Nancy Wackstein, executive director of New York City’s United Neighborhood Houses (UNH), told a gathering of social work students and faculty that to improve the lives of the poor and underrepresented, advocating for policy change must be part of the social work professional’s job.
In a keynote speech at the Graduate School of Social Service’s (GSS) annual Entitlements and Benefits Fair, Wackstein, a longtime activist and advocate for the homeless, said that under President Ronald Reagan the nation shifted from the 1960s model of the Great Society to a systematic disinvestment in the nation’s needy.
“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 on the Lincoln Center campus. “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—they won’t.”
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.”
After the address, the fair broke into a series of 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 that the GSS chose the topic of housing because it is a basic, concrete necessity in people’s lives, increasingly threatened by current economic trends.
“We thought it would offer a great example of how to do advocacy,” she said.