Social workers need a seat at the power tables | Opinion
By Chad Dion Lassiter, MSW
When Shirley Chisholm made her bid to become the first African American president 50 years ago this month, she had no illusions that she would win the democratic primary. What she wanted to prove was that racism and sexism were no longer barriers to building a political coalition of poor and working people whose concerns the other candidates were ignoring.
“I stand before you today, to repudiate the ridiculous notion that the American people will not vote for qualified candidates, simply because he is not white or because she is not a male,” Chisholm said in her declaration speech. “I do not believe that in 1972, the great majority of Americans will continue to harbor such narrow and petty prejudice.”
Chisholm’s campaigned against the ills of poverty – homelessness, unemployment, inadequate healthcare, poor quality schools - yet, she wasn’t pessimistic about America’s institutions, just about their leadership. “I happen to believe that institutions basically are not contradictory to many, many human rights. It’s the men and women who live within these institutions or carry out the laws or implement the laws.” Now, Americans are losing faith in the very institutions themselves. According to the Gallup polls, the country has lost confidence in church, state, school, media, the Supreme Court, police, and the presidency.
During her concession speech she warned us, “ . . the republic is in trouble. It hasn’t always treated everybody well.” Not surprisingly, her solution for change always included a call to bring diverse voices to the table of power to enrich the decision-making process and to engage disconnected stakeholders. But we packed away her campaign message of the threats of economic inequality and exploitation.
A half century later, as our country still reels from a pandemic, an economic shutdown and a mental health crises, Chisholm’s wise counsel is needed more urgently than ever. Nonprofits are the keepers of America’s safety net but according to a 2021 report from the nonprofit board development organization BoardSource, there is a disconnect between boards and the communities they serve. About half of chief executives also complain that they lack the right board members with which to build trust with the communities they are tasked with serving.
This is why social workers need to be seated at the country’s tables of power. They are on the frontlines daily providing critical help with scant resources to help the most vulnerable. Social workers are best positioned to challenge ill-fated policy decisions, to advocate for holistic, community centric approaches for delivering human services and to honestly evaluate a program’s effectiveness.
Perhaps most importantly, social workers can serve as an early warning system about an organization’s vulnerabilities – clearly.
What we can’t do is confuse hiring social workers, such as embedding them in police departments across the country, with giving them a meaningful voice.
When Chisholm lost the democratic primary for presidency, it showed America had opted for the domestic status quo where social issues like addiction, disease, and unemployment are treated like enemies to be eradicated instead of struggles that required thoughtful sustained assistance. We declared a war against poverty, a war against cancer, a war against drugs, war against domestic terrorism – a path that has produced not a reduction in our social problems but a country constantly at war with itself.
Chisholm warned about the cost of not changing: “. . . part of the reason for the disquietude, the anxiety and the concerns of the American people have to do with the fact that their tax dollars that are being paid into the federal treasury are not being returned to them in terms of what it is that they should get out of this government, which is their government, and which is supposedly government of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
Ultimately Richard Nixon defeated McGovern. Chisolm returned to Congress and did what she had always promised to do when she became the nation’s first African American woman ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968.
“I have no intention of just sitting quietly and observing. I intend to speak out immediately in order to focus on the nation’s problems. " If we are going to turn people into believers of the American dream again, Chisholm told us, “ . . .there have to be people who say, We dare.”
If we are going to restore faith that America is a country of we social workers will have to be as courageous as Shirley Chisholm, dare to follow her lead and do as she once quipped, “If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”
Chad Dion Lassiter, Executive Director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission, was recently named PA Social Worker of the Year.