Social Work Students Turn to Old-Fashioned Advocacy

Clinical social work students learn the power of the written word to advocate through Letters to the Editor

A pair of glasses sitting on a folded newspaper. Social work students who wrote letters to Connecticut newspapers say the experience helped improve their skills as social workers.

Students say the experience of writing letters to Connecticut newspapers helped make them better social workers (Adobe Stock).

When everyone can share their opinion on social media, it may sometimes feel like trying to have a voice is just shouting into the void. But students in the UConn School of Social Work Master of Social Work program are learning to exercise tried and true methods of advocating for social causes they support.

Several students who took the “Analysis of Social Welfare Policy and Social Service Delivery Systems” course this spring recently had Letters to the Editor published in major Connecticut newspapers, advocating for policies related to issues such as food insecurity in college students, the role of school resource officers (or SROs), and the right to housing.

Doctoral student Cindy Dubuque-Gallo assigned her students, many of them concentrating in Individuals, Groups, and Family Practice (IGFP) with the goal of becoming clinical practitioners, to take an action on a macro social issue — write a letter to an elected official, participate in a rally, testify at a hearing, write a Letter to the Editor — and reflect on their experience.

“The assignment demonstrates that you don’t have to be a leader, or an elected official to have a voice, to share important information on policy,” Dubuque-Gallo says. “These seemingly small acts have an impact. The students may not view themselves as important and powerful — their voice is.”

The instructor says her goal for students in the class is to get them to understand how they can advocate for their clients in a broader way than one-on-one by being active in the policy and legislative process.

“Clinical students often have no experience in this realm,” she says. “In social work, our job is, one, to empower others; two, to fight for social justice and human rights; and three, to be advocates for our clients on all fronts. This experience is really important because it bridges that micro-macro divide.”

Rachel Anthony ‘22 MSW wrote a letter in support of a bill that seeks to analyze the roles of SROs, Connecticut General Assembly HB 6535. The letter was published in the New London Day on April 21. Anthony says that she completed an internship and currently works for a nonprofit where she conducts group counseling sessions with girls, primarily from minority backgrounds.

In doing a policy analysis on SROs, Anthony, who lives in East Lyme, says she learned that students of color are disproportionately targeted by SROs, reinforcing the school-to-prison pipeline.

“New London County schools have a high number of minority students, and it is important that our SROs do not cross the line between protective and oppressive,” she wrote in her letter. “I would like to see [the roles of SROs] reanalyzed in order for all students, despite income or color, to feel welcomed, supported, comfortable, and safe.”

“Writing this letter made me realize it’s not always the big advocacy efforts that make a difference. Prior to this experience, I didn’t fully understand that advocacy starts from the grassroots level,” Anthony says. “While I do want to work on a clinical level, one-on-one, through this I began to understand how critical it is to advocate for your clients — not just the individual client that you’re working with but for the community itself. Getting out there, getting into community, and advocating for minority populations shows you don’t just care on an individual level, you care on a macro level.”

Reaching readers of both the Hartford Courant and Journal Inquirer with her letter in favor of making college students eligible for SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) benefits through work-study programs bridged the gap between her undergraduate studies in political science and her current social work studies, says Melissa Morton ‘22 MSW of Somers.

“This reignited my politics brain to bring it into social work. I had an idea of how change can start with one person bringing an idea to a group and sparking interest,” Morton says. “Me reading that one bill and writing a few paragraphs started a conversation and impacted all these people.”

Sherita Sosa ‘24 MSW of Windsor says the experience of having her letter in favor of SB 194: An Act Establishing a Right to Housing published in the Journal Inquirer “made me a better social worker.”

“My initial view of advocacy was me talking on my client’s behalf to other providers, community resources like 211, or other donation centers, but after being in this class and seeing that I had the ability to advocate and participate on a state level, on a policy level — I had no idea that that would ever be possible,” Sosa says. “Even on that smaller scale, just reaching people in my community, it was really empowering to know we could catch people’s attention and get people involved who might not know a lot about homelessness.

“Being part of this class really opened up my eyes to the different options for advocacy,” she says.

“I think there are too many micro social work students who are afraid; they don’t understand the value of advocacy; they don’t understand the power they have,” Dubuque-Gallo says. “I was hoping this would demonstrate that they could do this, it isn’t some insurmountable thing.”