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Social Work Policy Advocacy: The Path to Societal Change

Policymakers and community members collaborate within an image of clasped hands superimposed over a cityscape to illustrate the concept of social work policy advocacy.

Social workers advocate on behalf of individuals and communities to increase their access to basic resources such as housing, food, and health care. Social work advocacy ranges from small-scale actions that impact individuals to large-scale programs designed to benefit entire communities and society as a whole. For example, social workers help clients apply for food-purchasing assistance through the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP); they also fight to protect and extend access to SNAP for tens of millions of Americans though policy development and political action.

The National Association of Social Workers’ Code of Ethics includes the standard that social workers “should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully.” Social work policy advocacy is one of the means for upholding that standard.

What Is the Social Worker’s Role in Policy Advocacy?

According to the National Association of Social Workers, “advocacy is the act of arguing on behalf of a particular issue, idea or person.” Social workers advocate on behalf of clients and communities in myriad ways, not all of which involve policy. In fact, much of the work they do involves lending their expertise so their clients are empowered to advocate for themselves. For example, social workers help clients navigate social services and the legal, healthcare, and educational systems.

Social workers involved in policy advocacy seek changes to frameworks that impact groups of people. They advocate on behalf of people from underserved, underrepresented, and marginalized groups, addressing policies that impact their lives and well-being. Actions include speaking out against policies that further disenfranchise such individuals, reduce or eliminate their funding for resources, or impede access to programs for their communities. They could also write policy briefs that inform the public, news media outlets, and lawmakers to generate support for funding, services, and protection.

Social workers advocate for policies that enhance behavioral health resources, such as access to substance abuse counseling. They address policies related to affordable housing, such as local laws governing how much landlords can increase rental rates. Social workers have shaped policies regulating the extent of policing that law enforcement can undertake when dealing with individuals experiencing homelessness being in public places. Not all policy advocacy occurs at the systemic level, however. Changing a community support group’s meeting time so more people can attend is also an example of policy advocacy.

Knowledge and Skills Needed for Policy Advocacy

The first step in advocacy work is listening. Social workers interact with communities to learn about the challenges that they face. Once the community voices its needs, the social worker can raise awareness about the issues — educating everyone from lawmakers to nonprofit advocacy groups — and empower community members to advocate for policy reform.

By raising awareness, social workers facilitate relationships between diverse stakeholders. Policy advocates build coalitions among individuals, businesses, and organizations with common interests. By sharing resources, contacts, and knowledge, such groups can build sufficient momentum to sway legislation.

This is just one of many advocacy methods social workers use. Selecting the most effective approach for any given situation requires knowledge of several factors:

  • Knowledge of existing policies. If social workers want to create new policies, they must first understand why existing policies were developed. They must be able to identify problems in these policies, find ways they could be improved, and design concrete proposals toward this end.
  • Knowledge of political and legislative processes. Social workers engaging in policy advocacy must understand how local, state, and federal policies are created and changed. Legislation is developed in line with the democratic process; knowing how governments –– from federal bodies to city councils –– change laws is crucial.
  • Knowledge of service delivery. Service delivery refers to how resources, including goods and services, are actually provided. Social workers must understand how policies are implemented to create actual results and must be able to identify bottlenecks in the path from policy to tangible change.

Social workers use a variety of skills to turn their knowledge into actions:

  • Research skills. Research skills are necessary to gain deeper insights into existing policies and their historical creation. Research can also be used to discover and evaluate alternative policies that may exist in another jurisdiction.
  • Analytical skills. Social workers assess existing policies’ effectiveness and proposed policies’ viability.
  • Communication skills. The ability to write detailed policy drafts and present policy proposals verbally is essential to arguing for one policy’s potential efficacy over another’s.

How the Tulane University Online Doctorate in Social Work Prepares Graduates for Roles in Policy Advocacy

Building the knowledge and skills to do social work policy advocacy requires a commitment to social justice. People who want to challenge inequities in the systems and institutions that determine access to resources should consider Tulane University’s Online Doctorate in Social Work. The program develops leaders for social change with a curriculum that emphasizes the creation and implementation of effective programs and policies:

  • Historical and Current Policy Approaches to Social Welfare. In this course, students develop a thorough understanding of social policy’s history and evolution over time. They will gain basic knowledge of policy and service delivery, as well as the ways that power and control come into play in the legislative process. The course places a special emphasis on disenfranchised populations.
  • Community Advocacy and Participatory Research for Applied Practice. This course teaches students the theories and models needed for community organizing, which can be used to rally individuals to advocate for policy change at a local level. They learn a community-based participatory research (CBPR) approach to advocacy, which allows them to gain skills in community leadership.

Graduates emerge from the program with the tools needed to put policy advocacy into action for the improvement of others’ lives. Interested individuals can get more information about the curriculum and what makes the Tulane University Online Doctorate in Social Work unique through the program website.

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