When it comes to social work, the job responsibility should go beyond addressing baseline issues of clients and patients, according to Dr. Ruth Brandwein, one of the nation’s most accomplished and recognizable social work educators.
Social work should also identify solutions and take action for meaningful and impactful change for all individuals, families and communities, said Brandwein, the keynote speaker of Saint Leo University’s fifth annual social work conference on March 8.
The daylong event drew dozens of social workers, mental health counselors, marriage and family therapists, human service, criminal justice system professionals and students in Saint Leo’s bachelor and master social work programs.
Those attending the conference participated in workshops that covered topics on school violence, transgender youth, substance abuse and addiction, trauma-informed care and more.
Much of Brandwein’s talk, however, centered on political action through social work.
It’s something Brandwein has vast experience with, as legislative chair for the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Sarasota/Manatee and Florida chapter.
In her address to the audience, Brandwein expressed a call for more social workers to run for public office — noting there are not enough elected officials with backgrounds in the field.
The speaker put it like this: “Who better than social workers can advocate for the aging, for veterans, for mental health issues, for opioid issues, for child welfare, for human trafficking, for homelessness, for LGBTQ rights?”
She continued, “We have the skills that are necessary to be elected officials. We also are really good at communicating with people, good at making ideas known, good at listening, and good at interviewing people.”
Now retired at 78, Brandwein still serves as professor and dean emeritus at Stony Brook University’s School of Social Welfare.
Her career in social work is undoubtedly distinguished.
Among other career highlights, Brandwein is former president of the New York State Chapter of the NASW; co-founder and first chair of the Suffolk County Task Force on Family Violence; former member of the National Advisory Council on Violence Against Women; and, helped found and serves on the editorial board of Affilia: Journal of Women and Social Work.
Brandwein also received the NASW’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2018.
She was selected “for her decades of work advocating for children, the homeless, women and people of color, and for training generations of social workers to be strong and effective community organizers,” according to NASW.
Her appearance at Saint Leo coincided with student groups from the university’s social work programs participating in Legislative Education and Advocacy Day, in Tallahassee.
The experiential trip—set for April 2 and April 3 — is designed to give students an understanding of lobbying, advocacy and the legislative process.
The speaker recalled a handful of her own experiences in working with legislators.
One of her biggest advocacy wins came years ago working in New York, advocating for free or low-cost childcare for single parents, for children up to 12 years old, she said.
On that subject, Brandwein underscored the importance of persistently reaching out to legislators on various social issues, whether it’s through personal visits, emails or letters, while at the same time understanding policymakers’ points-of-view on decisions.
Brandwein said it’s important to talk to policymakers “as though they’re intelligent human beings, which they are” and that it’s equally, if not more important, to build positive working relationships with elected officials’ legislative aides.
“The aides are the ones who do the research on the bills. They are the ones who make recommendations to the legislator,” Brandwein explained. “The aide — if you’ve talked to that person — then they can become your advocate.”
In her closing remarks, Brandwein stressed that social workers should never stop fighting for important issues, whether for children and families, or equal rights for all.
“Positive social change is never complete — it’s a work in progress,” Brandwein said.
With a grin and chuckle, she added: “I’m almost 79, next month. I’m still working on these things. I won’t finish. I can’t stop.”
Published March 20, 2019