Height’s Legacy Stirs Push for Social Work Act Passage

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by Dianne Hayes

Among social work professionals and educators, the late Dorothy Height is celebrated for the prestige her record as a civil rights and women’s movement leader brings to the social work profession. Height, who died last week at the age of 98, began her career as a social worker in New York City in the 1930s.   

In the wake of her passing, leaders of the nation’s leading social work professional and academic associations renewed their commitment to lobby for the passage of the Dorothy I. Height and Whitney M. Young, Jr. Social Work Reinvestment Act, federal legislation aimed at addressing the workforce challenges confronting the profession.

“I think that it is imperative that the Act pass,” said Dr. Gloria Batiste-Roberts, president of the National Association of Black Social Workers. “It is (Height’s) legacy to the profession. She believed in service to others. She was a giant among us. In the African tradition she was a griot.”

Late last week, the previously planned 2010 Social Work Congress convened in Washington, D.C., attracting more than 400 academic and profession leaders. The Congress, the follow-up meeting to the 2005 Congress, was convened by the National Association of Social Workers, Council on Social Work Education, National Association of Deans and Directors of the Schools of Social Work, and the Association of Baccalaureate Social Work Program Directors.

This year’s focus was on examining the workforce issues facing the social work profession and how to transfer leadership to the next generation. Much of the attention to the proposed legislation involved projections for the needs for social services among the Baby Boomer population and the need to recruit and retain more social workers, especially those from minority communities. The legislation also calls for research to assess needs and loan forgiveness to encourage more students to pursue advanced degrees and certifications, which would also qualify them to teach.

“We are asking all of our legislators to get it passed. We have already sent letters to Congress,” Batiste-Roberts said. “It’s a commitment to making sure resources are available and professionals can continue to get the training needed to better train others.”

“The loan forgiveness would be an extremely large help. Graduates spend the first five to six years paying loans. When you work a job in protective services to children, where I worked, it’s a commitment that goes far beyond set hours. It can be 14-hour days, and I didn’t ask for comp time. It’s a commitment to making sure children are in safe homes,” she said.

There is also concern about trends where other professions are providing social services without the benefit of full social work training, such as when nurses are asked to serve as patient advocates, according to Batiste-Roberts.

“There are certain things in training that those learning parts of the job will not be educated in as someone who has gone through four years of social work education,” she noted.

Social work is one of the fastest growing careers in the United States, according to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). Nearly 600,000 people hold social work degrees. According to BLS, 86 percent of social workers are White; 8 percent are Black; 3 percent are Hispanic; and 3 percent comprise other groups. 

In an effort to increase the pool of social workers and instructors, Gary Bailey, past president of the National Association of Social Workers and associate professor at the Simmons College School of Social Work, said social work leaders are looking at the need for more qualified instructors.

“If we look at the changing demographics and the graying population and the sandwich generation who are taking care of parents and children, we can’t wait to develop a supply,” Bailey said. “We’ve known for 30 years that the Baby Boomers would be the most demanding group. This is also the population that made it cool to seek therapy. Social workers are the largest providers of mental health services.”

“It’s not just about doing good,” he said. “Social work is competency-based. There is a skill set that has to be obtained.”

Bailey is among the many supporters of the Height-Young Social Work Act, which includes support for historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) with social work programs to increase the number of Black social workers and instructors.

“It’s vitally important that this legislation be passed,” Bailey said. “It really would be the ultimate recognition since she had not lent her name to any legislation. It is tied to social work research. It is the embodiment of everything she stood for.”

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