Interview with Rachel L. West, LMSW on Social Work Advocacy and Community Practice
About Rachel L. West, LMSW: Rachel L. West is an advocacy and community outreach consultant in private practice. She is also the founder of and writer for The Political Social Worker, a blog dedicated to community practice social work and politics. Ms. West earned her Bachelor’s degree in History in 2003 from State University of New York (SUNY) Stony Brook University, College of Arts and Sciences, and her Masters in Social Work from Adelphi University’s School of Social Work in 2007. She has been a Licensed Master Social Worker in New York State since 2008.
After graduating from her MSW program, Ms. West worked in a number of areas, including domestic violence and LGBT rights. For example, she was a Precinct Advocate for Suffolk County Coalition Against Domestic Violence, as well as a Center Manager for the Long Island GLBT Services Network, where she worked mainly with the Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth (LIGALY) organization. She is also one of the founders of the #MacroSW Twitter chat and a member of the Association for Community Organization and Social Administration’s (ACOSA) communications team, where she serves as their social media manager.
In 2013, Ms. West began her private consulting practice, Rachel L. West Consulting. Through her company, she provides consultation to social good organizations and private practices on a number of issues related to advocacy and community outreach, including the use of social media as a community advocacy tool. In addition to her consultancy work with organizations, she offers career coaching and training to macro social workers. Rachel L. West was compensated to participate in this interview.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Could you please describe your work as an Advocacy and Community Outreach Specialist at your consulting private practice, Rachel L. West Consulting?
[Rachel L. West, LMSW] As a consultant I provide advocacy and community outreach solutions to nonprofits and social good organizations. In addition to consultancy work with organizations, I offer career coaching to helping professionals as well as consultation and training to private practice clinicians on the use of social media.
My services include: social media planning, social media management, content curation, community outreach and engagement consultation, advocacy program development, career planning, workshops, and more.
My work with nonprofits, so far, has focused on social media planning and training. Most of them have set up accounts on social networking sites but aren’t sure what to do next. A lot of the employees put in charge of running the organizations’ social networking accounts only have experience with using Facebook or Twitter for personal use which is different than using it for a nonprofit. So they understand the importance social media can play in their work but they don’t know how to effectively use it, which is where I come in.
Before I write the social media plan, I meet with the client to get some feedback and gather information. I then write a report, Recommendations and Assessments (R&A), which assesses their current accounts and outlines my recommendations along with best practices for using social media. I then meet with the client to review the R&A report. Then I take their feedback and start working on the social media plan. A social media plan consists of goals and objectives, target audience, strategies for using each platform, tools for efficiency and evaluation, and next steps for implanting the plan.
With regards to coaching clients, most of them are recent graduates. One of the obstacles a social worker interested in macro practice faces is the lack of information about finding a job. Most career centers will only have information pertaining to working in a therapeutic or healthcare setting. So that’s not that helpful for someone interested in pursuing grant writing, policy analysis, etc. Many know what they would like to do but aren’t sure where to look or what search terms to use. Plugging in “social worker” or “MSW” into search on a job board dedicated to jobs in the healthcare industry isn’t going to lead to a posting for a community organizer position.
One of the things I do is work with them to get a clear understanding about what they like doing, what skills they already have, and what skills they need to develop in order to get the career they want. I find a lot of them vastly under estimate the knowledge and skills they have. I have an exercise I give them that will help them find the types of jobs they are interested in, then we work on a plan to help them get there.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Could you also elaborate on your role as the Social Media Manager at The Association for Community Organization and Social Administration (ACOSA)? What are your responsibilities and how do they relate to ACOSA’s overall mission? Do you feel that community specialists and other macro-level social workers should be well versed in social media and other forms of internet-based outreach, and if so why?
[Rachel L. West, LMSW] My work with ACOSA really falls under my consultancy practice. One of the services I offer is social media planning and management. I first became an ACOSA member around the time I graduated from Adelphi. They really only had a website. ACOSA does have an office but it’s a small organization and its members and administration is spread out across the country. So I believed that it was all the more important for them to have a strong online presence. Because of my experience with social media I reached out to them. Their chair at the time, Mark Homan, was already interested in putting together a communications team. So after we talked I ended up writing their social media plan. I also offered to act as social media manager.
As I mentioned before, they only had a website so I had to build their social networking accounts from the ground up. The only exception was the LinkedIn forum. The ACOSA LinkedIn forum used to be the Social Work Helper forum. Deona Hooper, founder and editor-in-chief of Social Work Helper, generously turned it over to ACOSA along with the 1,000 or so followers. But the Facebook and Twitter following I had to build from scratch.
As a Social Media Manager, I monitor the accounts, engage with followers, and share information related to ACOSA and community practice. Additionally, I collect data to evaluate how we are performing. Based on engagement with followers I will advise the chair on what followers are looking for from us. For example, last Fall followers on Twitter wanted ACOSA to say something about Ferguson. So we put together a statement with some recommended actions that social workers and social work programs should take to address police militarization and institutional racism. I also co-founded the #MacroSW Twitter chats on behalf of ACOSA.
The chats take place on the 2nd and 4th Thursdays of the month at 9 PM EST/6 PM CDT. There are about six partners in the collaborative and we take turns hosting. When it is my turn to host there is about five hours worth of prep work to be done. That involves securing guest experts (if needed), writing the announcement and disseminating it to the partners as well as on my and ACOSA’s social networking accounts. Then I write up a script for the chat. After the chat I have to archive the transcript. When it is someone else’s turn to host, my job as a partner is to distribute the announcement and to join in the discussion. I will also share the transcript online once it is published.
Social Workers should be well versed in social media. Nancy Smyth (from University at Buffalo School of Social Work) made the argument that social media should be viewed as part of cultural competency. So even for those who are clinically focused, it is important to understand social media because your clients are using it. It is having an increased impact on people’s lives. Teenagers are using it to seek out peer support. I read an article last year about a pilot program in Illinois that uses text messaging (which is form of social media) to provide HIV/AIDS information and testing to minority youth. There are organizations that are distributing smart phones to the homeless population in their cities and using it as a means to provide case management services. This is why I want to see social work programs integrating technology into their curriculum.
Right now whenever the use of social media is mentioned in social work circles, the focus is always on issues concerning ethics. It always comes from a place of social media hurting the professional because they are only using it for entertainment purposes. They never address how social workers can and should use social media as part of their practice. They also fail to address the fact that not all relationships between social workers and clients are therapeutic. In macro social work the client may be an organization (nonprofit, professional association, political party, government agency, etc.) or a community (such as a community organizer working to organize the local Latino community around immigration reform). The professional boundaries are different than the boundaries between a clinician and a client seeking mental health services. You (the macro social worker) are not providing therapy to the client. Macro social workers can use social media in many different ways. It is playing an increasingly important role in elections and social justice advocacy work.
As a consultant I use social media to connect with potential clients (that’s part of what I do with the blog). I do a lot of social media plans for nonprofits. I may advise them on the effective use of social media as means to recruit volunteers or to get people to support a particular piece of legislation. It can be an effective way to get information out to the public and to connect with supporters. I think it is vital that up and coming community organizers, aspiring administrators, and political social workers understand how use social media. I’m not suggesting we abandon other forms of community organizing or outreach tactics but we need stop being so tech phobic in this profession. Social media is one more tool to put in your tool box.
For macro social workers, social media can be a powerful community education, organizing, and advocacy tool. Most elected officials these days have a Twitter account as do journalists. It can be an effective and relatively inexpensive way to spread your message and connect with stakeholders. However, to use it effectively you need to know how it works. I think we may be seeing the tide shift a bit. There are academics out there who are integrating social media into their classrooms. One of the #MacroSW partners, Laurel Hitchcock, has been doing research on this along with Dr. Jimmy Young. Nancy Smyth, whom I mentioned before, is very tech savvy and from what I have seen has been encouraging her colleagues to follow suite. Deona Hooper has also been big in advocating for social work to become tech friendly.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] Can you please describe The Political Social Worker, the types of topics you discuss on this blog, and your mission when starting this project? How has your mission evolved since The Political Social Worker’s inception?
[Rachel L. West, LMSW] The Political Social Worker is dedicated to covering community practice (aka macro social work) issues with an emphasis on politics and social welfare policy. I started the blog back in 2012 on Tumblr. My reasons for doing so was that I was one, between jobs and looking for a way to get my name out there and to keep my skills up. Writing weekly articles is not only a great way to remember what you learned but to also expand your knowledge. The second reason was that at that time there was a void of information about macro social work on the internet. I wanted to fill it.
A few months after starting the blog I made the decision to become an independent consultant. I was getting positive feedback about my posts on Tumblr and I was slowly building a following on LinkedIn and Twitter. By that Fall Deona from Social Work Helper was working with me to make the site self-hosted. So by the time 2013 rolled around the blog became a way for me to market my services as a consultant.
Currently the topics discussed fall into four categories: Career development for macro social workers, social media as an advocacy and community organizing tool, social welfare policy, and social justice issues. With regards to social justice issues I focus a lot on LGBT rights and gender equality.
I would like to think that the blog has inspired other community practice social workers to step forward and share their knowledge. I hear a lot from students and recent grads who feel the blog has acted as a compass for them in terms of career planning. I also believe that the blog has helped give macro social work a voice. The blog averages 5,752 unique visitors a month and 11,970 visits a month.
Heading down the road I want to offer more learning opportunities. I have a lot of students and recent graduate readers. I also have experienced social workers looking to transition from direct practice into macro. I want to offer more webinars. I also want to continue with the Job Search for a Macro Social Worker series. The article that started it is still the most popular post on the site. Since last summer I have been interviewing community practitioners for the series. Another goal I have is to expand my readership beyond social workers and bring in more nonprofit professionals and activists who do not have a social work background.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] How did you get started in community outreach and political advocacy? Was it a career field you knew you wanted to enter upon enrolling in your MSW program, or was it an interest that evolved over time?
[Rachel L. West, LMSW] I come from a political family. Growing up, C-SPAN and the CNN were always on. Dinner conversations often revolved around current events. My BA is in History with an emphasis in United States History. Stony Brook (at that time, anyway) taught from the social history perspective (think Howard Zinn). Even though at that point I was not considering social work, the social history perspective does complement social work because of the focus on ordinary people and their environment.
What drew me into social work was its focus on human rights and advocacy work. Half way through the first semester I knew that clinical wasn’t the way I wanted to go. I was very interested in policy and community organizing work. I was perhaps in the minority but my favorite classes were social welfare policy and oppression and diversity. In my capstone year I took a course with New York State Assemblywoman Earlene Hooper. She had received her MSW from Adelphi. Every year she would teach an intercession elective, Legislative Activities and Community Process, for Adelphi’s MSW students. By that point my field placement had hired me to be their community organizer.
Over the years I have volunteered on political campaigns and with advocacy organizations. While at Stony Brook University I volunteered with The New York Public Interest Research Group (NYPIRG). In recent years I phone banked and canvassed for former Congressman Tim Bishop.
It was back during my field placement at LIGALY (Long Island Gay and Lesbian Youth) that I started using social media as an outreach and community organizing tool. Back then I was using Yahoo groups, as Twitter and Facebook weren’t around. About the time I started the Political Social Worker I really became interested in using social media as an outreach and advocacy tool. Deona Hooper helped me learn a lot about how to use social networking sites and blogs. I began doing research into e-advocacy and how elected officials and campaigns were using technology.
[OnlineMSWPrograms.com] For MSW students who are interested in becoming community specialists or political advocates, what advice can you give them about optimally preparing for this field while pursuing their degree?
[Rachel L. West, LMSW] This largely depends on the program they are enrolled in. If you are attending a program that has a macro track (community organizing, political social work, policy, etc.) it might be easier to find classes or field placements that will give you hands-on experience. But the feedback I have gotten and the response ACOSA has received (see the Rothman Report and the Commission for the Advancement of Macro Practice on acosa.org) shows that even when students attend a program with a macro track or general practice curriculum that they are having difficulty getting placed in a macro setting.
My advice for prospective social work students would be to look at programs that offer a macro track or a dual degree program (such as MSW/MPA, MSW/MPH or MSW/JD). Really do your research about the program and ask about the types of field placements available. I know some schools are very hands off when it comes to securing placements and others are very involved in that process.
For those already enrolled they need to stand their ground and push for a placement that will give them relevant experience in what they want to do. If they can’t get that experience through field placement then they need to find a volunteer opportunity (which may have to wait until summer or after graduation) that will.
Nonprofits focused on social justice or civic issues are a great place to find internships or volunteer positions related to community practice. If they are interested in politics and social welfare policy then I recommend looking for opportunities at the state or county legislature. They can also look into volunteering with a political campaign. There is also a lot to be said for self-study especially with regards to politics.
If you’re interested in politics you really need to keep up with current events. Take the time to learn about the issues and about elected officials. There are webinars and workshops you can take; if you’re a licensed social worker, just keep in mind that the majority of those will not count toward your continuing education requirements.
I would like to see schools of social work integrating technology into their curriculum. Social media can be a powerful tool for community organizing and community education. There are certain software applications that you need to have working knowledge of in order to be competitive in the job market. For example, in your interested in fundraising or program development most employers want you to have experience using CRM software. An employer looking to fill a community organizing position these days will want a candidate to know about GIS (geographic information systems) Mapping. A lot of MPA and MPP programs already teach their students about these applications.
Thank you Ms. West for your time and insights into social work advocacy and community practice.