The Intersection of Social Work and Advocacy

This article explores the relationship between social work and advocacy

The Intersection of Social Work and Advocacy

Helping others is a cornerstone of effective social work practice. Both at the individual and community level, social workers can make a real impact in terms of public health and quality of life. One of the most important ways social workers achieve these improvements is through advocacy. According to the National Association of Social Workers, “The primary mission of the social work profession is to enhance human well-being and help meet the basic human needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty.” Because this involves a focus on both the individual and society as a whole, social workers play a complex role in causing social change. Working closely with or on behalf of clients, social workers use certain strategies and tactics to advocate in a valuable way.

All About Advocacy

Advocacy is a key part of social work because it helps clients learn to be independent and provides a voice for those who are traditionally underserved. Advocacy promotes equality, inclusion and social justice, all goals of social work practice. In addition, successful advocacy involves informing clients of their rights and how to exercise them for their benefit, which allows clients to influence decisions that will directly affect them. Social justice, one side of advocacy, is related to activism and occurs on a larger scale than day-to-day client interaction. It has been defined by experts as “an ideal condition in which all members of a society have the same basic rights, protection, opportunities, obligations, and social benefits.” Advocacy helps social workers achieve the larger goal of social justice by including disadvantaged people in the conversation.

There are a number of advocacy frameworks that have been introduced as part of contemporary social work practice. One such model is case and systemic advocacy. It identifies two different elements of practice. The first is case, or issue-based, advocacy, which works on an individual basis or in small groups like families and addresses specific tasks such as accessing proper mental health care. The second is systemic, or cause, advocacy, which takes knowledge from individual cases and combines it to form collective advocacy for changes in legislation or policy. Case and systemic advocacy produce positive change on an individual and structural level.

According to Jane Dalrymple and Jane Boylan, there are active and passive approaches to advocacy. Passive advocacy requires the social worker to speak for the client. Active advocacy, then, occurs when clients speak for themselves.  It is important to note that these categories are fluid. Another advocacy framework is the external and internal model. External advocacy occurs when advocates work outside of a system, while internal advocacy refers to advocacy that works within established systems.

Advocacy at Work

How can social workers apply advocacy to their daily practice? It starts with casework. When social workers advocate for clients within the legal system, they operate at an individual level and represent the larger issues affecting certain populations. This dual responsibility involves both self-representation and professional support. Social workers are uniquely positioned to help clients advocate for themselves while also working toward mitigating larger issues in the community. In their work with individual clients, social workers serve as a link between the client’s needs and the social services available. In addition, social workers can empower their clients to make informed decisions and understand the disadvantages they face. Then, social workers can help individuals use this knowledge to create change. On a community level, they mobilize groups to support one another and work to change elements of social injustice. Because many social systems disempower certain segments of the population, advocacy helps affected individuals and groups improve their quality of life through information and access.

Social workers can advocate from within these systems. They have the opportunity to effect change on a structural level and change current systems of inequality. That is why many choose to pursue a career in this dynamic field. The online social work degree from Brescia University is designed to provide a comprehensive education in both the theory and practice of social work. It is the ideal foundation for entry-level human services positions, as well as future graduate study and licensure in social work. You can learn more about BUOnline’s social work program here.