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Social Work and Social Justice: What Role Do Social Workers Play?

January 11, 2023

Social workers support individuals, families and communities in countless ways. But how can they make society more just?

Many people may not realize the affinities between social work and social justice — the condition of fair and equitable access to resources, wealth, opportunities and social privileges in a society. Social justice goals include:

  • Improving social mobility
  • Strengthening social safety nets
  • Advancing racial equity and equality
  • Creating opportunities for each person to have a creative, productive and dignified life

Social workers’ advocacy for social justice can range from client-focused actions designed to support individuals to macro-focused actions around unjust social policies and structures. For example, a social worker can assist a client in accessing mental health resources, and social workers can also advocate to protect and extend access to mental health services for tens of millions of people through policy development.

Social workers stand at the vanguard of advancing social justice aims, playing a key role in making society fair and equitable for all.

Social Justice as a Core Value

Social justice is a pillar of the social work profession. The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) lists social justice as one of the profession’s core values, stating that all social workers should challenge social injustice in their work. That means taking action to expand choice and opportunities for people who suffer from exploitation, oppression, discrimination or financial vulnerability.

The NASW Code of Ethics states that as agents of social change, social workers must work alongside and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups to address issues of unemployment, poverty and discrimination. Through social justice advocacy, social workers “strive to ensure access to needed information, services, and resources; equality of opportunity; and meaningful participation in decision making for all people,” per the code.

In practice, social workers take action to improve social conditions for their clients, expanding access to social services, employment opportunities, health care and basic resources.

How Social Workers Fight Injustice by Supporting Clients

Social workers can alleviate the impacts of social injustice by assisting vulnerable individuals, ensuring they have access to needed information and resources, and providing mental and emotional support.

Working one on one with clients, social workers help them navigate challenges brought on and exacerbated by an unjust society, such as poverty, prolonged unemployment, substance misuse, neglect and domestic violence.

The roles and responsibilities of social workers aiming for social justice vary depending on their area of practice and licensure.

Fighting Ageism as a Gerontological Social Worker

Gerontological social workers directly support older individuals and communities. They coordinate care; assess the social, emotional and mental needs of their clients; and connect them with resources.

Social workers specializing in gerontology are uniquely positioned to combat ageism. Working alongside and advocating for their older clients, social workers play an important part in challenging ageist discrimination and other forms of systemic oppression experienced by older individuals. They can also help older adults identify and process the chronic stress that comes from ageist discrimination, improving the overall health and well-being of their clients.

Promoting Access to Education as a School Social Worker

Societal inequities are also found in the nation’s school systems. Inequality and discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender identity, religion, immigrant status and social class all affect the quality of education students receive.

Social work and social justice can look different depending on the unique individuals and populations attending school. Some of the many ways that school social workers can support disadvantaged groups include:

  • Promoting an education system that teaches students about cultural diversity and the oppression experienced by different groups
  • Encouraging cultural sensitivity among school staff
  • Advocating for greater representation of marginalized voices in school curricula
  • Supporting students with disabilities and combating ableism in schools
  • Supporting students who are immigrants or are from immigrant families by ensuring access to resources
  • Providing outreach and education opportunities for students’ caregivers and school staff about gender identity, cultural diversity and ways to promote inclusivity and acceptance

Supporting Children and Families as a Social Worker

Injustice can also be present in family life. Domestic violence, juvenile delinquency, and child abuse and neglect are among the many challenges that a child and family social worker can help individuals and families overcome.

When social workers engage with children, they can promote social justice by treating them with respect and dignity. Children’s needs are often overlooked, so social workers have the responsibility of listening to children and empowering them. Age-appropriate support that a child and family social worker may help provide to a younger client includes:

  • Access to health care, including mental health care, for both the child and caregivers
  • Access to quality education
  • A standard of living that promotes safety and dignity
  • Protection of personal privacy
  • Access to support services related to child welfare and human services

Child and family social workers can also help families navigate complex circumstances, such as poverty, unemployment or underemployment, immigration, foster care and adoption.

How Social Workers Fight Injustice Through Advocacy and Policy Reform

How do social workers combat social injustice through advocacy? They can share their knowledge of social services, legal support resources, health care services and educational support services with clients, empowering them to self-advocate. But in addition to working directly with clients, social workers can promote social justice and social equity through political action and policy reform.

Social workers can also lend their expertise to co-author policy briefs informing lawmakers, news outlets and the general public of issues that underrepresented people face in their communities. Advocacy work involves listening — learning what specific problems a group needs support for and how that community wants to ameliorate the issue.

Social workers engaged in the research aspect of policy development strive to involve individuals who will be impacted by services or whose lived experience is the subject of research. This approach, known as participatory research, allows social workers to forge connections with the populations they’re aiming to serve and ultimately yields policies that will better serve those populations.

Through deep listening and drawing from skills in cultural sensitivity and awareness, social workers can facilitate dialogue between diverse stakeholders — from politicians to businesses, community members and nonprofit organizations.

Community social workers, for example, focus on building coalitions to advance structural changes to address issues such as:

  • Inadequate public transportation
  • Barriers to voter registration and participation
  • Unsafe and/or insufficient affordable housing
  • Underfunded child care services
  • Insufficient resources for marginalized and disenfranchised groups
  • Violations of human rights and other forms of humanitarian crises

Promoting Social Work and Social Justice

Social workers of any specialization can promote social justice. Whether through direct action with vulnerable clients or political advocacy — or both — social workers can make our world more equitable and fair in myriad ways.

Do you want to pursue social work with a focus on social justice, diversity and cultural competence? Explore the Master of Social Work online format at Virginia Commonwealth University. Social work experts designed the program to provide students with a diversity of direct learning experiences to understand how to improve the lives of individuals, families and communities.

If you’re drawn to supporting social justice from a policy advocacy perspective, learn about the new M.S.W. specialization in social work administration, planning and policy practice (SWAPPP), beginning Fall 2023.