re very unique because we really marry social work and law in our agency,” Primm said. “My role is to advocate for but also empower individuals with disabilities to ensure that their rights are protected.”

Primm sat down with to talk about her path to working at the macro level of the profession and the benefits of focusing on policy. 

As you trained to become a social worker, were there any specific courses or lessons that stood out to you?

One of the first classes that I took was just called “Oppression.” It was a life-changing class for me. I was there with some other nontraditional students who were a little older. We took our classes in the evenings because we were all working. It was a somewhat diverse group.

The class discussion, the professor’s passion and the things that he exposed us to made clear the opportunities we had. We had two white men in the group who really had to face some white male privilege realities. I could probably spend our whole time together talking about that class. I really did not understand a lot about what systemic oppression was until I took that class.

The other class that I will mention: I did have one professor who taught us how to read blueprints. She insisted that if you’re going to work in macro practice, you’re going to find yourself in management, and you may have an opportunity in a nonprofit where you need to know how to read a building blueprint. It actually is something that has come in extremely handy for me in my career.

I’ve had to move our offices [multiple] times, and we’ve had to have facilities built, suites built out for us. It just was one of those things I would have never thought being a social worker that I would have needed to know anything about. But I’ve used it multiple times in my career. 

How do legislation and public policy factor into your work?

I have one staff person who is fully dedicated to public policy. We provide comment on a wide variety of policies. We are not able to lobby because we have restrictions on our federal funds, but we are mandated to educate key policymakers.

We educate them about what particular pieces of legislation and proposed legislation or policy [would do]; what the impact would be on our constituents, positive or negative. We don’t go out and ask people to vote a certain way, but we let them know what the policy implications are. So, we do a lot of policy analysis and a lot of public comment. 

What are some of the biggest challenges for and misconceptions about social workers?

I think there are challenges in general for social workers in that we’re still seen as the ladies who take your kids away. There are some old stereotypes still in play regarding social workers. There are so many social workers working at the policy level, at the macro level, but I still think that there are a lot of old-school legislators who don’t really understand what the profession of social work entails.

I think there are challenges, too, in working with attorneys. I think there are great benefits to be had, but there are also challenges in sometimes figuring out who the client is. We might have a parent who is our client, but as a social worker, I have concerns about that parent’s child. Because of the way that the client-attorney relationship is, once that attorney becomes the attorney-of-record for that parent, it ties my hands somewhat as a social worker to address things for the child. There are some interesting challenges that we face but still far more positive than negative.

When it comes to working on policy, what is your favorite part of the job and why?

Clearly when you can elicit some type of a sweeping change, a policy that will impact hundreds or thousands of Tennesseans in our case, that is incredibly satisfying. We have done that in our agency multiple times. I also really enjoy finding consensus with unusual collaborations. For instance, earlier in my career, I worked in teen pregnancy, and I worked with people who were very, very much pro-life and opposed to teaching anything about birth control. I was pro-choice and very much for teaching about birth control, and yet we found common ground in creating programs for younger kids around self-esteem and body image. [They were] things that we all agreed would help with teen pregnancy. 

What has surprised you in your experience as a social worker?

That I became an executive director of what’s essentially a law firm. Our agency is a legal agency. I supervise attorneys. I would have never expected as a social worker that that would be my story. 

What do you think would surprise others about the profession?

The amount of macro work that goes on. The amount of social workers who are in management and positions to influence policy. I think most people still think of social work as direct service. 

What advice would you give to someone thinking about becoming a social worker?

Go macro. If you come to social work, you’re committing to serve oppressed populations. You’re committing to be part of something that is systemic. If you’re choosing social work, make sure you believe in the social work ethics of the profession and recognize that there is so much to be done in terms of systemic change. I would really, really advise them to be thinking along those lines. 

What else would you like to say about social workers?

Every social worker should be trying to get people to vote. That’s really, really important. We have allowed so many populations to be disenfranchised and not part of our voting system. I think our country would be a lot different. To be very specific, I think we have these women’s marches and things that I participate in, but that’s always the usual suspects who are there. I participated in one in Nashville not too long ago. We started right across from [public] housing, and I guarantee you there was not one woman from [public] housing who marched with us. That’s because no one is going and reaching out a hand and saying come and be part of this.

That’s something that, as a social worker, I’m challenging myself to do: reach people who are disenfranchised. People who are young can all talk politics, but most of them aren’t getting registered to vote. And then people in rural areas get left out of the process. That’s kind of my side hustle, my real passion.

I’m working with a couple of other women in social work, and we’re talking about going door-to-door in [public housing] and trying to help get people registered to vote. I bring it up a lot. I’ve been a resource: My kids are 22, 23 and 25, and I’ve helped some of their friends get registered to vote. I think we all need to be doing that. Every opportunity we get, we need to be inquiring and not judging if someone’s never voted before or doesn’t know what they need to do. I think that we all just need to reach out a hand.

This interview was edited for length and clarity.