She was only nineteen, apparently old enough to experience homelessness, single motherhood, domestic violence and the judicial system. As she sat quietly in my cubicle, I tried to obtain some basic information, the colors of her designer handbag echoing louder than any voice in that cold, sterile building. My task: Help her find a job before her welfare benefits expired.
He was alert and oriented, standing at the sun-baked bus stop, blue eyes squinting through a shaggy, white beard. A Vietnam veteran with a history of traumatic brain injury and chronic homelessness, he answered my questions in a polite, friendly tone. My task: Help him find housing before his next visit to an emergency room.
Ah, social work, the profession of champions.
It’s been about two years since I “left” the field to pursue a calling in pastoral ministry, but social work has never really left me. My career changed not because I disliked social work, as much as it brought me to new places. If anything, I hope to bring it wherever I go. So in honor of National Social Work Month, here’s a brief word about the impact social work has left on me.
In short, social workers get it.
Forgive my bias, but I think social workers understand the real world better than most folks. They know the good, bad and ugly of how society operates. They deal with systems that chew people up and spit them out. They have an astute grasp of the powerful influences we don’t get to choose: our family history, culture, privilege, opportunity, discrimination, and access to resources, just to name a few. Ask any social worker, and they will tell you about the underlying causes of poverty, addiction, delinquency, violence, racism, homelessness and inequality. They are society’s unheralded custodians, cleaning up social messes made by others.
You would think all this would make social workers a cynical bunch, but they’re actually some of the most positive human beings I’ve ever worked with. They don’t just chatter about what’s wrong with the world, but demonstrate what can be done about it, step by daily step. Social workers ask the right questions, listening for untold stories. They link people with resources, advocating for our most vulnerable citizens. In the face of relentless bureaucracy, paperwork, politicking, program changes and budget cuts, social workers will stop at nothing to make a human connection, bringing hope and dignity to those our society has given up on.
Without social workers, we would see more people wandering the streets with untreated mental health issues, more children victimized in abusive homes, and more veterans committing suicide. There would be more people utilizing costly inpatient medical services instead of appropriate community-based care options. Without social workers, a greater burden would fall upon our schools, police, hospitals, prisons, employers and churches to pick up the pieces when someone’s life falls apart. By simply doing what they love to do, social workers help the rest of us flourish.
At its best, social work is about making connections and building bridges, not unlike the task of a pastor. It’s not about having a bleeding heart as much as dirty hands working to make a difference. It’s about entering deeply enough into someone’s life to understand their perspective and guide them forward, beginning at noisy bus stops and in frigid cubicles.
So go ahead, thank a social worker today.