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Defending the Integrity of Social Work Education and Practice
By Benjamin Zelinski, LMSW, CASAC-2

A recent New York Times op-ed, "What Is Happening at Columbia School of Social Work?" by Pamela Paul, thrust social work education into the spotlight, suggesting it’s becoming synonymous with social indoctrination.

Paul refers to a glossary distributed at orientation to students at Columbia School of Social Work at Columbia University, saying, “They reflect a shift not just at Columbia but in the field of social work, in which the social justice framework that has pervaded much of academia has affected the approach of top schools and the practice of social work itself.”

Despite the appearance of a radical shift within the field of social work, it's crucial to acknowledge that academia, including the liberal arts, has always focused on a social justice framework. In the late 1800s, Jane Addams, often regarded as the founder of social work, established the principles of social work dedicated to addressing societal inequalities even before the widespread use of the term “social justice.”

Schools of social work such as Columbia have indeed undergone transformations. They must continue evolving to prevent stagnation and stay attuned to evolving social climates to better serve others. The updated mission statements at these institutions align with political and social justice initiatives following societal movements, such as Occupy Wall Street, the Fight for $15, Black Lives Matter, the Women’s March and #MeToo, the March for Our Lives, and recent humanitarian crises in the world. Therefore, these mission changes align with the views of those most likely to be served by future social workers.

However, worries may remain about the potential for the so-called “radicalized” social workers to prioritize political beliefs over the needs of their clients. A thoughtful response to these concerns highlights that beyond social justice, social work education instills values of integrity, service, dignity and worth of person (client), importance of human relationships, and professional competence. Advancing personal beliefs at the expense of clients would not only violate the “radicalized” social justice framework but also the underlying ethos of social justice itself.

The author posits that “radicalized” social workers will only see clients based on race and ethnicity. Contrary to the fear of seeing clients based on race or ethnicity, social work emphasizes working together therapeutically. It involves recognizing power dynamics and the materialistic realities that shape our clients' lives. In this approach, it’s not about advancing political ideologies but rather joining with the client in a therapeutic process that recognizes the complexities of their individual experiences.

Historically, psychotherapy has embraced a colonial and Westernized framework, emphasizing individualism and focusing on methods of self-coping while overlooking the importance of the societal factors causing suffering. In contrast, social work diverges from this colonial and Westernized perspective by striving to address both the individual methods of coping and the broader systemic issues. This distinction reflects the social worker's commitment to really understanding what challenges clients face in a holistic way. In essence, while the mission of social work has broadened to incorporate political and social justice goals, the ethical foundations of the profession and its commitment to holistic client well-being will always remain intact.

While the article raises concerns about the intersection of social justice and social work education, particularly at prestigious institutions like Columbia, it appears to employ an age-old tactic of simplifying complex issues to criticize the field of social work. Any critique of the field should be approached with thoughtful reflection on the effectiveness of social work practice in providing exceptional care to the most vulnerable while simultaneously learning from and contributing to the acceleration of social movements.

Despite the message of the recent op-ed, the profound professional ethos of social work remains steadfast, resilient, and impervious to challenges that label it social indoctrination. The field of social work continues to outpace other disciplines in navigating complex societal changes while maintaining high standards of education and practice.

— Benjamin Zelinski (he/they), LMSW, CASAC-2 (NY), is a psychotherapist in New York City. He holds a master’s degree in social work from the University at Buffalo, School of Social Work (SUNY). His education was deeply shaped by the societal shifts catalyzed by movements like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, the March for Our Lives, and the coronavirus pandemic. Zelinski has expertise in treating addiction, trauma, and a wide spectrum of human experiences. In addition to private practice with Soul Wellness NYC (soulwellnessnyc.com), he also provides emergency psychiatric care at NYC hospitals.