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Social Workers and Politics Make Effective Partners

Patrick Meehan

Patrick Meehan's experiences as a community organizer in Binghamton, New York, inform his research as a PhD candidate in Social Work and Political Science. In Binghamton, he found the local political establishment opposed to the participation of low-income, minority residents. He realized that “our elected officials can be instruments. I wanted to study elected office as a way of making change, as seen through the eyes of social workers and others.” Michigan was the place for Meehan to undertake this, since U-M has both a highly regarded political science department and school of social work.

Meehan has interviewed social workers who have run for city councils, school boards and county commissions, to see how social work training prepared them for office— as an extension of social work practice. Many have spoken of elected office as a way of making change in communities, giving voice to specific issues such as development or housing, and understanding that having a seat on the city council—or even just running—allows them to give voice to issues that matter to them.

Meehan has also surveyed MSW students from several Michigan universities, asking them, among other things, to rank the effectiveness of elected office against the effectiveness of volunteering, donating and attending town halls and other local meetings. He asked the same question of law students, as law is also a common pathway to politics. MSW candidates ranked elected office lower in effectiveness than did law students. “Law students see elected office as a way of making change; social workers are significantly less likely to feel this way,” Meehan reports, though he adds that, especially now, “national cynicism may turn social workers’ feelings against running for local office.

“U-M is the best place for me to do this work,” Meehan declares. “I have the tools— faculty, coursework and literature—to theorize about political office as political participation. I have access to literature on political participation and can connect my community organizing experience to a comprehensive dissertation project.” Meehan praises his dissertation chair, Barry Checkoway, and committee member Katie Richards-Schuster: “They help me connect my questions to social work practice. I don’t think MSW or PhD students elsewhere would have the faculty access or coursework to help them connect elected office to social work practice.”

Among Meehan’s most striking findings: social work women often doubt their qualifications to run for office, while women in law do not. “Since women are more likely to pursue social work than law,” Meehan points out, “this finding has implications for how we increase the number of women running for and holding elected office.” He will extend this line of inquiry to racial minority individuals, immigrants, and TBLGQI individuals. Do individuals from these groups see elected office as a way of making change—or as a barrier?

Has Meehan himself thought about running for public office? “It’s difficult to say,” he muses. “I don’t know where my wife and I may ultimately settle.” But his work is definitely throwing its hat in the ring, potentially influencing campaigns and helping political parties think about how they recruit candidates. His work has implications for social work education as well. “Schools of social work could give more attention to politics as an institution,” he says. “Legislation produces the most lasting change, so in a way we’re at the mercy of those who pass those laws. We do our profession a disservice if we don’t acknowledge the role of politics in change-making.”

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