Episode #2: Who Gets to Be a Social Worker?


Many, many people are out there doing social work, but who gets to actually call themselves and be recognized as a social worker? In this episode, we take a brief look at the regulation policies around who gets to be a social worker, why the regulations exist, and find suggestions for how regulation policies can become more inclusive for people doing social work but aren’t able to get recognition for their work.

Full Transcript:

Drew:                   You’re listening to Decolonize Social Work, conversation about social work, oppression, and liberation. I’m your co-host, Drew…

Ondine:               And I’m your co-host, Ondine. All right, well, welcome to the second episode of the Decolonized Social Work podcast. Hey everybody. And today’s topic is who gets to be a social worker. Yeah, it’s a big one.

Drew:                   It’s like how does a sausage get made?

Ondine:               You don’t usually want to know that.

Drew:                   It’s usually a hard reality check.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   Which maybe that will be what happens here.

Ondine:               Yeah, so we have a few objectives for this episode. We are hoping that by the end of your listening, you’ll have a better understanding of how folks get to be social workers in the United States, what that process looks like.

Drew:                   So this is just in the United States?

Ondine:               Yeah, because I can’t really speak to what that looks like elsewhere. But you know, that might be worthwhile to look at at another time?

Drew:                   Yeah. There are many people out there who probably would love to talk about how they became social workers, and, wherever they are.

Ondine:               Most definitely. I’d love to hear from them. So how do folks become social workers in the United States? The second thing we hope that you guys get from this conversation is an idea of perhaps what could be different? And we also just want to, you know, the third goal here today is to talk about how this relates to our podcast, Decolonized Social Work. What does that have to do with anything, right?

Drew:                   Right.

Ondine:               So, maybe that’s a good place to start, right? So why are we suggesting that the process of becoming a social worker in the United States is based on a colonial framework?

Drew:                   Right. I think that second objective you talked about, like, what it could be, there’s this inherent critique that it’s not just wrecked. It’s not. It could be better. There’s maybe something wrong with it.

Ondine:               Something missing.

Drew:                   Yeah, there’s something missing in it. And then, because of this podcast is Decolonizing Social Work, we’re looking at it and asking the question, like, well, what does, how would you even know what a colonizer practices? What a colonizer practices?

Ondine:               Yeah, what’s a colonial framework at even. Yeah.

Drew:                   So, again, if you listen to our first episode, you might be, maybe have a clue about where this is about to go, but, essentially, we think about a colonial colonized framework as this practice of one, creating a dependency of other people on basically the wielders of power. And then secondly, this sort of streamlined, very rigid way of doing things. So there’s not a lot of room for flexibility, substitution, or even living alongside the way that the power holder says this should be done.

Ondine:               Right, because colonizers basically come in, and they destroy and replace.

Drew:                   Right. So if you think about that, like again coming back to the history of this country, white European settlers came, and didn’t make any real attempt to try to live alongside the indigenous folks who were here. It was came in here and had this very strong Protestant belief, and like, oh, well, these people don’t believe what we belief in. We have to either assimilate them, or…

Ondine:               Eradicate them.

Drew:                   Or eradicate them. Then that was done through a number of different ways that this podcast doesn’t have enough time to get into. But essentially it was like, you have to assimilate to the way we’re doing things, or you’re just SOL.

Ondine:               Right, right. So, connect this to social work for me.

Drew:                   Right, so like, this sounds really harsh, a critique of social work, right? That we’re comparing to that, but, I think the consequences of, perhaps even mimicking colonizer framework, is that you risk the erasure of knowledge that’s indigenous to certain communities. You create barriers of who can become a social worker if you’re just saying this is the only way that you can do it.

Drew:                   Well maybe not intentionally, again, they do mimic the behaviors of what a colonizer framework does. And, it’s also worth holding out to that this is a country that not only in combination with colonialization, but like white supremacy happens too. So it’s just like with any white person who grows up in America, you maybe have a lot of blind spots growing up because you just automatically had to identify, or get to identify, easily, with the dominant culture who set all the norms. And, I don’t think that social work should be exempt from that examination, or that self correction. And it’s probably going to have some blind spots or some basis, where it has worth, because it, just like me, grew up in the United States. And this is just the prevailing culture that dominates the norms that get set.

Ondine:               So maybe, how about this, how about I walk folks through what the process looks like right now. And I’m just going to say that…

Drew:                   Can I add one thing first?

Ondine:               Oh, sorry, yeah, please.

Drew:                   I just wanted to say too, that like, this isn’t the throw all of this out the window, that like, you know, we’re anti regulation, or we’re anti, just, you know, let’s just go down to the social work thunderdome and everybody just do whatever they want sort of thing. Like, regulations exist for a purpose. You know, primarily in our profession, to protect the public from social workers who, maybe, aren’t doing the best social work practice.

Ondine:               Yeah, that actually started in the late seventies, right?

Drew:                   It was probably really recent that I became kind of this unified regulation. But anyways, I don’t want to start out this with saying this is totally, we’re totally against this, we’re just saying that we can do better with this, so yeah, and kind of talking about how that even exists right now.

Ondine:               Yeah, I mean the point of this podcast is to explore alternatives, and to like look at our profession with a critical lens. So yeah, okay, so I’m going to share with you guys a little bit about what it takes to become a social worker currently in our country. Firstly, I’ll say that there is no reciprocity between states, so unlike a profession like say nursing, or becoming a doctor, if you become a licensed social worker in one state, it doesn’t transfer to another state, so you have to go through some hoops to try to do that, to make that transfer.

Drew:                   That’s so super restrictive too.

Ondine:               Yeah, a lot of, there’s a lot of bureaucracy there, and you better believe it costs money to try to have your credentials sort of validated elsewhere. So, you have to get a social work degree. And you have to…

Drew:                   From where?

Ondine:               Well, you have to do it at a university that has an accredited program that is accredited through the council on social work education, or CSWE.

Drew:                   You know what I hear when I hear accredited?

Ondine:               What do you hear?

Drew:                   Expensive.

Ondine:               Oh, lordy be! Yep! I can’t even tell you how, yeah, it is expensive. So there are bachelor’s degrees in social work, and some social work jobs will take you with a bachelor’s degree, but what I think is more common is you have to have a master’s degree, to get social work jobs. Not only do you have to have the degree, you have to have a license. So, each state administers that license.

Drew:                   So if I’ve got a license here in Kentucky, for example, I can’t go to Ohio very easily and just say, like, just start, set up shop, because I’m not licensed in Ohio.

Ondine:               You can’t just stroll on in. You know, depending on how long you’ve been practicing with your license, you can submit a bunch of stuff to the Ohio Board of Social Work, and they’ll look it all over and decide whether or not you have done what they think you would need to do for them to award you an Ohio license? It could mean you take a test again.

Drew:                   So some of my credentials might transfer, but that, I still have to get licensed or registered with that Ohio body. I can’t just have one license.

Ondine:               No. Gosh, that would be nice wouldn’t it? You know, without going into the weeds much about this, I will say, this is a conversation that has been happening among social workers for some time, around how bureaucratic, and maybe unnecessary this is, but, for the purpose of this, just know, you have to get a degree in social work from a CSWE accredited program. Then you have to get a license in your state. To get a license, you have to pass an exam, and you have to pay them money to pass it.

Drew:                   That’s pretty rigorous.

Ondine:               Yeah, and then to maintain your license, you have to do continuing education, and then you have to pay again every so often to maintain your license. So…

Drew:                   This isn’t really, like, different than other professions though.

Ondine:               No, right? Yeah.

Drew:                   I mean, if you’re an architect, if you’re a nurse, if you go into plumbing, like there are licenses and stuff you have to have…

Ondine:               When I was taking my license exam for social work? There were a bunch of people with all kinds of different, like, professional books out, taking their licensing tests.

Drew:                   I remember that too. Just one of those testing centers where everybody goes to stress out about their own unique tests.

Ondine:               Yep, pretty much.

Drew:                   Yeah, it’s not inherent to the existence of social work itself, but I think social work is a very unique profession though, right? Because like…

Ondine:               It is different.

Drew:                   So, again, while this might exist across the board in other professional fields and stuff, but one reason I kind of hold social work to a different standard, specifically with this sort of stuff, is that I think social work, because it claimed to be a profession born from, and dedicated to, social justice, I kind of hold it to a higher standard. And more than that, I kind of look for the profession of social work to be a leader that other professions maybe can follow when it comes to, say, who gets to be a social worker. So in that regard, I think, we should critique social work for this reason, because, you know we talk about this a lot, but like social justice organizations really professing this, but then internally don’t really treat their employees with that kind of degree of respect or dedication to social work. They treat their clients.

Drew:                   And I think this is a similar setup, you know? Yeah, where they don’t offer health insurance to their employees and stuff. So, out there on the field…

Ondine:               Like you need to be, just, you know, altruism will pay your bills.

Drew:                   Great, and I’m like, that’s not social justice, I dig it, but like, yeah, it’s not going to, my dedication to it doesn’t pay my rent either. That’s inherent to our, the way this capitalist society is set up. But anyway, that’s kind of what I’m thinking about when I’m, like, you can’t just say you’re dedicated to social justice, but then just, again, going back to that, mimic the practices of colonizer behavior. That’s created a conflict.

Ondine:               And because this is what we’ve got, because social work behaves like all the other regulated professions, who gets left out?

Drew:                   Yeah, exactly. There’s a lot of people that I think get left out. And I want to get into that. I do want to, so I’m just going to, like, kind of create a little bit of a mess. So I’m going to dig back into this [inaudible 00:10:19].

Ondine:               Get messy!

Drew:                   I know, but like, I think this is a good example of the social work profession, not treating internally, perhaps. The people that become social workers with like the same level of dedication to social justice. My jumbled word kind of makes sense. Well let me get to this, what I had to share. So again, this is from the National Association of Social Workers. Published Code of Ethics. In section five, under a section called Social Workers Ethical Responsibilities to the Social Work Profession.

Ondine:               Lofty.

Drew:                   Yeah, a little irrelevant, and so right here it says, ‘social workers should protect, enhance, and improve, integrity of the profession through appropriate study and research, active discussion, and responsible criticism, of the profession.’ I think I would call this in responsible criticism of the profession.

Ondine:               So we’re doing all right.

Drew:                   So we are doing our job with it to question social work. But the bigger part I want to go to is actually in the next section of the Code of Ethics, which is about social workers ethical responsibilities to the broader society. And under the first point of that, it says ‘social workers should promote the general welfare of society from local to global levels, and the development of people, their communities, and their environments.’

Drew:                   So how does that fit in, then, to like, dedication to communities for their own leaders to become social workers? If we have this very tight regulated process that a lot of people maybe can’t have access to. So you mentioned, who does this leave out? I think for one, you know we joked about it a second ago, but the expense of it?

Ondine:               Yeah, you’re leaving out folks who can’t afford to go.

Drew:                   You know, and these days, it’s almost a suicide pact to ask people to take out student loans to do this. Especially if you’re coming from a background that maybe your family didn’t have a lot of wealth. Maybe you are a person who is of not a tradition student age, and you already have a family of your own. These are big asks for people to jump through, or to go through, just to become a social worker.

Drew:                   But, again, there’s not really an alternative route for this, right?

Ondine:               Yeah, I mean, so we talked about the money, but you’re also, you’re leaving out folks who have really rich experiential knowledge. Because there are people out there in the community, in communities doing social work, I’m air quoting, but folks can’t see that. You saw it. But it’s not valued or called as such because these folks maybe didn’t go through these channels to get the degree.

Drew:                   And that’s kind of like a different episode for a different day, but gets into that issue of possibly setting up legal barriers, of like, who can call themselves social workers. Right? So if you’re going to set his up to be excluding people, you haven’t really created a policy to then be more inclusive of people, so they can call themselves social workers, if that makes sense.

Ondine:               I know this is not many, where we talked about talking about, but you say that, and I just have to mention that I think that’s a touchy subject for social workers, because the work of social work is so devalued in our society already, that there is this deep desire, I think, to give it more credibility through professionalization. So, I don’t either, but I just have to name that tension, you know, that there will be people listening to this who have come to these schools, and gotten these licenses like us. Who might be like, what are you saying? That like somebody who didn’t do this has every same right to say they’re a social worker as me? So I just, I got to lift it up.

Drew:                   Yeah, or that they could become a social worker, and like what you’re telling me, I didn’t have to do that? I could have gone and done something else? Yeah, that’s a very real tension. I’m glad you did bring that up. And, maybe that creation of a competition, really is, it’s a bit of a problem too, right? But yeah, I’m glad you brought that up.

Ondine:               Yeah, so like you said, the folks who do get left out of this, the people without money, and people whose lives don’t conform to like a student, with the kind of schedule you can be part of as a student.

Drew:                   So, talking about things that could change, or what ways this could be different. You’ve got an example, right?

Ondine:               I do.

Drew:                   That you found. Not of social work, but of a different profession that’s doing something pretty cool.

Ondine:               Yeah, this was really exciting to learn about, and I feel like it fits in here. Because sometimes I can get really stuck, and I don’t know if you’ve experienced this, when I feel like something is not working in the absence of some example of what could be, my wheels start spinning.

Drew:                   It’s hard to like really conceptualize what a better version of it will look like. We can talk about what’s wrong with it, but then, okay, how do you improve this process without a model.

Ondine:               Exactly. So when I found this, it was kind of exciting. So, for folks who are interested in the law, you know, again, another regulated profession.

Drew:                   I hate the law. Sorry.

Ondine:               No, you’re fine. You’re fine. It’s flawed, that’s for sure.

Drew:                   It is a legal system. Not a justice system.

Ondine:               I’ll tell you, law school never sounded like fun to me. So…

Drew:                   I dodged that bullet.

Ondine:               Yeah, you did. But if you’re interested in the law, currently, most places you have to apply to and get into law school, which is four years and very, very, very expensive. But in an effort to shift that, so that it isn’t just only accessible to people who can afford it.

Drew:                   Yeah, talk about excluding people.

Ondine:               Yeah, I think law school can be like, what, ninety, a hundred thousand dollars. It can be a lot of money. There are several states who actually allow folks to sit the bar exam without having attended law school. There are four states who have developed these internship programs? So that folks can become able to sit the bar, which is super exciting. So there was one in particular that really stuck out to me. It’s an organization in Oakland, California, called Esquire Apprentice. And so it’s this non-profit where for four years, part time, folks are involved in this apprenticeship, where they have to get mentored by lawyers who have passed the bar, and been in practice for some time, and they have to work in law offices, and they get all this practical experience, and afterward, they can sit the bar exam.

Ondine:               And what was also really cool to me about this particular organization, is that they define themselves as a, they create a no-cost pipeline to legal careers and skills, for non-traditional law students, especially low income youth of color. So, they complete a four year course of part-time study which emphasizes legal writing and research? And, on of the staff members, choose a quote here on the website, it’s really cool, it’s ‘those most adversely impacted by the justice system are uniquely positioned to change it’.

Drew:                   Wow. I think that would be kind of applicable to our profession in social work. You know, it’s like the people who are being impacted by our ability to deliver services, or be competent, and keep them from harm, or the clients. You know, we talk about self-determination all the time on his.

Ondine:               Yeah, I was really impressed, and, I don’t know anybody who has been through this program, but it felt to me like a really creative and decolonial way, right? Of looking at how to become a lawyer. Especially with the social justice focus.

Drew:                   That really does shift the power too, like who gets to be involved in the making and practicing of law. I would dare say that that program is raising the bar.

Ondine:               Oh my God.

Drew:                   Raising the bar on what a decolonized practice in a profession could look like.

Ondine:               Yeah, I know. Absolutely. I know you did, and I’m glad you did. I’m glad you did. So, is this something we could do in social work? And I also just need to take a moment to carve out some space for my Kentucky listeners. We currently have a governor who seems to think that social work is not really relevant. He actually called it a low skilled profession.

Drew:                   Low skilled job.

Ondine:               And has proposed something like internships for people, but there’s no substance to them, it’s very unclear…

Drew:                   You’re basically assigning someone to go, kind of, work in the shadow of an already overworked United States social worker, who, now you’re just squeezing more labor out of them for no extra pay.

Ondine:               Yeah, there’s no thoughtfulness or intention to that. It’s not like this program, Esquire Apprentice, so, I am not in favor of whatever that guy thinks we should be doing. But I am really open to this idea.

Drew:                   Great, because it kind of treats it almost like a vocation where you can be an apprentice, and learn how to do this stuff. Maybe to, let’s say you kept the test, or the certification exams that you have to do as a social worker, and something like that could help people prep for that, who maybe already have again some like professional or experiential knowledge in social services, and removing barriers for other people who need access to resources. And really, it’s just paperwork that’s keeping them from being able to call themselves a social worker.

Ondine:               Yeah, I mean this program in Oakland, it’s four years long, and it requires a lot of time and dedication. But it, you know, is really geared around folks who, like the quote said, are like the best uniquely positioned to change an unjust justice system, so, I would love to see an experiment with maybe a social work program that’s for free, that targets folks who have experienced the kind of stuff that social workers deal with all the time, right, because they’re going to be best positioned to actually transform systems. And to get that study for free, right? I think that would be really cool. And I think that’s more equitable than what we’re got going on right now.

Drew:                   Yeah, I agree completely. I love that you found that too, because now that there’s a model out there, I always look at Scandinavian countries when it comes to healthcare. We have no excuse not to do it, because there’s a model out there that’s working. So once somebody has already cleared that brush away, and, I’m just like, why aren’t we following? Like you said, even as like a pilot study to do somewhere, there’s almost a responsibility to try to figure out that will work. That that transfers to social work.

Ondine:               Yeah, absolutely, and I realize there are all kinds of obstacles, you know, here, like with becoming a lawyer. Most states do require you to go to law school. This experiment would have to take place in a place, and a state, where they are willing or open to the possibility of having folks do an internship instead of going to school.

Drew:                   I think this is uniquely an easy thing to compare because lawyers like social workers can only practice in the states that they are bar approved, like California, or Georgia, or Kentucky, whatever. And so even with this mess of social work licenses that we currently have, not transferring from state to state. This kind of mimics the way social work licensing structure currently is. Which again, I’m like, this is more alike than not. How do we do this?

Ondine:               So, because our podcast, the name is Decolonized Social Work, which is also a verb. Let’s maybe put this out here as a call to action for folks to explore.

Drew:                   And again, as with that law school model, it shifts the power away from one situation where someone has the power to say, like, these get to be social workers and these don’t. This kind of redistributes that power in a way so that people can say, actually, I want to be a social worker. I’ve been out here, I’ve been community organizing for a long time, involved in hustling at this retail job at night, and, you can finally start to say, no, actually, he can professionalize that stuff you’ve been doing on your own.

Ondine:               Yep, and then get into higher paying jobs, right, like, it’s just, it’s, yeah.

Drew:                   That’s awesome. I like that. So yeah, I agree with you. I think that should be a call to action, and movement toward somebody out there maybe taking this gem of thought and running with it.

Ondine:               Yeah, yeah.

Drew:                   That’s awesome. So, I like that because I think that ends with this really high note.

Ondine:               Yeah, same.

Drew:                   This hopefulness, right? That we can do better. I think we’ve kind of explained a little bit about, not just that social work itself is the problem, but social work can be the leader from this. Even though having someone else has already started it…

Ondine:               But there’s still time. Yeah. Like we could shift the way we do things so that we are a profession that actually, like you said, applies to social justice principles to our own sort of proceses.

Drew:                   Of who becomes a social worker.

Ondine:               Of who becomes a social worker.

Drew:                   Yeah, I think so. Well this was awesome. Thanks for finding that.

Ondine:               Yeah. Yeah, thanks for having this conversation with me.

Drew:                   Yeah, absolutely.

Ondine:               All right, before we go, I just want to take a moment to give a shout out to Jonathan Singer, and The Social Work podcast. Thank you so much for being so supportive of us, and sharing our podcast to all over social media, and giving us a listen, and some really helpful feedback. It’s really awesome when social workers prop each other up.

Drew:                   We’ve gotten such an audience just from your single handedly retweeting a couple of times.

Ondine:               Thank you.

Drew:                   Thank you. You are awesome. All right, that’s going to do it for us everybody. We’ll see you next time.

Ondine:               See you next time.

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