As we prepare for the weeks ahead…

Melissa Begg
April 04, 2020

Dear CSSW Community,

I hope most sincerely that this note finds you and yours well. The situation in NYC, across the country, and around the world has continued to worsen, in accordance with the worrisome predictions we’d been given. As I shared with some of you via online engagements earlier this week, it feels as though the crisis has moved into a new phase for most of us. At the start, we were contending with the challenges presented by the public health actions to contain the spread of COVID-19; but now, many are contending with being directly touched by the virus in some way, as it infects more of our friends, our neighbors, our families, our colleagues, our loved ones, and ourselves. We are also gravely concerned about those outside our own circles, and the most vulnerable among us around the globe. There’s no doubt that these are extraordinarily difficult times.

Despite the influx of unsettling news, there are glimmers of inspiration and hope. In my view, one of the greatest among these has been the response of the CSSW community. Even though we have been grappling with ever-changing conditions, so many have still found the motivation and the heart to step up and ask, “How can I help?” and “How can I do more?” From teaching in new modalities, to learning in new ways, to supporting and stepping in for others, to seeking out volunteer opportunities – the members of our community (including staff, faculty, students, and alums) have become beacons of social work light, burning even brighter than before. First responders of all types – including social workers, doctors, nurses, physician assistants, paramedics, pharmacists, and emergency medical technicians – are literally putting their lives on the line every day to support individuals and communities. Their courage and strength are both staggering and humbling. The country’s delays in providing adequate protective gear, necessary medical equipment, and now critical medications are deeply troubling, and underscore the consequences of the lack of three key elements: universal access to health care, sufficient public health infrastructure, and an effective social safety net. Social workers see the results of these deficits every day. They know that the impact of this pandemic, and the steps taken to mitigate its effects, will be felt long after the contagion abates.

Rather than allowing our situation to engender despair, I think it instead begs the question: What are we prepared to do about it? Social work has always stood for social justice and human dignity. Rather than succumbing to hopelessness, let’s focus on the way forward. Although the next few weeks will be especially difficult for us, let us gather our strength and commitment to re-envision the future. The obstacles are enormous, without question; but so is our will. Let’s channel our energies and seize the moment, recognizing that we are bound together by our shared humanity. I was inspired this week by a quote from the poet Ross Gay, who uttered this quintessentially social-work-centered statement: “What if we joined our sorrows, I’m saying. I’m saying: What if that is joy?” This quote further reminded me of a beautiful passage from John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath, which notes that extreme adversity propels us from becoming “I” to becoming “we.” We will find strength in one another; and while that strength may flag at times, I am convinced that our compassion is boundless – the more we give, the more we have. Let that be our anchor.

All the best to you—



Melissa D. Begg
Dean & Professor
Columbia School of Social Work