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Championing Social Justice through Social Work

Updated: Mar 3, 2023

“What really drove my passion in social work school was the links that I found between the child welfare system, the residential facility that I worked in when I started this work, and the incarceration pipeline and how common the themes are between when we look at the incarcerated population and how we treat them, and we look at how we prepare our young adults or our kids to be operating in a system that's similar to an incarcerated system, and especially for Black and Brown people, that was really near and dear to me.”

March is recognized as National Social Work Month, so Breaktime wants to spotlight the role that social workers take on in the fight for social justice. Our Programs Director, Quanesha Fuller, is a Licensed Certified Social Worker. When we interviewed her about the role of Social Work in the fight for social justice, she said:

“I think the role of a social worker is really to connect people. When you think about it, social workers connect people to resources. We connect people to people. So the qualities that you need is being really open-minded and open to hearing and learning continuously from other folks what their experiences are.”

The role of a social worker is also one that is uniquely placed to defend social justice. Social workers inhabit and operate in uncomfortable spaces, plagued by inequity and injustice, to create positive change through a holistic approach. Their work in our welfare systems is crucial when promoting and building safe and healthy communities. Often, social workers engage with families that are struggling with systemic challenges including poverty, racism, homelessness, and generational trauma. Their goal is to help meet the basic and not-so-basic needs of vulnerable or oppressed individuals within a community.

The social work code of ethics is deeply rooted in social justice. “When you learn the history of social work and how it actually started from a pretty oppressive and racist place, our field is one that's committed to social justice advancement. We really believe in equity.” Social work was a product of the industrial revolution and intended to serve as a solution to social problems brought upon by industrialization, urban poverty, and immigration. Since then, social workers have been trained to acknowledge and remove barriers to an individual or community’s optimal well-being. Looking at reports of racial and wealth disparities in mental health treatments, we see the connection between social work and social justice as intrinsically valid. Social wellness is directly linked to race and class, and mental wellness is important to employment, security, and living a happy and fulfilling life.

“Holding social welfare and social justice, thinking about oppression and how those things are perpetuated when you are working in a job environment. How are we thinking about those things and really being brave to speak out about them, to advocate against them, to advocate for better? Because policy definitely defines how we practice and how we practice should absolutely inform how we create policy. So I think that's what social workers bring to the table.”

“Our industry is predicated on there being humans who are suffering. So really unless you have human suffering, you don't have a need for social workers, for people to help them navigate and support them through that suffering.” Today, these social workers serve as “front line” workers, addressing the ongoing mental health crisis that has been ravaging the country. Social workers confront frustration, pain, and overwhelming emotions and situations when forced to help others through the consequences of deeply rooted social problems.

The work that social workers undertake is vital for the success of individuals and communities. When social workers are active in a community, positive outcomes can be seen in crime rates, health statistics, school attendance, and employment. At Breaktime, relationships with Pathway Coaches—MSW students from local schools of social work—are necessary to support our young adults on their path toward securing housing and financial stability. Our Pathway Coaches support our Associates directly in navigating through our program model. So too do they support them more generally, interfacing with external agencies to meet their needs. Many of our young adults have faced unimaginable trauma associated with chronic homelessness. Pathway Coaches provide support, validation, and empowerment on a person-to-person basis, ensuring successful outcomes for these young adults.

Social workers provide a myriad of services, depending on their role and area of expertise. They enact change at the micro, mezzo, and macro levels. At the micro level, social workers provide one-on-one or small-group interventions addressing a wide range of social issues. Pathway Coaches at Breaktime work with our Associates on the micro level to coordinate housing, employment, mental health support, and more based on their immediate needs. At the mezzo level, social workers work with larger groups or organizations, like schools, prisons, and/or hospitals. Breaktime is also engaged in macro social work, which consists of advocacy and policy-making to address larger societal issues, such as homelessness.

Doing all of this amazing work, Pathway Coaches are full-time MSW students, completing the 900 to 1,200 hours of typically-unpaid field work that accredited social work programs require. Students usually pay for this opportunity to work because it is a part of their graduation requirements. As an organization that champions economic equity and justice, Breaktime finds this unacceptable. Breaktime’s Pathway Coaches come from Boston’s top Master of Social Work programs and provide intentional support to young adults throughout the entirety of the model. They engage in emotionally and mentally challenging labor and are key to the work we do. Tangentially, we see that there is a stark racial disparity in representation among social workers in reflection of the populations they serve. At Breaktime, 90 percent of our Associates are youth of color; however, our pathway coaching team–or more broadly, schools of social work, are not reflective of this diversity, signaling an issue with recruiting and retaining social workers of color. Thus paying for intern labor is crucial to broadening the accessibility of the field of social work, especially when minorities are overrepresented as service recipients.

“When we think about access and we think about equity and equality, who are the people that can afford to work for free? What do those people look like? There are parents, there are people who can't afford it when we think about the cost of living in Massachusetts alone.”

Breaktime will now be paying Pathway Coaches! Upholding our value of radical inclusion as an organization requires us to think radically about the ways in which our current workforce and education systems perpetuate systemic racism, classism, and many more injustices. We firmly believe people should not have to choose between education and having an income, especially when that decision is impacted largely by one’s access to wealth—and thus generational wealth gaps stemming from racial inequality.

“We see that paying MSW students is actually a move towards diversifying the field of social work. And we are very excited to be a part of the number that is shifting to this. I know the NASW, the National Association of Social Work, has been advocating for this. We're very excited to already be doing it so we can help other organizations come and join us in doing it.”

This month, Breaktime recognizes social workers because the work we do is simply not possible without them. To not have social workers as part of our system of intervention would be antithetical to our belief in a person-first approach. To not have those social workers earning money would be antithetical to our belief in radical inclusion. In all, Breaktime is fueled by its desire to make change, and its changes are catalyzed by the contributions of MSWs that make our work possible.

We encourage everyone to take the time to appreciate all that they do. Stay connected with Breaktime on all of our platforms throughout March to meet and learn from our Pathway Coaches and our Programs Director, Quanesha Fuller, MSW, LCSW.

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