Dr. Michael Forster

Social Work Graduates Must Carry the Flag for Social Justice

On Thusday night, the School of Social Work held its customary recognition ceremony for graduating BSW and MSW students at the Thad Cochran Center.  Following are my remarks to the graduates:

This is, to be sure, a great occasion.  I add to Dr. Rehner’s my enthusiastic welcome to everyone here tonight.  Graduates, I heartily congratulate you on your achievement.

But graduates, listen carefully now.  You have your work cut out for you.  Our state, our nation, and our world need social workers today more than ever.  That statement may sound like hyperbole, but I think it’s the cold, literal truth (it’s “evidence-based,” you might say…). 

The crises continue to pile up, do they not?  Poverty and all the ills associated with poverty – hunger, homelessness, lack of access to quality education, health care, and jobs, domestic violence – are way up, affecting large and growing numbers of people.  Income insecurity for even the “middle class” is on the rise, as real wages fall.  We have a health crisis, a health care crisis, and an aging crisis, all starting now to converge.  We have a mental health crisis as well, exacerbated by a heavy stream of veterans severely damaged by our military adventures abroad, and large number of victims of increasingly frequent “natural” disasters, most likely brought on by climate change.  Indeed, disaster and trauma may well be the watchwords of the new era we are entering.

And there’s good reason to fear that we’re just on the front end of worse to come.  The sheer momentum of negative forces is pulling us downward – in our state, in our nation, in our world.  And sadly, the ability of government to respond effectively is severely constrained, crimped by the dominance of “austerity” thinking and love for the “free market,” the belief that government can only create, but never solve, problems, and, worst of all, the “capture” of the political process by powerful interests (notably “Wall Street” and the “1%”) intent on protecting their privileged positions at the expense of the 99 per cent – that would be us, and the people we serve.

It is a daunting situation that we face.  Yet I suggest to you, graduates, that social workers need to be in the lead of response to the great challenges ahead.  They need to be leaders in building resilience, in building relationships of mutual aid, relationships of support and trust, relationships of community and civility and life-sustaining interdependence in a dangerous and chaotic world under tremendous stress.  More than ever, they need to be leaders in challenging damaging power structures and in empowering the disempowered to gain meaningful control of their lives.

But why social workers?  Why us especially?  Well, who else is better equipped than we are?  Who else has the knowledge that we have?  Who else has the skills necessary?  Above all, who else has the values up to the task of protecting and preserving our humanity?  Let us never forget that social work is first and foremost a values profession; our knowledge base and our skills are built atop a solid foundation of core values – the values of a universal humanity, of compassion, of loving and competent care, and of community; the values of clearly and unequivocally taking sides in favor of the powerless, the marginalized, the disadvantaged, the victims; and, most important of all, the value of justice

Above all else, this – the struggle for justice at every level, every setting, every system – must be our passionate commitment.  (And if you’re wondering about what “justice” entails, more than anything it is about equality, both economic and political, and it is about peace.  Without justice there can be no peace, but without peace there will be no justice.  But that can be a deep subject, so we’ll leave it alone tonight….)

The struggle for justice and a humane world is who we are; it defines and “makes” us.  The particular job we have, let alone the agency we work for, does not make us social workers.  The license to use the title of “social worker,” however important, does not make us social workers.  Mastering the latest jargon and even the most current, most advanced intervention techniques, also very important, does not make us social workers.  That defining status belongs alone to the fight to change the world for the better, to change it in favor of equality, peace, and justice – in favor of people who are hurting and need our help to make for themselves better, more humane and dignified, lives.

Graduates, you have your work cut out for you, indeed.  But I have no doubt that you – arm-in-arm with each other, and with those others who went before you, and with still others who will come up yet after you – you are up to the task, you have been prepared and you are fit for the work that needs to be done.

Congratulations and good luck.

Dr. Michael Forster
Dr. Michael Forster

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