In Address to Class of 2018, Alumnus Dr. Charles E. Lewis Calls for More Social Workers to Enter Politics

October 8, 2018 @ 10:28 pm

The following is the text of the graduation keynote delivered by Dr. Charles E. Lewis at the graduation ceremony for our 2018 graduates, held at the Beacon Theatre, New York City, on Wednesday, May 16.

I am thrilled and humbled to have this opportunity to speak to the Class of 2018! As you turn the page to the next chapter of your life, savor every moment of satisfaction you are experiencing. You have completed a rigorous training that qualifies you to among the very best in our profession. Be proud that you are a social worker. Be proud that you are a Columbia University graduate. Give yourselves a hand.

To Interim Dean Irv Garfinkel, the faculty, family of the proud graduates, and honored guests, I am grateful for this opportunity to say a few words to our graduates.

I remember when I made the decision to become a social worker at the ripe age of 45. I was completing my B.A. in psychology and contemplating the next move in my development.

I had been working with African American males at the Saint Paul Community Baptist Church in Brooklyn.

My life’s journey had been a bit chaotic to that point. My mother had died when I was five years old. My father’s death when I was 16 years old left me without a rudder. My father was a pastor, so I turned to the church as my refuge.

At the church, I was asked to oversee a very vibrant ministry to African American males. Some had been scarred by encounters with the criminal justice system. I kept telling them how important it was that they go back to school and finish their education.

After some time in psychotherapy, I began to see things more clearly and believed that if I could acquire the skills and knowledge that helped me, I could return to the church and be more effective working with these formerly incarcerated men.

I decided to pursue my MSW in clinical counseling at Clark Atlanta University. It was during my policy classes that I realized social workers did more than direct services. Social workers also worked in the policy arena. I realized that I would need a doctorate degree—to get the research training—to be an effective participant in the policy arena.

A voice kept whispering in my head: “You’re too old.” But I realized that I would soon be in my fifties and I could be there with a PhD or without a PhD. Columbia University School of Social work accepted my application and four years later I defended my dissertation. Dean Garfinkel was my dissertation chair and Professor Bruce Western was on my committee.

My Columbia experience was both challenging and rewarding. I was able to study with many amazing people—Sheila Kamerman, Alfred Kahn, Steve Schinke, Ron Mincy—to name a few.

As soon as I could, I made my way to Washington, DC—the policy capital of the world. I taught at Howard University School of Social Work for a while. And then I went on the Hill to work for Congressman Ed Towns, a social worker, who I had known for years back in Brooklyn. Together, we created the Congressional Social Work Caucus.

When Mr. Towns retired in January 2013, we created a nonprofit—the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy. CRISP—as we are commonly known—works to connect social work research with federal legislation, assist social work organizations and schools in their efforts to engage Congress, and seeks to expand opportunities for social work students to do practicum placements in Congressional offices.

Being involved in policy and legislation is nothing new for social workers—or for Columbia University. Jane Addams, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, often called the mother of social work, led many protest marches. She and others fought for reforms that shaped the 1912 Progressive Party’s Platform and ultimately helped shape New Deal legislation.

She was the first woman to second the nomination of a Presidential candidate—when she seconded the nomination of Theodore Roosevelt.

Every time you get a social security check, thank God for Harry Hopkins.

Did you know, the first woman to serve in the House of Representatives was a social worker? Jeannette Rankin, first elected to the House from Montana in 1917—three years before the 19th Amendment was ratified guaranteeing women the right to vote.

Many social workers have provided distinguished service in Congress including Ron Dellums from Oakland, California, who served as chair of the House Armed Services Committee. Former Maryland Senator Barbara Mikulski chaired the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee and was the longest serving woman in Congress when she retired. She coined the phrase:

Politics is Social Work with Power!

There are eight social workers currently serving in Congress and we need more.

At Columbia University’s School of Social Work, we honor the legacy of two of our professors, Frances Fox Piven and her husband, the late Richard Cloward. These two academic giants shook up the nation by forcing the government to adequately deal with the poor.

If any of you out there have gotten child support, you can thank our very own Irv Garfinkel. And I see that another of our very own professors, Jane Waldfogel, added to her long list of accomplishments in being elected a Fellow of the American Academy of Political and Social Science. Congratulations, Jane.

Jane’s work helped set the United Kingdom on a path to cutting child poverty in half—but then came the Tories. I rarely agree with much that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says, but he has at least one thing right, he said in Congress: “Winners make policy; and losers go home.” Who holds office matters. It’s not about the party so much; it’s about the policies.

When social workers engage in the political arena, we engage not just to win, but to be a force for good. We bring passion for the poor, hope to the disillusioned, and commitment to economic and social equity. Imagine what our world would be without social workers.

Politics is Social Work with Power! There is a national campaign underway to expand voter engagement led by Professors Terry Mizrahi and Mimi Abramovitz (both alumna of CSSW) at the Silberman School at Hunter College. Visit the website for more information.

We saw a major demonstration of the power of the vote by students at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. They used their potential voting power to convince Governor Rick Scott to sign legislation that raised the minimum age to purchase a gun from 18 to 21 years old and require a three-day waiting period for all gun purchases.

When I speak about political social work, I must acknowledge my mentor and inspiration in this work—Nancy Humphreys. The former president of NASW and dean emeritus at the University of Connecticut School of Social Work has been a determined promoter of political social work for decades. And her dream is coming to fruition. We now have a textbook, Political Social Work: Using Power to Create Social Change, written by Suzanne Pritzker at the University of Houston and Shannon Lane at Sacred Heart University in Connecticut.

We are at a place in history where social work values, knowledge and skills are needed in the political arena more than ever. I can think of eight recent books written about threats to our democratic government. One, Democracy in Chains, written by Duke University historian Nancy MacLean, details libertarian efforts led by Charles and David Koch to limit majority rule in America. The Koch brothers believe that true freedom requires their unfettered ability to collect as much wealth and power as they can. How dare a majority of voters tax them and use their money for the public good.

Nancy’s book was the subject of one of our Social Work Day on the Hill forums that asked the question: Can social work help save democracy? The answer was: we damn well better try!

I am sure there is a potential Congressmember in this class. Perhaps a mayor? A councilmember? You may not have thought about a career as a political social worker, but I hope some of you will. You are among the best and the brightest. Your country needs you. You represent a tradition of excellence in research and scholarship. Some of you will take that next step and pursue a doctoral degree. Each of you is well equipped to succeed in anything you desire.

In July, CRISP will be holding our second Political Boot Camp and Media Training for social workers and allied professionals who are considering running for office, participating in political campaigns, or being a better spokesperson. It would be great if some of you could attend.

I will be on the Hill tomorrow assisting with a briefing to Congressman Danny Davis’s office. I will be working with Angelique Day of the University of Washington School of Social Work in support of legislation to address the plight of children with incarcerated parents.

I am also working with Michael Sherraden at the Brown School at Washington University in St. Louis on legislation for child development accounts. This is part of the 12 Grand Challenges for Social Work—an effort to address some of the nation’s most intractable social problems. I look forward to working with colleagues at Columbia University. Perhaps Professors Bruce Western and Vincent Schiraldi will return to the Hill to explore ways to reform bail—a critical issue for rural and poor communities.

I know this is a day of celebration, but I need to say that social workers must do more to address the issue of race. If we—social workers—cannot arrive at some reasonable path forward, then who will? Race is the confounding issue in our nation’s history—used by many to divide and often confuse the issues about the inequities that exist in our society. We must do more to work together to find solutions that will raise the fortunes of poor people of color, and poor white people. We need to have that conversation.

This is a commencement address, so I will close with a couple of words of advice. First, the critical element for authentic leadership—particularly in this age of narcissism—is humility. Learn to be humble. Some call it servant leadership. It is fine to think highly of oneself. But always keep things in perspective. Never lose sight of why we choose to do the work we are doing. And always be ready to give others credit. You can accomplish so much more if you are willing to give others the credit.

Think big. The great thing about being a social worker is there are no boundaries to how far we can progress other than the boundaries we put on ourselves. There are social workers in every profession from law to medicine—in every occupation from teachers, to preachers, and the dreaded politicians. I believe there will be a social worker President of the United States. President Obama was close; he was a community organizer.

Pay attention to the future because what you do . . . or don’t do . . . now, may have a significant impact on the future. Think about how many Americans would be in poverty today if others had not fought tenaciously to enact and then to preserve Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

The Class of 2018 has a very bright future if:

  • You learn to harness technology for good. . .
  • You will commit to being a force for good. . .
  • You are willing to stand up and be counted when others are content to sit and watch. . .

As Margaret Mead once said:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the
only thing that ever has.

Class of 2018, there is a world out there that needs you

There’s a world that’s waiting for you.

Go and give it your best.

* * *

VIDEO: Graduation Ceremony, Columbia School of Social Work, Beacon Theatre, May 16, 2018