The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the organization responsible for accrediting school of social work in the United States, recently adopted new educational policies and accreditation standards. One of its new competencies is that “social workers engage in policy practice.” In light of the new standards, and in the wake of the 2016 presidential election and rising concerns among students and faculty at the University of Pittsburgh School of Social Work, a small group of faculty members used grant support from CSWE’s new Policy Practice Grant Initiative to launch the Year of Policy Practice at the school in 2017. This effort sought to enhance student civic engagement and provide students with experiences and career pathways in policy practice.
In winter and spring 2017, the school hosted a series of teach-ins, bringing together students with faculty and field experts to examine three critical issues over the first 100 days of the new presidential administration. Of particular interest were emerging policies and actions related to timely health, housing, and women and gender issues. These teach-ins provided effective forums for student and faculty engagement with the practice community, and several more occurred during the fall 2017 term. One especially salient teach-in was an exciting dialogue with visiting German faculty and students about the rise of alternative right politics in both countries that occurred the day after the German elections and addressed the success of ult-right candidates there.
The overall climate of engagement at the school heightened throughout the year. Several classes and certificate programs held policy forums with field experts, engaging students in timely discussions on emerging policy challenges and opportunities around local affordable housing issues, labor and living wage concerns, and impacts on aging populations. One class conducted a term-long social justice film festival. The VanKirk Career Center also hosted a career panel featuring alumni working in key political and advocacy settings in the region, and the Continuing Education Program hosted training workshops for students and field instruction on advocacy and lobbying for nonprofits.
Students embraced civic engagement, and this was particularly visible at a teach-in they organized around proposed federal and state budget cuts and the impact on the nonprofit sector that would ensue. Working with the National Association of Social Workers Pennsylvania Chapter Southwest Division, a judicial candidates forum was held before the fall elections to underscore the importance of the judiciary at all levels to social work practice. Students also published a policy newsletter on proposed and pending actions, and a cadre of students organized and formalized a new student policy group to continue this work in the school and the University community.
The Year of Policy Practice concluded with a student-facilitated dialogue that engaged faculty, students, administrators, field instructors, and alumni in exploring how to define social action in the school and to discuss how to sustain and enhance policy practice in the school’s explicit and implicit curricula.
All in all, it was an exciting and productive year, and the school was excited to share its efforts at a poster session among the Policy Practice Grant recipients at CSWE’s Annual Program Meeting in Dallas, Texas, in October 2017.