Tuesday, July 25, 2006


What is a "grassroots social worker?" I don't know if I have the right to claim a label that could mean many things to many people. From my perception, "grassroots social work" implies going back to the beginning...the beginning of what wasn't even defined as "social work," but what was practiced with dedication, compassion, and skill.

The two women responsible as the founders and realized practitioners of social work are Mary E. Richmond (1861-1928) and Jane Addams (1860-1935). While Mary E. Richmond led the Charity Organization Societies movement, where she created the model for social case work and advocated for the establishment of professional schools in social work, Jane Addams is remembered for being the founder of the Settlement House Movement. Both were true movers and shakers in a time where there was a great deal of social, economic, and cultural upheaval in America. They lived in a time when women and minorities didn't have the right to vote; when there was child and immigrant exploitation in the work place; and WWI was upon the country.

Both these women made individual and global efforts which began the ground work for social change and justice, economic reform, and the liberation and empowerment of the disenfranchised. Both, were pioneers for human rights in a world that greatly needed their skills, drive, imagination, and dedication. They were social and human rights visionaries.

Mary Richmond focused on charity work and care for the poor by visiting them in their homes. She is responsible for conceptualizing a model for social case work (now referred to as case management), from assessment to direct practice and evaluation. This is now known in the social work field as "person-in-environment perspective. " She believed in the relationship between people and their social environment as the major factor of their life situation or status. She focused on the strengths of a person or family, rather than emphasizing their weaknesses. She acknowledged the importance of the therapeutic relationship between social worker and client, and attempted to find resolution to a client's problem by finding which system was causing the issue.

In addition to visiting the disadvantaged in their homes and connecting them to needed community resources, she published three ground breaking books: "Friendly Visiting Among the Poor," "What is Social Case Work?" and "Social Diagnosis." While Richmond's practice focused on the individual and their social diagnosis, it eventually led to her research, writing, and teaching the concept of social justice. By relating the practice, to the concept, she was able to fundraise and influence universities and philanthropists to address and research an array of social problems and needs. Through her life time work and contributions, she is recognized as the person who formalized social work education and made it recognized as a profession.

Jane Addams' work was realized through her development of the first Settlement House in America (Hull House in Chicago, IL). The idea of a settlement house was originally conceived in the UK. It's purpose was to provide a community house, serving the poor in urban areas by providing direct service. The hope for residents of settlement houses was to give them tools and resources to help them help themselves. Addams received The Nobel Peace Prize in 1931. In addition to her founding of Hull House, she was recognized and honored for her efforts in the Women's Suffrage Movement and for founding the American Civil Liberties Union and the NAACP. Many of the causes she advocated for, became policies under President Franklin Roosevelt. Jane Addams was controversial and threatening to many in her time, and often was labeled as an anarchist and communist. One man wrote in the Rochester Herald,

"In the true sense of the word, she is apparently without education. She knows no more of the discipline and methods of modern warfare than she does of its meaning. If the woman conceded by her sisters to be the ablest of her sex, is so readily duped, so little informed, men wonder what degree of intelligence is to be secured by adding the female vote to the electorate."

These sentiments only pushed Addams forth in advocating peace, equal rights and freedom for all individuals. When she died in 1935, over 2,000 men and women lined the courtyard of Hull House. A close friend and fellow settlement house social worker, Mary White Ovington, said this at her funeral:

"I knew Jane Addams and have never forgotten her piece of advice to me: "If you want to be surrounded by second-rate ability, you will dominate your settlement. If you want the best ability, you must allow great liberty of action among your residents." Jane Addams's name today is among the most famous in the world. But perhaps few people realize the incalculable good she has done in helping others to enlarge and glorify their own work. Many people can build their fortune by using others. Few can encourage ability without dominating it."

So, when I say, "grassroots social worker," I am thinking of the original goals and purpose behind the mission of the first social workers. It's about challenging systems and bureacracies, for the right reasons and for the good of the people needing to be served. Richmond and Addams have left us with a lot to aspire to. In their honor, and in the honor of the many people who have unmet needs, I strive to see the larger picture and change the rules to keep and uphold the original mission of social work.


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