Which of these sounds like a career in social work?
- A counselor in a hospice center helps families through the process of preparing for the death of a loved one.
- A victim advocate with the local Sheriff’s Office arrives at the home of a woman who called 9-1-1 to provide support and guidance during the aftermath of a sexual assault.
- A school staff member who goes to students’ homes when they are chronically truant to provide education, resources, and brief counseling to the child’s parent.
- A professor of social policy research at your university.
- A lobbyist advocating in the state capitol to raise the age for criminal prosecution of misdemeanor crimes from 16 to 18.
If you answered 1-3, you are absolutely correct!
But, so are 4 and 5.
When people think of “social work” they often think of a therapist or case manager, someone who works with the poor, neglected children, or older adults. These careers fall into the category of “Micro” social work and they involve face-to-face contact with clients experiencing socioemotional difficulties. But, that’s not all you can do with a degree in social work!
Careers 4 and 5 are examples of “Macro” social work jobs. Macro social workers advise government leaders and drive public awareness of the issues micro social workers see on the front lines. They are agents of change in our communities and champions of our core social work values. Though their work settings and daily tasks differ greatly, micro and macro social workers all work to achieve the same goals. “Mezzo” social workers are another subgroup emerging from the social work mass. This title is more anecdotal than one you might find in your social work textbooks, but like the name suggests, these workers effect change in middle-sized units; larger than families and smaller than whole communities. A worker who leads an anti-drug community task force or coordinates support groups for children of cancer survivors might be considered a Mezzo social worker.
As you might imagine in a group as vocal and opinionated as ours, there are a variety of viewpoints about which of these constitutes “true” social work, or whose work is most important. The Council for Social Work Education (CSWE) advocates for a balanced approach to social work education, including a curriculum that emphasizes the importance of both micro and macro practice. On the MSW level, however, you will find many more programs devoted to micro or clinical social work practice than to public policy.
There’s another perspective to consider, and that’s the idea that “true” social workers incorporate all of these tasks and ideals into their work. Yes, your job may be “social worker” at a middle school serving children who are considered “at-risk,” but during the course of that work, you may discover several of your students live in an apartment complex that is being torn down by the city and all of those families are being evicted. You may be able to help the families connect with a church or other community agency that can assist them in finding housing and cover expenses of an unexpected move. You might find yourself advocating that kids who experience homelessness for the benefit of a city road expansion are less likely to be engaged in learning and are more likely to engage in high risk behaviors than their more comfortably housed peers.
Our code of ethics encourages us to do all of these things, no matter what our job titles are.
The landscape of social work is changing. With the economic roller coaster, micro social workers need to advocate for themselves and their jobs on a community level. They may see emerging trends with their clients or barriers to services that need to be resolved by the state or local government. Macro social workers need to understand how social work practice influences the issues they are championing as lobbyists and government agents.
At the end of the day, social workers serve people and all of that work is important.