by Karen Zgoda, MSW, LCSW, ABD
From time to time, I’d like to use this column to profile the work of a colleague who combines the practice of social work and applications of technology. I think this kind of information can be difficult to find, unless one is lucky enough to stumble across it via adventurous Google searches. I hope to educate and inspire my dear readers in your own work. In fact, telling your colleagues, fellow students, and professors about this important work can also help others learn about these interesting projects, as well. For my part, I will highlight what I think are important or interesting technology contributions to the field of social work.
John McNutt, Ph.D., is the focus of this issue’s profile. John has done much work in social work and technology. He has helped agencies with their technology, used it in his courses, and done research on how it works in the field. He has also written quite a lot about technology in social work and in social work education. John considers his current specialty to be nonprofit management.
John was born in New Jersey and went to college in North Carolina. In the mid-1970s, he was a VISTA volunteer in Birmingham, AL. As he says, “There was no AmeriCORPS when I was in it—it’s just VISTA until the Clinton Administration (http://www.americorps.gov/about/programs/vista.asp).” Given many of the racial tensions and acts of violence of the time, he worked to get people out of the Birmingham jail. John also helped with the bail program and arranged bonds. He had grown up in New Jersey, and he saw a lot of things in Alabama he had never seen before. John could now see things as they were and realized that he wanted to see and make change in the world. Whereas John considers this work a good growth experience, it also taught him about “the primary unfairness of American society but that real, meaningful change could happen.” John credits this experience with giving him a commitment to social justice and connections to lifelong friends and inspirations, many of whom he still thinks about.
John got his MSW at the University of Alabama and his Ph.D. at the University of Tennessee, starting his teaching career in the early 1980s. He currently teaches in the School of Urban Affairs and Public Policy at the University of Delaware (http://suapp.udel.edu/).
John was always interested in technology, and when social work and technology began to converge in the late 1980s, he jumped in. He started doing research on it in the early 1990s. Most of the early work that he did involved the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) Annual Program Meeting (APM), where he co-chaired the technology track for about a year. “After that, I ran the courseware exchange and then I ran the technology symposium for several years,” he adds.
He notes that the National Association of Schools and Public Affairs and Administration (NASPAA) is responsible for accreditation of Master of Public Administration (MPA) programs and requires that technology is a part of all accredited MPA programs. “This includes technology as a required part of their curriculum,” John says, “and I want to see similar dedication to technology in the practice of social work. It’s not the practice of social work that is the problem—it’s the teaching of social work.”
In fact, John can’t wait for more social workers to, as he puts it, “get with the program” on using technology. As John notes, one of social work’s missions is to advocate for the poor and dispossessed. Effective advocacy groups are doing this and moving significant portions of their efforts online. The system is changing to adapt to new forms of advocacy. For example, with government transparency, one can now get more information than in the past, especially legislative information. John states, “The calendar was never a secret—it’s who visits the White House you can now get online.”
He now sees a lot of technology in organizing and cites Web 2.0 tools as critical to the organizing process. He refers to the Community Development Society (http://www.comm-dev.org/) principles:
- Promote active and representative participation toward enabling all community members to meaningfully influence the decisions that affect their lives.
- Engage community members in learning about and understanding community issues, and the economic, social, environmental, political, psychological, and other impacts associated with alternative courses of action.
- Incorporate the diverse interests and cultures of the community in the community development process, and disengage from support of any effort that is likely to adversely affect the disadvantaged members of a community.
- Work actively to enhance the leadership capacity of community members, leaders, and groups within the community.
- Be open to using the full range of action strategies to work toward the long-term sustainability and well being of the community.
Community Development Society
John points out that these principles of good practice in community development align almost perfectly with points made by technology guru Tim O’Reilly’s seminal article on Web 2.0 (http://oreilly.com/web2/archive/what-is-web-20.html). “Essentially, when you organize a community, you bring together collective intelligence, and modern technology tools are becoming critical to helping such tasks get done and reach a wider audience,” he says.
John points out that it is important to take a step back and ask, “Who doesn’t make it possible for folks to participate in the process? Much advocacy work up to this point was about message control. For example, a candidate or politician or leader crafts a message, and the point of advocacy work was to disseminate that message. However, technology, especially Web 2.0, is proving to be a disruptive innovation [see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Disruptive_technology] to this traditional process.” John cites some campaigning uses of technology to illustrate his point: Meetups (http://www.meetup.com/), campaigning games (for example, http://www.deanforamericagame.com/play.html), organizing (http://my.barackobama.com and http://www.moveon.org/ ), and getting folks to make phone calls (http://my.barackobama.com/page/content/iphone). John notes that continuous campaigning goes on now, not just about an election but also about sustaining commitment and support on issues. It becomes more about issues, which he feels is beneficial. In addition, John notes that money from small donations over the Internet made a huge difference in the Obama campaign (see http://www.snopes.com/politics/obama/donations.asp for more information). Everyone could donate, and this symbolizes a return to traditional community organizing using technology.
Right now, John is a big fan of Twitter (http://twitter.com). He loves getting updates from his favorite information sources in real time, but could see it evolving into something else.
John notes that the technological revolution of the past couple of decades is analogous to the industrial revolution, in that current developing Web 2.0 tools go against traditional ways of doing things and thus meet a lot of resistance. John strongly feels that the social work profession is going to have to innovate substantially and realize “this isn’t the 1950s or the 1960s anymore.” He notes that “you can’t continue to operate on models that don’t work, especially when situations change rapidly. Technology will substantially change the way that social workers do practice, because it will change how agencies do business and social workers, clients, and communities function.” He adds, “Social work organizations need to realize how the climate has changed. Organizations have become flattened with technology improvements. Decentralized organizations are becoming smaller, and social work needs to respond to these needs.”
John believes that there are technology tools out there, but social work as a profession doesn’t always acknowledge them. “We need to be teaching more technology skills in school. I think the important point is that technology is an important tool and that you need to be open to what it can provide,” he says. “Always keep learning, especially technology tools for budgeting, marketing, campaigning, and community organizing. Organizing will get to the point that we will be technologically organized. The people who are growing up with technology will want to organize this way.” He would also love to see an accreditation requirement that social work education programs meaningfully incorporate technology into the curriculum.
For more on John’s background and current work, head to his main Web site (http://policymagic.org/) or check out his Wikipedia entry with a list of some of his recent publications (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_G._McNutt).
Karen Zgoda, MSW, LCSW, is an ABD doctoral student at the Graduate School of Social Work at Boston College. Her research interests include the role of technology in social work, the effects of information communications technologies (ICTs) such as the Internet and e-mail, poverty and class, aging, social informatics, socioeconomic development, public policy, and community practice. Karen is the chief editor and founder of EditMyManuscript.com, providing manuscript editing services to students, faculty, and other social work professionals. Her Web site is http://www.karenzgoda.org. You can follow her on Twitter at http://twitter.com/karenzgoda.
This article appeared in the Summer 2010 issue of THE NEW SOCIAL WORKER (Vol. 17, No. 3).