Social workers form the bulk of mental health service providers in the United States. At more than 200,000, they outnumber psychiatrists, psychologists and psychiatric nurses.
The US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) alone employs more than 15,000 social work professionals. Nearly half of all trained disaster management volunteers are trained social workers.
These professionals are a fixture in communities all over America. They are employed in schools, senior centers, prisons and hospitals, as well as public and private agencies.
Their work is not limited to mental health. Social workers are tasked with helping individuals and families who for one reason or another may be struggling. The average social worker deals with everything from addiction to violence within the home to the elderly who may be having difficulty accessing basic services.
A good social worker knows how to promote diversity, equality and inclusion. Not only do they have to be culturally competent themselves, but they must also teach others the value of inclusivity and diversity in the communities where they work.
You may be contemplating enrolling in higher education in social work but asking yourself: “What can I do with an MSW?”
Many people assume that good career prospects do not exist for social workers. They may see the profession as government employees who go from home to home trying to iron out problems within troubled families or assist people deal with addiction or mental health issues.
Although social work is indeed a challenging career, it is also very rewarding. With a master’s degree in social work, you can climb to the highest ranks of the profession whilst helping people at their most vulnerable. You can be involved in overseeing other social workers and crafting policies that uplift communities, families and individuals.
You will also be tasked with teaching those you supervise the value of diversity, equaliy and inclusion in their work. You can choose to work with families and children within the criminal justice system or help improve mental health within your community. The VA and the private sector also have employment opportunities for social workers, and with a master’s degree, you can expect to join management before too long.
Even as you investigate higher education options in social work, it is important to know the meaning of diversity, equality and inclusion, and how they impact social work.
What is diversity in social work?
Think about your community. If it is like most communities in America today, it encompasses people of many different races, religions and sexual orientations. That is diversity. Diversity is more than race and ethnicity; it refers to all the factors that make a person unique.
As a social worker, you will encounter all sorts of people. To do your job effectively you must learn to accommodate them and treat everyone equally and fairly. You must learn to respect different cultures and understand that what may seem normal to you may be odd to another because of their upbringing, culture and beliefs.
When we talk about diversity many think about race and ethnicity, but it goes beyond that.
Imagine, for example, a White social worker who serves the elderly in a community that is largely White. A certain elderly lady of the same race and ethnicity is one of his clients, and every time he visits she insists on reading a few bible verses and saying a prayer before they get started.
If the social worker does not share her religious beliefs this may become particularly irritating, and over time they may stop providing services. The old lady falls through the cracks.
A good social worker would not let a client’s religion get in the way. They would find ways to work around it so that they can deliver services as required.
The role of diversity is to ensure that services are delivered to all, regardless of where they come from, what they believe in, or their culture.
How can a social worker become more diverse?
Diversity does not come easily, especially for those who have grown up in small, homogeneous communities, but there are certain things that you can do to become more tolerant of others:
- Develop cultural competence. This means learning about other cultures so that you can understand them better. Cultural competence allows you to accommodate people from different backgrounds.
- Interact with people of different ethnicities, religions, races and backgrounds. If some aspect of a certain culture is difficult to understand you do not have to let it interfere with your job. Take it as it is and serve all your clients with equality and fairness. It is important to keep in mind that we are all affected by bias. It is only by being aware of it that one can eliminate it.
- Be an avid learner — as outlined in the National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics, these professionals are required to be knowledgeable about the history, traditions, cultures, art and family systems of different ethnic groups. This is a lot of knowledge, and you have to be an avid learner to internalize all that is required. Reading is one way you can become more familiar with other cultures. You can also watch documentaries and attend cultural events. Making friends with people from different parts of the world is a very effective way of getting a better understanding of who they are and their belief systems.
- Become a social justice advocate — as you go about your daily duties you should be aware of stereotypes within your community and point them out. Many people do not know that they have biases. As a social worker, you are an authority figure in your community and those around you listen to you. Make others aware of their stereotypes and talk with them about the value of treating everyone equally. Use whatever tools are at your disposal to support the rights of the underprivileged.
- Recognize minorities and honor their contribution to the community — every community has people who make outstanding contributions to the wellbeing of others. Use your position to honor them and let everyone know that they contribute to the betterment of the community at large.
What is equality in social work?
Equality in social work can be a confusing concept. Treating all people equally often ends with mixed results. As a social worker, you need to assess each case to determine how best they can be helped.
The measures you take to help a drug-addicted person in a financially stable family, for example, will differ from those that you take to help an addict from a poor family.
For the former, you can recommend a private rehabilitation center, but for the latter, a government-run rehabilitation center will have to do. Although you take different actions, the aim of both is the same — they will be weaned off their addiction and become useful members of society.
Equality is more about making sure that your clients get what they need to help them out of their predicament. The needs of individuals and families differ, so you should make assessments so that you can distribute resources most effectively.
To give you another example, two women, both of whom experience violence in the home, may need very different interventions. One may need to leave the home right away, while the other may need to get a job so that she becomes self-reliant.
Knowing your clients well is the only way you can deliver what they need.
Each community is unique so requires different interventions, but there are certain things you can do to ensure equality across the board:
- Do not rush to help unless there is an emergency. Rather, take the time to talk to your clients and understand their particular circumstances so that you can develop effective and long-lasting solutions.
- You should not assume that you have all the answers. Many social workers will tell you that their clients are aware of what they need, and all they lack are the resources. Talk to your clients and other professionals. Include clients in finding solutions whenever possible.
- Know what resources are available to you. In many communities, families are not aware of government resources that they can use to uplift themselves. As a social worker, it is your job to find out what resources you can offer. Look into government programs, charities and even private businesses that may be willing to help.
- Learn from more experienced colleagues. They have a better feel for the issues of the community and they may have a fairly good idea of what solutions should be implemented.
What is inclusion in social work?
Social workers typically work with people who have experienced some form of discrimination, which leads to social exclusion. Clients, whatever their background and social problems, should feel valued and included in their communities.
Take the example of a young mother who struggles to balance the demands of childcare and a job. She does not have time to meet with other young mothers in her community, and as a result may feel isolated, excluded and depressed.
Ideally, together with their social worker, they should find ways to get her more involved in community activities. It can be by finding childcare solutions or a less demanding job.
Elderly people can easily feel excluded, especially if they have mobility issues. Handicapped people may also not feel valued and included. It is the job of the social worker to make sure that they are integrated and valued in their communities. Here are some ways this can be done:
- Understand the real reasons behind the exclusion. Some are physical and some are psychological. Talk to the client and together work out ways in which they can participate and feel valued.
- Make the community aware that these people are there and should be included whenever possible. If you become an advocate for them and let them be seen they are more likely to make friends and feel included.
- Organize whatever resources are needed for better mobility and comfort. For the elderly, for example, driving is a challenge, and they miss out on community activities because they have no means of travel. If you can organize for one of the businesses to donate vehicles to transport them, you will encourage them to form bonds with others in the community.
- Teach your community about inclusion and diversity. If everyone is culturally competent, they will be more welcoming to those who may be marginalized by their circumstances.
Can you learn all these things in an MSW?
A Master of Social Work covers a variety of topics. Depending on where you are enrolled, your curriculum may include modules like social work with individuals, sociological concepts and contemporary concerns, social justice and human rights, social policy and planning as well as administration of welfare services.
All these areas integrate diversity, equality, and inclusion in one way or another. If you are lucky, you may encounter these as stand-alone modules where you can study them in depth.
However, to treat everyone equally, and be culturally competent and advocate for those who are excluded in their communities, you need to develop certain soft skills. You should be a great listener, have a thirst for knowledge about other cultures and learn to be open-minded. You should also learn how to be an advocate for your clients by making sure that they are represented in different facets of the community.
Soft skills may seem like a difficult proposition in the beginning, but you can learn them as you go along.
There are short courses that you can take on how to be a better listener, how to be a good public speaker and how to empathize with others. They will set you on the right track, and so long as you remain committed to learning you will eventually hone these skills and become an excellent social worker and advocate.
You can also learn a lot from other social workers with more experience. They can help you see new perspectives and find solutions to complex problems.
Interacting with other professionals in adjacent careers may also be beneficial. These may include doctors and nurses, psychiatrists and psychologists, and even lawyers who represent the downtrodden in society.
To be an effective social worker, strive to understand the value of diversity, equality, and inclusion and how they affect your work. Although you may get an introduction to these issues in your master’s degree in social work, you will get a much better understanding of how they affect individuals, families and communities when you go out in the field and handle real cases.
You may have to handle some complex and challenging situations, so have a support system in place to help you come up with workable solutions.