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What Is Social Work?

By Rich Kenney, MSSW

In the 30 years I have been a social worker, I often have been asked the question, what is social work? My reply always is the same: Social work is what happens behind the scenes, and chances are you won't know it even when you see it.

However, my answer, though purposely planned, is never enough. The question then becomes, what does that mean? That's my cue to elaborate, and this is the story I tell:

Social work is the backdrop of hope. I realized this the first time I saw it star onstage without stealing a single scene.

It happened about 10 years ago when a dozen young ballerinas joined hands as the curtain went up at the Scottsdale Center for the Arts in Arizona. The dancers, students at the Foundation for Blind Children in Phoenix ranging in age from 5 to 15, performed a stunning piece from the Nutcracker Suite.

At one end of the stage was 5-year-old Tracy, the tiny ballerina who had attended every Saturday practice session for six months leading up to the recital. “I’m so glad she was able to do this,” her mom told me. “There have been times when I didn’t think it would happen. She’s lost so much vision the last few months. She’s been bumping into things at school and at home. It just breaks my heart.”

At the other end was Hannah, a quiet 10-year-old with a steady resolve. In addition to her visual impairment, Hannah was dependent on a portable oxygen tank and a feeding tube kept inside her backpack. The night of the performance neither apparatus was visible to the audience as her dress covered the backpack and the stage curtain cloaked her oxygen tank. Only the tank’s tubing could be seen—though barely—as Hannah’s mom and the school's social worker managed it offstage.

“Ballet has meant the world to her,” her mom said. “She loves practicing her pliés and curtsies. When she jumped for the first time in her life, I almost cried.”

Hannah’s mom explained that a plié was a bending of the knee, and that the dance instructor was using it to help prepare the girls for small jumps. “Her plié might not be perfect, but it is ‘her perfect,’ and that’s good enough.”

When the ballerinas curtsied to the audience after their performance and the spectators sprang to their feet in applause, I couldn’t help but think of the social worker who had provided so much hope and support to both the girls and their families. She was the behind-the-scenes presence who served as counselor, advocate, medical liaison, and offstage tube handler.

I realized that evening that social work is what happens behind the curtain. It is the star of many stages that most people never see. It is a series of small jumps, and its setting is hope.

The ovation at that performance was memorable. And while the dancers may not have been able to see the crowd, they could certainly hear it.

Two days after the ballet, I saw Tracy and her parents at school. When I congratulated her, Tracy asked, “Did you clap for us?”

“Yes, I did, Tracy,” I said. “We all did—for a long time.”

Of course, social work is much more than what happens behind the curtain. Over the years, I've witnessed its virtue and spunk, its punch and poetry. Here's my expanded definition:

Social work is about fair shakes and turning points, breakdowns and breakthroughs. It's about speaking up for someone who can't. It's that playground sense of justice you learned as a kid. It’s a bridge, a mirror, a bungee cord. It's a door stopper and sometimes a crowbar. It’s a place for the resolute. It's the child betting you won't come back and the one hoping you do. It's made of the same stuff that pushes dandelions up through sidewalk cracks. It’s the changing beat of the drum that keeps a song on track. It's what many people tell you they could never do, and you quietly agree when they follow up with, "But it must be very rewarding." 

Social work is like a poem that doesn't rhyme with line breaks that happen almost anywhere. It's high-wire balance and pole-vault flex. It's the allegiance of the long-distance runner. It’s that second-chance language that helps someone realize possibilities. It's leveling the playing field. It’s a confident yes to equality. It's small steps and small victories, and its backdrop is hope. It’s about taking a stand, going to bat for someone else, and blackening the eye of social injustice. It's an inner voice, a compass, a chance to get the world right. It’s a way of leaning into life.

— Rich Kenney, MSSW, is the social work program director and an assistant professor at Chadron State College in Nebraska. He has worked in the fields of hospice care, skilled nursing, special education, corrections, mental health, and homelessness. He also has received a creative writing fellowship in poetry from the Arizona Commission on the Arts.