By: Delene Porter
Winter 2003, Vol. 10, No. 1
The BPD Policy Fellowship: A Summer Experience in Washington
by Delene Porter, BSW
At the beginning of Spring semester 2002, I received notice of a summer internship for BSW students wishing to learn more about the connection between social work policy, practice, and research in Washington, DC. The internship was with the Institute for the Advancement of Social Work Research (IASWR) and, even though Research in Practice was not my favorite undergraduate course, I wasn’t going to let that stop me from spending ten weeks in our nation' capital. What started as a shot-in-the-dark application to the Association of Baccalaureate Social Work Program Directors (BPD) Summer Policy Fellowship turned into the best summer of my life. Not only did my experiences reinforce my interests in social work political action and advocacy; they also broadened my understanding of and appreciation for the important role that social work research plays in informing effective policy and practice.
Under the guidance of Dr. Joan Zlotnik at IASWR, I did everything from reviewing 1983-2002 House and Senate Appropriations Report Language on social work research to attending the “President' New Freedom Commission on Mental Health,” at which both the Executive Director of NASW, Dr. Elizabeth Clark, and Dr. Zlotnik presented testimony. I got to hear Gloria Steinem and Al Gore encourage greater political participation and had the opportunity to meet other social workers who were committed to seeing change created through legislative advocacy. While my fellowship activities included projects, conferences, and seminars, the best experiences I had centered on lobbying.
Upon arriving at the office in mid-May, I was excited to find that IASWR rented space in NASW' headquarters. In addition to feeling awestruck that I would be working at the national offices of my professional association, I quickly realized that I would also be only three blocks from the Capitol, Senate, and House buildings. With the help of NASW' Government Relations Department and its lobbyists, I went to the Hill at least once a week to get versed in the art of civic engagement. My introduction to what DC is all about started with a Mental Health Parity Rally held on the steps of the Capitol. From there, I joined NASW lobbyists as they visited the staffs of different senators and representatives. In addition to mental health parity, I lobbied for a National Center for Social Work Research, for full funding of the Individuals with Disabilities Act, and, for my personal favorite, a National Housing Trust Fund (H.R. 2349).
I brought home with me many important lessons from these lobbying experiences and wanted to share some of them with The New Social Worker' readers. First, I realized that social workers are much better informed about the needs of our clients and communities than are our members of Congress. Simply put, we’ve devoted our lives to the empowerment of others and our knowledge about this process is first hand, not just theoretical.
Second, I realized that national and international social policy is being made exclusively by our elected officials-when they cast their votes, a decision is made. While these sound like simple concepts, the consequences of understanding them have important implications for our role as we enter the field. We, as social workers, must work to put people into office who represent us both professionally and personally. While many of my professors shied away from discussing political candidates, their positions, and their voting records, these are indispensable pieces of information that a social worker needs to know to serve clients. Raising the awareness of elected representatives regarding what our profession does, who it serves, and what we need doesn’t have to be done retroactively. Many of the barriers we find in our careers could be lessened by putting knowledgeable, if not social work trained, people into public office.
One strategy for creating “sympathetic” leadership is to work through our national and state NASW Political Action for Candidate Election (PACE) committees. These committees support candidates who care about our issues, as well as help social workers make informed choices. While PACE works hard on our behalf, it needs our input to stay on the right track.
There are multiple ways to get involved with your local PACE committee. One way to do it on a paid basis is to become an NASW Field Organizer. Before elections, state NASW chapters apply for national' help in getting out the social work vote across the country. Selected social workers from varying concentrations and all levels of education are invited to DC for a training session on how to organize social worker support in political campaigns. There are thousands of intern and job opportunities on the Hill, but what I liked best about the Field Organizers program was that social workers take the knowledge and experience home to think globally but act locally.
Another strategy for “educating” elected officials, and probably the most important lesson I learned in light of the recent elections, is that members of Congress really will listen to the voices and stories of their voters. No matter who is in office, constituents-including social workers and clients-are the most respected and valued sources of information on the Hill. Time and time again, I saw the difference in how Democrat and Republican senators and representatives alike reacted when they found out one of their own constituents was among our lobbying group. Not only would they open their doors to us, they would listen intently to our stories in an effort to gather ammunition to fight our battle for change.
Changing policy is just as challenging as changing a single life for the better, but both are goals of social work practice. Social workers can be a formidable force in the political arena because of our skill in persistent patience, the ecological perspective, and community organizing.
I encourage every social worker to get DC experience somehow. The impact of authentic voices outweighs any of the efforts of professional lobbyists and advocacy groups, but feeling confident enough to make you and your clients heard takes the confidence that is easily gained through experience. Becoming an agent of change doesn’t require that we move to DC. Rather, it demands that we empower ourselves and our clients to speak out about our needs and get engaged in our political system at every level.
Delene Porter, BSW, received her undergraduate degree from the University of Georgia in 2002. She is currently a student in UGA' MSW program. See page 3 of the Winter 2003 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER for an in-depth profile of Delene.