If social work professionals are to improve the lives of the poor and underrepresented, they must advocate for policy change on the political level.
That was the message given by Nancy Wackstein, executive director of New York City’s United Neighborhood Houses (UNH) and longtime advocate for the homeless, in her keynote speech at the annual Entitlement and Benefits Fair on the Lincoln Center campus.
The event was one of two concurrent fairs sponsored by Fordham’s Graduate School of Social Service (GSS) that outlined changes social work professionals can bring about on political and personal levels.
Under President Ronald Reagan, Wackstein said, the nation shifted from the 1960s model of the Great Society to a systematic disinvestment in the nation’s needy, where it remains today.
“It has been a long time since ‘social services’ has not been a dirty word in this country,” she told the gathering in Pope Auditorium. “Every one of us has a critical job to do to change this pervasive cultural message. Don’t believe that somebody else will take care of it.”
During her tenure as executive director of the Lenox Hill Neighborhood House in New York City, Wackstein initiated a letter-writing campaign among social work staffers against proposed cutbacks in senior and Head Start services by the Giuliani administration. The grassroots outcry among the city’s social services personnel helped force the administration’s hand against the cutbacks, she said.
“You entered this profession because you put value on this kind of work,” Wackstein said. “Change happens case by case, one by one. When you add up a lot of ones, it becomes collective action.”
The Lincoln Center fair offered workshops designed to help social workers navigate various agencies offering housing services to persons and families in need, including those living with domestic violence, AIDS or mental and development disabilities. Ji Seon Lee, Ph.D., assistant professor of social work and one of the fair organizers, said the Lincoln Center GSS chose the topic of housing because it is a basic, concrete necessity that is increasingly threatened by economic trends.
“We thought it would offer a great example of how to do advocacy,” Lee said.
At a concurrent fair on the Westchester campus focusing on mental health, noted television writer Emily Perl Kingsley said that one social worker changed her life by insisting her son, Jason, who was born with Down Syndrome, was capable of living a normal life.
“Every single thing he has ever done in his entire life has been something that was predicted [by doctors]he would never do,” said Kingsley, a Sesame Street writer who has become a leading advocate for the handicapped.
Kingsley recounted her son’s development as a child using videos of her son’s appearances onSesame Street, and photos. She said she faced years of hardship when his development did not always go smoothly.
But having defied the odds, her son went on to write a book about his experiences growing up with Down Syndrome, she said.
“I am grateful for the opportunity to come and talk to you, because it was a social worker who changed my life,” Kingsley told the gathering.
Patsy Schumacher, mother of developmentally disabled children and a GSS student, said that Kingsley’s message was sobering yet inspirational.
“Kids with disabilities have so many opportunities now that they never had in the past. I’m just incredibly grateful to her,” Schumacher said.
John DeSio contributed to this report.