University of Houston Legislative Internship
University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work legislative interns for 2015, with Representative Garnet Coleman (far left), and Dr. Suzanne Pritzker (front row, far right), assistant professor and coordinator of the legislative internship program.
by Charles E. Lewis, Jr, Ph.D.,
Social work students have been fulfilling their field placement obligations in legislative settings for years, and there are some who would like to see those numbers increased. After years of gridlock in Congress and state legislatures, politics is playing a more significant role in changing policies. Although there is still some give and take in legislative arenas, the party in charge has the upper hand about which policies are debated and which policies are allowed a vote. This can be clearly seen in the U.S. House of Representatives, where Republicans have refused to allow a vote on S.744—the Border Security, Economic Opportunity, and Immigration Modernization Act—which passed the Senate June 13, 2013, by a 68-32 vote margin.
After the Senate passed the bill and sent it to the House, the next step was for the House to vote on the bill or a modified version of the bill that could be reconciled in a conference. Knowing that there were enough votes to pass the Senate version in the House, Republican leadership refused to bring the bill to the floor for a vote because anti-immigration conservatives were adamantly opposed to its passage.
In all fairness, when Democrats were in the majority in the Senate, they blocked much of the legislation passed by the Republican-led House of Representatives, particularly those bills seeking to repeal or weaken the Affordable Care Act. Many policies that would help the poor or low-income families—such as increasing the minimum wage, family leave and childcare policies, and pro-union legislation—remain trapped in committees both at the federal and state legislatures. Getting candidates elected who support these policies may be the only means of getting some movement.
There seems to be increased interest among social workers that the profession needs to do more to influence the policies that affect vulnerable individuals and populations, and the best means of having an impact is to become more politically active. Dr. Nancy A. Humphreys, former dean at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work and past president of the National Association of Social Workers, has been a leader in the effort to get more social workers to run for political office, work in legislative settings, and participate in campaigns and elections. The institute for political social work that bears her name has trained more than 600 social workers in its annual campaign school that is now entering its 20th year. Many of them have successfully campaigned for political office or found careers in legislative and policy settings. The mayor of Hartford, Connecticut, Pedro E. Segarra, is a graduate of UConn’s School of Social Work and a product of the institute’s campaign school. Tanya Rhodes Smith succeeded recently-retired Dr. Humphreys as the institute’s new director.
During my time on the Hill as deputy chief of staff for now-retired Congressman Edolphus Towns, I supervised social work students who were doing their field placement work as interns. Before I went on the Hill during my years on the faculty of Howard University School of Social Work, we placed interns in several congressional offices. While on the Hill, I assisted Congressman Towns with the formation of the Congressional Social Work Caucus. We also created a nonprofit organization—the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP)—to complement the work of the Social Work Caucus after his retirement. One of CRISP’s goals is to expand opportunities for social work students to fulfill their field placement obligations on the Hill.
There are currently eight social workers serving in Congress—six in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate. Congresswoman Barbara Lee (D-CA13) is the chair of the Social Work Caucus. Other social workers in the House include: Reps. Karen Bass (D-CA37), Susan Davis (D-CA53), Luis Gutierrez (D-IL4), Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ9), and Niki Tsongas (D-MA3). There are two social workers in the Senate—Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow and Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski, the longest serving woman in Senate history, who will be retiring at the end of her term in 2016. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) lists 181 social workers in elected office at the state and municipal levels.
One of the primary challenges in placing social work students in legislative settings is fulfilling supervisory requirements. Although most schools require field placement supervision by an experienced licensed social worker, schools do make exceptions for macro social work field placements. There is currently no blanket policy regarding supervision in legislative settings. The other challenge is finding the right opportunities. Often, legislative offices are not conducive to the structured learning required for a field placement. There are few, if any, social workers in these settings. So there is the danger that the social work student may feel isolated or out of place. The first hurdle is to convince legislators that social work students bring value to their office—especially in the area of constituent services.
The University of Alabama offers second-year MSW students the opportunity to participate in its Washington, DC, Internship Program, which allows competitively selected students to do the final field placement class in the nation’s capital. More than 600 students have participated in the program over the course of its 35-year history. The program is a 40-hour per week program with classes being held at NASW headquarters. The program has expanded to include BSW students.
Columbia University School of Social Work also offers a program for its MSW policy practice students that includes internships in congressional offices and federal agencies in Washington, DC.
The University of Houston’s Graduate College of Social Work’s Austin Legislative Internship Program allows students to participate full time in the Texas State Legislature in Austin, Texas. The legislature convenes every two years for five months, and both clinical and macro students do a block field placement that often requires long days and demanding work. Dr. Suzanne Pritzker, the program’s coordinator, has students maintain a blog during the legislative session. Fifty students have completed the program over the course of its 10-year existence.
Policies over the last three decades have led to a level of economic inequality that we have not seen in this country since the Gilded Age. The wealthiest households have accrued the lion’s share of the nation’s economic gains and prosperity. It will take new and radical political thinking to restore the middle class and offer better opportunity and mobility for low-income Americans. That means electing people who will enact the policies needed to make ours a more egalitarian society. Social workers have the skills and knowledge to be difference makers in the political arena.
For Further Information
Dr. Charles E. Lewis, Jr., is a former Hill staffer and is president of the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP).