by Pat Shelly
On March 10, 2015, in the early morning hours, 19 intrepid MSW students and I headed for our state capitol in Albany.
Organized by the New York State Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW-NYS), we were on a mission to meet with our Senators and Assemblymembers to advance two very important issues.
The first task was to urge passage of the NYS Dream Act by the NYS Senate. The Assembly has already approved the bill.
This short video shows why this is so important:
The second item was to obtain increased funding for the New York Licensed Social Worker Loan Forgiveness Program.
The funding request is to increase the current $1.2 million allocation to $1.7 million. At the present level of funding, only 32 social workers are able to receive the relief of up to $26,000 in educational loan debt.
After a dynamic morning session with tips from Karin Carreau, the Director of Policy for NASW-NYS, and encouraging words from its Executive Director, the NYS Social Work Education Association and the NYS Association of Deans of Schools of Social Work (major funders of this Legislative Action Day), we set off to our two meetings with our home district representatives. While most of the legislators were out of their offices at Assembly or Senate committee meetings, the staff assistants were cordial and receptive – and we know these individuals are important conduits of information and background research for the lawmakers.
The best part of the day for me? Hearing from our students about what they learned and what they thought about the experience of being advocates and lobbying on state-wide issues! Their impressions are recorded here:
“It’s difficult to feel you are making a difference; any impact is potentially years in the future.
It would have been better to have time to talk in-depth with the legislator or staff person.
This was a really awesome learning experience – it was good to learn the etiquette, how things work, and just to be in this environment.”
“I liked seeing how interconnected everything is – like the NYS Dream Act is tied in with the Education Tax Credit [in the Executive Budget]. It’s all intertwined. Why can’t we just walk in and just DO this [pass the Dream Act]? But of course we are told it’s not that simple.”
“This was useful for learning about, and for macro students. Legislators showed their interest. During my last meeting today, Julia Lang, the Legislative Director for Senator James Sanders, took us through the whole process and explained the difficulty when a bill – the Dream Act – is attached to another bill like the Education Tax Credit. This impressed me and helped me learn the process.”
“It was not too intimidating – I had just one meeting [most of us were scheduled for two]. I would like more practice for this. It was nice to see other social work students in action and to learn from them.”
“I enjoyed talking to other social work students. It was really important to connect our own experiences and to put a face on what we are asking them to support. Legislators were very receptive and took our thoughts and stories into consideration.”
“I really liked that we worked together with other social workers – we had each others’ backs! It was so powerful; it showed how we collaborate and work together even if we don’t know each other.”
“I liked learning more about macro social work. I’ve always been interested. It is good to see and hear how it’s all connected. The interface between macro and micro – it’s what’s great about our profession. It’s not all compartmentalized – it’s holistic in nature.”
“The best thing about the day was being heard. Despite so many others present today lobbying on other things, I felt I was really heard. I will start being more cognizant and paying attention to what is going on in politics, because it DOES affect the social work profession. Advocacy is important!”
“It was really empowering to be actively involved in something you believe in, like the Dream Act, and that directly affects you – the Licensed Social Worker Loan Forgiveness Program. Being able to put my personal story and experience in connection to a policy and show that there is a human element and not just words on paper. It made me feel that there is a opportunity to make real, lasting change.”
“I got to meet students in other schools and programs. After talking with them, I feel even more grateful to be at UB [University at Buffalo] – not just because of the quality of the education but the cost! When talking about the Licensed Social Worker Loan Forgiveness Program, students talked about their debt – it was just shocking. I’ve been to Albany before with other groups. This was very well-planned, It was an empowering experience.”
“I’ve only been involved in the political process on a small scale but today showed me it’s important and it’s not that hard to get involved. I think our legislators are a lot more approachable than we think they are.”
“I would just say I appreciate the apparent solidarity of social work colleagues from different backgrounds. I appreciate the energy and the advocacy of colleagues and the receptivity of the legislative staff during the meetings. Even though I did not speak directly with a Senator or an Assembly Member, it felt that the information I conveyed was taken seriously. I was a little bit disappointed that some students were not so well-informed – we need to keep educating ourselves about policy.”
“It reminded me of how powerful our sector can be when when united. It inspired me to continue a career in advocacy and policy.”
“It’s about a learning process and how to ask for what you need and what you want, whether it’s from your government or from other decision makers. It showed me the importance of having the right data to support your argument.”
“It made me want to learn how to be a better advocate and community organizer.”
“It has empowered me to fight harder to change my world and the world of my clients. My supreme force will be the written word, because words aren’t forgotten. I researched and wrote down some facts about the Loan Forgiveness Program, like the number of retiring social workers, the need for more and more new social workers. The need will not be filled, so what will happen, who will care about society?”
“Now is the time to put pressure on the New York State Republican Senators around the Dream Act. Maybe we can have all the social workers send an email to put pressure on them. Even if the meetings today were only 15 minutes, it was well worth the effort it took to get there to see the process in terms of being involved in future lobbying and support and to advocate in any way we can.””
“This experience is an empowering one – to see how macro social work can advocate for policies regarding micro social work. To see how the process works is amazing – to see it unfold personally, first hand. It helped you to understand how policy-making happens and how it affects us as professionals and also impacts out clients. I had a great time!”
“It was inspiring to see social workers come together from all over New York State for a cause – two causes! As a future social worker, it was empowering. It was the first time I felt like an advocate for others. I loved it and I want to continue doing this. I plan on getting involved in NASW [National Association of Social Workers] and seeing what legislation to push for, to see what us social workers should be doing in the public sphere.”
Thanks to all these future policy-makers and influencers!
(UB School of Social Work @UBSSW is hosting the #MacroSW twitter chat on March 26, 2015 on “Advocacy in Social Work Practice: What, Why, How.” Look for details here.)
As a social worker, for what issues have you advocated? Are there other ways to influence policy in addition to addressing legislators? We’d love to hear your thoughts!