Commencement Address

So…what do you do?

Stonybrook School of Social Welfare
May 23, 2019

I want you to imagine how your ten-year-old self would answer this question—who do you want to be when you grow up?

I imagine very few of you pictured a social worker. Maybe you wanted to be a teacher, an actress, a concert pianist, an astronaut, or even an Instagram Influencer—but I’m guessing not many of you at ten years old imagined yourself as a social worker. It is not a profession most people aspire to when they are ten.

At ten years old, you may not have even known what a social worker was. They are not so easy to find. You may have binged watched hours of TV and never encountered a social worker. Doctors, nurses, detectives, vice presidents, mean girls, zombies, or dragon slayers—yes–but rarely social workers. There are no social workers in the Marvel universe. No Disney Princess was ever a social worker.

From now on, when someone asks— “So what do you do?” people will stare at you blankly. Most people won’t really get it. It will be worse for your parents–they will never be able to explain what you do. It is one thing to tell your friends that your son/daughter is a doctor, lawyer, or maybe an astrophysicist—but tell someone you’re son/daughter is a social worker and you’re most likely going to get a vague, polite smile— “How nice!”.

No Disney Princess was ever a social worker.

So what was it that brought you to this work? What kind of person wants to be a social worker?

I have news for you. You are not like most people.

It is commonly thought that to have a successful career, you need to be motivated by self-interest, incentives, the potential for career advancement, and financial gain.

Its likely you will have none of these things.

What then made you decide to become a social worker? Here’s what I am guessing—You each have a somewhat unique story about what brought you here to this moment. Your narratives may be different but somewhere in the arc of all your stories, something happened that made it clear to you that the story of YOUR life is deeply connected to the story of others.

To prepare for today, I began asking social workers I know, “What brought YOU to this work?” A dear friend said it best—what you have in common is this: you show up in the world with empathy.

She shared this wonderful quote by the African American playwright Lorraine Hansbury:

One cannot live with sighted eyes or feeling heart and not know or react to the miseries that afflict the world.

You—all of you—show up in the world with empathy.

What I remember most about my time as a graduate student was how contradictory everything felt—on the one hand, I was animated by wanting to make the world a better place and I embraced the energy and excitement of people I met working in this field.

On the other hand, I was learning to be a professional and that entailed understanding a set of boundaries and definitions that were expected to be adhered to if you were going to work in the sector. I felt like an imposter—not because I did not enjoy the work or respect the field, but because I was not entirely sure I had completely bought into the full set of rules and expectations the field dictated. To be a good social worker, I thought, one had to learn to have a certain level of professional distance and I wanted to hold on to the feelings that drove me to do this work in the first place.

I am fortunate to have had a career that allowed me not only to hold on to those feelings, but to deepen and harness them. And I have met incredible people along the way who have mentored and nurtured in me the right balance of purpose, pragmatism, and passion.

I have worked as a foster care worker, a community organizer, the director of a small nonprofit, and now at a foundation that makes grants—I live the contradictory forces that have defined this work since the early 20th century. Both Jane Addams, founder of Hull House in Chicago, and John D. Rockefeller felt a strong personal and religious obligation to address the terrible conditions of their time. For Addams, the establishment of the settlement house was intensely personal; she saw it as an outlet to express her belief in universal personhood. Addams knew that to really do her work effectively, she had to be in close proximity to the communities she served. Rockefeller took a different and opposite approach. He set up a foundation bearing his name and hired a professional philanthropic adviser to put distance between himself and recipients of his charity, giving birth to modern philanthropy and an approach that is still in practice today.

Here’s what I take from understanding this history better – nonprofits that grew out of an industrial model were conceived as a way of putting some distance between “us” and “them.” Current pressure to further corporatize and standardize the sector ignores the human aspect of our intention. What we inspire us to do this work was not simply altruism, or even charity– it is the potential to effect change, and to address the unfair distribution of resources and opportunity in this country.

What distinguishes social workers is their proximity to injustice. We bear witness to our country’s deepest flaws. We reject the notion that individualism defines who we are. We know deep down that we are all in it together. Addams said it best—

The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.

You are on the frontlines of this work.

Many people don’t know the world you know. How many people go about their day and never have a clue how most people live?

Social workers work in proximity with people who are struggling, wounded, in pain in some way. Bryon Stevenson, who works with people on death row as leader of the Equal Justice Initiative said:

Proximity has taught me some basic and humbling truths, including this vital lesson: Each of us is more than the worst thing we’ve ever done.

It falls on us to put forward an alternate, more authentic picture of what the world could look like. What kind of community do we want that acknowledges the worth of all people? What are the levers we can pull to make that a reality? How do we convey the message that the neighborhoods where we do our work are not places to escape from, but are places to invest in?

To choose to do this work now, given the times we are in, is a reckless, bold, and courageous act. It has never been harder in this country to be poor, to be a person of color, to be an immigrant, to be a woman. The gulf between the haves and have-nots is greater than it has ever been. The level of hateful rhetoric and pure hostility for the very people you will be working for is meant to wear you down—and many of you will find direct opposition to the work you’ve chosen to do.

To choose to do this work now, given the times we are in, is a reckless, bold, and courageous act.

I hesitate to say this in front of Dean Montros, but in many ways your degree won’t help you. Professionalism won’t help you. Spreadsheets, flip charts, data points, articles, and toolkits will be useless. The strongest weapons you have are the attributes and values that brought you to this work in the first place.

You don’t have it in you to be apathetic.

You don’t have time to be fearful or offended.

You see the world’s flaws and yet, you deeply believe its potential.

Reverend William Barber, the leader of today’s Poor Peoples’ Movement says:

We must shock this nation with the power of love, we must shock this nation with the power of mercy. To give thanks is to admit that our lives are gifts, not achievements. We love because we’ve been loved and fight for justice because someone fought before us to make our freedom possible.

Here is my charge to you going forward.

  • Focus on building community for “all of us” and do not accept the idea of “us vs. them.”
  • Be a champion for racial justice always and wherever you find yourself.
  • Your success in doing this work is tied to the success of all of us—especially those of us who are denied power. Your job is to help people build access to power.

You may not have known when you were ten years old what a social worker was, but I hope you know now that you are in good company. Social workers are everywhere on the frontlines of the extraordinarily difficult work of building a just society. Social workers advise presidents, write legislation, lead campaigns, mobilize hundreds of thousands of people to action. You will find them in labor union halls and in the halls of Congress, on the courthouse steps and on the steps of City Hall.

Today you’ve earned the title of social worker—yes—and with that, you are called to so much more. From now on, when someone asks, “So what do you do?” say—

I am an agitator.

I am an animator.

I am a troublemaker.

I am a healer.

I believe in what is possible.

I excel at expectation.

I am a master of connectivity.

Go forth to do your best work. And remember, you are not alone.