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Advocacy in the early SSWAA Years

By Richard Spring

Prior to the historic meeting of the Edwardsville sixty-four in the summer of 1993, I served on the Michigan Association of School Social Workers (MASSW) board as Legislative Chair and was also a member of the Midwest Council. At the time, my major concern was my personal belief that NASW was not meeting the needs of School Social Workers nationally. It may have been partially due to my frustration that I could not substitute the School Social Work Journal for the standard Journal they sent to all members without paying an added fee for that journal. So maybe you’re thinking it sounds like this guy is just cheap, and maybe that is true. However, I was an active member of NASW beginning with my enrollment in the Masters of Social Work program at the University of Michigan in 1984.

During my time on the Midwest Council, I had the opportunity to discuss my concerns with others who felt, like me, that NASW was not doing all they could to promote and educate those of us working in the schools. It was at that time that the meeting in Edwardsville was proposed. I was glad that folks from NASW were invited to take part, and it seemed like a great opportunity for them to hear and respond to our concerns. I went to the meeting with an open mind and was accompanied by Donna Secor, Bev VanDyke, and Pat Metz who were also on the MASSW Board and/or the Midwest Council.

Early on it was apparent to me that NASW viewed School Social Work primarily as an opportunity to make money by offering to establish a SSW Section that we could join at an additional fee. I was not interested in that and was delighted that when we left Edwardsville that we were on our way to forming an organization whose soul interest and intent was to promote the profession of School Social Work. I had the honor of working on the draft our original mission statement.

In 1995 I was chosen to be the Midwest Representative to SSWAA. I was determined to establish a Legislative Committee to ensure that the organization was working on national issues and national recognition for our unique roles in schools. As I said earlier, I had been the Legislative Chair for MASSW in Michigan. Previously we were successful in having School Social Workers mandated in the School Code for evaluations of students with emotional impairments and students with autism. Michigan also required that School Social Workers have a master's degree with school specific training which was not the case nationwide. As Legislative Chair we were able to be included in the Governor’s Special Education Task Force. We also increased our contacts with legislators in Michigan, and regularly had state legislators attend and speak at our annual conferences. During this time, I met with one of our State Senators, Debbie Stabenow who was a social worker prior to her time in the Michigan Legislature. Ms. Stabenow was elected to the US House of Representatives, and after serving one term in the House was elected to the US Senate.

In July of 1997 SSWAA hosted our 2nd summer meeting in Washington DC. We were able to arrange for Larry Ringer from the US Department of Education, Office of Special Education Programs speak to our group. I don’t believe Mr. Ringer was prepared for the depth of knowledge and passion for serving our students that School Social Workers possess. When he finished with a very lively Q&A, he asked if he could return later with his supervisor JoLeta Reynolds so she could hear from us too. This really went a long way to enhancing the understanding of School Social Workers by the Department of Ed. In fact, Mr. Ringer attended and spoke at our very first National Conference in Austin, TX in April 1998.

It was clear to me that we needed increased advocacy by SSWAA. Our first Legislative Consultant was not the fit we had hoped for, and when she resigned, we were fortunate to hire Isadora Hare from NASW in a temporary position. The SSWAA Board was determined to hire someone in a permanent position. An ad was posted, and we scheduled interviews. Isadora applied for the position and she and two others were interviewed. It seemed at first that this would be a slam dunk and Isadora would probably get the job. However, we were not prepared when Myrna Mandlawitz walked into the interview. If you don’t know her, Myrna is rather petite, but we quickly learned she is a spitfire with a keen understanding of the legislative process. She impressed me with her determination that she could help us to become connected with decision makers in DC.

When we walked out of the interview my first comment was, “we have got to hire her!” My second was. “How are we going to tell Isadora?” Thank goodness that responsibility fell to our President Randy Fisher. I was concerned that maybe this was going to be a hard sell to the other interviewers, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. It was a unanimous decision. We were going to offer the position to Myrna. I believe this was one of the very best decisions our fledgling organization made, and I was and remain proud of it to this day.

Myrna and I started a collaboration that worked steadily to help get School Social Workers on the map in DC. She connected us to other groups that she also represented or knew, and she used those connections to our distinct advantage. She made sure that we enhanced our connections with key policy makers and legislators. Myrna and I were determined to help School Social Workers understand the nuts and bolts of political advocacy. We recognized that contacting and talking with legislators is intimidating, but essential if we could ever hope to influence legislation and funding for programs that affect us and the students we serve. We recognized that if School Social Workers were not effective advocating for our profession, we would not be able to advocate for our students. As they say, “If you don’t have a seat at the table; you are probably on the menu!” Myrna made sure we had a seat at the table.

We started building capacity for the members of SSWAA by planning and providing Political Advocacy workshops at each of our national conferences and our summer meetings in DC. We made sure that members had the tools they needed to understand pending legislation, contact their legislators, build relationships with them, regularly meet with legislators armed with current talking points, and the need to follow up after their meetings. I can’t begin to tell you how much fun we had working together, seeing the excitement in the faces of School Social Workers when we debriefed their meetings with legislators, and watching as SSWAA was recognized as an important advocacy group on the national scene. Does it sound like I am proud of the work we did? You better believe I am!


Richard Spring - SSWAA Founding Member and Past Legislative Chair

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This article on SSWAA's early advocacy efforts is truly inspiring. clipping path services It's incredible to see the dedication and passion of those who laid the groundwork for school social work advocacy. Their relentless efforts to promote the importance of mental health and student well-being have paved the way for significant advancements in our field. Kudos to SSWAA for highlighting these foundational stories and continuing the mission of supporting students and schools nationwide. This piece is a testament to the power of advocacy and perseverance.

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