Social Impact LIVE: Mimi Abramovitz and the “Voting Is Social Work” Campaign

November 27, 2019 @ 5:30 pm

Prof. Mimi Abramovitz discusses the Voting Is Social Work campaign and how social workers are uniquely positioned to help get out the vote in the 2020 election.



 Richard Hara: Hello, I’m Richard Hara, and this is Social Impact LIVE, a weekly conversation with members of the Columbia School of Social Work community. I’m happy to introduce today Dr. Mimi Abramovitz. Dr. Abramovitz is the Bertha Capen Reynolds Professor of Social Work at the Silberman School of Social Work, Hunter College, and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. Her research interests include women, poverty, social welfare policy, human services, and activism.

Widely published and regularly interviewed by the print and broadcast media, she is the author of Regulating the Lives of Women: Social Welfare Policy from Colonial Times to the Present, now in its third edition. She’s been honored with 15 awards, most recently the Council of Social Work Education Significant Lifetime Achievement Award. Dr. Abramovitz received her master’s and doctoral degrees from the Columbia School of Social Work, so we’re happy to welcome her back here today to talk about Voting as Social Work, a national campaign to ensure that social workers play their part in getting out the vote. Dr. Abramowitz, welcome to Social Impact LIVE.

Mimi Abramovitz: Thank you. And thank you for inviting me. I’m one of the alumni of Columbia University School of Social Work, as you noted, and it’s really nice to be back here and talking to you about this important campaign.

Richard Hara: It’s wonderful to have you here. Before we get into the details of this campaign, I wonder if you could just share with our viewers how you came to be involved with this particular issue.

Mimi Abramovitz: As you mentioned, I’ve been an activist for many years, but I’ve also been an academic and done a lot of research and teaching, which I love. About three years ago, my colleague Terry Mizrahi, also a Columbia alumna, said to me, “Let’s do a voter mobilization campaign.” I said, “I don’t have time for that. I have all my research to do.” But then I started thinking about the voter suppression that’s been going on. I had been active in the civil rights movement, and I was thrilled when the Voter Rights Bill passed in 1965. When I started to learn about voter suppression, voter IDs, gerrymandering, and excluding people from the vote, it broke my heart. It just tore me up because this is a basic democratic right, and so hard won. People died to get it and now it’s being taken away. So I said, “Terry, yes!”

Richard Hara: The two of you got together and got in touch with other people? How did this coalesce into a campaign?

Mimi Abramovitz: Terry’s office is four doors down from mine at Silberman. We started calling people, and a lot of people came on board. We got a steering committee and a small group of volunteers. Then we went after endorsements from the major social work organizations. In a flash, we had about 20 endorsements from major organizations, like the Council on Social Work Education, to the Perinatal Social Workers, who came to us. This happened very fast because people are concerned about voter suppression. A website called Voting Is Social Work had been started about a year earlier at the Humphreys Institute at University of Connecticut, where they do political social work. We were able to expand that and use their expertise. Now social workers around the country are involved. For a short while we had a little funding, and we were able to do webinars. We distributed information on how to vote and these organizations sent the information to their constituents and to their memberships. We now have a mailing list of over a thousand participants.

Richard Hara: It’s really spreading out across the country.

Mimi Abramovitz: We did a follow-up survey of the campaign, and we had representatives from 40 of the 50 states who agreed to participate in that survey.

Richard Hara: I want to remind our audience that we reserve the last 10 minutes for Q&A. If you’ve got a question, please type it in, and our manager will bring it up for us at the end, so we can ask Dr. Abramovitz. The campaign is the National Social Work Voter Mobilization Campaign?

Mimi Abramovitz: Its nickname is Voting Is Social Work.

Richard Hara: How does it work?

Mimi Abramovitz: The hub of the campaign is our practicum departments.  I always say social workers are ideally located, because we sit between the individual and society. What better place to see that in operation than in practicum department? A lot of our efforts went to train field instructors, so they would know how to train their students, some of whom are interns, to register people to vote. According to the president of the National Association of Social Workers, there were some 12 million clients seen by social workers every day. He said 22% of them are not registered, so there’s a pool of unregistered voters that we are ideally situated to register. And so why not?

Richard Hara: We can do the outreach, we can provide education about voting rights, and we can provide some material support in getting to the polls?

Mimi Abramovitz: We work through both the schools and the agency staff. Through the schools we get information to faculty, and we involve students. And we have lists of things you can do, like hold a forum, set up a table for voter registration, give your students assignments about voter registration and educate them to find out who represents them. It’s partly a civic participation component. When we work through the agency, we have the agency staff do things that are agency appropriate. They may do community forums and their own voter registration projects. So it’s twofold.

Richard Hara: This raises the question, are these activities okay? Under federal law, are we as social service agencies receiving federal monies allowed to do this kind of work?

Mimi Abramovitz: That’s really a good question. There were a couple of myths floating around that make some social workers uncomfortable about participating in these kinds of campaigns. One of our jobs is to refute these myths. The myth is generally that these campaigns are partisan. This campaign is, as all voter registration campaigns are, nonpartisan. We don’t support a particular candidate or a particular party. We are just interested in having people exercise this basic democratic right and giving them the information and the skills to be able to do that.

Richard Hara: Are there other barriers to involving social workers either as educators or as practitioners in this effort?

Mimi Abramovitz: Some social workers think it’s unprofessional to do this on the job. [They say] “I’m sitting with my client. How do I bring this up?” The idea is not to insert yourself in the middle of a therapeutic relationship and start talking about voter education, but the agency can have voter registrations. Or they can have meetings with clients after sessions: “Have you seen that we have a voter registration form? Would you like to see it? Can I help you fill it out?” You do it adjunctive to your regular social work.

Richard Hara: So if you are working in a healthcare setting it would be no different from telling a client about applying for insurance benefits.

Mimi Abramovitz: It is kind of an entitlement.

Richard Hara: We should be letting our clients know about how they can tap into it.

Mimi Abramovitz: Some social workers also mistakenly believe it’s illegal. People have heard of the Hatch Act, which prohibits some activities in a partisan vein for employees like me who work in a public university. But the Hatch Act does not disallow nonpartisan voter registration. Not only is it legal, but in 1983 the National Voter Registration Act was passed. Two Columbia professors were instrumental in getting that law passed. It’s called [for short] the Motor Voter Bill, and it mandates motor vehicle bureaus and social service agencies, nonprofit and public, to register people to vote. Frances Fox Piven and Richard Cloward, [who] were both at the School of Social Work for a while, made sure that this legislation applied to public-sector social service agencies, because originally the law was to just cover motor vehicle bureaus. But they said, who has a car and who doesn’t? And they wanted it to be inclusive of everybody who is often excluded from voting. So all those three: it’s nonpartisan, it’s professional, and it’s legal.

Richard Hara: Thanks for sharing some of the background as to how social work has been involved with this issue. I know you’ve written an article about this in the Journal of Social Work Education. It’s chock full of great information – not only about the history of social workers’ involvement with voter engagement, but about these beliefs that social workers hold about doing these sorts of activities, and some of the barriers.

Mimi Abramovitz: Yeah, and this article is open access. You don’t have to have a subscription to the journal till after the election. You can just click onto it, Journal of Social Work Education, published by the Council on Social Work Education, our accrediting body. It includes lots of the activities we did during the campaign. We really get into the weeds as well as into the historical background. Piven and Cloward’s campaign was called Human SERVE. We’re following in their footsteps in this. They tried to do it before email, on the ground, which made it a much more difficult task.

Richard Hara: You’ve been doing similar things. You’ve come here to the School of Social Work to do a “train the trainer” sort of seminar with the faculty and practicum educators.

Mimi Abramovitz: A perfect place to do it.

Richard Hara: As an instructor, I have to confess I haven’t directly addressed issues of voter registration in the courses I teach. So often, people who teach practice think that can be in the policy or advocacy course section. Can you give me some tips on how I can incorporate this material into my direct practice course?

Mimi Abramovitz: Another project I’m involved with that speaks right to that is to undo this silo, the separation of micro and macro practice. There are a lot of us in practicum who are working to both rebalance the curriculum and increase enrollment. You can certainly talk to your students. They can register people to vote in practicum, and they are all interns, number one. You can give them assignments to find out how the electoral process works, and you can motivate them by saying, “Where you work at your internship – possibly a public agency, or a public school or university – you’re dependent on funding from Congress, from the government. That funding goes in different places depending on what the voters say they want.” So they can exercise an influence over their own future employment and the well-being of their clients.

Richard Hara: We have to underscore those connections as part of our students’ education and putting their practice in that larger broader context of policy. That’s one component of it. There’s practicum component that you’ve talked about. There’s a school component. Are you organizing students as well? Are they out there getting involved with these kinds of activities?

Mimi Abramovitz: [At] a lot of the schools I see, the way this works is that the faculty get involved. They’ll get trained throughout when we do “train the trainers” webinars too. Then they engage their students at social work schools around the country, so it’s a trickle-down. We put out the information from the center and then we hope that they will organize their students, their faculty, their clients, and we try to highlight the benefits of this. This also speaks to the question too, the benefits of voter registration and getting out the vote.

Research shows that individuals — it promotes well-being, health, mental health, sense of efficacy, you feel like you’re engaged in the world, you’re making a difference, so on an individual level. On the community level, sort of what I said before, areas that have high voter turnout get better responses from their local politicians, get more resources allocated to them. Money talks, votes talk, every vote counts, and the profession, it’s a benefit to the profession because if we have a strong base and we are producing the votes, then the profession is empowered when it tries to work on the agenda that serves social work’s mission, which serves all of us. So we see 12 million people and 50% of them are voters, it begins to give you a little organizing power. So the individuals benefit, communities benefit and the profession benefits. But most social workers don’t know that individuals benefit, because that’s the new one. The other two you could sort of figure out, but that’s the new one. It actually has a well-being impact which is really interesting.

Richard Hara: On an individual level. That’s fascinating. Unfortunately, in the United States, it seems like voter turnout is just so low, right, and has been declining. Over the years, I mean, we’ve had a bump, I think, in midterm elections recently, which is encouraging. But at a population level, it seems like voter engagement has just not been what it could be.

Mimi Abramovitz: It’s very low, and I want to say something about that’s really important to think about. It speaks to that every vote counts. A lot of people are sort of disillusioned. They don’t think their vote matters. But every vote counts because with low voter turnout, a small number of votes make a big difference. But it’s also true that a small number of votes can make a big difference in an election that the campaign that you support. Don’t think your vote doesn’t count because you don’t want it to go away, but you want to use it when you could make a small — your vote could be one of those small numbers of votes that got your candidate elected.

Richard Hara: Right, right, and it’s not just the big national elections, right? It could be the local city council, board of education, what have you, right, to make that kind of difference?

Mimi Abramovitz: Absolutely.

Richard Hara: And it adds up from community to community, so thank you. We can turn to questions, I think, from our audience. How will your group address online disinformation and other hi-tech tools of voter suppression? Interesting.

Mimi Abramovitz: Well, I mean, we are just targeting social work. That really needs to be done. And we try to talk about the problems associated with voter suppression. I think we have to rely on larger organizations to deal with it in a mass way. But I should say that the National Association of Social Workers has invited us to co-lead their Social Work Votes campaign and they possibly have the resources to take up that issue on a national level with all their thousands and thousands of members to talk about the — you basically have to undo the myths about voter fraud, the problems with voter IDs. And you have to identify who is being targeted back there. This is very much targeted to low-income people, to people of color who are less likely to vote, and who some people think vote the way they don’t — the leaders don’t want them to vote. And those are the people that we serve! So there’s a real overlapping that I guess I could say the best way we’re doing that is registering low-income people, clients of social work agencies who tend to fall into the categories that are targeted for voter suppression.

Richard Hara: Okay, yeah. I don’t know if social workers, either as individuals or as a profession, can fix everything out there. But what we can do is employ our strength-based perspective and shore up the resources that underserved communities have right now, and to add their voice to what we hope is — well, not a different narrative, but a more positive one, so.

Mimi Abramovitz: A more, I mean it’s a basic democratic right, I mean, a fair and effective electoral process is key to the survival of our democracy.

Richard Hara: Absolutely. What is “political social work” and is it partisan? How do you study political social work?  This is an interesting question.

Mimi Abramovitz: Okay. Let me… I’ll answer it in a second. I first — refer you to the University of Connecticut where they have a program in political social work. Basically what they do is they train people to run campaigns, they train people to be participate in political activities, electoral activities. It’s nonpartisan. They don’t train people to vote for A or B, but social work is — part of social work is community organizing. We have, we train people in that and in policy practices, some of those students really want to run for office. And so here is a place where they can learn how to do political social work.

Richard Hara: Okay. It’s kind of along the lines of how do you become an advocate, right? It doesn’t determine what cause you’re advocating, right?

Mimi Abramovitz: Exactly.

Richard Hara: It’s the skills, right, of advocacy that —

Mimi Abramovitz: And most schools don’t teach that layer of skills. They may teach advocacy, but they don’t teach how to participate in the campaign. It’s a particular set of skills and a particular — you have to learn strategies, you have to learn communication, all sorts of things that you need more than just your two years of social work education.

Richard Hara: And again it’s — there’s that social media, digital component to all of this as well, which I think we have faculty here at the School of Social Work who are interested in that topic and working on that as well, so —

Mimi Abramovitz: So they can put it to use this way.

Richard Hara: We can put it to use this way, yeah. Thank you. In my experience… This is another question. In my experience I find that people have trouble finding concise information about candidates. Have you come across this? Is this a form of voter suppression? And do you plan to address this in the campaign?

Mimi Abramovitz: Yeah, well. I mean one of the ways to discourage voting is to make sure people don’t know what the issues are, they don’t know who their candidates are, they don’t know what they represent. So we encourage people to invite candidates to the agency, or to the school, to group forums and so on, so that’s one way. And we also — so that is a piece of voter — I need to have the question repeated. I think there were three parts to that question. Yes, what we do, we do try to do that with — like the myths by educating them, by – and uh, yeah, encouraging them to use…

Oh, I know and I wanted to say, yes, we do link them to the — not a national like Turbo Vote, Rock the Vote, and so on. Those organizations, you can actually register online through those organizations, and then they remind you to vote. So they’re very, very effective followup to what we are doing because that person gets engaged in the system and they’re kept in touch. On Voting Is Social Work there are all sorts of resources that deal with this information lapse and also how to contact these organizations.

Richard Hara: And to get sort of concise, digestible information that help you kind of organize what — I mean for at least the Democratic field, wide-open kind of primary season now.

Mimi Abramovitz: Right.

Richard Hara: Okay, next question. Are you encouraging social work students and social workers to travel to swing states?

Mimi Abramovitz: Well, we didn’t do that last time, but that’s a great idea for schools — for schools to take up in their schools. We don’t — we work through the faculty and the other people who are involved with us, so that would be a great thing to encourage our students to do — to go do that, it’d be a nice thing to add to our activity list. Great idea.

Richard Hara: And for students to register in their home states and cast absentee ballots and things like that, because here in New York I kind of feel that, well, because we lean a particular way, that our votes are somewhat less effective at a national level, right? In terms of the Electoral College and so on, but for our students who come from other states, it’s really important that — yeah.

Mimi Abramovitz: But it’s also, but our students — some of them have no experience with the electoral system. Even though a state may be blue or red, it’s still very useful for them to get involved in all this to learn about, because they may move somewhere else, you don’t know where they’re going to be. So we try not to say yes or no like that, but everybody should have a skill, everyone should have this capacity. And, you know, probably your students at Columbia, more than where I work, come from all over the country, so they’re going to be going back. We have a lot more local students.

Richard Hara: Okay, all right, next question. What are ways we can support those who are disenfranchised: prisoners, immigrants, DV victims?

Mimi Abramovitz: Yeah. Well, our literature addresses these issues, because we talk about that felons — not all felons can vote. Felon disenfranchisement is a big issue we take up. We take up all the immigrants and we take up all those exclusionary practices and try to educate people about them.

Richard Hara: Okay, all right. Well, obviously, it’s a tremendous enterprise to be involved with at this time in our history and so on. And again, sort of going back to the personal angle for all of this, is there a connection, I mean, with your previous research and focusing on women and activism and so on, and what you’re doing now?

Mimi Abramovitz: Well, yeah, I mean, I — I worked in the welfare rights movement many years ago, and I’m doing research on low-income women’s activism in relation to social welfare. I’m also – I teach public policy, so I’m also writing about contemporary social policies and its negative impact on social work clients, social work programs, and so and so. Getting people out to vote is a corrective for — it supports the activism and will add to the history, I hope, and also will be a corrective to some — be another voice. Your vote is your voice. There will be another voice out there arguing for things that reflect social work values, social work missions. To me it’s like, people often introduce me as a scholar and an activist, and I really like that because I really do try to combine them and I think it’s the right thing to do. It adds to one’s sense, my sense of well-being.

Richard Hara: Yeah, and for us in the social work discipline profession, it just reminds us again that, I mean, that’s at our core, right, that kind of activist stance. I’m just, again, asking you to draw upon your decades of experience in the field and sort of looking at social work, you know, from that perspective. I mean, where are we going as a profession? And what’s the corrective course that we need? Do you have any suggestions or advice for this profession where it needs to go in the future?

Mimi Abramovitz: So you can invite me back for another interview on that because I’ve actually done a big piece of research on that —

Richard Hara: I thought so.

Mimi Abramovitz: — called “Business As Usual? A Wake-Up Call for the Human Service Profession,” but it’s — I can’t really summarize it so briefly and be not misinterpreted, so.

Richard Hara: Okay, all right.

Mimi Abramovitz: But I think the profession is working very hard to combat the forces and the policies and the actions that are hurting our clients. But, you know, we need a lot of support from others in society to do that. Programs like this, I think, are really helpful because they help spread the word about what can be done. And I always say to my students what’s done can be undone. We have to be ready and willing and able to step in and step up into the fight whichever way we possibly can. Some people do it in small, some people do it in big ways, but every little bit counts.

Richard Hara: All right. We have one more question, and one more comment. So let’s see: I attended one of the early events in the 2020 election series here at Columbia, and I recall a student saying she still hadn’t been able to persuade her immigrant mother to vote. She wondered how she could persuade anyone else. Isn’t it very challenging to do this kind of thing?

Mimi Abramovitz: It’s very challenging, especially for the immigrant population who are so under assault and very afraid to step out of the box of any kind because they are afraid they may get deported or something. They have a very negative attitude. That said, that’s much harder, but it’s even hard to convince people who feel like… Another thing we found: people think that their vote doesn’t count, they think politics is dirty, they don’t think it’s worth it. They don’t think there’s enough diversity in the candidates or in the programs. So that’s where information comes in. If you give people the information that speaks to their needs and their interests, and also have organizations such as social work agencies that help people get to the polls, help people register, those are all — it’s step by step. It’s a lot of hard work. Those are all the things that you can be done. Maybe this — an immigrant mother might someday be convinced if she had enough information and felt safe enough in this country.

Richard Hara: Okay, having hosted a voter registration event with the League of Women Voters, it is amazing how much misinformation is out there regarding voter registration. If you are in a position to inform, definitely do it. It was very rewarding and we’ve registered dozens of people. So this is more of a comment and kind of appreciation of the work that you’re doing as well.

Mimi Abramovitz: Well, thank you, thank you. I really appreciate that, and it’s good news to hear that. I often say, as I’m finishing up my talks, and I’ll say it now.

Richard Hara: Okay.

Mimi Abramovitz: Be part of history. Join the National Social Work Voter Mobilization campaign.

Richard Hara: Okay. And I’ll leave you with the final words. Thank you again, Dr. Abramovitz, for joining us here today at Social Impact LIVE. That concludes today’s episode. We’ll be joined next week by Sholpan Primbetova and Tara McCrimmon to discuss the challenges faced by U.S.-trained social workers when working in other countries, and how to build effective collaboration. So have a happy Thanksgiving. Looking forward to seeing you next week. Bye-bye now.