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Student Perspective on Social Workers in the Policy Making Arena
By Samantha Santor, MSW, University of Washington
On a crisp January morning I made my first trip to Olympia. I stopped just inside the legislative building to ask for directions and a friendly woman highlighted a map for me. Once inside the John J. O'Brien Building I found my room and waited for others to arrive. It was the first Children's Budget Coalition meeting of the session. The lobbyists in the room were both social workers and non-social workers, but all were there to protect children and families. It was fascinating to see a social worker in a capacity other than the traditional clinical work many of us do. Their entire focus was to protect vulnerable populations from political forces that often overlook them. In reality, it is not so much that we are overlooked, but that there simply are not enough voices speaking up for human services.
Though a bit nervous at first, it wasn't long before I felt at home in the bustling activity of lobbyists, legislators, and concerned citizens. I had always thought of lobbyists and policy makers as far off beings. To my pleasant surprise they were just average people doing a tremendously difficult job. Many took the time to answer my questions and listen to my concerns. Since legislators are just average people, although educated and dedicated, they do not know every issue inside and out and must therefore depend on their constituents for information. This is the fundamental premise of a representative democracy.
Although some might say that legislative advocacy is macro-level work and far removed from clients, I would argue that it is the most fundamental mode of social work, the most basic service to clients. Influencing the policies that will ultimately affect our clients is at the heart of our mission as social workers. If we, in concert with other advocates, can affect real social change at the policy level, many of the constant needs so pervasive in our society could be alleviated. While meeting the immediate needs of vulnerable peoples will always be a vital part of social work, it is equally important that the root problems be addressed. If we choose to ignore policy concerns we will continue to reap the fruits of a dysfunctional system.
More than anything, my experience in Olympia has opened my eyes to a world I didn't know existed. Social workers are struggling daily to achieve and maintain a just society for all. And although their labor seems in vain at times, it need not be. If we, the social work community, were mobilized behind our lobbyists and advocates the impact would be incredible. I've learned that the simple things I do make a difference. I cannot assume that someone else is calling or writing about an issue that is important to me. The only way for my legislators to hear me is for me to speak up. And though my single voice is but a whisper, a hundred voices can be heard loud and clear. It is my responsibility to act. It is the responsibility of all of us.