One-on-One with C. Virginia Fields

March 1, 2006 @ 5:00 am

A woman that needs no introduction, C. Virginia Fields is a noted political leader, civil rights pioneer and social worker. After delivering a key note speech to kick-off National Social Work Month at CUSSW, we sat down with her for a one-on-one interview.

You received your Master’s degree in social work from Indiana University. Why did you choose social work?
That’s a very interesting question. As a teenager, being part of the Civil Rights movement shaped my experience. It created a desire in me to be someone who will make a difference and make changes in the lives of people. When I attended college, it was a Professor at my college who saw something in me – a person who was caring and compassionate – and encouraged me to learn more about social work. In the end, I chose social work because it fit into what I wanted to do as an individual to commit myself in helping people.

You’ve accomplished a lot during your tenure as Manhattan Borough President. How would you describe your experience as a politician and social worker?
Rewarding! My social work training has enabled me to not only be a good listener, but also have a heightened sensitivity to the impact of laws on people’s lives. It makes me conscious of how existing laws affect individuals and communities, and how as a politician I can help fight injustices and bring about changes.

What would you say is your biggest achievement?
On the macro level, I would say it is creating more awareness and understanding of the importance of involvement in the political process; and increasing participation through civic engagement. I saw an increased number of people applying to serve on local Community Boards; attending Annual Parents’ Conferences, which I conducted; as well as getting involved with issues in their community. I believe that I created a visibility of the Office that helped community leaders and others see how their participation can make a difference.

On a personal level, it has been helping to revitalize Harlem, such as improving the school system, redeveloping Frederick Douglas Boulevard and focusing on areas of unmet needs throughout the borough. During my time in Office, I focused on strategically redesigning the budget to meet key needs in all of the neighborhoods.

Last year, you decided to run as a Democratic candidate for Mayor of New York City. This was a big step in your political career.
Yes, I felt that I had reached a level where I had the knowledge and experience, and was ready for the next step. I was fully aware of the challenge that I faced in the Primary, and equally so, if I had become the Democratic nominee. I find that women and African Americans generally, are not encouraged or supported to take on such challenges; even though we may be more or equally experienced and qualified. However, I was not discouraged. I fully understood the issues and had a vision for this city that was not being expressed. Of course, winning is always better, but it was an important journey for me to take and I am very happy that I ran.

I’m sure many women look up to you as a role model. Do you have any people whom you admire and why?
There are two women that come to mind. The first is Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to Congress and who later ran as a Democratic candidate for President of the United States. The second is Judge Constance Baker Motley, whose illustrious career included serving as a trial lawyer for the NAACP, NYS Assemblywoman, Manhattan Borough President and senior Federal Judge. Both women have been an inspiration in my political career. I admire their tenacity and commitment, but even more so what they were able to accomplish before opportunities were fully opened to them.

Do you have any thoughts or advice to those in the social work field who aspire to become politicians?
Do it! Make yourself viable. Social work training helps one to understand the issues and people involved. As a political leader, you can be a great influence. A wonderful way to start is to get involved with the issues and support your local community.

What are your next steps or plans for the future?
I really enjoy public service. It has been a lifelong journey of mine to make a difference by getting involved. I have made a difference in many ways through government. I am open to opportunities to continue to serve the public.

The National Social Work Month reception with C. Virginia Fields was sponsored by the Professional Development Committee of the CUSSW Alumni Association.