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The Macro Social Work Student Network: Fighting for Social Justice



By Rachel L. West, MSW, LMSW

“I wanted to be Jane Addams but I found myself in the world of Mary Richmond.” – Dr. Jack Rothman, June 2013

On June 14th I attend Macro in a Micro World: What the 2012 Rothman Report Means for Social Change Hopefulness.  The event was organized by The Macro Social Work Student Network (MSWSN), a student organized group at Hunter College’s Silberman School of Social Work.

The purpose of the event was to gather macro social workers from around the United States to discuss the Rothman Report and to come up with solutions to the problems highlighted in the report. If you haven’t you can read the report here.

The discussion was broken up into three parts. First was the panel discussion with Dr. Loretta Pyles and Dr. Scott Harding which was followed by a Q&A.  After the Q&A, the attendees took part in an Open Space exercise.

By my own estimate, there were about thirty (per MSWSN the official count is 49 from 15 different schools) people in attendance, and I was later told that there were six different schools of social work being represented.  I was amazed how many people from out of state were present being that Hunter College is located in Manhattan. There were students from Indiana, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Virginia. I was happy to see such a large contingent from my Alma Mater, Adelphi University.

Before the discussion began, MSWSN member Andrew Calderaro read some remarks that Dr. Jack Rothman had sent. Dr. Rothman, who teaches in California, was regretfully unable to attend the event.

Dr. Pyles and Dr. Harding started off the discussion by giving an overview of the Rothman Report.  They both talked of the path they took into macro social work and their experiences in the field within the framework of the Rothman Report.

Dr. Harding mentioned the lack of academic journals dedicated to macro social work and how that makes it difficult for community practice social workers to get published. He stated that there is a lot of gatekeeping around what is considered legitimate social work.

Dr. Pyles mentioned that the University she teaches at had to get a waiver from the CSWE for her to teach because she has aSilberman School of Social Work at Hunter College Ph.D. is social work but not an MSW (according to CSWE policy professors must have a Masters degree in social work in order to teach classes in a social work program even if their Ph.D. or Doctorate is in the field).  This policy poses further obstacles to getting more macro focused instructors hired.

Dr. Pyles also spoke about the CSWE being more clinically driven as well as social work moving away from its social justice roots.  She lamented the profession’s embrace the philosophy that individuals should pull themselves up by their boot straps; an ideology that is not congruent with macro practice.  Dr. Harding also discussed the movement within the US for privatization and how this is impacting the social work profession at large.  There is a push in the country to cut back on government welfare programs and to let corporations pick up the slack.

There was a lot of concern from students in the room (and from those surveyed in the Rothman Report) about not having access to proper training with regard to macro work at their schools or in their field placements.   There is a sense that students are entering social work programs with an interest in community practice but are frustrated because they cannot get more than a couple of classes on the subject and most internships are direct practice.  Dr. Pyles mentioned students may need to look outside of social work academia for training in community organizing.

Dr. Harding said that students need to be a part of changing the culture within the profession.  One attendant said that it took the student body at his university lobbied the social work administration for thirty years before they agreed to offer a class on oppression.  The message was that, while it is frustrating, we need to remember that creating change a process.  It will not happen overnight and if universities are ever going to be more responsive to the needs of macro social work students, those very students need to organize and put pressure on the administration.

Dr. Harding also mentioned during the Q&A that the social work profession needs to be more involved in the labor movement and this includes unionizing ourselves.

Going back to the need for improved education and mentorship opportunities; it was suggested that ACOSA could provide a means for macro social work students and new professionals to find mentorship.  There was also some talk of using social media to facilitate mentor/student relationships.

There was also concern expressed around Ph.D. candidates facing many obstacles because they were focusing on macro issues instead of micro issues.  There is a great emphasis in Ph.D. programs for candidates to get grants, but most of the grants offered are in health. This poses a problem to those focusing on social justice or public policy issues.  Dr. Harding mentioned that he was currently supervising students whose thesis papers were being challenged because the topic was not seen as being appropriate to social work, this despite the University having a macro track.

Open Space 

Some great discussion came out of the Open Space exercises; at least going by the group I was in.   Taking a look around the room everyone seemed very engaged.

When attendees first checked in the welcome table they were asked to write down a discussion topic on a Post It Note.  Around six topics were then picked and posted around the meeting room.  Individual attendees were free to pick which topic they were most interested in talking about and then formed small groups based on the suggested topics.  I sat with a group that was discussing social work licensing.

The Rothman Report mentioned the notion that clinical social work practice is bent towards social work licensing which is reducing the value and opportunities for nonclinical practice. Many states have some form of generalist license such as here in New York with the LMSW.  However, those licenses tend to focus heavily on micro practice.  We briefly talked about whether or not the creation of a macro license would be beneficial.

Our discussion flowed into the topic of a generalist curriculum versus the use of tracks.  One participant said her school in Pennsylvania was generalist practice, and she felt they had a fairly balanced program because they provided equal opportunities with regards to macro and micro social work.  My school, Adelphi, was also generalist, but without a doubt it favored micro practice.  There was only one macro elective, and it was given during the winter intersession.  There were a couple of students who attend programs with both tracks. However, they reported that despite their school offering a macro/community organizing track  the program still had a tendency to skew towards clinical social work when it came to course offerings and support.

After the discussion period, the note taker for each group took turns giving an overview to the entire room.  There was one group that had discussed searching for a job as a macro social worker.  They mentioned not getting enough guidance with regards to macro employment at their programs.  This issue briefly came up in the group I was in when in which one student said she had no idea how to look for a macro focused job. Clearly, this is an area schools are falling short in.  The career advice being offered seems to be geared towards students who plan to do mental health counseling.

After each group’s representative spoke, the notes were collected.  We were told that they would be given to the commission that ACOSA was forming to address the issues found in the Rothman Report.  The commission will have its first meeting at Hunter in mid-July.

Overall, it was an excellent event that provided a rare opportunity for macro social workers to gather.  Everyone who attended seemed very enthusiastic and while this could have been seen as a somewhat depressing discussion topic, it wasn’t.  A lot of good solutions were brought up and everyone was very interested in figuring out how they could address the issues found in the report.  With the creation of a commission by ACOSA, sponsor of the event, my hope is that we will see some real action taken to advocate for macro social work.

The event was recorded and once it has been edited will be made available online.  I will provide a link once it is posted.

Macro Social Work Student Network 

During the cocktail hour, I was able to briefly talk with two MSWSN members, Andrew Calderaro and Winnie Lee.

MSWSN logoMSWSN was formed back in 2011 and were originally called the National Community Organizing Network Project.  It grew out of a project Silberman students were doing for their Community Organizing, Planning, and Development II course.   As part of their work the students connected with other macro social work students at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Connecticut via videoconference.

In 2012 Silberman students created a more formal mission for the network and began working on expanding.  Macro in a Micro World was their first event. They are particularly interested in connecting with students on other campuses.

According to Calderaro the long term goal is to get MSWSN chapters established at other schools of social work.  They hope that MSWSN can act as a vehicle to advocate for macro social work.

You can connect with MSWSN on Face Book at or by email at [email protected]

photo credit: MSWSN and Hunter College

Rachel L. West is the Founder of the Political Social Worker, a blog dedicated to macro social work and politics. She holds a BA in History from SUNY Stony Brook and an MSW from Adelphi University.

She is a community outreach and engagement specialist. Rachel resides in New York State, and she is available as a consultant and coach. You can find out more about Rachel at The Political Social Worker at (

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A Student Perspective: Social Work and First Responders




It may be rare for a social work student to reflect on an assignment as something inspirational rather than a stressful experience with a deadline, but at the end of  3rd year of my social work degree, one assignment was a challenge filled with hope. The assignment allowed me to contribute to a program that will give insight to other helping professionals about the mental health of first responders: police, firefighters, paramedics and others who respond to emergencies on the frontline.

The University of Newcastle has a particularly effective way of integrating workplace experience based learning with academic learning throughout the degree. The program options offered in third year which allow students to develop a program for a real agency was the most useful for me. To know your work might form a foundation for a real program in the community was a great honour and challenge to work on.

In the beginning, I was unsure of what to expect from the program development project. I was apprehensive about working with a professional capacity with a real agency, but I was excited also to learn more and try something new. There were diverse programs offered- from gardening programs to developing group projects designed for children and developing a program for professionals working with first responders.

The university gave us a chance to preference our interests and I was fortunate enough, with some other amazing women to be selected for the first responders team. The aim of our project was to put together a draft training package for helping professionals to enhance understanding of first responder mental health.

This topic drew my interest as it was beyond my scope of knowledge and I have a keen interest in mental health, so it was intriguing to me on both a personal and professional level. On starting, I very quickly became aware that I had actually put very little thought into the work first responders do in our communities to keep us all safer.

I learned just how complex the actual work of first responders can be, I learned the challenges that first responders face as a consequence of their work, the most traumatic of which is often invisible to the communities that they protect. I learned how repetitive exposure to trauma can complicate all aspects of first responder’s lives if they don’t or can’t seek or obtain support. I learned how much awareness is lacking within the multiple levels of the community, which is needed to enact change for first responders and their families.

Also, I learned the difficulties that can be faced by first responders and their families when attempting to access help. Whilst organisational supports are in place for some of the services, the stigma, shame and potential for the loss of their profession is very real. I heard stories about those medically discharged dealing with the grief and loss of their profession and identity.

My part in the group was to examine the supports already in place for first responders. I was concerned at the limited avenues for assistance and the extent of the difficulties for first responders to seek help. Besides limited services, stigma and organisational culture are barriers to effective help seeking. I found attempting to identify potential services to be frustrating, especially when looking for options within communities rather than those which are employer organisation based. My mind quickly went to how this frustration might feel for someone who was attempting the same whilst being unwell.

Gaining insight and recognition into the role first responders play, the impacts on their mental health, their relationships and all aspects of their lives and the flow on effect to their wider social ecology,  I  realised just how large the scale of first responder post-traumatic stress and other mental health consequences have on our community overall.

The hardest part of this learning experience was seeing the end of the project. The topic is so significant, it is hard to not to explore the topic further.  To me, this feels like a core social work and social justice issue, yet one which is invisible much of the time. My learning from this project has given me a totally new perspective. I have a renewed respect and a much deeper understanding of the issues faced by police, firefighters, paramedics and all others who work on the frontline in emergencies.

I know I’ve only scratched the surface of the knowledge it takes to work with first responders and enact positive change in their lives. I hope more research is completed and potentially more opportunities for training and professional development come up for social workers, whether it be integrated into core teaching within university programs or externally in workplaces.

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Engaging Individuals Entrenched With Power and Privilege




University of Southern California Professor Melissa Singh with COBI Fellows in Washington, DC

Like many Macro students trying to obtain their MSW, I have gone through many trials and tribulations trying to pave my own path of what I can do with my degree. From the countless lectures spent being forced fed how to conduct Motivational Interviewing and Cognitive Behavior Therapy (I do not want to be a counselor) to being placed as an elementary school counselor (once again, I do not want to be a counselor). I honestly began to question if I would ever break free from the stereotypes of what position I could fill and achieve as a social worker.

Oftentimes, when a macro social worker states they do not like clinical work they are often met with the counter argument: “Clinical work is the foundation of our profession and every social worker must know how to engage their clients.” However, the clients we work with as macro social workers are not the same clients as a micro social worker. Macro social workers are working with clients entrenched with power and privilege.

Macro social workers are working with clients entrenched with power and privilege

In my opinion, we are working with the most difficult populations and we must  develop a different type of skillset. Skills that allow us  to navigate through the bureaucracies and change the public’s perception on what they deem underserving or the bottom of their priority list.

I have been in two different social work programs and each time as a macro social worker, I feel my education is not tailored to fit me. It wasn’t until I had to opportunity to apply for University Southern California’s Community Organizing Business Innovation (COBI) Fellowship, a program with a mission to create professionals trained to tackle organizational problems and social worker’s grand challenges by introducing, developing, and facilitating social innovation in local, national, and global settings. This mission resonated with me, and it fits my definition of what social work can be.

Over the summer, USC’s COBI Fellowship gave me the opportunity to learn and practice my macro skills. I was able to engage with individuals from 16 different agencies who are bringing innovation into the public sector and learn the tricks of the trade on how they bring positive change in resistant spaces.

There were many takeaways from the trip but here are a few:

  • The OPM Innovation Lab emphasized the importance of navigating through bureaucracy and to inspire public sectors to take risk. We also learned the concept of human-centered design.
  • We discovered the concept of developmental evaluation with Tanya Beer at the Center for Evaluation Innovation.
  • Congresswoman Karen Bass discussed how to engage individuals with privilege in the workplace. She further discussed her Shadow Day, where a foster youth is paired with a U.S. Representative and how it is not only a transformational experience for the foster youth but also, the U.S. Rep. Once a U.S. Rep spends a day with a foster youth teaching them, it becomes personal, and they think twice before saying no against a bill in the favor of foster youth. THIS IS INNOVATION!!!
  • SAMHSA discussed how to engage agencies on the importance of evaluations and message tailoring.
  • Ashoka with Changemaker Executive Partner Sachin Malhan identified the difference between addressing a need and changing the system.
  • Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) discussed looking for ways to weigh in as professionals in policies.
  • NASW consultant, Joan Levy Zlotnik discussed being at the table and articulating both facts and story.

It was inspiring to be among leaders who are experimenting with different models and methods to tackle societal problem. I gained a sense of empowerment and agency being able to sit among them and exchange ideas.  Most importantly, I not only first handedly experienced the importance of having a seat at the table, but I saw my place as a social worker. After this experience, I wished more macro social work students could have an experience like this.

Like many social workers, I chose social work because I want to bring positive change in the world. Although we need social worker helping the immediate needs of individuals and their families, we also need social workers looking at the bigger picture and changing the system.

Until we invest in more macro initiatives where social work students can engage with leaders and learn the skills to navigate and collaborate with individuals who possess power and privilege, our profession will not be in the frontier of innovative change in the public sector.

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Indiana State Social Work Students to Help Young Mothers




INDIANA — The Indiana State University social work department has received a grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to launch a mentoring program for young mothers re-entering society after incarceration called Next Step 2 Healthy Families.

Robyn Lugar, associate professor of social work, is the project director for this first-of-its-kind grant that creates a university-community partnership to address the needs of young mothers through the Second Chance Act of 2007, which was enacted to break the cycle of criminal recidivism. The $341,000 grant is the first issued through the act and is focused on helping young mothers.

Without proper guidance, the women could return to the criminal justice system for any number of reasons especially with the inability to find resources to adapt to life post-incarceration, Lugar said. “These situations usually happen because of something silly, like they didn’t make an appointment with a probation officer or because they didn’t have childcare or transportation. They couldn’t get there, and they end up getting sent back because they missed that appointment,” Lugar said. “The mentoring and strengthening of young fathers has proven to be a successful model, so we are adopting a similar model for this project.”

The sub-awardee on the grant is the Next Step Foundation Inc, which is a local faith-based non-profit that provides services and programs for those in recovery from addiction. Dana Simons, an Indiana State graduate student who directs Next Step, helped design the programs necessary to fulfill the grant requirements and help to train those that want to volunteer as mentors.

The incarcerated women will require a special kind of mentor. People who are interested in becoming a mentor for Next Step will have to attend training to ensure that they are approaching mentorship from a place of respect and understanding — not judgment. “A mentor is anybody who has a heart for this work and says, ‘Hey, I can give an hour of my time weekly to meet with and walk with a woman who is trying to re-enter society and become a better parent.’ It does require a 12-month commitment, so it is not a small task,” Lugar said. “There are so many barriers that these women have to overcome that it takes a village to help them. It takes the university and the community to come together and do this.”

The Next Step organization was started five years ago and has local support from churches, individual donors and volunteers. Next Step will use its network to reach out to people who might be interested in becoming mentors for this grant program. Mentors will then be matched through special software to assure mentors and mentees have shared interests.

“The university has been so supportive of this. I really appreciate ISU stepping up and contributing the resources to be able to make this thing happen,” Lugar said. The social work department and Next Step will work with Rockville Correctional Facility in west-central Indiana, providing mentorship for women nearing release.

“It’s the social work department reaching out to the community and asking, ‘How can we do social work here, in the Wabash valley?’” Lugar said. The cycle of drug use, incarceration and poverty is generational and difficult to escape, said Simons. “So they go to prison and they get some (basic skills) there, but they coming out — where do they go? How do they live? How do they parent? How do they get a job? How do they manage on the top of that they have a felony? It’s hard,” Simons said.

Next Step will work with re-entry coordinators at the prison to begin mentoring women up to three months before they are released. This year, the program wants to help as many as 50 women with the goal to help 75 in following years, as the program hopefully expands to Vigo and surrounding counties.

Simons says many people’s hearts are in the right place when they become a mentor, but to effectively coach these recently incarcerated women, mentors must understand the world through the eyes of someone who did not think graduating high school was a choice because they have never witnessed it, or someone whose parents never held a job. “We’ll have to train them to understand where some of these women are coming from, how to guide them, and hopefully these women then see that they have choices,” Simons said.

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