NASW-MS chapter’s social justice committee declares that “social work is political”

The Mississippi NASW chapter’s social justice committee hosted its second topical Zoom forum last evening under the heading, “social work is political.” It just may have set the stage for some of the most important discussions that Mississippi social workers and students have had in a long while.

Four panelists – Kathryn Rehner-Sullivan, government affairs director for the American Heart Association, Na Youn Lee, assistant professor of social work at UM, Lauren Porter, MSW student at USM, and myself – shared perspectives and responded to questions in a deliberately compressed 75-minute time frame. The high energy displayed and generated made it clear that this was likely the first of what may well turn into a series of linked reflections and calls for action in 2022.

Following are a lightly edited version of my own remarks:

I want to talk tonight about ICU – which has nothing to do (at least not directly) with the COVID crisis that continues to rock the nation and the world.  Here’s where I’m coming from: If we’re going to grow a “political social work” perspective in Mississippi, which I think we all agree we should, and must, among those things absolutely required, I think, are: Infrastructure, Collaboration, and Urgency – ICU.

Let me say just a bit about what I have in mind under each of these headings.

  1. Infrastructure. Social justice change requires sustained action, often over an extended period of time; and sustained action – social justice “movements,” if you will – requires sustained and sustainable organizational structure.  Organic and spontaneous reaction to injustice (George Floyd’s murder, to take an egregious example) is great, even essential perhaps; but organization is necessary to move beyond the spontaneous reaction, especially when we consider that there will almost certainly be a counter-reaction to the initial upsurge and demand for change.  (So, beyond the initial reaction to Floyd’s killing, we need the sustained organizational activity of a Black Lives Matter movement; we need the long-haul activities of many local organizations fighting for police reform in their respective communities.)

Just what kind of organization is best is a subject for careful thinking, but I’d say that in Mississippi we need, at minimum, a central hub that persists, and spokes that likewise persist.  We need, moreover, spokes that reach both outward, and downward to the grassroots level, spokes that can communicate and coordinate easily and more or less continuously with both the hub and with the other spokes.

2. Collaboration. We want to get more political as social workers.  We want to become politically strong.  We want to have real and lasting social justice impact.  Excellent. But, unfortunately, I believe that we, the social work community, will never be strong enough on our own to achieve social justice change.  For that we need to identify allies with whom we share, or can create, common ground, and we need to collaborate with them.  To me, any organization that self-identifies as progressive, or shows by their actions that they are fighting for human rights, that they are fighting for greater inclusion of ordinary people in decisions that affect their lives, that they fighting generally for more “people power” around critical issues – that organization is a potential ally.  We need to connect with as many such allies as we can, we need to craft with them common change agenda and compatible strategies.  “Stronger together” has become a bit of a cliché, I know, but it’s one that captures an indispensable truth that we can ill afford to ignore if we’re serious about building political muscle.

3. Urgency. There’s no time to waste; we need to get it in gear.  We see what’s happening with voting rights.  We see what’s happened to the Republican Party, the Trumpian “stop the steal” insanity that has become normalized.  We see the surge in white supremacist, proto-fascist, heavily armed militia groups (we saw their first “practice coup” on January 6).  We see what a stacked judicial system has done, is doing, and likely will do in the future to the rights of women, the rights of workers, and indeed the rights of all ordinary citizens who are not filthy rich. 

The not-totally-crazy political right (i.e., the so-called “conservative” neoliberals who routinely decry government “overreach” while bending government to their purposes at every turn) – I’m thinking here of the well-funded Koch network, the American Legislative Exchange Council, the fully Republican Party-dominated state governments (that is, Mississippi and at least another 22 deep red states in which Republicans control both chambers of the legislature and the governorship) – The political right has, frankly, thoroughly out-organized progressive forces across the political arena in recent decades (certainly since the Reagan era). 

If someone said five years ago, even after the shocking election of the racist-misogynist-xenophobic-thoroughly corrupt Donald J. Trump, that the U.S. was sliding into an anti-democratic authoritarianism, if not into outright fascism, I’d likely have called it alarmist hyperbole – along with, I’m quite certain, virtually all social workers (including even the most politically left-leaning of them).  But no longer.  The alarm has been sounding loud and clear for a long time now; it’s way past time for social work to wake up.  We need to inject real urgency into all of our political thinking, all our political messaging, all our political activity.

In sum – I.C.U.: Infrastructure, Collaboration, Urgency

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