Elevating the Profession One Ballot at a Time
Before the real Iowa caucuses took place, Hillis Elementary School in Des Moines held a Cookie Caucus, in which M&M cookies came in first, with 40 percent of the vote. Image courtesy of Phil Roeder on Flickr (CC BY 2.0).
The School’s 2020 Election Series urges social workers to take the lead in helping marginalized populations overcome obstacles to voting.
The day after the Iowa caucuses, two professors at our School, John Robertson and Jaime Estades, were asked to comment on what happened. They were special guests on Social Impact LIVE, a weekly show that is broadcast live on the School’s Facebook page.
“Iowa’s caucus system didn’t work. It doesn’t work for the country,” Robertson said. “It particularly doesn’t work for the people that social workers serve.”
Estades concurred, noting that “the system even discriminates against working-class whites,” such as women with children, those who work shifts, and the elderly, none of whom can commit the requisite hours to the caucusing process.
Perhaps not surprisingly, Robertson and Estades had come on the show to promote the idea of providing special training for social workers in how to ensure their clients’ votes are not suppressed. In fact, both professors feel so passionately about pushing back against voter suppression that they, along with other members of the Columbia School of Social Work’s community, have started up a “2020 election” series to provide such trainings.
In an earlier conversation with Robertson about the series, he explained that “social workers build strong relationships with people who are impacted by voter suppression”—who “have given up on believing they will ever be permitted to have their voice heard and respected in the midst of anti-Black racism and marginalization.”
Robertson also said he believes that political organizing—in the sense of telling people that voting is central to their right of full participation—is baked into the social work mission. According to the Code of Ethics developed by the Association of Social Workers (NASW), a social worker “should facilitate informed participation by the public in shaping social policy” and the best way to embody this standard “is to influence traditionally disenfranchised populations to go to the polls and vote.”
For Melissa Begg, Dean of the School of Social Work, it only stands to reason that social workers would become involved in politics in this way. As she put it during her opening remarks at the first event of the series, held on November 6, 2019, “Social workers, with their dedication to social justice and advocacy, and their unparalleled partnerships with community-based organizations, are uniquely positioned to raise awareness, mobilize for action, and increase voter engagement.”
In putting together the event series, Robertson reached out to Jaime Estades because of his decades of experience in assisting Latinx New Yorkers in getting to the polls. Estades is the founding director of the Latino Leadership Institute, which aims to “empower Latinos and other minorities by increasing their participation in the democratic process.”
He also reached out to CSSW alumna Mimi Abramowitz (MSW’67, PhD’81), the Bertha Capen Reynolds Professor of Social Work at Hunter’s Silberman School of Social Work, to conduct a “train the trainer” workshop last November. Along with fellow Silberman professor (and CSSW alumna) Terry Mizrahi (MSW’66), Abramowitz cofounded the National Social Work Voter Mobilization Campaign (also known as Voting Is Social Work) in 2016 with the mission of integrating nonpartisan voter engagement into social work education and practice.
Appearing on Social Impact LIVE a couple of weeks later, Abramowitz talked about what had motivated her to set up the Voting is Social Work campaign. She cited the startling statistic that, of the 12 million people who are served by social workers each day, 22 percent are not registered to vote. Therefore, millions of people aren’t participating in elections where the outcomes will decide policies that heavily impact their lives.
“Social policy does a lot of good things,” Abramowitz said. “But as a country, we have a history of bad social policy.”
On a more positive note, Abramowitz mentioned that social workers had helped organize to defeat Jim Crow laws. They had also rallied to support the suffragette movement and the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
As Abramovitz’s comments imply, going hand in hand with convincing people who feel marginalized to exercise their right to vote is the need to inform them about issues that matter. Many Americans believe, for instance, that U.S.-China relations are likely to surface in the 2020 campaign. Also as part of Robertson’s event series, Professor Qin Gao organized a local panel discussion of that topic in response to a town hall sponsored by the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations, with George Stephanopoulus as moderator.
During spring semester, Robertson hopes the series will cover the kinds of issues that shape the lives of ordinary citizens, such as paid family leave, Medicaid expansion, criminal justice reform, poverty prevention, and immigration. Education on such issues could be an important tool in convincing members of marginalized populations to vote, he said.
“Supporting people in claiming their voice is much more than putting up a poster and passing out registration forms. It’s clearing the path. Where to vote? How to get to the polls? When to vote? What are the choices and how do they impact the people we serve?”
Robertson constantly emphasizes that it takes a village to build the momentum that will mobilize social workers to, in turn, mobilize their clients to vote. Toward that end, he has engaged the School’s Office of Practicum Learning, its Office of Professional Excellence, and the student-led Policy Caucus to support and help organize the event series. He has even reached out to the deans of other social work schools to encourage their students to tune in via Zoom or Livestream.
The next event, a “train the trainer,” will take place today, Monday, February 10, beginning at 6:00 p.m. All are encouraged to participate.