A call to organize: social work as social movement

Posted March 13, 2009

I am finishing a Masters in Social Work in New York, and have been very involved in student organizing at my school. After two years, we’ve developed a great network of a few dozen student and community activists. I hope to continue to organize with these folks throughout my career as a social worker. I wrote the following for our social work student journal in an effort to provide a basis for continuing our organizing after graduation. [Note: the school is divided into three main majors: clinical casework (what social work is traditionally thought of), clinical group work (i.e. running support groups), and community organizing (i.e. grass-roots organizing, mostly in non-profits)]


“Ethical Principle: Social workers challenge social injustice. Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people” (National Association of Social Workers, Code of Ethics)[1].

The history and literature of community organizers is perhaps the most focused on applying this principle to societal-level change, but what are the implications for the 81% of us here are majoring in casework and groupwork? I have come to see the social justice principle as giving caseworkers and groupworkers two specific mandates: implementing anti-oppressive practice and organizing within our agencies. There are many ways to pursue social change as social workers, but integrating these two specific areas of work into our daily practice will help us provide the best services possible in our imperfect agencies and also utilize our unique positions as service providers to improve and expand the ability of our agencies to meet the needs of our clients.

Before going into these two mandates, I want to briefly reflect on why in social work the principle of social justice is so central to our practice. As a field, we pride ourselves on a “bio-psycho-social” assessment of clients, one that sees each person as part of multiple levels of systems ranging from micro to macro, from nutrition and disease to poverty and oppression.

Not only do we attempt to understand the “problems” in one system or another (such as depression at the psychological level or poverty at a societal level) and the strengths and opportunities that our clients have for achieving their goals, our training helps us assess the interactions between these levels of systems. For example, Boyd-Franklin has described how racism is a cause underlying many of the “clinical” psychological problems that social workers’ clients of color present with [2]. Such perspectives on assessment are already in our curriculum and we know that without social change, we will continue to see disproportionate medical and mental health suffering among the victims of social injustice.

Implementing anti-oppressive practice

In my experience studying clinical casework, I have struggled to find a framework for bio-psycho-social interventions that addresses the complexity of our bio-psycho-social assessments.

For example, when helping a client develop anger management strategies, how might we also intervene in the social structures of oppression that have contributed to his anger in the first place? A community organizer might pursue policy change through direct action strategies, but many caseworkers are in agencies that effectively limit our work to individual and group sessions within the walls of the clinic. Though there has been relatively little written about this until recently, important progress has been made in the past several years, including two excellent books [3, 4].

In addition to emphasizing social workers’ own self-awareness and knowledge, a theme in much of this work is helping clients develop healthy and affirming responses to and rejections of oppression. The relationship of this process to larger social change is profound; as Freire [5] noted with his term conscientization, rejecting the psychological submission that oppression requires of its victims is essential to the project of achieving societal-level social change.

Thus, continuing to develop and implement anti-oppressive practice is both feasible in our current roles as caseworkers and groupworkers and effective in countering social injustice.

Organizing within our agencies

While much can be accomplished through anti-oppressive practice with individuals and groups in these settings, the nature and scope of the services and resources available to our clients must also be greatly expanded. To be effective allies for our clients and for social justice, we also have to be organized in the face of continuing attacks on social services in general and our ability to provide quality services specifically.

While the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) does advocate around these issues, those of us actually providing the services are in a key position to become a powerful force for social change if we organize with our colleagues in our agencies and across the city. While this may seem like an order too tall to fill, there is a remarkable precedent for just this less than 50 years ago right here in New York. When Piven and Cloward [6] described the welfare rights movement of the 1960s (a sort of continuation of the civil rights movement, made up mostly of African-American women receiving welfare), they note that the struggles of these welfare recipients was significantly aided by the Social Service Employees Union (SSEU)[7], an organization of only 5,000 employees of what is now HRA who had taken a principled stance in alliance with the welfare recipients.

These social workers and their colleagues refused to cooperate with the City’s severe limitations on relief, and in January, 1965 — after planning with the New York chapter of the National Welfare Rights Organization and other civil rights organizations — they walked off the job, shutting down the City’s welfare system for a month. In an excellent chapter devoted to this strike, Maier [8] notes that largely due to their strategy of effective organizing with colleagues and allying with service recipients, “even critics of the union admit that SSEU’s influence in New York was far out of proportion to its size”. In the end, they won increases in relief for welfare recipients, smaller caseloads, greater control over their work and pay increases.

While this work will not be easy and like all of our efforts, there are no guarantees, caseworkers and groupworkers can make major contributions to the struggles for social justice by organizing ourselves in our agencies and allying with our clients. Reach out and say hi – let’s get organized!

Social work as social movement

Front-line caseworkers and groupworkers make up the vast majority of social workers in the US, and we risk not only abandoning our ethical mandates if we leave social change to the community organizers or NASW staff, but social workers as a group will also have failed to contribute all that we can to the social movement that social justice requires.

The question is not whether social justice is some special interest of community organizers – social justice is at the heart of competent social work practice in all settings, whether we like it or not. The question is whether we will become part of the powerful social movement necessary to achieve it.


  1. NASW, Code of Ethics, as revised by the Delegate Assembly. 1999, National Association of Social Workers.
  2. Franklin, A.J., N. Boyd-Franklin, and S. Kelly, Racism and Invisibility: Race-Related Stress, Emotional Abuse and Psychological Trauma for People of Color, in Racism and racial identity: reflections on urban practice in mental health and social services, L.V. Blitz and M.P. Greene, Editors. 2006, Haworth Maltreatment & Trauma Press: New York. p. xxxi, 279 p.
  3. Aldarondo, E., Advancing social justice through clinical practice. 2007, Mahwah, New Jersey; London: Lawrence Erlbaum. xxiv, 496 p.
  4. Blitz, L.V. and M.P. Greene, Racism and racial identity: reflections on urban practice in mental health and social services. 2006, New York: Haworth Maltreatment & Trauma Press. xxxi, 279 p.
  5. Freire, P., Pedagogy of the oppressed. New rev. 20th-Anniversary ed. 1993, New York: Continuum. 164 p.
  6. Piven, F.F. and R.A. Cloward, Poor people’s movements: why they succeed, how they fail. 1979, New York: Vintage books. xxiv, 381 p.
  7. SSEU: Though it has gone through many changes since the 1960s, SSEU is still around (www.sseu371.org) and represents approximately 18,000 public sector workers who provide social services in New York City, including over 2,000 who are social workers with MSWs.
  8. Maier, M., City unions: managing discontent in New York City. 1987, New Brunswick [N.J.]: Rutgers University Press. xii, 221 p.