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Embracing the social work profession, not the over professionalization

Shannon Singleton
Shannon Singleton

The goal of social work is to work yourself out of a job. A simple statement that I heard in my first social work class at Temple University from one of the leading anti-poverty advocates in the country. It is a statement that resonates with me and focuses my work. I spend the bulk of my time working to support people recovering from homelessness, poverty, mental health symptoms, addiction and trauma, while at the same time maintaining a vision of the bigger picture. From a human rights perspective, I advocate to end homelessness, give people housing, end untreated addiction and mental health symptoms, give people treatment to end poverty, give people the ability to fulfill their basic human needs. Simple, right?

Wrong. These “simple” solutions that would work me when out of a job are not easy in a society with differing viewpoints and opinions; ones based in values and principles like the Protestant work ethic and individualism. But, where does social work fit into this? Whatever happened to the kind of social work that built movements in communities, the field that encouraged its workers to identify injustices and use their power to bring change? Granted, some of this still exists. Yet, the profession as a whole, in my opinion, has taken a road of professionalism that mirrors the medical model of Western medicine —- we not only have to go to school, but we now have to register and pay to have the privilege of using the “social worker” title.

In 2011, Oregon changed its statutes for licensing social workers, prohibiting the use of the title without authorization and regulation from the state. Fees range from $150 (for those who have an undergraduate degree) to $460 (for those wanting the highest license of licensed clinical social worker). All fees are paid to the state board of social workers.

This effectively devalues and removes the natural helpers in our communities from being paid for the work they do, and creates a system where agencies only hire “social workers.” I myself acquiesced and recently completed my master’s program but have not yet paid the fee to use the title.

This professionalization of social work is leading us away from the roots of our work and changing the profession as a whole. The relationships that we historically had with people and communities is being replaced by a stale, clinical setting where people are easily mistaken for their diagnosis, their problems, and we lose the space to bear witness to people’s stories. We lose the ability to learn from them and support them in ways that may at times mean a behavior change for them, but more frequently means challenging the oppressive systems that place barriers in the way of people moving from survival to thriving.

I wear my social work badge with pride. At the same time, I rail at the professionalization of the work that puts far too many labels and limitations on people — both the social workers and those we seek to serve. Over the next few months, we will explore and challenge some of the impacts, like sustainability, the loss of the use of self reflection, racial oppression within the field, and how the issue of homelessness is viewed, that this over-professionalization has had on a profession that I love and believe can find its roots once again.

Shannon Singleton has worked in homeless services for over 12 years, the past 6 in Portland. Prior to that, she worked with social action groups in Philadelphia.