School of Social Work professor Katharine Hill worked with students on voter engagement and the upcoming November 8 election.

Social Work Students Empower Homeless Community to Vote

When considering the field of social work, voting probably isn’t the first topic that comes to mind. But associate professor Katherine Hill has begun to weave voting registration and engagement as a potential tool for social workers into her classes in the St. Kate’s – St. Thomas School of Social Work; she believes it is one way to empower social work clients to have a voice.

“We talk about how social workers need to advocate for social policies that will help our clients,” Hill said. “But we never talk about the fact that the people who make these decisions are elected officials, and that social workers should be a part of that.”

So, Hill began considering how she could teach that message. In her 2015 Social Policy for Social Change class, she developed a project where students picked a population with lower voter turnout or an obstacle to easily understanding voting information, registered them to vote, and tried to keep them engaged and informed through Election Day.

While the ultimate goal is to enact social change, the class was conducted from a strictly nonpartisan standpoint.

“I’m not here to talk to you about who you should vote for,” Hill said. “I’m just saying if we want our democracy to work, we all need to show up. This is a part of the common good. This is a part of the community. This is a part of social responsibility. This is part of building the world you want to see as you pick the people who are going to set the policies and make the rules, so what do we need to do make that happen?”

Hill partnered with the Office of the Minnesota Secretary of State to help maintain that nonpartisan perspective. A representative from the office taught the class how to register people to vote, and the class pulled information from the website.

Hill also reviewed populations who are less likely to vote, and why, and also the benefits that come from voting, including a direct connection to changing policies and creating stronger community.

2016 Election

The second time Hill conducted this project was during the 2016 presidential election. Junior Mary Resemius was enrolled at the time, and she and her group decided to help the homeless population of the Twin Cities register to vote.

“It took a lot of effort with the Secretary of State and a lot of talking with other organizations to be like, ‘How do we do this?’” Resemius said. “You just imagine that if we had to put in so much effort to overcome barriers to vote, how hard would that be for someone who does not have a home? So, we wanted to be those resources.”

Resemius’ group visited The Link, a Minnesota nonprofit that supports young homeless people and families, and The Salvation Army. They helped register individuals there to vote, and passed out information about local and state ballot items and how to get to polling places on Election Day.

“There was a lot of empowerment,” Resemius said. “Just encouraging people to vote and telling them that their voice matters was huge, because people who are homeless feel like their voice doesn’t matter because they’re not listened to.”

In turn, Resemius said she and fellow students were empowered by the visible change they were making.

“It’s definitely one of my favorite classes because of being able to go out in the community and do something,” Resemius said. “Having that component was special ... that we as social workers can make a difference.”

For Hill, partnering with community entities is a big part of the class' purpose.

“We should really be in there,” Hill said. “I want students to leave my policy classes feeling like they can be policy practitioners and that they have these skills.”

Moving forward

With 17 students in her fall 2016 class, Hill said they registered 400 individuals to vote, which she considers a success. Hill is now looking at new collaborations and tracking even more information about the reach her class has.

She and Resemius presented their findings at the National Association of Social Workers conference in June with the hope that other social workers will begin to use voter registration as part of their toolkit.

“When people go into the voting booth and they pull the curtain behind them, we’re all equal,” Hill said, paraphrasing a speaker she had heard recently. “I thought that was just such a powerful way to think about it. When I think about who we work with as social workers, and how so many of those people feel lessened because of the circumstances of their lives ... they don’t feel like they have a voice. There’s this opportunity to give people a place where you are absolutely 100 percent equal. I think that’s such a powerful tool for us.”