Celebrating World Social Work Day: "Buen Vivir: Shared Future for Transformative Change"

Illustrated hands holding a globe with IFSW logo and hashtags + "Buen Vivir: Shared Future for Transformative Change" in top left corner

Every year on the third Tuesday in March, the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) leads the celebration of World Social Work Day, when social workers worldwide stand together to advance a common message for social justice, human rights and social development globally, all through the promotion of best practices in social work. The day is used to highlight the achievements of social workers, raise the visibility of social services for the future of societies, and defend social justice and human rights. 

This year’s theme is Buen Vivir: Shared Future for Transformative Change, which emphasizes the need for social workers to adopt innovative, community-led approaches that are grounded in indigenous wisdom and harmonious coexistence with nature. The theme serves as a timely reminder of the transformative role social workers play in driving positive change and fostering communities that thrive on mutual respect and sustainability. 

In honor of World Social Work Day, during both Social Work Month and Women's History Month, the Mandel School spoke with four of our woman staff members who are also graduates of the school:

Answers have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Can you share a moment when you felt particularly proud to be a social worker?

Lewis: As a school-based social worker, I received a referral for a 10-year-old client who had many years of services with little change in outcomes. I did a robust assessment of her whole system and developed a plan that focused on her environment rather than her behavior. By increasing the resources and skills of her family and school, we were able to work collaboratively and consistently in helping her to feel safe, to connect positively with others and to catch up with her peers. Bullying and violent behaviors decreased significantly, her mood improved and she engaged in more pro-social behaviors. Being a social worker means I can diagnose and treat a system as easily as I can a person, often with better results. I'm proud to be a change agent.

Ray-Novak: I have always felt proud to be a social worker! I feel tremendous pride when former students reconnect and share their growth as professional social workers. It reminds me that we are a profession built on mentorship and lifelong learning, and I feel honored to support current cohorts of graduate-trained social workers. I also feel proud when I see a former individual with whom I've worked and they tell me about how life has changed for them. Being connected to each other, whether colleague to colleague or professional to "client," grounds me in our collective human-ness and floods me with gratitude. It is a profound privilege to have our work support change in the world.

Schmidt: I think I feel proud almost everyday working with students who are pursuing this profession. My job entails getting to hear people’s ‘whys’ of wanting to be a social worker and what their professional dreams are, all while helping in any way I can, big or small, along their journeys. It is truly a privilege that I selfishly love; to talk with students, hear their stories, see them achieve their goals and share in their successes and setbacks. Being a part of the school as a staff member also enables me to advocate for students' voices to be heard.

Vukovich: One moment where I felt proud to be a social worker was just recently. I attended a community meeting and shared a beautiful moment of connection with a resident. They are a retired social worker, and they were talking about their passion for their community and what they want to see happen. I shared my experience as a budding social worker, and how there is so much change that residents want to happen, and how I feel extremely appreciative of the opportunity to be in a community with people who truly care about their neighborhood. We both had a similar gratitude for being able to do this work together, and it was amazing to be able to find someone who shares those same social work values. 

What do you think is the most pressing issue facing social workers today, and how can we address it effectively?

Katherine Lewis headshot

Lewis: My PhD dissertation is on the professionalization of social work in mid-19th-century Philadelphia. I show how the core practices and values of social work started not in universities with master's-educated psychiatric social workers or with caseworkers in bureaucratic charity organization societies, but with an interracial group of well-resourced but unpaid women who sought to protect each other from the violence of a racist, patriarchal, imperialist, industrial capitalist society. They were successful because they worked systematically and collectively at dismantling hierarchical systems based on gender, race and class. Social work has forgotten its history, when community practice was an essential part of clinical work. By rediscovering our shared origins and addressing the long history of racism and sexism that has shaped our education and identity, we can integrate our fragmented parts.

Social work once led the country in taking a systems-approach toward social determinants of disease and disorder, transforming policies and institutions as much as relationships and people. Now, 180 years have passed, with a medical model that is scrambling to explain, much less treat, problems that are increasingly understood as social. Social workers could and should be leaders here, but that entirely depends on whether we can assess and treat ourselves as effectively as we do others. After all, the first part of moving forward in social work practice usually involves looking back. There are more strengths in our past than most social workers know. I'm not speaking philosophically—social work has systematically stripped our most valuable practices, like community-building, empowerment theory or family therapy, of the Black power that created them. Our curriculum needs restorative justice, and historical research can help us achieve it.

Meagan Ray-Novak headshot

Ray-Novak: I believe one of the many issues facing social workers today is the politicization of our roles in the lives of LGBTQIA+ individuals, particularly transgender and gender-diverse children and families. I am deeply concerned for our colleagues working and living in states actively weaponizing our professional expertise and attempting to use our work to further an explicitly-dehumanizing conservative political agenda. Addressing it effectively means supporting and expanding the role of our national association and assuring free legal counsel to all social workers practicing in locations that threaten to undermine our professional ethics. Social workers need the ability to practice within our professional ethics without worrying about losing licensure or being unable to afford legal counsel when needed. 

Kelly Schmidt headshot

Schmidt: At any given moment, I see the most pressing issue relating to those who are suffering most—although, there are so many pressing issues within social work today, since the whole goal of the job is mitigating pressing issues within our respective sectors. More generally, I see a pressing, continual issue of deconstructing the purpose and meaning of the work and the work that’s been done in the past. It’s important to recognize where this profession has come from and how it informs our present efforts, while also reflecting on our personal motivations for choosing this path. 

This work can lead to negative impacts and it’s important that we critically analyze ourselves within the work while attempting to address the systems of oppression in the environments we work in. We are a part of those environments, regardless of the positive impact we aim to achieve. Therefore, it’s also our responsibility to be mindful of our roles and their potential to cause harm. I believe that in choosing to pursue this profession, we carry a unique responsibility to remain vigilant against injustice and to actively identify those who are most vulnerable, utilizing the tools we're privileged to acquire through our education to support them.

Christina Vukovich headshot

Vukovich: There are many pressing issues facing social workers today, but one I think is most pressing is how we as social workers are addressing and influencing systemic changes in all policy fields (housing, education, immigration, mental health, etc.) An important learning from my current job is how to balance centering and communicating the bigger picture of our work while recognizing all of the moving pieces that need to get done. This is important when working on large, complex projects, where a multitude of partners and stakeholders are working together. It is easy solely focus on your organization's role on a project, but it is vital to zoom out and have the ability to observe and identify all participating partners and their work within a project and how it connects or overlaps with your own. By centering the "why" of the work, organizations and stakeholders have a chance to pause and assess what the most effective ways of creating change are. To be able to do this, it is necessary (and a privilege) to be able to have one organization working behind the scenes to orchestrate this coordination work, which is not a reality for most organizations. I would love to see the social work field focus on having dedicated coordination work, emphasizing cross-organizational and resident-inclusive governance and engagement structures. This is already happening in Cleveland in the Woodhill-Buckeye Choice Neighborhoods Initiative Project. We are fortunate enough to have the space, capacity and funding to do this, and I think it is a great model to replicate throughout other initiatives and projects in the social work field.

What motivates you to continue your work as a social worker at the Mandel School, especially on days like World Social Work Day?

Lewis: I spent most of my adult life in England, improving and regulating health and social care services. My motivation to become a social worker started there. You could say I was a social worker of institutions! I actively maintain my connections to Europe through my old colleagues and the European Social Work Research Association. I love collaborating with my global peers, and I hope to return to Europe as faculty when I finish my PhD. The Mandel School is home to many international students and staff; they are my favorite part of studying and working here. We should be celebrating and learning from them, especially on World Social Work Day.

Ray-Novak: I feel privileged to be a part of the Mandel School. I am the first person in my family to attend college so getting a graduate degree, never mind a doctorate, was not something I thought possible. The staff and faculty have helped me and supported me since I first entered the building in 2008 as a master's student. My field instructor connected me with meaningful community-based experiences, staff like the late Debra Fields walked me through financial aid because I didn't have family help to complete the paperwork, and faculty like Zoë Breen Wood and Mark Joseph mentored me as I first learned to be a social work practitioner, and later a social work researcher. I would not be the same if I hadn't had these folks, and so many others, to guide me with patience and humility every step of the way. My gratitude feels bottomless and I wouldn't have it any other way. 

Schmidt: Even though I am not currently in a traditional social work role, I’m motivated by the collective efforts of current and future social workers, a lot of which I get to witness at the Mandel School. We are never alone in the work we do, regardless of the setting we are in, and there is always the community of helping professionals that we can lean into when we have our bad days. I know that other social workers genuinely love hearing about each other's work, which creates a very safe-feeling space whenever I meet another person with a social work background. I’m also motivated to share this feeling of community with others outside the profession. I am often surprised at how much we can share to not only help others directly through our work, but to educate others too on what it means to be a social worker. Our values and ethics are a blueprint to a way of living that many are not exposed to until they meet one of us! 

Vukovich: It's always the people that help me stay motivated—my co-workers, the community I work alongside, and my family and friends. They give me the space to learn and grow, and it is exactly that space that keeps me motivated to continue my work as a social worker. I want to work in spaces with people who want everyone to feel safe, like they belong and have the ability to grow in whatever way they desire (shout out to NIMC, an amazing research center who lives out the values of safety, dignity and belonging!). It helps to work with such amazing people, so I know we all have each other's backs and are able to help pick each other up when we need it. Being a part of a good team is extremely important to sustaining motivation, and I feel honored to be a part of one I can rely on.

Learn more about the history of World Social Work Day.