by Darla Spence Coffey, Ph.D., MSW
I was an undergraduate sociology major when I took a social work course as an elective and realized that social work was what I wanted to do – and I’ve never looked back. I was immediately drawn to the combination of concrete skills to achieve “work on the ground” and dreaming big about changing the world (or at least my small part of it). The key social work concept of “person and environment” compels us to constantly be thinking about the bidirectional influence between individuals and their environments – in the way that we conceive of challenges and our best attempts to ameliorate those challenges. It is this dual emphasis of the profession that makes us unique; our direct practice is informed and augmented by our advocacy efforts and deep understanding of the role that policy has on those we serve, and vice versa.
I will admit that I didn’t completely understand nor appreciate this dual perspective and responsibility in the early days of my social work career. I was immersed in direct practice – first with children and families in the child welfare system and then with adolescents and their families involved in the juvenile justice system. This work was followed by several years practicing clinical social work with individuals, groups, and families. I loved it! Eventually, however, I realized that for every individual child or family that I managed to support, link to services, and counsel, there were so many more that needed a champion. I wanted to have a bigger impact, and in order to do that, I needed to be engaged in policy practice. It was through the process of learning what that really meant that I felt as if I truly joined the social work profession. I had the good fortune of working with a very wise man who used to say, “Our job is to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable.” I spent the first part of my career focusing on comforting the disturbed. In order to have a bigger impact, I needed to learn how to disturb the comfortable – to advocate for social change. I take to heart the words and example of Dorothy Height, a civil rights and women’s rights activist and social worker, who said, “We hold in our hands the power to shape, not only our own, but the nation’s future” (Height, 1990, p. 75). That’s a lot of power!
As President and Chief Executive Officer of the Council on Social Work Education, I take seriously the charge to ensure that all social workers are prepared to practice within the “person and environment” matrix – to comfort the disturbed and to disturb the comfortable, so to speak. It is our only hope to make the best use of the power that we have to create a world that provides opportunity and ensures equity for all.
Check out what social work programs across the country are doing to celebrate Social Work Month 2015 at: http://www.cswe.org/Meetings/78940.aspx
Height, D.I. (1990). 1990-2035: 45 years from today. Ebony, 46, 75.
Darla Spence Coffey, PhD, MSW, is president and chief executive officer of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE). CSWE is the national association of schools and programs of social work, representing nearly 750 accredited undergraduate and graduate programs. CSWE is recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation as the sole accrediting agency for social work education in the United States. Through its many initiatives, activities, and centers, CSWE supports quality social work education and provides opportunities for leadership and professional development so that social workers play a central role in achieving the profession’s goals of social and economic justice.