Friday, June 3, 2011

Community Organization in a Social Work Context

It is quite possible to believe that students both enter and leave a Social Work program having a content area in Community Organization (C.O.) without a complete understanding of what it is.
So, what the heck is C.O.?

Everyone comes into the social work program for different reasons with different expectations and with different goals; understandably so. In a program, such as the School of Social Work at the University of Connecticut, students have the choice of five content areas to choose from: casework, group work, administration, policy practice, and community organization. Social work as a profession is stereotypically understood as the person someone goes to see in confidence when they have personal issue to work through. Not to belittle case work, it is an area I could never do and there is so much more to the profession than that!

While the University of Connecticut School of Social Work has a definition, I actually found a simple example courtesy of Dr. Simmons (Community Organization Professor) more helpful to understand the difference between micro (case work and group work) and macro (C.O. and policy): An individual comes to you as a professional Social Worker to complain about the condition of their apartment. There are mice in the kitchen, a hole in the ceiling due to an unfixed water leak, noise complaints, and on goes the list. Option one is to help the person with their problem. Option two is to look beyond the one person to see who else in the community is experiencing the same or similar problems. Assuming that there are more tenants with similar issues, the Social Worker would work with all affected community members to obtain resources to appropriately address the responsible persons and empower the community to create the necessary change.

This scenario is applicable to nearly all areas of life including health, housing, education, and event international issues. So then the next question is: what exactly does a graduate with a C.O. degree do? Well my first reaction is that there really is no answer; it is relative to asking “what does an activist do?” However, there is an answer. A graduate with an MSW in C.O. most likely will look for work in an area they are passionate about, similar to the scenario idea, in a community setting. Position titles tend to have keywords such as: the obvious – community, organizer, coordinator, and educator. Most positions do not lend themselves well to cubicles and typically have less than desired salaries. The compensation for being paid less is that the careers are typically those that one would wake up and be excited for the challenges the job will bring them today.

The most common issue MSW graduates in C.O. face is that we are ethically bound to practice within our concentration. This poses great challenges when employers and communities do not understand the difference between the caseworker and the community organizer. Based on the Code of Ethics a C.O. practitioner can not give individual or group counseling without taking additional courses and pursing their LCSW. I am sure many social workers will disagree with this, and yes, there are exceptions. For example an individual with their Bachelors in Social Work may have taken the appropriate micro courses to be appropriately educated to be employed as a case worker even if their master’s degree is in a different content area. Additionally many employers who do not know the difference are also happy to look past the content area and only see the MSW. Thus, the onus is on the graduate to disclose information as necessary to their employer.

If you are considering A Masters in Social Work, there are many outstanding universities to choose from. Advice I would give is: do your research about the programs you are considering; come into the program with some idea of where you want to be when you finish; and lastly, ask questions – talk to professors in the program, talk to current students, talk to alumni, and talk to professionals. Community organization is a phenomenal program for the person looking to avoid cubicles, create change, to empower others, and to love what they do every day no matter how hard and challenging it may be.

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