We need a new model for positive social impact

The further I get in my career, the more I catch myself processing and integrating within myself all the experiences I’ve had so far – and then drawing conclusions about what it all means, and what is most important for me to work on next. 

Most of us who work in the social impact sector are here because we feel a certain calling to do this work. We want our work to matter. We want our work to help people. We want our work to leave a legacy that makes this world a better place. Those things are true for me.

And now, after more than a decade working in this sector committed to positive impact in the world, I find myself wondering how to make a significant impact within the sector itself.

I am already thinking about the end game, here.

When I am done with my career, years from now, what will I want to have accomplished? What would I like to have changed by my presence here? How do I want to make my years of labor really count, so that – rather than just continuing the status quo for a few decades and then retiring, moving on my merry way to make room for the generations that come after me – the sector is truly better because of what I contributed?

I haven’t reached enlightenment yet, but I’ve started to find some answers.

And the answer that matters to me the most right now, the one I think has the potential to be most disruptive to the status quo, harkens back to where I first started.

I remember sitting in the very first class of my Master’s in Social Work program at the University of Wisconsin – Milwaukee. My undergraduate degree was in English, so this was the first social work class I had ever taken. Social Work 101, basically.

Our professor started out the class asking a question that was shocking to me at the time: is social work actually a profession?


Here I am, having gone through the arduous process of deciding what degree program I wanted to pursue…having jumped through all the hoops of applying…having been accepted (yay)…having paid all the initial tuition/fees...having bought all the books…having busted my butt to get there to that first class…of course, with the excitement of starting a new huge thing like a graduate degree…and the professor is questioning whether this course of study I’m about to embark on is even headed towards a real profession?!

I’ll tell you why.

Jane Addams is considered the mother of social work. She’s inspiring. You should check her out.  She founded one of the first settlement houses in the United States, called Hull House, in Chicago. She was a co-founder of the ACLU. She was the first American woman to be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. She was also white. And she was also wealthy, by most measures.

In her work at Hull House and beyond, Jane mobilized and collaborated with a contingent of other white, middle-class-to-wealthy women who were very focused on charity. These women did not have licenses. They had no special training. They did not have particular degrees. They were just focused on doing good for others – giving “charity” to “the poor,” of which they were most definitely not a part.

Thus, the question: is social work actually a profession? Can’t really just about anybody do it – anybody who wants to do good and help others?

Of course, much has happened since Addams and her band of wealthy white women were doing their good in Chicago those many years ago. Social work has indeed become a true profession – with degree programs, licensing, and a body of best practices and research assumptions that are constantly being tested, developed, and advanced.

But somehow, even despite those advances, the personas of those doing the work – whether professional social work or work within the larger social impact sector – are still so much the same. SO many white folks. SO many women. SO many of us come from relatively privileged backgrounds. And even if we’re aware of how problematic it is to have well-off folks (often white) providing one-sided, prescriptive aid to struggling poor folks (often people of color), we struggle to bust out of the mold.

This dynamic needs to change. Like, yesterday.

My friend Amelia Colwell wrote a brilliant post here on this same blog a couple months ago, about the White Savior Complex. If you didn’t see it, get yourself over there to that link right now. I loved what she had to say. Her thinking helped spur my thinking, so I could advance even further along this path I’ve been on as I consider the changes that are needed in this work.

I’m still on my journey of discovery, but here is some of what I’m thinking:

 - None of the work in our sector is possible without the funding.

 - SO much of the wealth in our world is controlled by people who are white.

 - As Amelia reminded us, much of that historical wealth now held within white hands was created by breaking the backs of, stealing from, and totally disrespecting, in many senses of the word, communities of color.

 - Doling out that wealth as “charity” for communities that are hurting – hurting largely because of the historical wrongs by which that wealth was created in the first place – is perhaps the most profound disrespect of all.

 - Communities in need know exactly what they need.

 - Social workers and other social impact workers may have some professional know-how, including knowledge of the research and best practices, but they should only offer that knowledge when asked for it by the communities they’re serving. Thus we begin to re-instate the respect that has been lacking for so long.

 - Overall, we social impact workers should be listening to the communities in need – and following their lead, offering support, as they work to improve their own communities. If Jane Addams and her band of women could do this work without degrees, licenses, etc…why can’t people within communities in need?

 - Perhaps most powerful and status quo-transforming of all, we’ve got to find a better way to distribute funding. Communities in need NEED to be making these decisions themselves. Again: they know what they need! They just don’t have access to the resources they need to make what they need happen. We have to share that access. Those of us who are “professionals” should see our job as doing everything in our power to break down the existing barriers to those resources flowing directly to them. The funding decisions should be in their hands.

Many of us have seen and shaken our heads at the problematic dynamics in our sector. Many of us know they are problematic. Many of us know they need to change. 

But when? And what are we – what are YOU – going to do about it? Today?

I know that I, for one, want to make sure these dynamics change throughout the course of my career. When I am ready for retirement, I hope “social impact” work, and how it is funded, looks entirely different than it does now.

I hope that the power differentials currently in operation have completely dissolved. I hope new sources of power have been created.

I hope that doing good is no longer charity. I hope “professional” social impact work becomes much more about finding and opening doors – so all can do better for themselves.

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