CRISP Political Boot Camp for Social Workers: The Upshot
Editor’s Note: Today, November 5, 2019, is Election Day. We thought it apropos to publish this report now, as it is on the 2019 Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy (CRISP) Political Boot Camp and Media Training. It was held July 8 – 11, at Trinity Washington University in Washington D.C. This is the third year of the camp, under the direction of CRISP President Charles E. Lewis, Jr. Three University at Buffalo School of Social Work (UBSSW) students, Kristen Hibit, Hector Chaidez Ruacho, and Whitney Marris participated. All will receive their MSW degree in 2020. Below are edited accounts of their reflections on the Boot Camp.
Kristen currently works as an Immigrant Work Specialist at New York State Department of Labor, Division of Immigrants Policies and Affairs. She provides workers’ rights education and services to immigrant workers and helps agricultural businesses understand labor law compliance. Previously, Kristen worked with refugee populations in employment services and developed business partnerships to facilitate and support the employment of refugees.
The CRISP Political Boot Camp & Media Training was one of the best trainings that I have attended in my professional career. I would like to first and foremost thank University at Buffalo Social of Social Work (UBSSW) for selecting me and two of my colleagues to attend the robust week of training in Washington DC. I am excited to bring the knowledge and contagious energy that I gained from this experience back to our school and community. The training consisted of various topics including campaigning, building a public narrative, leadership styles, political social work, communications/ media, fundraising and leading a public discourse. I attended the training is because I am interested in working within the public sector to inform policy and advocate for systemic change. I also strongly believe that in order to do so, social workers must know how to engage with elected officials to advocate for change. I did not have any expectations and I wondered if I wasn’t “political” enough to be in this space because I have no intentions running for office, but to my surprise, I was EXACTLY where I needed to be and I left with so much more than I could have ever anticipated. Not only do I have a better sense of self and belonging, but I also gained a whole network of social workers and have a clearer vision of the direction I’d like to take my social work practice. Here are some of my takeaways:
Self, Us, Now
Storytelling is powerful—it informs, entertains and persuades people. But most importantly OUR stories are powerful because we can use it as a way to connect people. It is important that we are able to craft and articulate our stories effectively in the work that we do to connect people and to get people to invest in the matters that we care about. Together we practiced developing our story and messaging through an exercise called “Self, Us, Now”. This sequence is effective in any work that you are doing—whether you are giving a quick elevator speech, lobbying for a specific issue, asking for donations or funding, building a campaign, mobilizing communities, engaging in public discourse etc. When you develop “self,” consider the stories that you can share that will enable others to understand you. What has led you to be the person you are? Why do you have a personal interest? What is the purpose behind your call to leadership? In considering “us”, what values and aspirations do you share with your audience? What stories do you share that express these values? And finally, the “now”, how can you act together to achieve a proposed outcome? Why should your audience have urgency and commitment to your vision?
Engage the public with your story
The idea of storytelling and messaging was a core component of the entire training. I think of storytelling as soft diplomacy, but I’ve always had a challenge in telling my own; nor did I think mine was very important. However, after digging deep and taking time to practice with my cohort in one-on-one sessions, I found that the repetition made it much easier to relate why what I have to say is important and how others can relate to it. What Jason Green, former Associate Counsel to President Obama, said about storytelling really resonated with me and I will take this forward in my social work practice: “You are the PhD of you. You have a unique collection of stories and because of your experience, we need that more than anything else. It is your responsibility to engage with the public with your story.”
Bringing It Home
When people ask what I am studying my response has always been, “Social work, but not the clinical kind of social work you’re thinking, that is really important too. Macro social work looks at policies and impacts on communities and human rights issues on a larger scale.” It is always such a mouth full. However, now I can respond simply with, “Political Social Work!” The session on political social work was a true “calling home” moment for me and I found the perfect description of what I want to do. We heard from Suzanne Pritzker, MSW, PhD (University of Houston School of School Work, and co-author, with Shannon R. Lane, of “Political Social Work: Using Power to Create Social Change,” the first political social work text of its kind), who focuses on political barriers to civic engagement. The NASW Code of Ethics requires social workers to engage in social and political action for social justice and human rights; therefore, this is our innate field of expertise. The clinical skills that we learn such as reframing, using active listening, supporting self-determination etc. all are applied to political social work when we engage in public spaces. Every CRISP Boot Camp speaker underlined the fact that, with our skill set, WE ARE qualified to be in these spaces. Social workers SHOULD be at forefront of politics and policies and we MUST be at the table because we uniquely incorporate service, justice, integrity, respect for the dignity of individuals and promotion of the importance of human relationships.
The CRISP Political Boot Camp was truly a transformative experience. I learned how real change happens on a local level. Of course, federal policies are important, but change on a local level can be just as impactful. Therefore, I vow to volunteer on a local campaign, and I’d also like to become active on a board (once I graduate!). I’ll bring some of these topics and trainings to our school, through the UB Macro Social Work Student Network group, and advocate for a Political Social Work course at UBSSW. I am ready to be at the table as a political social worker.
As Barbara Mikulski said, “Politics is social work with power.”
Hector Chaidez Ruacho
Hector graduated Cum Laude with B.A. degrees in Psychology and Criminal Justice from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. He worked at UNLV’s Social Development Research Lab on a study focused on intersections of racism, empathy, and social activism related to Black Lives Matter. Being a Mexican immigrant himself, Hector is passionate in advocating for trauma-informed immigration system reform, as well as making contributions to a mental health system which is better equipped to treat diverse populations.
The CRISP Political Boot Camp gave me the opportunity to connect with those who share social work values and social justice goals. I now have a new network to engage as I enter into the professional ranks as a social worker.
Elizabeth Guzman, Virginia House of Delegates
One memorable encounter was meeting and having a conversation with Virginia House of Delegates member Elizabeth Guzman (D, 31) .
She is a Latina-Immigrant social worker and a strong advocate for social work values. The hurdles she faced in obtaining her MSW, as well as the ones she overcame to win the leadership position she holds, speaks volumes about her resilience. During her journey, she made several sacrifices to benefit her family and community. Delegate Guzman took on multiple roles (mother, wife, student, advocate, politician) to build a better future. She is a clear example of what immigrants bring to the table. Additionally, such hardships have given her an extraordinary ability to connect with people on a personal level. Delegate Guzman’s story reassures all of us that, regardless of challenges, everyone can succeed. It makes her a role model we must follow.
Barbara Lee, U.S. Representative
(Photo courtesy of CRISP)
Meeting with U.S. Representative Barbara Lee (D-CA) was motivating since she is the definition of a political social worker. She spoke about her reliance on social work values when making tough decisions. This was seen when the she was the only representative to vote no on the authorization for the use of military force in response to the September 11th attack. Bombing of Afghanistan began four weeks later. Representative Lee’s reasoning aligned with social work insights since she was aware of the potentially disastrous consequences which come from making decisions in an emotional state. Furthermore, she foresaw the devastating humanitarian outcomes which came from writing a blank check for endless wars. Though she was harshly criticized, and even isolated in this view, she never gave in to the pressure and continues to fight for what she believes is right. Her continuous advocacy efforts have recently paid off with passage of her amendment to repeal the authorization for the use of military force. that has the potential to stop the blank checks for wars. Her call to action to have social workers run for office was not taken lightly by us boot camp participants.
A Natural Network
The element which I found to be the most important was the ability to network and bond with other participants of the boot camp. The level of commitment and passion for standing up for Social Work values in the political arena was genuinely exhilarating. There was such a strong feeling of mutual respect by all the participants that it resulted in a natural form of networking. Even in moments when our government is making decisions which go as far as to violate human rights, meeting with political social work students gives me hope. Overall, the boot camp was an empowering experience that has galvanized me to make sure my community’s voice is heard. It made me consider pursuing a more macro-focused career path and ties to the political arena. Moreover, it reassured me that the future of this country is not one we should fear, but rather one we should shape by taking a seat at the table.
Whitney’s professional background is in the criminal law field; she has been advocating with and mobilizing the masses in pursuit of a more just sociopolitical landscape for many years. Whitney is no stranger to envelope stuffing, door knocking, and phone banking in support of progressive candidates on national and local levels alike. Her interests include restorative justice, LGBTQIA+ rights, gender equality and reproductive justice, and economic equity. Her social work practice will infuse a trauma-informed framework for the public institutions and human service systems with which disenfranchised and oppressed individuals frequently come into contact.
My experience with CRISP’s Boot Camp and Social Media Training was transformative. I emerge empowered and energized toward making meaningful changes to engender a more just world and equipped with many new arrows in my quiver to aid me in this undertaking.
Some of the most valuable lessons I learned:
Lesson 1. Social work is powerful.
YOU are powerful. Use that power to elicit social change!
Suzanne Pritzker adroitly reminded us that political participation is not merely a right for those who choose to work within the social work field—it is an ethical imperative. (See §6.04 of the NASW Code of Ethics.) I sometimes hear my peers stating that they avoid keeping abreast of politics or intentionally insulate themselves from the news because it is “depressing” or because they feel “helpless,” but turning away from the upsetting inequalities and intractable injustices that characterize our world is to shirk many of the key duties enshrined in our ethical code. Furthermore, if social workers do not continue the profession’s rich history of effecting meaningful change to engender an equitable sociopolitical landscape, who will? In examining the overarching climate of 2019, you may indeed feel powerless when attempting to discern how to put your skills to work because the challenges we currently face seem insurmountable, and you are “just” one person. I am here to tell you: you have it in you. You have strengths and skills and experiences that, coupled with the unique Trauma-Informed Human Rights orientation of the rigorous and well-rounded coursework UBSSW offers, provide the fuel to ignite social change. But first, you must be bold enough to strike the match.
The good news is, there are myriad ways in which social workers can meaningfully participate in shaping policy and politics alike—and you don’t even have to be a wonk like me to be effective in this sphere, I promise! Each and every one of us was drawn to this field because of preponderant passions. Along with those passions come, ideally, good intentions that must be operationalized in order to thwart us from sitting on the sidelines feeling impotent in addressing the many crises we face. Our CRISP speakers consistently reminded us that authenticity is paramount, and encouraged us to nurture and capitalize on our strengths to produce progress in the arenas in which we already feel particularly passionate about effecting change. Following this framework reveals a great deal of worthwhile efforts social workers can make other than running for office or working on a campaign—lobbying, registering and educating voters, forming or joining coalitions, volunteering to advance critical causes, spearheading social movements, attending community meetings, and more. Jason Green implored social workers not to forget how valuable our micro-level skills can be to informing our macro-level work, too. For instance, our special expertise in identifying and drawing out the skills and strengths of others can be a boon to strategizing effective engagement efforts. For instance, if you are volunteering at a not-for-profit organization that is advocating for a particular policy or regulatory change within your region, your versatile social work skills leave you uniquely positioned to delegate efforts and tasks in a way that assures each individual working toward your goal is placed in the role in which they can be the most successful based on their talents and experiences, which bolsters your overall impact. Empowering the people around us to engage in actions to effect political and social change is an incredibly valuable way to make change—without having to set foot on the campaign trail! Just remember, as Angelique Day reiterated to us—you’re in this for the long game. Don’t get discouraged when you don’t see immediate action. Your efforts matter, and you are making a difference.
Get out of the bubble!
In another call to our values, Janie Jeffers illustrated that, in order to form a bold and comprehensive policy agenda to address the Grand Challenges, you must first “know what is really happening.” This means actually going into communities and speaking to those living on the margins of society to get a more informed appraisal of the structural and systemic issues that limit their ability to thrive and fully participate in society. In accordance with the tenets of trauma-informed care, we must illuminate our vulnerable, disenfranchised populations as having a voice, be it through directly recruiting individuals most affected by efforts to preserve an unjust status quo to participate in advocacy events (or otherwise leveraging our privilege and expertise to provide a prominent public platform) or via engaging in advocacy on behalf of those impacted by some of the more draconian measures of this political era and disseminating their stories and perspectives when it is dangerous or not feasible for them to do so themselves. No matter how you do it—get out there and start talking to people. Listen to their stories, and use that to guide you in choosing how you fight your battles. We must forge these authentic connections with a renewed commitment to civic responsibility in mind if we are to dismantle that which counters the actualization of social justice for so many. Creating a society that functions well in meeting all people’s basic needs and which treats all people with dignity and respect begins with us.
If you’re seeking some tips pertaining to engaging with diverse groups in the community, look no further than the advice Eric Schultz shared about his experience galvanizing constituent interests and energy toward creating a social movement rooted in the principles of hope and change. I mention this because Schultz hearkened to Barbara Mikulski—a powerhouse in the Senate during her 40 years on the Hill and, importantly, a professional social worker—and her “BAM’s Principles” as their North Star when determining how to reach people in a way that honored the lived experiences of the many diverse groups with varying values and interests across the country. I have included them following this paragraph for reference. While you will likely need to tweak some details here and there to bring these principles into alignment with your own personal values and goals, the primary takeaways here are that you must have clear principles by which you live, and that you must keep those principles that define your journey front of mind as you have conversations with people about what they really need. After all, it is quite easy to get caught up in your own interests in these conversations, which defeats the purpose of pounding the pavement in pursuit of The People’s perspectives. Noble as those interests you have might genuinely be, remember—you are advocating alongside and on behalf of those our government serves, not merely on behalf of yourself. I plan to construct my own guiding principles a la Mikulski based upon my personal ambitions and ideals, though I will pilfer many of hers and incorporate them in my own version verbatim. This is a great exercise for anyone who wants to “get out there” but does not know where to start—start with what you know, what you care about, and what you believe in, then speak to others to expand your understanding of the issues on which you plan to advocate. Find common ground, join forces, and go change the world!
BAM’S Principles (Barbara A. Mikulski)
- I am not only the senator from Maryland, but also the senator FOR Maryland.
- We must be committed to looking out for the day-to-day needs of Marylanders and the long-range needs of America.
- My economic purpose is to help those who are middle class stay there, and to give those who are not middle class the chance to get there.
- Our constituents have a right to know, to be heard, and to be represented.
- Listen to the people and the stories of their lives. My best ideas come from the people.
- We must Communicate, Coordinate and Cooperate.
- We are not a bureaucracy.
- We cannot always guarantee an outcome, but we can guarantee an effort.
- Always be clear about: “What is the objective we seek?”
- Goals should be specific, immediate, and realistic.
- Just move it.
- Do not explain an abstraction with an abstraction.
- The language of Washington is foreign language. We need to talk about people in terms they understand.
Think Globally, Act Locally
If you are someone who is interested in running for office yourself or for working on political campaigns in support of candidates who are stalwarts of social work’s ideals, please understand that you need not start at the Presidential level—or even the congressional level—to be effective. There are many positions in which you can wield a great deal of integral influence within communities currently left largely underserved and which contain swaths of people whose interests remain presently unrepresented in government despite the meaningful contributions they make to our communities. Running in down-ballot races, whether you want to be Lieutenant Governor or on the local school board, is an effective way to position yourself to propose pragmatic solutions to the problems that plague the political, economic, and social structures (and many of the actors within those structures) that will really be felt by residents. The fundraising barriers to enter many of these integral roles are surprisingly low, which means the grassroots efforts and community organizing in which social workers happen to specialize can genuinely get you elected. All of this, of course, is contingent upon you acting with integrity and authenticity on behalf of constituents rather than in your own self-interest. If your political ambitions are not rooted in the pursuit of social justice and equality, the populace will notice. Again, authenticity is key, because people are champing at the bit to elect people who they truly believe will listen to—and fight for—their interests. Fittingly, among other movements, the Blue Wave of 2018 shows us that broader social attitudes reflect many of the values of the social work profession. Social workers have the expertise to assuage the negative impact our structures and systems have on marginalized populations and, in even a seemingly “small” role, can leverage that expertise to change the systems that sustain injustice and inequality.
On that note, if you are thinking about running yourself, for anything at all, I urge you to do it! If something is holding you back from running for a position that would allow you to usher in just policies and propel social reform on either the national, state, or local scale, please think long and hard about whether your reservations are rooted in reality or instead are borne of internalized myths connected to the very inequities our profession seeks to eradicate. I am guilty of this—I have questioned my own place in the political (and social work!) arena many times. To this point, Justin Hodge shared with us that women and people of color must be told to run for office, on average, five times before they take action. We have been called upon to step outside of our self-inflicted professional limitations to take our seat at the table, because society cannot afford for us, nor our driving values or our holistic solutions, to be on the menu.
(Photo courtesy of CRISP)
Watch for the announcement of registration for the next CRISP Political Boot Camp and Media Training, to be held July 6-8, 2020. https://www.crispinc.org/crisp-political-boot-camp.html