Stepping into the world of Social Work

What is social justice?

One of the terms that came up frequently in the information on the social work programs I applied to is “social justice.” Since the concept will continue to come up repeatedly in my social worker education, I believe I need to spend some time thinking about the concept and where my own personal definition might differ from others.

At University of Southern California School of Social Work, the mission statement includes:

The mission of the USC School of Social Work is to improve the well-being of vulnerable individuals and communities, advance social and economic justice, and eradicate pressing societal problems in complex and culturally diverse urban environments throughout Southern California, the nation and the world. Our mission is achieved through value-driven, scholarly and creative social work education, research, and professional leadership.

From the NASW:

Beneath this practicality lies a strong value system that can be summarized in two words: social justice. Social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities. Social workers aim to open the doors of access and opportunity for everyone, particularly those in greatest need.

So according to my (future) fellow social workers, social justice is the goal of equal rights and opportunities. Sounds good to me!

But to some (such as Glenn Beck)  this sounds too .. um… communist. They honestly believe that the phrase social justice is code for redistribution of wealth and all those nasty taxes and programs they don’t like.

There may also be some on the other end of the spectrum who believe that social justice (and our country) should indeed go so far as to actually “redistribute wealth,”  but what about the rest of us?

I note that in the NASW definition, rights and opportunities are expected to be equal, not necessarily outcomes. This is important. While I had the opportunity to attend public schools through 12th grade without tuition, and state funded colleges and universities after that, the outcome would depend on what I did with those opportunities.

Political opportunities are the same way. I can run for office and vote, but whether I win or my candidate wins is up to what happens in the polls.

Economic opportunities are a bit harder, as we all know it takes money to make money.  I think this is where the Beck crowd starts getting nervous. But I think so long as we’ve equalized educational and political opportunities, economic opportunities might work themselves out.

I’m sure there is a lot of room to discuss HOW to achieve these ends, but I would hope the vast majority of my fellow Americans would agree with the ideals.

I also believe that perfect social justice may not be something we will ever see. While I’d like to believe that my neighbors have the same opportunities as I do, the truth is that they almost certainly have their own sets of advantages and disadvantages. I have a middle class background, which provided me with a certain level of resources to start adult life (and admittedly, occasional assistance from parents even as an adult). There is nothing government can do to compensate my neighbor from a less affluent background for what I received and they didn’t or to compensate me for not being born a Kennedy, Gates, or Walton.

So if it’s an impossible dream, what can a social worker do?

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