Produced by the Department of Media Relations & Publications

A Message for Social Workers: 'Don't Become Disillusioned. Become Empowered.'

March 4, 2009

Former Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields is a longtime social and political activist. She shared her experiences with Lehman students celebrating the college's twenty-five years of social work education. Fields is introduced by Professor Carl Mazza of Lehman social work faculty.

30 Minutes 37 Seconds

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This is Neem Dewji, a student at Lehman College.

Former Manhattan Borough President C. Virginia Fields is a longtime social and political activist. She was involved in the Civil Rights Movement and moved to New York in 1971 to become a social worker. In 1989, she was elected to the New York City Council and in 1997 was elected Manhattan Borough President. She shared her experiences with Lehman students celebrating the college's twenty-five years of social work education. Fields is introduced by Professor Carl Mazza of Lehman social work faculty.



In the graduate program, in the second year of the last semester, in the practice class, students have to do a capstone project. And two years ago in celebration we knew-- obviously we knew that we would be here for the 25th anniversary in 2008, and we were hoping and praying and working real hard that we would be accredited by the Council on Social Work Education in our graduate program.

And the class two years ago thought that in celebration of the 25 years of social work at Lehman, the accreditation of the Council of Social Work Education and at that time what we thought might happen by becoming a separate department, they thought that-- it would be great if we had a conference on urban social work.

Last year the graduating students picked up that project, because obviously a conference like this takes a long time. And one of the big tasks last year was who should we get as a keynote. And when the students met they had three criterias. One is the person should be a social worker. Second, the person should be an expert on urban social work, and third the person should have a track record in leadership and in policy.


And with those three criterias we started thinking about who we should ask. And the first person everyone thought about was C. Virginia Fields.

I'm gonna try to read this without my reading glasses. Twenty-five years ago I could have done that. (LAUGHTER) On-- on February 4th, 2008, the honorable C. Virginia Fields was for-- I can't do it-- (LAUGHTER) was formally appointed by the Board of Directors of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS to serve as the organization president, chief executive officer, succeeding Debra Frasier-Howe, the NBLCA's founder.

Miss Fields comes with a distinguished career in her professional field of social work, where she served in various positions as a social service administrator for the New York City work release program, Director of Foster Care, Adoptions at the Children's Aid Society, and consultant to the National Board of the YWCA. Over the past 16 years, Miss Fields gained invaluable experience, knowledge, and understanding of government at every level-- city, state, and federal-- while serving as an elected official in New York City. She served eight years as a member of the city council, and another eight years as Manhattan borough president, representing 1.5 million residents of Manhattan at the highest level of local government.


As a council member, she supported programs, services, and budgets that helped to strengthen the capacity of community-based organizations, serving populations infected and affected by HIV/AIDS. She was at the forefront of community battles in the early 1980s to secure housing for people living with AIDS.

As borough president, Miss Fields was instrumental in the allocation of millions of dollars for programmatic support to community-based organizations citywide. Miss Fields resides in Harlem. She is an adjunct lecturer at New York University Silver School of Social Work and at Columbia University School of Social Work. I am very proud to introduce C. Virginia Fields. (APPLAUSE)



Thank you, and happy 25th birthday, Lehman College School of Social Work. This truly is exciting. And to think what has probably gone on over the last 25 years and to see you here in such large numbers today speaks to the success of what has happened over the past 25 years. So I want to congratulate you, too, Dr. Phillips for your persistence. It takes that.

I mean, and I remember when I was 25 years old. It seemed like it was just yesterday. (LAUGHTER) But-- (LAUGHS) a few more years beyond that, but at 25 I thought I was ready to go out and conquer the world and could do all things-- and still believe that. But-- so I know what it takes to get to that 25. So you are really to be commended and too, Dr. Phillips and Dr. Mazza, for inviting me here today. I am very delighted. I did not know what the criteria was, however. (LAUGHTER)

And-- (LAUGHS) what that leads to high expectations, my, my, my. But I am truly delighted to be here with you. But, you know, I'm really delighted to see so many of you here, because at a time when we are struggling and facing a number of really serious issues as it relates to the work of social work, to see so many of you still interested in pursuing a career.


I always say I am a social worker by profession. I am an elected official and other things that I have done by choice, in terms of avenues that I have sought to continue on the path of doing those things as to why I became a social worker, to change lives, to transform communities, to make a real impact on society as related to social issues.

So there are many different avenues and many different paths that we will choose to pursue in our quest to fulfill our desires as a social worker. And one of the things that I hope we will talk about today, because I hope this will be interactive where we will have a chance to-- I'll have a chance to hear some of your issues and share further some of my concerns in some of the things that I believe we should be looking to do.

But I do, again, want to thank-- Dr. Phillips and Dr. Mazza and the staff here from the School of Social Work for extending the invitation and to all of you for pursuing your education in the field. And-- I think we would all agree that with increase in needs, decrease in resources, minimal salaries, reduced benefits, all of this-- when we actually pause and take stock of what is happening in and around our cities and our communities, in our urban environment, I think that we would all agree that our profession of social work is challenged in every area where we are involved or where we seek to be change agents.


In our work with families, communities, individuals, organizations, and groups, we seek to make a difference, to enable people to move out of poverty, despair, hopelessness into some level of economic stability, gain hope and a sense of personal fulfillment. When we look at all of these areas, there are serious challenges to the practice of social work.

But at the same time we know again we chose this as a career, because we truly do want to make a difference. And it can become daunting. It can become a daunting experience and it can become frustrating and you want to throw your hands up and say, "Well, maybe I could go out and make some money." And for women in the field, there aren't that many men. And we like to say, "Well, let's go into the profession. Well, maybe we can meet a man," you know. (LAUGHTER) Find somebody to marry. And, you know-- and-- and then maybe between the two of us we can have a good income. You know, all of these things. That's what the students tell me at NYU Graduate School, so I know it's no different here at Lehman. (LAUGHTER)

So-- so all of those are issues. But we are committed. When we look at the area of education, far too many of our students are still dropping out of school, not completing their education. Yet, we know that education continues to be the key pathway out of poverty. And they are dropping out at an earlier age, and far too many of them, our schools are failing them.


And they're becoming clients of ours at very earlier ages without the skills to qualify for jobs even if there were jobs. And many of them are becoming what David Jones of the Community Service Society refers to as the disconnected youth. They're not connected to schools. They're not employed. And they're not connected to meaningful opportunities that's going to really lead them out of poverty into the possibility of becoming productive adults.

We know in health care that the number of uninsured persons continues to rise. Currently there are estimated to be about 46 million or nearly one in five non-elderly adults and children without health care in the United States. Now this represents an increase of six million since 2006. And a great number of the people in that category make up the population that many of you are working with, and/or will be a part of.

We know the problem related to lack of housing for low-income families that leads to homelessness and other issues. And now the loss of homes through mortgage foreclosure, job market turned down, unemployment that existed prior to the job market meltdown, seniors without support systems, increase in number of immigrants who also need the services-- whether they are here as legal immigrants or not, services are still needed.


All of these have helped to impact the systems and the daily lives of the people whom you serve and work with and try to make a difference in their lives on a daily basis. The people are caught up in the web. The people who are caught up, rather, in this web are those with whom social workers work with every day.

And at the same time, yes, seeing fewer resources to meet the needs of the clients. Funding for services are being reduced in every sector. In my current position as president, CEO of the National Black Leadership Commission on AIDS, this is-- a national organization where we have affiliates in about 12 cities-- throughout the country, primarily in cities where we have the largest concentration of HIV/AIDS among African-Americans.

And with the recent report-- released by the city for-- I'm sorry, the Center for Disease Control earlier this year, despite the fact that it shows that there is an increase in the number of new HIV cases, not a decrease, and it is most prominent within the African-American community, men who have sex with men, and heterosexual black women. Black women represent 66 percent of all of the new cases of HIV/AIDS throughout the country.


And it is parallel that here in New York City, followed by Hispanic women. But despite the numbers and despite the fact that prevention makes a difference in the service in terms of addressing the problem of HIV/AIDS, cuts have been made. At least two budget cuts have been made in my organization's budget since the state passed its budget back in May. And now, of course, the state legislature is back into session today, and we're faced with additional cuts.

So it doesn't matter what the needs are when it comes to making those cuts. The people who sit at the table use different kinds of measurements in terms of making decisions than perhaps some of us would make. But as social workers on the front line, witnessing the despair, seeing the impact of policy and budget cuts on the lives of our clients, we cannot give up.

Yes, we are going to be faced with burnout. That's the nature of this work. That happens. Yes, we are going to become discouraged. We are going to feel like, "Why bother? Because no matter what I do, nothing seems to change. I have been working with this family now for months, and they are not moving forward. I can't move the system forward. We both seem stuck. They're overwhelmed, filled with despair and hopelessness. And now I as a social worker am becoming equally as discouraged. And, I'm thinking about giving up."


That happens to many of the people in our field. But I say we cannot give up because none of this will achieve the goals personally or professionally that we sought when we decided to choose the field of social work. I was speaking earlier as I came in, I think it was with Ronald Nelson who said to me-- he chose social work because he wants to go out and improve the world.

Now I can relate to that, because I think most of us felt that way when we decided to do this. So despite the burnout, what you gotta do, take some time off. Take that vacation. Don't feel that you cannot leave because if you leave the building is gonna fall down. (LAUGHTER) Guess what? When you come back, that building is still going to be there. (APPLAUSE) So take the time off.

That will help you avoid that burnout. Also, stay connected-- stay connected with people in the field. Even as students you can participate in activities with the National Association of Social Workers, National Association of Black Social Workers, the National Association of Latino Social Workers--lesbian, gay, bisexual social workers. They've got affiliates for just about every area that people would like to be connected.


And that helps keep you grounded. It helps you stay on top of the issues and connected with the issues that other people care about just as you do. So stay connected with other professionals and that would help somewhat with this sense of being discouraged. Also, I think we have to be willing to think outside of what I call the "social work box." Social workers are not limited to just one area. Whether it's direct practice, community organization or working in social service organizations, social work training equips you with skills that are indeed transferable and skills that enable you to make a difference in a variety of arenas, including politics, business, legal, public policy, arts, and cultural.

And many social workers who have transferred their skills to a range of leadership roles have been able to continue to be very effective in terms of changing individual lives, transforming communities, and making a difference in society overall. For example, here in New York City and state we have a number of social workers who are in politics.

Congressman Ed Towns from Brooklyn is a social worker. And one of the quotes from Congressman Towns reads, "Social workers cannot afford to stand by and allow others to make policies that we are expected to implement. Social workers, those who have studied and implemented the policies, have seen the effects of the programs and the defects in the programs, and know the unfulfilled needs of the people, and thus, ought to be able to initiate legislative efforts to form new programs or revamp old ones."


He decided to take his social work training and use it in the arena of government, to help shape policies, to help shape budgets. And that really leads me to my own story today. I, as I said, am a social worker by choice. That is my chosen profession. I made the decision for the same reason as many of you have made the decision. I wanted to make a difference. I wanted to change lives. So, somewhere along the way, around 1989, I had an opportunity to run for office, even though I was running against an incumbent, never having run for office before, but felt very strongly after having worked in the field now for some ten or 15 years.

I wanted to have an impact on those policies, and working now, and trying to keep this after-school program open. I continued to see the budget cuts. I understood that those seniors, if they did not get a meal at that senior citizens center, they would not, perhaps, have a decent meal all day long. Yet, I saw the budgets. So I decided I wanted to be on the other side.

I wanted to help make those policy decisions. I wanted to help influence budgets. So that's the main reason I ran for office, using my social work knowledge, background, and experience, being concerned with eradicating social problems, but also, recognizing that policy impacts everything, and the budget, in terms of the work.


So I ran in 1989. Now, it wasn't that simple. I don't want you to think you can just go out there and run. I mean, you know, that I had done some other stuff in terms of working in political campaigns, helping people get elected. So I understood the political process. But, when it was time for my political club to look for someone to run, believing that person could be a change agent, because of what I had done in the field of social work, I was asked to do it.

So in my first year, I was very fortunate to be appointed to the finance committee. (APPLAUSE) And it's interesting (APPLAUSE) yes, it was very interesting how decisions were made. My first year on the finance committee, I'm sitting there waiting for the big challenge. Well, you know, we're putting together a 50 billion dollar budget here, and and when we gonna hit the real hard decisions? When we going to really see this thing, how it comes together? It never happened. That was my first year.

What I mean by that is, a group of people come into the room, they have their priorities, they put forth their priorities, lotta negotiation goes back and forth between what City Council and the Mayor's office. That happens, and a budget comes out of that process over a matter of months. I was very frustrated by the process, because I went in thinking, you know, there's a whole lot of opportunity to have some dialogue, and you have some input.


But it taught me a lesson. The next year, I went in fully armed and prepared to save programs for after school. To initiate some housing programs. Making sure that I connected with those who worked in the field of social work, and other advocates on the issues that I cared about. And refused to leave the table without those issues being addressed. It about being in the room. And in this instance, for me, I wanted to be in the room to set policy, and to determine budgets.

And I'm pleased for the impact that I was able to have. But I used my social work training of listening, communicating, negotiating-- all of the skills that you are acquiring through your program. So my point is a simple one here. And that is, your training as a social worker equips you to be a part of many arenas where you can impact change, influence decisions and outcomes, and when we are faced with many of the urban problems, and the crises that we see today, and we are challenged every day in the work that you do, I think you gotta begin to think about how you use what you got, and you got a lot.

You've got information. Connect with those who are in decision-making positions with that information. They don't know what you know. They don't understand as fully as you do the impact of the policy decisions that they make, and the budgetary decisions that they make, the impact it is having on the daily lives of the clients with whom you are working.


You need to convey that. You need to communicate that. Do not assume, by any stretch of the imagination, that with a new president-- and thank God for this new president-- that-- (APPLAUSE) you know, things are just gonna automatically change. This is the time for the voices of those who know best, who understand more clearly than others, to step forward and begin to put forth policy ideas.

How do we deal with the problem of homelessness? How are we going to address the problem of our failing schools? How can we best address the immigrant issues? And certainly, in a city and a state like New York, this is the kind of information that you have based your work on everyday. So don't become disillusioned. Become empowered. Don't become burned out. Become energized, by using the position that you have right now to make a difference.

Connecting with those others who are in the field, making sure that you are documenting impact, and you have evidence-based data-- as they love to call it-- beyond what anybody in an elected field, or other policy-making positions have, unless of course, you are Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, who is a social worker; Senator Mary Landrieu of Louisiana, a social worker-- these are U.S. Senators; Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, a social worker; and right here in New York State, in addition to Congressman Towns, we also have, at the state level, Vito Lopez of Brooklyn.


And Vito Lopez is a key Assemblyman on all housing issues. He has chaired the Housing Committee in the State Assembly for years, and has been extremely influential in policies around housing. We have Patricia Eddington of Suffolk County, a social worker, and Earlene Hill Hooper of Hempstead, Nassau, a social worker.

So, if you're working in areas where these people are leading in their legislative bodies, that's an instant connection that you should make. In terms of the concerns and the data that you can set forth in helping them to understand what is happening as we struggle with these urban issues here today.

I'm hopeful. I remain hopeful. I have to, because there've been times, far more difficult than some of what we're experiencing today, when we think back-- difficulties that our parents, our fore-parents went through, and others. But they came through. And they did not have have as much, in terms of addressig these issues, as you do, and as we do today. But I think sometime, and if it's a criticism, it is one coming from me as it relates to social workers, we tend to keep our heads down in the sand doing the work.


As long as we're doing the work, we don't connect as much as we should to the policy end of it, to the budget end of it. We don't wanna be political. But as someone says, "All social work is political." It's political from a standpoint of the license procedures that you have to go through. Whether you're doing mental health work, or-- individual practice, you've gotta be licensed. Those policies are determined by somebody who's sitting there making those decisions.

Think about it. If you were there makin' those decisions, you understand the importance of it, but you might view it a different way. So think outside of the box as you continue to address issues in your work as social workers. Think about ways that you can stay connected and use other avenues to address things that you are most concerned about.

And I hear a lot from students that I teach at NYU Graduate School of Social Work that they feel afraid sometimes. They're in an agency. What if my agency doesn't wanna go that way but I see some problems? That's when you can connect with others outside of your agen--I never tell anyone to put their jobs at jeopardy right now.


But I do say, find ways to connect with others in the field, and through a process, those issues can be addressed until you feel more comfortable that you're ready to take it on with them, perhaps, an organization. It's not about being risky. I understand that. I really do. But it is about making sure that the information that you have moves beyond the doors of that organization, if it can make a difference in the lives of the people that you serve.

I'm hopeful. I'm optimistic. I'm glad to see all of you. I can't imagine all of the obstacles or the challenges or the barriers that you might face. But seeing you're here today, I am hopeful, and I am optimistic that you will meet them head on, and you will be great leaders in this country, in this city, and that we will live on, and be a better society because you dared to care, and you dared to choose social work as your chosen profession. Thank you, and all the best. (APPLAUSE)



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