Helping individuals change is difficult enough; changing a community is vastly more complex, requiring the coordination of many different dynamic systems, the support of community members, and community social workers who guide the efforts.
Social work must extend beyond the individual and reach more people with its promise of increased well-being and quality of life. Community social workers envision whole neighborhoods that provide more than just equitable services. They envision communities that are safe and affordable with family atmospheres, having gardens and parks that lift residents’ spirits, and are representative of their cultural diversity.
Community social workers are appropriately concerned with the well-being of residents who live in marginalized areas. Resolving issues – inadequate police and fire protection, poor childcare, unresponsive landlords, substandard schools – on a macro level rather than the individual level significantly affects the largest number of people.
Why is Community Social Work Important?
Social work at the community level is important because neighborhoods that are neglected and rundown, rife with crime and social disorder, destroy the quality of life. Fear and isolation add stress to residents’ lives, leaving them feeling defeated, hopeless, and victimized, often suffering from mental illnesses and addictions. Even motivated individuals lose heart when their friends and families continue to struggle.
Communities are complex, dynamic entities each with their own natures, owing to the diversity of their populations, their economies, their infrastructures, and the educational opportunities they offer their residents. And while the communities are often financially constrained, they are typically populated with talented people and organizations that are willing to assist community social workers, supplying ideas and energy to benefit the collective action.
A community might have many serious problems but because communities are complex, multifaceted dynamic systems, it’s difficult to move forward on every issue. Social workers need to limit their focus to areas where they see the greatest need and where they feel they can be most effective.
What do Community Social Workers Do?
In order to bring change to a community, social workers must develop a community plan. This plan assesses the needs, the community’s social capital, and its capacity for success. The plan is built on information gathered both from available data as well as in-depth conversations with residents.
The Gauges of Community Health Fall into Following Four Categories:
- Health issues such as birthweight, immunizations, prenatal care, and senior care.
- Economic concerns about poverty, the number of free or reduced-price lunches, local unemployment rates, local job availability, housing mobility rates.
- School success measurements such as dropout rates, academic standings, and student mobility rates.
- Family concerns such as Head Start and preschool participation rates, children with special needs, and percentages of adolescent parents.
Although most communities have a collection of serious issues, it is common for community social workers to approach communities through the arts, cultural displays and activities, recreational facilities, gardens – any project that will bring community members together. This initial sense of community ignites residents’ interests and helps encourage their participation in future projects.
Community social workers’ goals are to create strong, healthy communities. To do this, they must first perform an initial community assessment or scan to identify community needs. A community scan gives social workers a real sense of the issues. Understanding the daily problems residents face will help set developmental priorities.
The bottom-line focus of community development is the family unit. Social workers need to determine what it will take to resolve issues that lead to stronger, more stable families. Those certainly revolve around neighborhood safety, reliable income, and services such as childcare, medical care, and easy transportation, but they also must include recreational elements and activities that are culturally affirming. The community plan must be one that embraces and capitalizes on every positive aspect of the people and culture it aims to assist.
Communities are relational. Religious groups, political organizations, ethnicities, economic levels, age groups, among many other sub-populations, often exert considerable control in communities. They define what is known as social capital, and understanding how they interact and the influence they have in the larger municipality is crucial to the success of the community project.
In-depth interviewing of residents broadens the picture, giving social workers an understanding of the interpersonal dynamics that exist in the neighborhood. Community social workers build on these relationships to ignite a community mission. Ultimately, as citizens embrace new visions, it is them – not the social worker – who make the changes.
Having a grasp of a community’s needs, strengths, and potential is integral to understanding its capacity to grow. By locating specific resources, such as local companies that are willing to invest in civic improvements, or skilled individuals who can direct civic projects, community social workers can begin to offset weaknesses.
Identifying the strengths in communities often charts a more direct path to growth. A strong cultural identity or a grouping of artisans or small businesses could be the value base for economic or cultural development. Residents with farming backgrounds often lead community gardens. These small kernels encourage additional enterprise, helping a community to fully actualize.
The cohesive interaction, integration, and coordination of the existing and newly formed institutions and groups provide the energy for change. It is through this synergism that new community action flourishes.
What do Community Social Workers Need to Know?
Developing Social Capital
Community social workers need a broad understanding of many different disciplines. Their knowledge of people – how to interview, organize, and inspire – is certainly paramount. Developing teams, mentoring young community leaders, and training residents to follow through on goals and plans give community populations the skills and social resources they will use in the future.
According to the National Association of Social Workers’ (NASW) standards, cultural competence is “the process by which individuals and systems respond respectfully and effectively to people of all cultures, languages, classes, races, ethnic backgrounds, religions, and other diversity factors in a manner that recognizes, affirms, and values the worth of individuals, families, and communities and protects and preserves the dignity of each.”
Community social workers must have an acute understanding of cultures. Most communities are sensitive to tokenism and condescension, and deserve to be guided through any civic project in a culturally affirming method. Not one but all community cultures must be included in the development plans, because all projects must reflect the ideas of those who live there. The process of cross-cultural community development engenders new skills among those working on the projects, and helps insure that cross-cultural leadership becomes a permanent part of the process.
A strong understanding of local economies provides community social workers with the ability to identify and interact with the business community. Having a grasp of business priorities, investment principles, and especially entrepreneurial skills enables them to improve job opportunities and develop economic incentives areas.
Society and Social Systems
Foundational to social work is a comprehensive understanding of the social dynamics of individuals as well as an appreciation for the complex structures and interactions of towns and communities. Each community project needs a system of governance – a process of solving problems and meeting the needs of the population. Over the course of a developmental project, community social workers help train individuals as new leaders with new skills and perspectives.
The development of communities depends on people – on the social workers who help guide the visions and the residents who provide the energy to complete the projects. It is the interconnections, the integration, and the coordination of individuals, groups, churches, and organizations that define the ways communities operate. The purpose of a community, then, is to become knowledgeable enough to function as a unit – to self-direct and self-govern – in solving both current and future problems. Community social workers’ greatest contributions are to nourish this process and to help make it a deliberate part of future development.
Learning to be a Community Social Worker
To be a community social worker, its advisable to have a master’s degrees in social work, (MSW) In fact, the vast majority of working social workers have their master’s degrees according to a recent (2010) survey taken by the National Association of Social Workers (NASW).
Because the social service industry is expecting such high growth for the next few years, those candidates with bachelor’s degrees will likely find work in entry-level positions.
Entry-level positions will be available to those without degrees, often with the possibility of employer- provided training. A dedicated student should find an entry-level or volunteer position to build a track record for both college entrance and future job prospects.
All states have regulations for community social workers. Most require applicants to have at least two years of supervised field training in order to become state certified. Some states require applicants to score well on state certification exams.
Contact schools offering social work programs to learn more about the process of becoming a community social worker in your area.
Community Social Workers’ Salaries
The U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics reports that community social work opportunities will grow much faster than national growth because of the projected growth among social service workers. The BLS reports the mean annual income for a community social worker as $41,250 (data gathered in 2011).