Practicing Policy, Pursuing Change, and Promoting Social Justice: A Policy Instructional Approach

By Heidemann, Gretchen; Fertig, Ralph et al. | Journal of Social Work Education, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

Practicing Policy, Pursuing Change, and Promoting Social Justice: A Policy Instructional Approach


Heidemann, Gretchen, Fertig, Ralph, Jansson, Bruce, Kim, Hansung, Journal of Social Work Education


THE 2008 EDUCATIONAL POLICY and Accreditation Standards of the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) identifies policy practice as a core competency for social work students. It calls on schools of social work to train students to "analyze, formulate, and advocate for policies that advance social well-being" (CSWE, 2008, p. 6). Social workers are also mandated, through the profession's Code of Ethics, to challenge social injustice and pursue social change with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people (National Association of Social Workers [NASW], 1999).

Policy practice and policy advocacy have been identified as prime methods of promoting social justice and engaging social workers in our social reform tradition (Jansson, 2008). Weiss, Gal, and Katan (2006) argue that training in policy practice in schools of social work is minimal, thus practitioners lack the tools needed to intervene in the policy process. These authors cite as major obstacles a chronic lack of teaching staff with expertise in policy practice, the structural divide between micro and macro practice, and a general hesitancy to encourage students to take political stands (Weiss et al., 2006). As a result, policy instruction is often a dry analysis and abstract speculation, absent the personal involvement that translates theory into practice and empowers students with skills to pursue meaningful social change.

Fortunately, experiential policy advocacy assignments and activities that provide students with direct, hands-on experiences are finding their way into social welfare policy classrooms. Numerous recent examples have been reported in the literature and include providing ballot-based advocacy assignments (Manalo, 2004), developing policy briefs to be presented to elected officials (Sundet & Kelly, 2002), organizing letter writing and phone-in campaigns (Rocha, 2000), and lobbying state legislators through an organized legislative lobby day (Moore & Johnston, 2002). Others have developed even more elaborate methods of teaching policy practice to social work students. Hoefer (1999) describes the Social Work and Politics Initiative, a model for 2nd-year master's-level students that combines a politics and social work course with field practica in state legislators' district offices. Sherraden, Slosar, and Sherraden (2002) present a collaborative model of policy advocacy in which researchers, practitioners, advocates, and students worked together over 5 years to pass legislation at the state level. Finally, Anderson and Harris (2005) describe two approaches for undergraduates: a service-learning approach in which students in their junior year work in groups and engage in community-based research on a specific policy problem, and a practicum-based approach in which seniors take a policy course in conjunction with a practicum in the community that focuses on analyzing agency policy.

Evaluations of these experiential learning activities and initiatives show that students are more likely to engage in policy advocacy activities in the future (Rocha, 2000; Manalo, 2004), to value political skills (Rocha, 2000), to be able to interpret social policy (Anderson & Harris, 2005), and to perceive themselves as competent policy practitioners (Rocha, 2000). A number of shortcomings can be identified, however, in the approaches described previously. As a group, they fail to bring students together for collective action on a specific social problem in which they achieve real policy gains, and to do so within the context of a course on social welfare policy. In the Social Work and Politics Initiative described by Hoefer (1999), as well as in the practicum-based approach described by Anderson and Harris (2005), students worked individually, rather than collectively, and worked on various policy matters rather than on a single target issue in their legislator's district offices. It is unclear to what extent student participation in the collaboration described by Sherraden et al. …

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