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Macro Social Work Practice: A call to action

Macro Social Work Practice: A call to action

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Published by Mary Nienow
One social worker's journey from micro to macro practice and a call for further research on how social work can reclaim its social justice focus.
One social worker's journey from micro to macro practice and a call for further research on how social work can reclaim its social justice focus.

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Published by: Mary Nienow on Nov 27, 2012
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12/04/2012

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Macro Practice-A call to actionBy Mary Nienow, PhD student at the University of Minnesota-Twin Cities
As an incoming freshman at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, I had never consideredsocial work as a career path. I had a limited understanding of what a social worker was; my only
experience being a “counselor” I saw briefly as a teenager when my m
other thought my behavior was outof control. I declared English as my original major because I loved to read and thought I could turn mylove of reading into a job. I quickly decided that this was not practical and switched my major topsychology. I do
n’t even remember the reason why I chose psychology, but it seemed more promising
that English. I distinctly remember my first psychology course. The entire time I was in the class I felt
like I was wearing pants that didn’t fit. I felt irritated withou
t even knowing why. I knew I did not wantto become a psychologist, but could not tell why. While psychology was not the right path for me, theidea of not having a path was equally disconcerting.One fall evening, I shared my lack of direction with a friend who was a sophomore and hadchosen social work as a major. She encouraged me to consider social work. Again, not knowing verymuch about the profession, I chose to enroll in an introductory course because I trusted her judgment. Istill remember the first day of class. It was like I had returned home after being away for many years.Everything the instructor talked about made sense. The NASW Code of Ethics outlined my value systemin a way I always felt, but had never articulated. I immediately resonated with systems theory and theenvironment as critical factors in the way people experience and behave in the world.It dawned on me why I had so detested my psychology course
 — 
it focused on individual pathos.It narrowly defined the problems that human beings face as a set of diagnoses that rested on the symptomsan individual presented. It completely lacked the consideration of context, environment and systems in
 people’s lives. I value and recognize these factors as key components in the un
derstanding of humanbehavior and the development of interventions to assist people and society in its quest to move toward thealleviation of human suffering.
 
Despite this recognition and resonation with the idea of interconnectedness and a systemicappr
oach to problem solving, I still entered the field believing that the “work” of social workers consisted
of one-on-one counseling or therapy. The major professional association of social workers, the NationalAssociation of Social Workers (NASW), asserts that macro practice is a critical component of effectivesocial work practice(NASW Delegate Assembly, 2008). However,survey data continues to show thatmacro practice is a primary job function for only 25-35% of professional social workers(Association of Social Work Boards, 2010; Doelling, Matz, & Legal, 2003).Macro social work practice, for purposes of this article, is conceptualized as those activities in which social workers engage that are aimed atchanging the environment within which individuals live rather than the individual themselves (Netting,Kettner & McMurtry 2004).
 
My first position out of school was as a
counselor
in a domestic violence agency. I workeddirectly with women (never any male clients) in violent relationships. I ran support groups and onoccasion advocated for or assisted them with the legal process, such as obtaining Orders of Protection orattending criminal hearings. I quickly discovered two things about myself-first that my empathy skilloutweighed my shut off skill. I could not separate myself from the stories, the pain and the suffering myclients were experiencing. Secondly, the barriers to solving their problems were far greater than the kindof service I could provide. I became frustrated, depressed, and increasingly annoyed with my clients for
“bothering” me with their problems. There was no way I could allow myself to go down a path of such
 jaded cynicism, it violated everything I thought I stood for-being a champion of the oppressed, thevictimized, the fact that women were victims of male dominance, not the cause of it. I knew that I had tomodify where I engaged in social change in order to maintain my values and sanity.The majority of the women I saw were stuck in abusive situations because they lacked access tohousing, jobs, transportation, education, even intensive psychotherapy or medication. Our agency couldnot provide these things in a way that would truly help them move toward a life independent of violence.
 
And it wasn’t just our agency alone that couldn’t provide these things
-
I didn’t see the legal system, law
enforcement, housing agencies or the community doing a good job either.I made a decision after only a year in the domestic violence agency to move toward macro
 practice. I wanted to remain a social worker, but didn’t want to burn out at the age of 23. Moving frommicro to macro practice wasn’t too far of a leap. Macro practice still requires empathy,
problem solving,relationship building, brokering and assessment. I slowly started to take positions that incorporatedmacro practice. The penultimate position was my four years as a health and human services researcherfor the Minnesota Senate DLF Caucus.While many believe that policy making is based on the rational weighing of facts and evidence,nothing could be farther from the truth. Macro practice involves the same weighing of human experience,the same kinds of biases by decision makers, and the same use (and misuse) of research. It is my belief that to do macro practice effectively, the social worker needs to understand the lived experiences of thepeople for whom the rules will apply. They need to rely on the stories of people who have suffered andthey need to often test solutions, sometimes not knowing until after the fact whether a particular
intervention is effective. It is an iterative process with no “final resolution”.
I value advocacy and social change; it is the place where I work best. I was successful in themacro practice setting only because I had friends and colleagues working on the front lines informing meand the policies I am hoping to change or implement. And of course the reverse is true as well. Thecommon factors model teaches us that the key ingredients of change are external to the therapeuticintervention (Lambert, 1992). For me this means that micro practitioners have to be aware of the externalenvironment and use it as a meaningful intervention tool in their work.The division between micro and macro social work is an historical one (Haynes, 1998). Describedby Kay Haynes as the 100 year debate (1998), the field of social work continues to grapple with itsprimary function. While the mission of social work as defined by the National Association of Social

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