What it Means to Be a Social Worker
social workers month interview flyer

Celebrating Social Workers Nationwide with Jai Thompson and Carole Showell

Neanta Parnell – April 24, 2023

As an organization that works to help youth realize their highest potential through mindfulness, it can be challenging for these same youth to face themselves. Mindfulness calls for a sense of self awareness and interconnectedness that they may not have ever experienced before. Inner Strength instructors and staff are mental health supports that use mindfulness-based techniques to do so; therefore, building strong relationships with counselors and other mental health professionals at each school is necessary to protect the mental health of each student. Having the support and perspective of a program coordinator and trained social worker on staff does wonders to make our work more effective as well as create stable relationships with school staff.

To show appreciation to Jai Thompson, ISE’s Strength & Stability program coordinator and trained social worker—and social workers everywhere—Neanta Parnell, the Inner Strength Communications Associate, interviewed Thompson and Carole Showell, a recently licensed clinical social worker in the Philadelphia region, to discuss what it means to be a social worker. 

Parnell: From my research, it seems that there are a variety of different social work histories. There is the American and Euro-centric version, which discusses how modern social work arose from charity work related to women in the church. There is a Black Diasporic and BIPOC history of social work that describes modern social work as a derivative of the “helping culture” within Black and BIPOC communities. How do you summarize or come to terms with these varying histories of social work, and is there a historical event that fuels your work as a social worker?

Thompson: Great Question! A couple things come to mind when I think about social work, its derivatives, the altruistic nature of help, community building, and simply ensuring that the same resources that are made available to other cultures and communities are made available to those like the BIPOC, QTBIPOC, and non-POC communities. In short, I do pull inspiration and motivation from all aspects of African Diasporic events, as well as being a product of an environment where someone whose parents endured the antebellum south and women. As an investigative undergraduate student, it came as no surprise that the founder of social work is a woman. Jane Addams created a litany of safe and educational spaces for youth within her community to thrive and, again, be exposed to resources they would otherwise not have access to. 

As a result, coming to terms with and in summary of the histories of social work includes acknowledging the immense and groundbreaking work social workers, case managers, community behavioral health workers, therapists, and counselors do daily with little to no ease nor with a constant ask for relief for the task each person signed up to carry out. From the women’s suffrage movement to HIV/AIDS, civil rights, and more, social workers continue to show up in bombastic ways that secure the need for more social workers as a result of the state of the world. In the United States, social workers continue to go underpaid under the guise of working out of a labor of love. I don’t know that social workers will cease working from a genuine and loving heart posture. However, there is a great need for fair and equitable pay for social workers in all capacities. 

Showell:  I think the field of social work (even before it was called social work) is best described as an effort to make capitalist—and usually racist and sexist—institutions see the value and humanity of marginalized and vulnerable groups. In the past, this has sometimes looked like paternalistic, but well-meaning, ideology based on protestant beliefs (the Settlement House Movement) or Catholic charity work, which still comes with some moral judgments and restrictions. Some of these less-than-helpful ideas persist in social work today. However, the idea that everyone is a human being worthy of help and the belief that social change needs to be addressed in the community and in an organized and systematic way are valuable ideological contributions that inform modern social work. At other times, social work has looked like community mutual aid. Both approaches to social change have always occurred in parallel, sometimes overlapping and sometimes separate. 

Recently, I’ve been learning more about the role that W.E.B. Dubois played in encouraging the adoption of what we would now call Person-in-Environment (PIE) theory to social change. The role of the modern social worker is to continue advocating for services, interventions, and policies that incorporate PIE perspectives. I found my way into social work after realizing that, despite economic risk factors during adolescence, my siblings and I thrived because of specific advantages in our social environment (quality schools, a supportive and present family system). I wanted to find ways to bridge the gaps for others who did not have these privileges. Initially, I thought I would do macro-level policy work, but I instead found my passion working with individuals as a clinician.

Parnell: How would you describe what you do to someone who is unfamiliar with social work as a contemporary term?

Thompson: I would describe my day-to-day work as a life mission to ensure the visibility of queer and trans people of color in spaces where their names and bodies remain underrepresented and disregarded, even if by “accident”. I would describe my work as that of someone who works with and sifts through the blind spots of non-poc community members and those adjacent, as well as folks who continue to bring harm to the LGBTQIA2+ community and folks living with HIV/AIDS (PLWH). 

Showell Social Change Agent People deserve dignity and respect and are worthy of compassion, empathy, and support regardless of circumstances or how they ended up there. The role of the social worker is to fight injustice in its many forms by providing people with the resources needed to advocate for themselves and by advocating on their behalf if they’re not able to do so themselves.

Both Thompson and Showell express a conviction to give voice to social work. Often taken for granted due to its basis in community building and altruism, social work speaks to the needs of often marginalized, overlooked, and exploited individuals. Just as in a two-parent household, a loving support system, food on the table, clean drinking water, and other aspects of life are invisible necessities, Thompson and Showell do well to express the necessary and powerful effects of social work in eliminating the isms that threaten our society. 

Continue reading part two here

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