A group of UConn School of Social Work students are in Washington, D.C. today and tomorrow, to take part in Student Advocacy Day on the Hill. Sponsored by The National Association of Social Workers, the two-day event brings together some 400 social work students and faculty representing more than 65 social work schools and departments across the nation, to learn about and lobby for issues related to the well-being of the clients and communities they serve. Participants attend lectures and workshops, and prepare presentations for their senators and representatives on pieces of legislation they want them to support. Tanya Rhodes-Smith, director of UConn’s Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work is a workshop panelist examining the specifics of some of the proposed legislation, and strategies for effective advocacy with congressional offices. She spoke with UConn Today about the program from D.C.
Q. How many UConn students are you taking to Capitol Hill?
A. Twelve students from UConn are here, along with one of our doctoral candidates who is serving as ambassador for the event, volunteering his time and expertise to help students navigate their visits to Congressional Offices. Our associate dean for academic affairs, Scott Harding, is also here for Tuesday’s workshops, as well as the lobbying efforts on the Hill on Wednesday.
Q. What’s the plan?
A. Students are here to learn how policy is shaped at the federal level. The training is centered around a specific bill focused on improving seniors’ access to mental health services. Students will take what they learn, and then meet with key staff in congressional offices to lobby for the legislation. Our students will be meeting with staff working in the offices of Connecticut Sen. Richard Blumenthal, Rep. Elizabeth Esty, and Rep. John Larson.
Q. What are some of the legislative and political priorities the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has for next year?
A. Social work is a professional discipline that seeks to improve society’s overall well-being, especially for the most vulnerable populations. What distinguishes it as a profession is its emphasis on the person-in-environment, and its commitment to social justice. NASW’s legislative priorities seek to address inequities that limit opportunities and access to resources. One important priority area for NASW is increasing access to mental health services. The legislative committee of NASW in Connecticut is filled with current and former UConn School of Social Work master’s students who advocate for policy at the state level.
Q. Has the Student Advocacy Day on the Hill program had a positive impact?
A. Last year was the first Student Advocacy Day on the Hill and three of our students participated. All three of those students are currently doing important policy work at the state and federal level. One student accepted a position in Rep. Esty’s office. So these visits not only expose students to political advocacy, but also show them potential career paths within legislative settings.
Q. What does the day-long program attempt to do?
A. This kind of hands-on training – going into congressional offices to lobby congressional staff – builds social workers’ confidence and skills to participate directly in the political process, which is an important part of our profession’s code of ethics. The system is intimidating, so this kind of opportunity helps the students see that elected officials want and need their input and expertise. At UConn’s Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work, we work to increase the political participation of all social workers and the communities we serve. Additionally, we strongly believe that social workers should not only be informing the system, but social workers are qualified to serve in leadership positions as elected officials, key staff, and/or as lobbyists and advocates working for change. Elected officials in Connecticut know the value that social workers bring to their offices. Both Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy and Sen. Blumenthal each have four social workers on their staff, as well as one or two MSW interns each year.
Q. Is there an over-arching obstacle to the social work profession right now?
A. Social workers are society’s safety net, and see firsthand the struggles that so many families and individuals face on a daily basis. We understand the devastating impact that poverty, mental illness, trauma, and oppression have on so many in our society. We are at our strongest when all social workers help shape the policies that affect the communities we serve.
Q. What’s next for your students after the Washington, D.C. political training?
A. We hope they bring these skills to their professional practice. Today’s group are a mix of social workers who want to work in direct service and macro practice. The UConn School of Social Work has a passionate student body working to expand opportunities and access to resources for all people. For example, two of the students here today are the chairs of the Students Against Mass Incarceration organization on campus. They organize forums and educate legislators and the public about the devastating impact that over-incarceration has had on our communities, as well as how we can change the system so that people coming out of prison with a felony record aren’t doomed to fail.