From Navigating the System to Paving the Way for Change: The Transition from Direct Service to Policy Level Social Work

Assistant Researcher

Transitioning from direct service to a research and evaluation role was difficult for me as a social worker. Before coming to the Center for Public Partnerships and Research (CPPR), I worked as a victim advocate and an advocacy coordinator for victims of crime, including domestic and sexual violence. Every day, I was face-to-face with people, helping them navigate a system that was not necessarily built to be easy. I became a social worker to help people navigate these systems to get healthcare, mental health services, justice, and safety. The work was personally fulfilling, but I needed a change so that’s when I joined the team at CPPR.

I was nervous that I would be leaving my social work roots behind as a researcher and evaluator and feared losing sight of the people “on the ground” — including clients and social workers. But what I found was a way to exercise my skills as a social worker in new ways. Social work is a value-based profession, which means we have a code of ethics and six core values that guide us: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance and centrality of human relationships, integrity, and competence. These same values are, in fact, critical to my work at CPPR on two large-scale grant projects in Kansas linking individuals with mental illness to housing and employment and providing holistic behavioral health services.

Service
Social workers have the primary goal of helping people in need and addressing social problems. As an evaluator, I am able to provide research support, grant support, and data collection and analysis to help mental health centers better serve clients. Our grant projects at CPPR are successful because of the strong emphasis on partnerships — strengthening bonds and facilitating collaboration among diverse partners. When we put our heads together and share our diverse viewpoints, we are able to better navigate the systems in place, and we are able to change systems that do not meet the needs of those we serve. Establishing policies that allow individuals to access services with “no wrong door” has been a huge part of the work our team has done in Kansas to better serve homeless individuals.

Social Justice
Social workers have the duty to challenge societal injustice. Much of this is done at CPPR through the pursuit of social change, and working with and on behalf of vulnerable groups of people. One of our core leading rules of engagement — leave it better than you found it — embodies this value. It requires us to not only pursue change but to listen to those in need. Our commitment to ensure services and resources are available to all children, youth, and family is without exception — all of us are deserving of safety, health, happiness, and support.

Dignity and Worth of the Individual
Social workers find and recognize the inherent dignity and worth of each person. While we may face conflict and disagreement in the work we do, we always value where those alternative opinions are coming from, and pursue the best solution for everyone. All voices that aim to support children, youth, and families are welcome at CPPR, and we work to enhance our own capacity for change, as well as the partners with which we work. We work to resolve conflict and tension consistent with our values and principles, and find that conflict can often be the birthplace of new, innovative ideas and creations.

Importance of Human Relationships
Social workers understand the importance of human relationships, and at CPPR, our work is built upon relationships. Sharing unique perspectives and ideas, and combining resources is central to the work that we do. We see relationships as a way to focus energies in a purposeful manner to enhance the well-being of children, youth, and families, as well as the communities in which they live. Within our Center, we encourage teamwork, shared work spaces, peer-lead training and education, and the development of informal relationships to enhance collaboration. We have much to learn from our own coworkers, partners, and peers, and engender the co-creation of knowledge in our workspaces and beyond.

Integrity
Social workers recognize that trustworthiness is at the crux of social change. And while CPPR has staff from all different disciplines including anthropology, psychology, social work, fine arts, and education, we are all unified by our core rules of engagement: work with the willing, be accountable, leave it better than you found it, and freedom to fail. Within these rules of engagement, integrity is essential. CPPR strives not only for trustworthiness but for fairness, sincerity, and honesty in our work. Integrity also means that we are unified, and act in solidarity with each other and our partners in any way we can to advance our mission to serve those in need.

Competence
Social workers practice with competence and use their expertise for good. At CPPR, we strive not only to share our diverse expertise, but to constantly be sharpening the tools we have, and learning new ways to do the work we do better. We share our strengths and are not afraid to acknowledge our needs. Through peer- and professional-led training and workshops, we expand what we know and share new perspectives and viewpoints. We also seek to share our knowledge with our partners and the public, through position papers, reports, social media, and grants. Above all, we are, every day, strengthened through the partnerships we have throughout our community at the University, in Lawrence, in Kansas, and beyond. Our combined knowledge base is much stronger than when we are alone, and we work to nurture these sharing relationships every day.

Leaving direct service has not been easy for me as a social worker. But every day I am reminded of the impact I am making, and our partners are making, through this work. Social workers can and do thrive and uphold social work values and ethics at CPPR, even though we are not providing direct services. To be able to impact, improve, and change the systems we all have to navigate to be easier, more affordable, and better coordinated is incredibly rewarding. My hope is that more social workers explore macro-level service, social policy work, and evaluation work.

Thanks to Ember Urbach, M.A., for contributing to Ideas in Motion!

Ember earned her Master’s degree in social work from Florida State University in Tallahassee, FL. She works as an evaluator on two SAMHSA grants focused on working with community mental health centers in Kansas to increase employment and housing opportunities for individuals with mental illnesses. She is an avid dog lover and connoisseur of nachos.

Ember is a contributing author to CPPR Ideas in Motion. Her personal blog does not necessarily reflect the values and opinions of CPPR.