by Joseph A. Cerniglia
Social work. Those words in society, one of which has four letters, sometimes draw ire and disdain. One member of my family was once observed discussing my pending degree in “sociology.” This lack of clarity about what social work is is not entirely the public’s fault. For many social workers, an internalized shame can take place. And in many ways, the public image is true: we do take babies from their mothers (when the child is at risk for imminent, unpreventable harm), and we do send children back to live with their abusive caregivers (when sufficient evidence suggests that the caregiver has corrected whatever issue has caused the initial loss of custody). Social workers have made mistakes. However, social workers take on the hardest jobs in the most complex of ecosystems at the lowest pay rates, and we do so as a self-sacrifice because we believe that every human being has worth, and that empathy is a driving force for good in the world.
I spent 10 years managing hotels in the South. Before I knew what social work was, perhaps I even thought it was sociology. I found myself working with low-wage workers, primarily African-American women, in accessing resources. These individuals worked upwards of 60-80 hours a week making minimum wage, cared for their families, and generally barely scraped by with a minimal amount of governmental assistance. I helped them find and apply for housing, supplemental food, childcare, and medical assistance. This was not part of my job description as General Manager, but maybe I interpreted “general” more loosely than my colleagues.
But, fundamentally, I could not fathom why, because I was White, well-educated, and male, I should be making five or six times more than my colleagues and friends. I didn’t understand why one position, for example, was to spend the entire day hunched over a bathroom tub scrubbing or carrying 100 pounds of laundry downstairs or making 25 beds in a row. And at $7.25 per hour. From my considerable discourse with these friends, they were just as intelligent as I was, had every capacity to do the job I did, and were in the different positions because of factors well-established and beyond any of our control, mostly related to an economic system that favors White men over Black women.
I made efforts to change things: increase wages for workers, provide substantial benefits to employees, offer educational grants. None of these things are viewed as profitable for the small business owners I worked with. It became clear that I was not going to make change from the inside - broader systems change was in order - and this provided for me the catalyst for entering the profession of social work.
Social work is the profession dedicated to changing society for the better. Our ire and disdain is well-deserved, because we are taking the worldview of “this system works and it needs to be that way,” and we’re saying, “no, it doesn’t” to both. Of course, we enrage society by our very existence.
Maybe we're not doing our jobs correctly if we're not making such waves. We offer up that mirror that reflects the ill of society, not to say it’s irreparable but the opposite. Yes,we expose society to the flaws of racism and classism that so pervade our every institution. But - and this is the kicker - we do so with that empathetic call that declares: What if there were another, better way that improved your life in addition to the lives of everyone else? I would propose that there is and that one of the words has four letters.
Joseph Cerniglia is an MSW student at New York University anticipating completion in the Spring of 2016. Joseph currently serves as a research and administration intern at the McSilver Institute for Poverty Policy and Research.