CHADRON – At times it can be difficult to pin down the meaning of a mundane English term, even when it names something familiar to almost everyone.
That seems to be the case with social work, a phrase originally used to describe the activities of friendly visitors who volunteered to work in the settlement houses that were created in the late 1800s to help alleviate the poverty of low income residents of the rapidly growing urban centers in England and America.
An internet search will quickly turn up at least four definitions of social work from professional organizations in the field, none with less than 60 words, but Rich Kenney, Social Work associate professor and program director at Chadron State College said they all share a common theme.
“The word ‘help’ pops up at least two or three times in any definition I’ve ever read for social work,” Kenney said. “Yes, it is a helping profession and one of its goals is to help individuals improve their life situations.”
Kenney also offered his own metaphorical take on the definition in an article he wrote for “Social Work Today.”
“Social work is about speaking up for someone who can’t. It is that second chance language with an accent on resilience. It’s leveling the playing field. It is a confident Yes to equality,” Kenney wrote. “It’s about taking a stand, going to bat for someone else and blackening the eye of social injustice. It’s an inner voice, a compass, a chance to get the world right. It is a way of leaning into life.”
Metaphors aside, social work as a specific field with professional training began in the United States in 1898, with the creation of the New York School of Applied Philanthropy, later the Columbia School of Social Work, in part through the efforts of Mary Richmond and the Charity Organization Societies, said Kenney. Nobel Prize winner Jane Addams, famous for her work to improve neighborhood services and employment opportunities and for founding the Hull House Settlement in Chicago was another important figure in development of social work as a profession, he said.
Social work is now considered important enough that a number of countries and jurisdictions require accredited degrees and licensure of social workers. Nebraska offers certification of social workers to individuals who have a bachelor’s or master’s degree in the field from a certified school and requires licensure for those who provide mental health services.
Chadron State’s social work program is accredited with the Council on Social Work Education, the leading organization for social work education in the U.S. and the sole accrediting bureau for the profession in the country, said Kenney.
CSC’s program is also a member of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).
The breadth of social work becomes obvious from Kenney’s list of some areas where social workers can be found: Education, health care, mental health, long term care, family therapy, addiction counseling and foster care. Newly emerging vocations in the field include veterinary social work, which includes pet therapy and compassion fatigue management, and athletic social work to help college student-athletes manage stress.
In its code of ethics for social workers the NASW includes six core values: Service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity and competence.
“To become a social worker is to become a champion,” Kenney said. “Social workers speak up for those who need a voice; they help champion the needs for the individual. Social workers also spearhead causes and tackle social problems and they help champion social justice.”
Kenney’s advice for someone considering a career in social work is practical: Visit with someone in the profession, volunteer at an agency that employs social workers and read professional journals in the field.
A prospective social worker should also be aware of challenges they will face in the field, which Kenney said include managing time to meet the daily needs of clients and agencies, and finding a balance between work and their own personal needs.
Social workers also face the disappointment that comes with not being able to help every individual, he said.
“Learn to cherish the helping process and to appreciate the time you spend with clients,” Kenney said.
There are both tangible and intangible rewards for social workers, according to Kenney, who related a story from his time working at a center for intellectually challenged teens with behavioral issues. He had become a running partner with one boy, Clay, who enjoyed jogging, and the activity proved therapeutic, but was interrupted when Kenney strained a muscle and was unable to run for a week. Clay stopped running and became reclusive, but days later presented Kenney with a gift of two rough pieces of wood crudely nailed together.
“Clay called it a foot stretcher and said it would fix my calf so we could run again,” Kenney said. “His surprise gift hastened my recovery. It was one of the most rewarding moments I’ve had in this field.”
Kenney said an experience in grade school, when he crossed the lines of a basketball court to play with special class kids who were segregated during recess and subjected to taunts and bullying from other students, probably played a key role in his choice of profession.
The experience has stayed with him, and was the inspiration for his poem titled “Crossing the Line” published in “The New Social Worker” in August.
“I’ve been crossing lines ever since and that’s what I like about social work,” said Kenney.