Social Worker Thought Leaders: Susan Davis

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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.

For the seventh straight year, this May Congresswoman Susan A. Davis traveled to Afghanistan to celebrate Mother’s Day with the troops. Once there, she did what good social workers do. She listened — to deployed moms missing their children and to Afghan women seeking a better, safer life for their children.

In today’s profile, we’ll follow the road Davis took from military spouse and social worker to Congress and Afghanistan.

From Berkeley to Israel, UNC, Japan and Back to California

Davis’s social work career began after she earned her undergraduate degree in sociology from the University of California, Berkeley. A granddaughter of eastern European Jewish immigrants, she moved to a collective community in Israel — akibbutz — where she worked with at-risk youth. She then returned to the U.S. and earned her Master of Social Work from the University of North Carolina.

In the waning days of the Vietnam War, she married a doctor in the U.S. Air Force and followed him to Japan. There, she raised two sons in a village where Americans were seldom seen — experiencing the challenges military families face overseas.

When the family returned to the U.S., Davis returned to social work — seeking to improve education and housing at the Pala Indian Reservation in California. With encouragement from mentors in the League of Women Voters, she decided to expand the reach of her work.

She ran for a seat on San Diego’s Board of Education and won. For nine years, she worked to ensure that every child had access to a quality education.

“Nothing is more personal to people than their children,” Davis said in a recent interview. “They don’t want their child pushed aside or marginalized.”

From San Diego to Sacramento, from Social Worker to the State Assembly

During her years on the San Diego Board of Education, she also served as executive director of the Aaron Price Fellowship Program, where she introduced at-risk high school students to the inner workings of government and business. She also invited them to design their own programs. In one of those memorable designs, a student explored “what is like to live as a gay [person] in a prejudiced society.” Later, Davis would play a critical role in advancing gay rights in civilian life and the military.

Davis headed to Sacramento and California’s State Assembly in 1994. Serving the maximum three terms, she focused on improving education, health care and consumer protection. Advocating for California’s women, she helped eliminate the “gatekeepers” standing between them and their OB-GYNs. Later she’d apply that experience to help secure the same rights, and more, for women nationally as part of the 2010 Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act.

Next Stop: Congress

In 2000, Davis made a run for the U.S. House of Representatives. Popular for her constituent services, she won that race and each subsequent congressional race with more than two-thirds of the vote. For the last 15 years, Davis has applied her experience as a social worker, military spouse and skilled negotiator to improve the lives of constituents from her district and military personnel stationed around the world.

A member of the Armed Services Committee and ranking member of the Subcommittee on Personnel, Davis says “Military families face unique challenges and Congress must work to ensure their needs are met.” To meet those needs, Davis has:

 

  • Fought for better military pay, health care and education benefits.
  • Worked to improve Veterans Affairs services.
  • Championed innovative approaches to the mental health and transition problems veterans face when returning from Iraq and Afghanistan.
  • Led the fight to end the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy that barred gay people from serving openly in the military.
  • Helped secure $1.02 million to assist San Diego’s homeless veterans and provide temporary financial aid to struggling military families.
  • Co-authored the Equal Justice for Our Military Act, giving court-martialed service members the right to appeal cases to the Supreme Court.
  • Led efforts to stop sexual assaults in the military.

 

These and other initiatives earned Davis the Navy’s Distinguished Public Service Award, its highest civilian honor, for “long and selfless service to the Nation’s Sailors and Marines.” She has been recognized twice by the Military Officers Association of America, most recently for improving employment opportunities for transitioning service members.

As a member of the House Education and Workforce Committee, Davis has supported initiatives to increase access to early childhood education; make college more affordable; help students pay off college loans; and recruit and train new teachers and principals. This month, she also introduced the Stop Child Summer Hunger Act, saying, “No child should go hungry and no parent should have to worry about being able to feed their child” as a result of school vacation.

Returning to Afghanistan

Discussing her many trips to Afghanistan to support the troops and the Afghan people, Davis describes an approach that is equal parts social work and political leadership.

Leading a delegation to speak with Afghan women in a remote area, she says she sought a place “where we could have an impact by saying ‘We care about you; tell us what your life is like. Is there anything that we can do to help? We came in as a country to try to change your lot, and what can we do to be helpful?’”

Meeting with deployed military moms over a Mother’s Day meal, she asked about the unique challenges they face and how Congress could help.

In each case, she asked her questions and then did what good social workers do: She listened. Then she went back to Washington and acted.