Redefining the Education of Social Workers: Temple University's. Institute for Africana Social Work
by Garland L. Thompson
PHILADELPHIA, PA -- Temple University Professor Thaddeus P. Mathis thinks social workers should be re-educated to understand politics and economics. So does his boss, Dr. Curtis A. Leonard, dean of Temple's School of Social Administration. That could be a reflection of the fact that each holds a doctorate in political science, not social work. But such a conclusion would beg the question: Why should a social worker study politics in the first place?
"Everything we [social workers and social-service agencies] do is affected by the political structure," said Mathis. "If you don't understand that, then you're never going to be able to effect change."
Dean Leonard, interviewed in New York at the recent conference of the National Association of Black Social Workers' annual conference, said much the same thing:
"The issue has always been that social work is a political profession. At the outset. It's in vogue right now because of the [Republican 'Contract With America'] to talk about cutting social programs and ending 'dependency,' but social work holds this country and its leaders to its creed. It says to you and me that those folks who really are privileged erect structures to maintain their privileged positions. But social work talks about leveling the playing field. It tests the character of a democratic society. We want [the people] to see the defects in their democratic experiment -- forget Jefferson and the other signers of the Declaration of Independence -- every social worker has to say, 'I really want to see each person as a signer.' Social work is about politics. It is about caring. It is about inclusion.
"That's what drives our school, and it drives most schools of social work -- ours is simply up-front with it. The thing we are most concerned about is that institutions, politicians and leaders are held accountable."
Mathis agrees, adding that economics must be added to the curriculum as well. "We're trying to solve problems for 99 percent of the population with 1 percent of the wealth. If you don't understand that economic dimension, then you cannot expect to have success."
The standard social-work curriculum includes courses on social-work practice, human behavior, health-care, welfare policies, race and gender issues, social and economic justice issues and death and dying. Dr. Jeanette Jennings, of the University of Tennessee, says that most schools of social work have two tracks: one leading to a career counseling and working with families, individuals and groups, and a second, social- administration track, for people who work with larger systems -- communities, organizations, institutions to make change.
According to some in social work, the emphasis among Black students is becoming skewed too heavily toward therapeutic counseling, which enables the setting up of private practices and carries potentially higher earnings, and away from pragmatic problem-solving. Dr. Leon W. Chestang, dean of social work at Wayne State University in Detroit, MI, said, "We have increasing numbers of African American students wanting to go into psychotherapeutic social work rather than ... dealing with the practical issues of living, such as getting the lights turned on."
Not discussed in the bulletins and promotional materials sent out by the nation's schools of social work is the basing of assumptions about cultural value on a "mainstream," white-American model. This, Leonard said, is what Temple University's Institute for Africana Social Work seeks to change.
In 1992, Mathis and Leonard, then acting dean, founded the Institute, "focused ... on developing a body of knowledge, experience and techniques relevant to the development of a culturally centered, culturally sensitive social-work practice in African-American communities." Its primary goal is to "work toward the development of an African-centered approach to social work intervention in African-American communities. …