A successful career in social work and advocacy can take many different directions – through politics, the nonprofit world and even clinical settings – all of which have unique requirements and roles.
One thing remains true for all successful social workers though: a dedication to their cause.
Below we highlight three influential agents of change who describe their career paths from creating suicide prevention initiatives, criminal justice advocacy and even working with the Obama administration to defeat anti-gender-neutral bathroom legislation.
Danni Askini is the founder and executive director of Gender Justice League, a Seattle-based organization that promotes gender and sexuality equality. Growing up as a transgender foster child motivated Askini to become active in social work from an early age.
Today, her advocacy has helped to pave the way for LGBTQ rights – particularly marriage equality – across the country. With over 10 years of social work experience as a social worker, mental health counselor and manager for various organizations, Danni has worked on a number of ballot measure campaigns for the LGBTQ community from non-discrimination measures, to same-sex marriage, to successfully defeating the country’s first anti-transgender ballot measure.
“I think community is vital … For folks who are not in major cities – the internet has really revolutionized that process. So that is to say – find a community online, do online activism, find strength where you can no matter what – but doing activism everywhere is vital!”
“The idea is really to start by building a community that is connected, informed and educated and then develop our skills to organize, educate and influence cultural change. As an organization, what we have done has greatly varied. We have done things like hold Trans Pride Seattle,” she told Helen Boyd for My Husband Betty.
Glenn E. Martin
“My adolescence and young adulthood were largely shaped by negative forces. The punishing circumstances of my youth were only matched by the harsh conditions of my incarceration, and upon my exit from prison in 2000, I resolved to dedicate myself to improving those early life-shaping forces.”
While incarcerated, Martin obtained his degree and, after release from prison, he joined an advocacy organization based in Washington, D.C.
“My professional skills that I’ve built over the last 13 years since leaving prison are important, but I think my lens is equally valuable to the way I interpret things,” he wrote in the Elements of Oppression blog.
Martin suggests humanizing the data to incite others. “Americans often recite a belief in justice and liberty,” he told Truth-Out. “We use that narrative to discuss the system, telling the truth about race and class discrimination in a way that helps people see how the reality of criminal justice does not match up to their ideas about either justice or fairness. People respond to anecdotes. You may forget data but you don’t forget stories.”
Suicide prevention advocate David Covington is an award-winning behavioral health specialist who has led international initiatives such as “Crisis Now” and “Zero Suicide”. He is currently the chief executive officer and president of RI International.
He described the surprising call that kick-started his career in a blog post he wrote for the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention:
“The very day I completed my master’s in Community Agency Counseling, I returned home feeling like a ‘master clinician’ only to immediately receive an imminently suicidal caller. My first thought was how I could possibly go through a 60-hour CACREP accredited program without a shred of preparedness! My balloon of confidence popped, and I spent the next 10 hours in a more important final exam.”
In a post for his own site, he wrote: “Strengthening social supports … This isn’t a feel-good theory. It’s science. We thrive in work and life when we feel connected and are making a contribution.”
On another occasion, he wrote about building relationships with police officers, but the advice can be taken more broadly, too: “How do you start making a difference in your own area? I would suggest starting with an evening or night shift in a patrol car observing the challenges and opportunities first hand.”
Passion For A Cause
Education, messaging, community building and developing partnerships with those in similar fields all helped pave the way for these social work advocates. And while all their stories and experiences are very different, one thing that binds them all together is their passion for their causes. That passion helped Martin to meet President Obama, Covington to become an internationally recognized expert and Askini to work with members of Congress to defeat anti-gender-neutral bathroom legislation.
Get more advice about fulfilling opportunities in social work in our careers section.