Every year in March, faculty from Saint Leo University's undergraduate and graduate social work programs take special time to make sure current students and interested alumni-practitioners receive updated information on issues in their field. Some of the knowledge and research shared during the observation of National Social Work Month in March helps practitioners carry out their professional responsibilities more expertly. And some information is shared not only with clients and their families, but also, in acts of advocacy, with voters, legislators, and architects of public policy.

This year, the Saint Leo community of social workers have been especially attentive to sharpening their real-world advocacy skills. That is how it should be, said Dr. Ruth Brandwein, a nationally respected, retired social-work educator in delivering the keynote address earlier this month during Saint Leo's Fifth Annual Social Work Conference at University Campus. She even encouraged those in the audience to consider running for office someday, as have several elected members of the U.S. House of Representatives. 

There are a long list of populations who could use representation in legislatures, she said. Trained social workers are well suited to advocate for "the aging, veterans, mental health issues, opioid issues, for child welfare, for human trafficking (prevention and survivors), for homeless, and for LGBTQ rights," she said. It is not just that social workers have the concern, she said. The professional training social workers apply—interviewing, listening, and communicating­—proves useful in legislative roles, she said.

Brandwein was also eager to build up the political skills of those who will never run for office themselves, perhaps the majority. She talked about the other ways professionals can play a positive role.

Professional-political awareness

Brandwein explained, for instance, the function of the Political Action for Candidate Election (PACE), which is the political action arm of the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), a respected professional membership group. State-level chapters of the NASW have these groups, as well, and members can become involved. The committees research and endorse candidates from any party who support the NASW policy agenda. The committees can also raise money (not tax-deductible for the donors) that can be used to support political candidates.

After the impassioned keynote, Brandwein conducted a workshop and practice session on how to meet with a legislator and get one's point or points across. In essence, it was a live simulation of lobbying. This, too, is a skill Brandwein has honed well and still practices. In her retirement, she is the legislative chair for the Florida Chapter of the NASW; she fills the same role for Sarasota and Manatee county social work professionals at the state level.

Brandwein directed the workshop attendees to break into small groups. One person played the role of a legislator with no background in social work issues while the others played the part of small delegation of professionals explaining the group's policy position. In her own group, Brandwein played the role of a legislator who knew nothing about the professional training social workers receive, as the delegation made the case for raising the compensation social workers can earn, a pertinent point as so many social workers are employed in public sector agencies that are funded by tax dollars.

Pay is a hot-button topic this year, with the NASW naming better compensation for social workers as one of the legislative priorities of the 2019 Social Work Month. The group is calling it the Elevate Social Work campaign, and pointing out that according to government data, the median national pay in social work "lags behind those of other helping professions such as nurses, high school teachers, and police officers."

Legislative Chambers

Just days after the conference, 20 Saint Leo undergraduate and graduate social work students were able to put the pointers to work in the real world.

The group, along with faculty members Christina Cazanave, Ebony Perez, and Dr. Robert Lucio, went to Washington, DC, to apply their advocacy skills to the promotion of social justice issues. They had specific discussion points, according to Lucio: legislation on human trafficking; the need for additional mental health services in schools; ways to advance the social work profession; and the creation of Bachelor of Social Work (the undergraduate degree) internship and employment opportunities at local U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) hospitals.

Meetings were held with members of Congress and their aides, Senate Defense Appropriations Committee (on the VA issues), and several lobbying and advocacy groups. For instance, this photo was taken of the Saint Leo group with U.S. Representative Kathy Castor from Tampa. The meetings allowed students to learn some new information on current legislation and the legislative process, as well as the opportunity to voice their professional positions. The appointments also led to conversations on other lobbying and advocacy activities, and the points at which social work research, practice, and policy all come together. The students were able to utilize skills learned in the classroom by utilizing infographics, data, and their own professional experience to emphasize the need for political action in addressing social injustice.

Additional trips are also available for students' growth and learning at some state capitals. That is an important convenience, given the multiple locations of the students. Students can study for the undergraduate Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) degree at University Campus, and at certain education centers in Florida. Master of Social Work (MSW) degree candidates can study from more distant locations as it is a remote degree program that blends online studies with an annual residency at University Campus.

MSW students traveled to Atlanta in February to visit the Georgia General Assembly, owing to an early start of the session there. Another group of MSW students is due in Richmond for the Virginia General Assembly session by the end of March. And a mixed group of students from Florida will travel to Tallahassee in early April. Students unable to attend one of these trips still had the opportunity to participate in advocacy by attending a community legislative event in their social welfare policy class, which is part of the curriculum at the undergraduate and graduate level.

Saint Leo offers instruction for the Bachelor of Social Work degree and the Master of Social Work degree through its College of Education and Social Services.

Press coverage of the Saint Leo Social Work Conference can be found here.

Note: Other academic programs at Saint Leo University also offer immersive learning trips with a focus on legislative affairs and advocacy. Interested students can contact their advisors or the chair of their academic department.