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The Role of Social Workers in Economic Development

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Many people become social workers or join allied professions because they want the opportunity to work one-on-one with individuals and see a concrete impact on them. Whether this is through running programs, providing counselling or therapy, or otherwise delivering the front-line support people need in times of crisis – social workers have carved out an imposing role as micro-level practitioners.

Less commonly associated with social work is the macro-level practice and policy work. While many social workers do this type of advocacy, policy analysis, and other high-level work this is not what many people think of first, when they think of the social work profession. Instead, this advocacy is often thought to be done by lawyers, public health professionals or others with different qualifications.

One area that is especially overlooked is the role that social workers can play in economic development. Social workers work extensively in poverty alleviation to be sure – but this is only one aspect of economic development. Rural communities especially are seeing higher levels of unemployment, lower levels of community engagement, fewer employers and a general pessimism that comes with a lack of opportunity. How can social workers of all stripes play a role in economic development? There are a few things that you can do:

Economic Development Strategies

Familiarize yourself with Asset-based Community Development (ABCD)

Asset-based Community Development is an inversion of the traditional way that economic development has been done. While economic development used to be done by focusing on the negatives in a community (such as high unemployment or low levels of education) and then trying to alleviate those things, ABCD involves looking at the assets of your community and highlighting what already exists. Once you’ve identified those things, it is much easier to build on that momentum.

For example, an ABCD approach to a city might identify:

  • There are a lot of vacant lots that can be turned into community gardens or co-working spaces
  • There are many unemployed individuals who can pursue remote employment
  • The community is very committed to their school board, with many volunteers who might be willing to participate in community beautification efforts

A community audit can help, either to inform your strategic planning efforts (see below), or after you’ve completed the strategic planning process to help you figure out how to pursue those things.

Join your local Economic Development organization or Chamber of Commerce

Many communities have Chambers of Commerce to support the business community in that area. These organizations lobby for tax cuts, deregulation (or less regulation) and other pro-business items. While it may seem strange for someone in Social Work to join a Chamber of Commerce, especially if they don’t own their own business it is not as unusual as it looks at first glance.

By being an active member in the Chamber, you have an opportunity to present the other side of these discussions and find compromise that supports both the needs of local businesses while also respecting other residents. For example, a factory that wants a zoning change to allow industrial activity that may cause increased pollution could be persuaded to agree to fund an environmental clean-up effort associated with the change of zoning.

Economic development organizations in some states are associated with the Chambers of Commerce, but more commonly are separate organizations. These organizations focus on activities that can help improve the economy in the local area through activities like:

  • Community beautification to raise property values
  • Attracting businesses and new industries
  • Recruiting knowledge workers, artists, immigrants, and others with intellectual, creative and cultural capital

As a member of the economic development organization, you can help directly play a role in improving your community’s forecast and advocate for the poorest residents.

Participate or facilitate Strategic Planning sessions

Strategic planning is something many social workers are familiar with. Strategic planning is usually done for the next 3-5 years and helps you identify the long-range priorities that your organization or area need to focus on. By participating or even leading the facilitation of the strategic planning you can ensure that all community member voices are heard and that the plan truly has community buy-in.

There are many roles for social workers to play in economic development, and they are similar to the roles that ordinary citizens and elected leaders (city councilors, mayors, and others). By bringing social workers to the table, these organizations and residents benefit from the unique knowledge and holistic approach social workers use to strengthen families and communities.

Dustin MacDonald is an experienced social services worker with experience in crisis intervention, data analysis and program management. He holds a Social Service Worker Diploma from Durham College and a Bachelor of Professional Arts in Human Services from Athabasca University.

          
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