While many social workers resolve individual problems, some social workers look at the bigger picture. Community social work focuses on issues that effect larger groups of people. These problems are often complex, and occasionally, politically difficult, but community social work is a process that enables neighborhood members to revitalize their own communities.
Individuals are often limited by difficult circumstances – a dangerous but affordable neighborhood, a lack of reliable childcare, a lack of transportation, or a decaying physical environment that is harsh and bleak. These are issues that detract from clients’ sense of well-being and quality of life – the very essence of what community social workers are committed to resolving.
What is Community Social Work?
Community social work is a strategic process of building power for the purpose of making social change. It aims to create communities that nurture their members with equitable support services, sustainable economic infrastructures, cultural and artistic expression, parks and recreation areas, and educational opportunities. But because communities are complex, dynamic entities, it’s often difficult to get all of these systems moving forward at the same time.
Community social work endeavors to do just that. By identify needs, creating a community growth plan, and working with citizens, community social work improves their quality of life.
What do Community Social Workers Do?
Community social workers’ goals are to create strong, healthy communities. Initially, social workers analyze community dynamics, observing not only the way the community looks, but also, its attitudes, the interactions of its members and organizations, and its relationships with municipalities.
Community development. Social workers identify community needs and concerns. Solving problems such as inadequate city services, poor family environments, a lack of jobs and economic opportunity, crime, and racially-motivated bias, requires systemic change. To achieve this change, community social workers must have extensive knowledge in the process of organizing people, understanding human and community dynamics, setting goals, and creating workable community plans.
Community organizing. Each community has its own character and its own needs. After determining a plan for solving those problems, community social workers, must motivate community members to take responsibility for their own personal and communal well-being.
This attitudinal shift in clients’ thinking requires community social workers to rally the many neighborhood factions. Individuals from churches, businesses, schools, and government must come together, collaborate on ideas, and cooperate on their execution.
Human services management. Human services is a generic term describing the hands-on aspect of social work. Locating and arranging resources for clients, helping them to manage appointments, showing them how to file paperwork and subscribe to social programs, are all services that help clients become more self-sufficient.
On a community level, human services management widens its scope to address under-utilization of community resources. Community social workers counsel local leaders on social dynamics and organizational structures as they explore options and resources necessary to keep the community moving forward.
Activism. Some community issues are the result of unjust power structures and call for different kinds of action. Although some definitions of community social work include civil disobedience, most social workers feel that activism without a coherent plan is not community social work because it doesn’t directly benefit the community. In most cases, it’s easier and more productive to solve problems with more conciliatory methods.
The exception might be a form of direct action – a demonstration that calls attention to an inequitable situation that is the responsibility of city or state government, such as a neighborhood manufacturing plant that is in violation of toxic waste disposal regulations.
The Elements of Rebuilding a Community
Within the umbrella of community development, there are many different systems that need re-conceptualizing in order to help the community reach its goals of improvement.
Economic development. Developing a stronger economic system will provide jobs, tax revenue, and a better environment. A good example is an economic plan that capitalizes on the large number of artists in the neighborhood, creating investment opportunities for a series of art galleries and craft shops.
Community leaders, counseled by community social workers, might approach their city for economic support in the form of grants or low-interest loans, to revitalize their downtown area.
Capacity building. A community’s capacity is its ability to identify its needs, its inherent strengths, its potential, and the reasons why it has been unable to harness those in the past. This vital sequence of information informs the community plan and allows community social workers to locate specific resources and individuals skilled in needed areas. Increasing a community’s potential by finding ways of resolving weaknesses brings greater confidence to the development process.
Social capital. Social capital must be cultivated in order for communities to gain the support of municipalities and surrounding neighbors. The force behind community development lies in the interpersonal relationships that are forged to increase confidence, productivity, and understanding. The benefits of these social networks are cooperation, preference in business dealings, and access to greater opportunities.
Building communities where social justice, equality, and mutual respect are hinge pins in the relationship with larger municipal and political powers, changes the relationship between ordinary people and those in important city positions. This aspect of social capital empowers communities that have in the past been overlooked.
The result of community social work is often a simple project like a neighborhood garden, but just as often, it’s a revitalized town center with businesses, cultural centers and a new civic energy. The size of the project rarely matters as much as the involvement of individuals and the reverberation of the project on the surrounding community members.
Community social work teaches communities the way to open doors and build a future for themselves. By helping them understand the way bureaucratic systems work; by showing them how to write grant applications, and speak persuasively to community members and civic leaders, community social work puts the ability to create change in the hands of communities and their leaders.
As in other social work, the most desirable candidates have their master’s degrees in social work (MSW). In a recent survey, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) found that well over 70% of working social workers have their master’s degrees. (Contact schools offering social work programs to learn more).
Those with bachelor degrees can find work in entry-level positions, especially since the social service industry is expecting high growth over the next few years.
All states have regulations for community social workers that 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.
Learn more about the specifics of gaining your social work license here.
Community Social Workers’ Salaries
The U.S. Bureau of Labor statistics reports that employment in community and social work services field is projected grow at 10 percent during the decade of 2014-24. It also reports a median annual salary of $41,290 in May 2014 which is higher than the national average of $35,540 for all careers.