by Brad Forenza, MSW, Ph.D.
As a single mother and college student in the mid-1970s, Barbara Lee volunteered the free time she had for progressive causes and political candidates in the Greater-Oakland community. “While studying to be a psychiatric social worker at U.C. Berkeley,” Lee begins, “I founded the mental health center, ‘Change, Incorporated.’ Through this work, I witnessed the depth of poverty, homelessness, unemployment, and inadequate mental health care in our community.”
Years later—in 1998—Lee was elected to represent Oakland and the East Bay region in the United States House of Representatives. There, she has been a forceful voice for social workers ever since. “I often tell my colleagues that they should read [the NASW] Code of Ethics, because it truly is one of the best guides for policymakers,” she says. “It not only focuses on helping people meet their basic needs, but also seeks to empower the vulnerable, oppressed, and impoverished.”
In 2013, Lee became chairperson of the Congressional Social Work Caucus, a group of approximately 60 bicameral (House and Senate) and bipartisan (Democrat and Republican) legislators. These legislators represent the interests of social workers and social issues nationwide. A far cry from her psychiatric social work aspirations, Lee notes that her formative life experiences led her to pursue elective office. “Those experiences drive my work at the policy level, as I seek to improve the lives of the most vulnerable and build pathways for families to climb out of poverty,” she says.
When asked why a clinical social work student should care about what happens in the political arena, Lee notes, “As social workers committed to empowering our clients, it’s important to understand how policies impact on our clients, their families, and their communities.” She continues, “Additionally, social workers offer valuable perspective through their firsthand experiences that can help in advocacy for our communities at every level of government. By understanding social welfare policies and their impact, social workers have an opportunity to raise their voices and help drive the policy changes that we all know are so greatly needed.”
As a congresswoman—and as the people’s voice for social workers nationwide—Lee has sponsored an impressive array of legislation that is paramount to the livelihoods of social work clients and the profession. Her newly introduced bills include The Social Work Reinvestment Act, which seeks to recruit and retain more social work professionals; The Improving Access to Mental Healthcare Act, which would streamline the way Medicare reimburses clinical social workers, and The Pathways Out of Poverty Act, which would direct the U.S. Department of Education to extend matching grants to states and local agencies for the implementation of high-quality pre-kindergarten for low-income children. Regarding this latter initiative, Lee notes that, “Today, more than 46 million of our fellow Americans are living in poverty. In the world’s richest and most powerful nation, that’s simply unacceptable.” She adds, “I introduced The Pathways Out of Poverty Act [to] create good-paying jobs while strengthening our social safety net and building ladders of opportunity to help families climb out of poverty and into the middle class.”
During National Social Work Month, it is appropriate to salute Congresswoman Lee, the Congressional Social Work Caucus that she leads, and the social welfare policies that she champions on behalf of our shared profession. And, as evidenced by the congresswoman’s professional trajectory, it is always appropriate to remind ourselves that the distance between clinical practice and policy is never as far as we might think.
Brad Forenza, MSW, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of Child Advocacy and Policy at Montclair State University. His research foci include child welfare, youth development, and civil society. His academic career is accentuated by direct practice at youth and family development agencies, as well as public policy analysis and advocacy.