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Dr. Qasarah Bey Spencer on Macro Social Work

December 28, 2023

When Qasarah Bey Spencer, Ed.D. was juggling work and raising three children as a divorced parent, she had a powerful insight into social systems and social work. 

She was working for an agency in Norfolk, Virginia, that provided services to low-income families that ranged from counseling and anger management classes to transportation assistance. 

Dr. Spencer could identify with many of the clients.. “I knew what it was like to have life experiences which required asking for help in taking care of oneself and one’s family, in a society that is not designed for everyone to succeed,” she recalls.

Social work, she realized, was about more than just assisting individuals. It was also about changing the larger systems that blocked individuals from reaching their full potential. 

Dr. Spencer decided she wanted to work to help effect systemic change, and she found her calling in the field of macro social work, a subject she now teaches as an assistant professor of teaching at the Virginia Commonwealth University (VCU) School of Social Work

Micro vs. Macro Social Work

Social work is practiced at both the micro and macro level, Dr. Spencer explains.

Social work practiced at the micro level, also known as clinical social work, involves providing direct assistance to individuals and families to help them deal with life challenges in areas such as housing, employment, health care and mental health.

Macro social work, by contrast, focuses on dismantling systems that put and keep those challenges in place and building new systems, policies and processes that support, nurture and affirm individual and societal well-being. Says Dr. Spencer, “While some practitioners focus on healthy functioning between individuals, families and groups, macro practitioners work on changing society’s systems and processes to promote and sustain healthy functioning for all its citizens.”

A social worker can practice in both arenas, she adds. As a micro practitioner observes how societal forces impact their clients, “their deep understanding can inform the ways in which they can influence public policy, raise awareness and perform research.” 

Aspects of Macro Social Work 

Macro social workers practice in a broad spectrum of organizations, from government agencies and policy think tanks to community service and activist groups. 

“They have a unique set of skills that can foster change in just about any context,” Dr. Spencer says. Her own career illustrates several different aspects of macro social work in a variety of settings.

Empowering Citizens

As a part of Unpacking the 2010 U.S. Census, Dr. Spencer facilitated community conversations to help residents in metropolitan Richmond understand the racialized history of poverty and interpret the data to use it to fuel social action to address the issue of poverty in metropolitan Richmond. 

In another venture, called Embrace Richmond, she coached residents of neighborhoods in need of resources to become leaders. “I worked to identify indigenous leaders who were willing to organize their neighborhoods,” she says. “I saw many of them blossom with the right support.”

Promoting Social Justice

After the killing of Trayvon Martin, a Black teenager, in Florida in 2012, Dr. Spencer helped found the Koinonia School of Race & Justice at Richmond Hill to promote discussions about race and injustice and to provoke social action.

“We discovered that people really didn’t have the language and a space where they could have courageous conversations about racism,” she says. “We decided to create an opportunity. I saw people take risks in conversations that they hadn’t been able to have in their own personal circles.” 

Connecting Faith and Justice

Dr. Spencer has long worked in what she calls “the intersection of social justice, social work and faith-based service delivery.” 

One instance was her experience working with Micah, an association of faith communities that recruits and trains volunteers in Richmond public elementary schools. “I met a lot of really caring people who wanted to see the students succeed,” she says. 

Fostering Relationships

Dr. Spencer has brought in social work interns to work with both teachers and students in elementary and middle schools. By promoting social and emotional learning — the development of emotional and behavioral abilities alongside academic ones — the interns helped create healthier environments for learning.

“One of my main goals is creating an educational environment that supports the relationship between the student and the teacher as well as between the student and their peers,” she says.

Educating Macro Social Workers

Dr. Spencer believes another way to effect systemic change is to educate future generations of social workers. She’s been teaching at VCU since 2010. 

“I know the power of a skilled, caring instructor from my own educational experience,” Dr. Spencer says. “I want to provide the same experience for other students.”

She describes several principles of macro social work as core to both her teaching and to VCU’s social work program. 

  • Connecting social work, justice and policy. “Social policy can facilitate or hinder the creation of social justice,” she says. She inspires students to envision what just systems and communities might look like and how social work could help to achieve them. 
  • Transformative and collaborative teaching. Social work education should be a transformative experience, Dr. Spencer believes. To that end, she invites students to help design the learning experiences in her classes. “Only transformed people can transform people and promote change in a society,” she says.
  • Critical thinking. Dr. Spencer urges students to question the information she presents, as well as their own thinking and attitudes. Critical thinking promotes personal growth in students, she says, while helping them drop their preconceived assumptions when working with people from different backgrounds.
  • Equity and inclusion. Social workers should model equity and inclusion in their own practices, Dr. Spencer says. “A few examples are intentionally ensuring access to appropriate services, using their privilege to provide opportunities for people who have historically been marginalized and sharing power with people in the communities they serve.”
  • Diversity. Diversity goes beyond the categories of race, ethnicity and gender. “It recognizes the uniqueness of each individual and group,” Dr. Spencer says. “Diversity is actually an asset. We have to learn how to harness it instead of stifling it.”

Change Lives and Systems Through Social Work

Social workers can be agents of transformation, in both the lives of individuals and families as well as in the broad policies and systems that affect them. VCU’s Master of Social Work online program format can prepare students to work effectively at any of those levels. 

The program teaches the fundamentals of inclusive and culturally competent social work practice while offering work opportunities that can help students develop the skills required to make a difference. Explore how the program can prepare you to play a part in creating a more equitable and accessible world.