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Just What is Social Work?

By March 16, 2016Blog

Nothing can be worse than the fear that one had given up too soon and left one unexpended effort which might have saved the world.

Jane Addams (1860-1935), pioneer American recognized as the founder of the social work profession in the United States.  She founded the settlement house, Hull House, in Chicago, is the namesake of the University of IL’s Jane Addams School of Social Work, and in 1931, was the first American woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize.


Isn’t this the mantra of all social workers!? They never stop caring.  Social workers tune into individual and family distress, social injustice, and the underdogs in society.  Thanks to early social work pioneers, we now enjoy safer workplaces, a minimum wage, Social Security benefits, and unemployment benefits.

March is National Social Worker Month! For many of the 600,000 social workers in the nation, this is a time to be recognized and revisit the satisfaction of choosing to join the field of social work.

Social Workers work everywhere:  public agencies, private non-profit agencies, universities, hospitals, clinics, doctors’ offices, schools, private practice, and the street.  Nearly 70% of mental health services in the U.S. are delivered by social workers.  They are society’s watchdogs and strive to bring good to communities and the individuals and families that live in them.  Anna Sheyett, Ph.D. offered a smart Tedx talk about Social Workers as Super-Heroes in 2015.  There is a National Association of Social Workers and state chapters in all 50 states.  In Maine, there are 5 levels of Social Work Licensure, based on education, experience, and training.  Maine has 5,841 active social workers of various licensing levels.

One of my most meaningful moments as a social worker occurred when I was in graduate school at the Jane Addams School in Chicago. While “out in the field” with William, my 250 lb. “body guard” and social work supervisor who had grown up in the projects – I never went there without him.  He taught me which side of the housing project to park on when the parking lot in front was empty – to avoid having shots from high window snipers hit me or my car.  We were at one of the many gray-brown, 16-story, high-rise buildings in the Robert Taylor Homes, a public housing project on Chicago’s south side.

When constructed in 1961, the 2-mile corridor of buildings was intended as decent, affordable housing for 4,415 families.  The entire complex has been torn down now.  It was not a success and, in fact, bred a haven for gangs, drug use, and violence.

That day, we were going to visit a family who lived on the 12th floor; a mom who struggled with drug addiction and her 20-month-old baby who were attending our early childhood intervention program at the University.  They hadn’t come into sessions for the last 3 days.  This was one of my favorite babies, challenged with prematurity, prenatal drug exposure, developmental delays, and two parents struggling with poverty and chronic drug addiction.  She was a feisty baby, eager to learn, and responsive, though.  I wanted to help her grow.  And I remember being struck by the enormous disadvantages this beautiful little child was facing, from birth.

Getting out of William’s old car I stepped on a used hypodermic needle lying in the grass at the curb.  We walked toward the open, cement stairwell.  The odor of urine and dampness became stronger as we got closer.  Behind the building, I could see some residents standing around on the pavement – hanging out.  Some alone, some in small groups.  Before beginning to climb the stairs (William:  “never take the elevator”), William asked me quietly without turning his head away from the crowd, “What apartment number, Whitebread?”  I didn’t know, I told him.  “Why don’t we ask someone out back there?” I said.  “They probably know the family.”  He looked at me, took my arm and immediately turned me away from the stairwell and walked purposefully toward the car.

I learned a lot on the drive back to the early intervention program.  We returned to the project the next day with the apartment number, climbed the dark stairs up 12 stories, and found the family home.  Mom was surprised that I came out to her home.  She hugged me.  First time.  I was surely an outsider in this community.  I played with her baby, truly interested in how she was doing.  Mom was exhausted and distracted by life and her addiction.  Mom thanked us for visiting.  It felt helpful.  We saw them the next morning at the early intervention program.  I was heartened.

I’m not the only social worker who is heartened by the work of social work.  Several Spurwink school-based clinicians responded to what they like most about being a social worker:

  • I love developing a fun and caring connection with the kids I work with. I love that I am able to provide kids with a safe place to explore challenges and learn new skills. I love seeing the progress throughout the school year. I love helping teachers understand kids and their behaviors from a different perspective.
  • I love serving families that do not have the resources to bring their child to see a counselor in the community. I also have a very unique and valuable opportunity to collaborate with teachers, administrators, and other school staff who care deeply for the children I see.
  • By being based in the school, I can be available for a child when he or she is struggling with academic, behavioral or social issues that occur during a day.
  • I get to work with some amazing, smart, resilient young people who put a smile on my face daily!
  • I am able to offer students a place where they feel safe, heard and believed. 
  • My job allows me to be a part of something that matters.  
  • I learn something new every day.

Social work is something to celebrate.  I’ll bet it has made a difference in your life, somehow.


by Linda S. Butler, Ph.D., LCSW

Director of Research & Outcomes