Social Change, One Person at a Time

An In-depth Look at Social Work
Jim Roberts
March, 1, 2016 -

Tirelessly endeavoring to enhance our collective quality of life, promoting social justice and improving the wellbeing of the community--this is Social Work.  “SOCIAL” relates to the broader collective community; and “WORK” originates from the relentless efforts of “worker” bees and ants. Principles of social justice, human rights and dignity, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are embedded in the practice and profession of Social Work.

Individuals and groups have been helping members of their tribe, clan, community or society for a millennia; and this ongoing practice represents the positive side of human behavior and character. But, a look back in history reveals that Social Work as a profession is a pretty new phenomena, only emerging in the mid-19th century. Social Work began as an effort focused on ending poverty, protecting children from abuse and exploitation, and assisting those with physical, mental or emotional maladies. Surprisingly, the focus of Social Work hasn’t changed all that much over the last 150+ years.

I love the “worker bee/ant” connection-analogy, as it actually serves a dual purpose. For instance, we have all seen movies or pictures of ants moving objects or caring loads far greater than themselves; as well as bees busily working from flower to flower, seemingly without rest. These images certainly speak of the challenging work that Social Workers perform individually, shouldering daunting caseloads with tireless efforts. But there is another side to this picture, the “social” perspective. It should be noted that the individual efforts of the worker bee and ant are for the benefit and survival of their larger colony or community. So, too, are the efforts of Social Workers. These amazing professionals are committed to enhancing the collective quality of life and wellbeing of their communities.

Another analogy characterizing the process of improving the quality of life and wellbeing of the community, is that of the human body. Think about the body for a minute, if you will.  When we view each other as functioning, unique individuals, it is easy to forget the complexity of the thousands of individual components working together so that one body can operate properly. From microscopic cells to our large limbs, from our internal organs to our brain, and from our respiratory system, circulatory system, immune system, digestive system and so forth, it is vital and necessary that all of our “parts” work together. It takes each individual part working as it was designed, in complete concert with every other part, in order for us to be well. We know what happens when our body’s equilibrium is upset, whether it be a simple illness, injury or a major illness, disease or other malady. We experience illness, pain and eventually death. Similarly, the collective wellbeing and health of our community is dependent on the proper working of many individuals parts working together for the betterment of society.

Unless totally perverted or diabolic, everyone wants a high quality of life, successful social justice and a healthy community. But these standards aren’t achieve in a vacuum–they happen one person at a time! Social Workers are like a society’s “immune system,” the persistent, hard-working individuals ensuring that those forces at work to destroy social health are minimized or eradicated. Social Workers are the vessels of hope, of healing and of encouragement; the watchdogs and guards against the invaders; and they are the warriors assaulting injustice, iniquity and social disintegration

The success of honeybees and ants, and the human body for that matter, is dependent upon a collective strength. Healthy hives and colonies are dependent on tens of thousands of individual workers; as our bodies are dependent on tens of thousands of interactive functioning components. Social dishevel, disintegration and chaos is like having a fever; it is indicative of a weak or broken down immune system. Likewise, a society’s wellbeing is directly linked to the collective strength of its social workers. Social Workers are indispensable–and without them we, as a society, would all suffer.

It is clear what the macro-level view is for maintaining healthy communities, but we need to drill down to the micro level reality. Social Work effectiveness is a one-on-one, individual effort, promoting social change and health one person at a time! It takes intense individual effort to produce overarching, positive social change.

Think of the depth, breadth and dimensionality of social work activity necessary to maintain individual and community health. Victims of trauma require hours of interventions and an ongoing process of time in order to heal and be a healthy, functioning person again. Reducing homelessness requires a myriad of activities per individual, not only to secure housing but also to understand the causes of homelessness and assisting the individual in overcoming them. Lifting someone out of poverty requires meeting a long list of needs which could include skill building, socialization, access to healthcare, enhancing employability, and ensuring adequate, sustainable income. Ending social injustice and discrimination can only be accomplished through widespread education and changed thinking. Some individuals require multiple social work interventions. Remember, society is a many membered body which requires every member to work together for the common good--one person at a time!

We marvel at the intricate, amazing work of bees making honey, ants tending to their colony and the complexity and beauty of the human body. But let’s not lose sight of the critical work the individual parts must perform in order to make these whole-systems successful. Join me in saluting and thanking every Social Worker who is tirelessly endeavoring to enhance our collective quality of life, promoting social justice and improving the wellbeing of the community, one person at a time!