A New Lens for Social Work

Social Work for Social Justice brings Catholic Social Teaching to the classroom and beyond

In 1999, faculty at the University of St. Thomas and St. Catherine’s School of Social Work were talking about social work in light of the school’s Catholic identity. The conversation might have gone no further than sparking thought within the department were it not for a series of project grants from the Beyond Career to Calling Lilly Endowment at St. Thomas, and St. Catherine’s Myser Initiative on Catholic Identity.

Under the leadership of associate professor Mary Ann Brenden, the faculty examined their field through the lens of Catholic Social Teaching – a practice which places an emphasis on the care of the most poor and needy members of society. The result was Social Work for Social Justice, the centerpiece of which is a set of 10 principles that inform the curriculum at the School of Social Work. To date, no other institution has put together this kind of comprehensive model of integrating Catholic Social Teaching with social work.

This groundbreaking work has influenced Catholic colleges and universities across the United States. In 2007, the School of Social Work held a conference, sharing its model with other colleges and universities. Thirty-five schools attended, and an additional 29 schools requested the resource guide distributed at the conference.

More importantly, Social Work for Social Justice has changed the way social work students view the work they will do as social workers. The 10 principles are being slowly and deliberately integrated into the curriculum. In some courses, the principles are a required part of the curriculum; in other courses, faculty members are including them voluntarily.

Valandra, an assistant professor in the School of Social Work, is one of these faculty members. In one junior practicum class, she encourages students to include the 10 principles in some form within their practicum. She recalls that one particular student included the 10 principles in her practicum’s goals and objectives – goals that were later shared with the supervisor at the organization where she was placed. The supervisor was alarmed and told her that the institution at which she was doing her practicum was not Catholic. This led to a conversation during which the student was able to reassure her supervisor that the principles were a framework for approaching social work, not a way of imposing beliefs on the institution’s clients.

Emily Alewine ’08 M.S.W., found that Social Work for Social Justice gave her a new way to approach her work. She had been working in residential treatment with the Wilder Foundation for a few years and decided that she wanted to move into individual and family therapy. Alewine learned about the clinical focus at the School of Social Work and decided she wanted to get her master’s degree here.

When Alewine first heard about Social Work for Social Justice in a class, she was intrigued by the religious and ethical approach to social work. “I grew up in the Episcopal Church,” Alewine said. “A lot of the principles coincide with how I was brought up. I’m not church-going now, but by utilizing the 10 principles I stay in touch with the goals, morals and values with which I was brought up.”

Alewine found that the principles she was learning helped her to take a broader view of the situations that she studied in class. Although she was not required to include the principles in every assignment, she took it upon herself to apply Social Work to Social Justice in most of her papers. “Before I learned about Social Work for Social Justice, I didn’t really focus on the macro level, but now I am more interested in policy and advocacy,” Alewine noted.

In addition to bringing the 10 principles into her schoolwork, Alewine used them in her internship at the Beacon Alternative Learning Center at Kennedy High School in Bloomington. “I tried to foster the ability to see the broader picture in the kids I worked with,” said Alewine. “When you’re in crisis, it’s more difficult to see that your actions affect others, as well as yourself.” After graduation, Alewine joined Children’s Home Society and Family Services, where she works as a birthparent pregnancy counselor. “Although I am not necessarily cognizant of it all the time,” she said, “I do feel that I utilize the Social Work for Social Justice principles in my day-to-day activities. The principle of “human dignity” speaks directly to the mission of CHSFS.

“During my time with the organization, both as an intern and as an employee, I have seen this belief carried out in its work,” Alewine said. “I also make it a personal point to treat everyone with respect and to work closely with people so they feel supported in the choices they make.”

Alewine sees many of the other principles play out on the job, including “community and the common good,” which is supported by her work in helping birthparents and adoptive parents develop a relationship.

Assistant professor Serene Thornton said that some students have told her they came to St. Thomas because of its Catholic mission, and that they have seen that mission played out in the School of Social Work. But while the principles are rooted in Catholic Social Teaching, they speak to students and faculty of different faiths. In fact, one of the strengths of the principles are its universality so that they can be used in settings that are not exclusively Catholic, such as Alewine’s experience at CHSFS.

Theresa McPartlin, director of BSW field education and assistant professor, said, “Catholic Social Teaching is a natural fit with a Catholic university, but it also includes an invitation to people of different faiths to examine their own beliefs.”

Alumna Sarah Ruth Ryan ’93, ’99 M.S.W., heard Dean Barbara Shank speak about Social Work for Social Justice at a conference. Ryan was pleased with what she heard. “The School of Social Work has always been enmeshed in Catholic Social Thinking,” she said. “Now they’re making it more explicit.”

“Every school of social work talks about social justice,” Shank said. “What makes us different is that we have taken this to a new level and linked it with our identity and mission.”

Social Work for Social Justice: Ten Principles

Human Dignity
Dignity of the human person is the ethical foundation of a moral society. The measure of every institution is whether it threatens or enhances the life and dignity of the human person.

Dignity of Work and the Rights of Workers
The economy must serve the people, not the other way around. The basic rights of workers must be respected – the right to productive work, to decent and fair wages, to organize and join unions, to private property and to economic initiative.

Community and the Common Good
All individuals by virtue of their human nature have social needs. Human relationships enable people to meet their needs and provide an important vehicle for change. The family is the central social institution that must be supported and strengthened. The way in which society is organized directly affects human dignity and the common good.

We are our brother’s and sister’s keeper. We are one human family, whatever our differences. An ethic of care acknowledging our interdependence belongs in every aspect of human experience.

Rights and Responsibilities
People have a right and a responsibility to participate in society and to work together toward the common good. Human dignity is protected and healthy community can be achieved only if human rights are protected and responsibilities are met.

It is incumbent upon us to recognize and protect the value of all people and all resources on our planet. While rights to personal property are recognized, these rights are not unconditional and are secondary to the best interest of the commongood, especially in relation to the right of all individuals to meet their basic needs.

Priority for the Poor and Vulnerable
A basic moral test of any community or society is the way in which the most vulnerable members are faring. In a society characterized by deepening divisions between rich and poor, the needs of those most at risk should be considered a priority.

Governance/Principle of Subsidiarity
Governance structures in all levels/settings have an imperative to promote human dignity, protect human rights and build the common good. While the principle of subsidiarity calls for the functions of government to be performed at the lowest level possible in order to ensure self-determination and empowerment, higher levels of government have the responsibility to provide leadership and to set policy in the best interest of the common good.

All people have a right to participate in the economic, political and cultural life of society. It is the ultimate injustice for a person or a group to be excluded unfairly.

Promotion of Peace
In light of the human dignity and worth of all and the ethical imperatives of solidarity and stewardship, we are called to promote peace and nonviolence at all levels. Peace is the fruit of justice and is dependent upon the respect and cooperation between peoples and nations.

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