On Social Work and Other Underappreciated Professions that Serve the Common Good
by Elizabeth Bowen, PhD, LCSW
The murders of social worker Christine Loeber and her colleagues Jennifer Golick and Jennifer Gonzales by a former client at The Pathway Home for veterans in northern California hit me hard. This news was followed by the less widely publicized but equally tragic murder of Anthony Houston, a supervisor of a transitional living program run by the social service organization Thresholds in Chicago. I didn’t know any of these individuals personally; my grief is not that of mourning a personal loss. But I think like for many social workers and social service professionals, this news hit a nerve. I can’t help but think: Could it have been me, or one of my colleagues, my friends, my students, my mentors?
The short answer to that question is yes. This is not to exaggerate concerns about violent behavior from the people with whom social workers work. My grief in these tragedies is not only for the victims, but also for the individuals accused of committing these crimes—and for the many people who might share diagnostic labels or service needs with the alleged perpetrators and do not engage in violence, but will be unfairly stereotyped as such. Social workers work with a lot of different people in a lot of different settings, and occupational violence is a rarity for most of us. When clients do act out physically or verbally, it does not usually endanger our lives, and as social workers we also recognize that many people who perpetrate violence have experienced their own horrific trauma and abuse.
Social workers, however, are constantly in situations that are at best uncomfortable—and at worst, fatal, as The Pathway Home and Thresholds tragedies indicate. I am a professor now but in my practitioner days I did a lot of home visits with people in supportive housing. I never faced violence directly in my job but I did find myself in difficult situations, like going on a home visit to see a client we had not heard from in several days and finding him unresponsive in his bed. Not every day was like this–there were also plenty of good days, uneventful days, and even great days that left me feeling like I had the best job in the world. I also acknowledge that if some days were hard for me, they were infinitely harder for the clients themselves and their loved ones. I cared deeply about my job but it was ultimately only my job and not my life.
It bothers me, though, that when we as a society celebrate the heroics of different occupations—police and doctors come readily to mind—the risks that social workers take and the challenging situations we find ourselves in largely go unacknowledged. I am not advocating hero worship in any form but I would like to see some wider and deeper recognition.
Lately I’ve started to think of social work as an UPSCG — an Underappreciated Profession that Serves the Common Good (social work joke—if you don’t have a clunky acronym for it, it’s not real). Social work is certainly not the only UPSCG. Here are a few others that I can think of:
- Hospice home health aides: My mom died from terminal brain cancer and received in-home hospice services for
the last six months of her life. The nurses were great but whom I remember most vividly were the home health aides, who came to our house every few days to do whatever was needed to take care of my mom and check in with all of us. These women—and for my mom, they were all women—radiated both compassion and fearlessness. They were not afraid of death, dying, and all of the complicated emotional and corporal reactions that go along with it. I don’t know what they were being paid, but it couldn’t have been enough for what they did for my family and so many others.
- Community organizers: Community organizers are the people who fight for the changes we want to see in our towns, cities, and neighborhoods. My impression from the organizers I have known is that being an organizer means running between a thousand meetings a day and
being prepared for a lot of people to be angry with you for a lot of different reasons at any given moment. Community organizers do important work like preserving affordable housing in gentrifying neighborhoods and holding corporations responsible for the toxic pollutants they release—yet when they achieve victories, most organizers will modestly defer back to the communities and ordinary residents they serve. Even Barack Obama was famously maligned in his 2008 presidential campaign for his community organizing background. Let’s give these people some credit!
- Needle exchange workers: I collected my dissertation data at a community agency in Chicago that had a needle exchange. At the time it was staffed primarily by older men who were many years into recovery from their
addictions and intravenous drug use. Long before the opioid epidemic was a hot topic on the lips of every politician, these men responded with humor, grace, and tenacity to the people using their services, helping those who were using stay safe with clean needles, getting tested for HIV and Hepatitis C, and making referrals to treatment when but not before people were ready. Society had long ago told these men they were written off as addicts, yet they persevered in their own recoveries and came back to help others who were similarly written off—what is not heroic about that?
What can we do about this? Though March is Social Work Month, columns like my own attempt here at celebrating the sacrifices and triumphs of the profession are only a small part of the answer.
There are actions, though, that each of us can take to change the narrative. We can remember and honor the work of people like Christine Loeber and Anthony Houston, who died in the service of helping others. If you are a social worker, thank and acknowledge your colleagues, supervisors, and supervisees for the occupational challenges they navigate each day, and practice radical self-care to thank yourself. Then thank the hospice home health aide in your life. Go to the meeting that the community organizer in your neighborhood is setting up. Spread the word about needle exchange so that people in your community have access to these services. Have conversations about difficult topics like violence, death, gentrification, and addiction. Advocate for adequate funding for the programs that employ social workers and other UPSCG jobs.
I am not asking for anyone to label social workers or any of the other professions described here as heroes, or to praise the supposed selflessness of our job choices. But I do wish that everyone would recognize that the day will likely come—or perhaps is already here—when they or their loved ones will need help from someone in a UPSCG job, and acknowledge the risks, discomforts, and challenges these workers confront to be of service.
Elizabeth Bowen is an Assistant Professor in the University at Buffalo School of Social Work. Her teaching interests include the nature and treatment of alcohol and other drug problems, social welfare history and policy, and community social work. Bowen’s research interests center on housing and homelessness and the role of housing as a social determinant of health. Prior to pursuing her PhD, she worked as a social worker managing harm reduction-based supportive housing programs in Chicago. She is a member of the Society for Social Work and Research and is the UB School of Social Work liaison to the National Homelessness Social Work Initiative and co-convener of the group’s New York-New Jersey regional network.