Speech given at the
University of Pittsburgh
School of Social Work Speakers’ Series
November 10, 2010

A modified version of this speech was published in
Journal of Progressive Human Services, 23:1–15, 2012
To link to the article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/10428232.2012.666723

Dorothy Van Soest, Ph.D., MSW
Professor and Dean Emeritus
University of Washington
School of Social Work
Seattle, Washington 98105


I am honored to be part of your Speakers’ Series this year to talk about confronting our fears and finding hope in these difficult times. As I wrote my speech, I worried that maybe starting with fears about the problems we face might be too pessimistic. On the other hand, talking about hope and social work as a force for social justice is pretty optimistic. But then optimism that isn’t realistic is nothing but polyannish naivety. And so, as I prepared for today, I went back and forth between pessimism and optimism, between seeing the glass as half empty, then seeing it as half full. I started to feel like both of the two friends in one of my favorite jokes.

The two friends, one an Optimist and the other a Pessimist, could never quite agree on any topic of discussion. One day the Optimist decided he had found a good way to pull his friend out of his continual Pessimistic thinking.

The Optimist owned a hunting dog that could walk on water. His plan? Take the Pessimist and the dog out duck hunting in a boat. They got out into the middle of the lake, and the Optimist brought down a duck. The dog immediately walked out across the water, retrieved the duck, and walked back to the boat.

The Optimist looked at his Pessimistic friend and said, “What do you think about that?”

The Pessimist replied, “That dog can’t swim, can he?”

I have organized my speech into three parts. The first part is blatantly pessimistic. It is about three gruesome realities of today’s world. My intent is not to create more pessimism but to acknowledge and confront our fears as the first essential step toward solving problems. The second part is unabashedly optimistic. It’s about how we can find and revive hope in order to be an effective force for social justice.
Winston Churchill once said that a pessimist sees the difficulty in every opportunity and an optimist sees the opportunity in every difficulty. The third part of my talk includes ten suggestions about how we as social workers can employ our pessimism to confront our fears and activate our optimism to sustain us, even in tough times like these.


Without arguing about the relative badness of the times in which we now live compared with difficult times in the past, the reality is that we live in a time of considerable uncertainty and risk. In the first part of my presentation, I will highlight three interconnected points of distress: 1) our economy, 2) the violence of war, and 3) threats to our democracy.

An Economy Characterized by a Centralization of Wealth and Power

We are all painfully aware that we are living through the worst economic slump since the Great Depression. While the crisis touches every American’s life and reverberates around the world something else is going on. Something that seems to be consistently underestimated as a problem. It is this. While most everyone’s share of our nation’s income has been declining, a very small number of people have been receiving an ever-larger share that has created an astounding and growing centralization of power and wealth that is tearing at the social fabric of our society (Reich, 3020, p.15).

Consider the numbers: the top 1% now pockets about 23% of all income (Leonard, 2010, p. 13).  Not incidentally, the last time the top one percent took home such a disproportionate share of the national income was 1928 (Reich, 2008). The richest 20% now owns 84% of the wealth (Sirota, November 1, 2010).  While the average wage for the top earners in 2009 was $84 million each, one in every 34 people who were wage earners in 2008 failed to earn a single dollar in 2009 (Donmoyer, 2010) and 43.6 million Americans were living in poverty, a 51-year high.

What for White Americans has been a Great Recession amounted to a virtual depression for a substantial number of African Americans whose unemployment rates stood at 15% in May of this year compared with the overall national rate of 9.7% (Patterson, 2010, p. 18-20).

Marian Wright Edelman (2004), founder and head of the Children’s Defense Fund, has poignantly documented the incredible disparities of wealth. “Something is awry,” she wrote, “when the income of a single health insurance executive is more than that of the combined income of over 9 million families [globally]” (p. 38).

Something is indeed awry when a worker making $10 an hour would have to labor for 10,000 years to earn what one of the richest 400 Americans pocketed in 2005 (Cavanaugh & Collins, 2008, p.11).

Something is awry when sloppy, greedy mortgage lenders inflate the housing bubble and when it finally bursts apply their same avaricious instincts to home foreclosures with potentially disastrous results for consumers. When the gutting of the American dream of homeownership disproportionately devastates minorities and the subprime fiasco ripples “through communities of color like miniature Hurricane Katrinas” (Muhammad, 2008, p. 26). The loss of wealth for people of color in the housing crisis could potentially reach $213 billion—a razing of wealth and opportunities for African Americans and Latinos for generations to come (The Nation, 2008, p. 3).

Something is awry when no one regulates or even monitors the Wall Street gamblers on steroids with all their tricks and traps. When Wall Street paid their people a near record $145 billion in 2009 while America was mired in the worst recession since the 1930’s and one out of six Americans couldn’t find a full time job (Madrick, 2010, p. 21-21).

Something is awry when corporate executives took home millions while betting on risky mortgage-backed investments that ultimately brought our financial system to its knees. As Professor Abramovitz (2008) from Hunter College so eloquently wrote, “[and then] the high-rolling gamblers and critics of big government [took] welfare . . .  many of the same people who thought it was just fine to deprive millions of women of critical resources . . . and punished them for their lack of personal responsibility by slashing welfare benefits and food stamps . . . many of the same people who, with remarkable consistency would do for health care [and social security] what deregulation did for banking, a proposition that should terrify us all” (p. 1).

Take a deep breath with me a minute. There’s one more thing to be said about economic inequality and that is that the people at the top pay less in taxes compared to everyone else. The effective federal income tax rate for the 400 taxpayers with the very highest incomes declined by nearly half in just over a decade even as their pretax incomes grew five times larger (Dionne Jr., 2010, A12).  Some of the same people who say we have to make deep cuts in public services and not do any more to help the ailing economy seem eager to cut checks averaging $3 million each to the richest 120,000 people in the country by making all of Bush’s tax cuts, not just those for the middle class, permanent. That would cost the federal government $680 billion in revenue over the next ten years, nearly all of which would go to the richest 1% of Americans; the majority of it to the richest one-tenth of one percent. Economist Paul Krugman (2010) is right to ask: “when Congress won’t take action to revive the economy, pleads poverty when it comes to protecting the jobs of school teachers and firefighters, will it declare that cost is no object when it comes to sparing the already wealthy even the slightest financial inconvenience? If it does, it will be hard not to lose faith in America’s future” (p. A15).

We didn’t get to this situation of such incredible economic inequality overnight. Structural changes in the economy have bestowed fabulous wealth on a tiny sliver at the top while undermining the living standards of the middle class and absolutely crushing the poor. It took decades of increasing privatization and deregulation, shredding of the safety net, demonizing of unions, eliminating employment training and job programs, skyrocketing higher education costs, and deterioration of the national infrastructure. Not that there wasn’t plenty of growth at the same time. There was. But the economic benefits went overwhelmingly and unfairly to those already at the top (Herbert, 2010, A16).

Yet while they cry out for solutions to our economic problems, many Americans grossly underestimate how much inequality our economy produces (Sirota, November 1, 2010). Maybe that’s why we don’t hear much about how such injustice is tearing at the social fabric of our country but instead, we hear that unemployment benefits shouldn’t be extended because the jobless are spoiled and that there are plenty of jobs for those who are willing to work, as if the unemployed are merely more welfare queens; that government is too big and we need more of the wonders of the unregulated free market that got us into this mess in the first place; that we have to cut Medicare and Medicaid and social security [even though it has accumulated a massive surplus that will cover all benefits until the 2040’s, and even though social security did nothing to cause the deficit or the economic meltdown and even though cutting it won’t help the deficit (Greider, 2010)].

And so it goes. What we need to do is risk the wrath of those with wealth and power and stop the redistribution of wealth upward instead of whacking the average wage earner, the middle class, the poor, the old folks. As Robert Reich, in his new book Aftershock (2010), explains, we came to this great recession because we did not learn the larger lesson of the 1930’s: that when the distribution of income gets too far out of whack, the economy needs to be reorganized so the broad middle class has enough buying power to rejuvenate the economy over the long term (Herbert, 2010, A16).

Endemic Cycle of Violence

A second area of distress, an endemic cycle of violence, is connected to the economy. The response to the horrible events of 9/11 has resulted in a violent cycle of death and reprisal that continues today. The cycle started when 9/11 was used as a reason to go to war with Iraq.

So far a total of 150,000 Iraqi deaths have been documented since the invasion began, 80% of them civilians. The 400,000 recently revealed Pentagon documents relating to the U.S. invasion and occupation expose, in excruciating detail, what many of us feared: that Iraq became a bloodbath of unnecessary killings, civilian slaughter, rape, torture and people being beaten to death (Goodman, October 29, 2010).

So far some 5,000 U.S. troops have been killed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with the burden of sacrifice, like our economy, falling unevenly across the spectrum of American society. When America goes to war (Kriner & Shen, 2010 The Causes and Consequences of American Wartime Inequalities), it is the poorer and less educated who more often die in combat. This gap is by no means a recent development. All U.S. wars from WWII to the present conform to the classic definition of “rich man’s war and poor man’s fight.”

Long after the guns and bombs have been silenced, the cycle of violence will continue for our soldiers. Approximately 300,000 current and former service members suffer from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder and depression and 320,000 have experienced a possible traumatic brain injury (Cockburn, 2008). Stressed out, depressed and dependent soldiers are seeking help for their mental difficulties at a rate that is overwhelming the capacity of available professionals. The suicide rate among veterans aged 20 through 24 is two to four times higher than for civilians the same age (CBS News, November 13, 2007, p. 2). While soldiers serve tour after tour in Afghanistan and Iraq, mental health professionals wage a battle to save their sanity when they come back, a battle that will cost billions long after combat ends in Baghdad and Kabul (Herbert, September 1, 2010).

The cost of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan constitutes a form of violence in itself. According to Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, it will run to more than $3 trillion (Herbert, September 1, 2010). [Note: Stiglitz recently revised this figure to $4 trillion, noting that the number of veterans seeking care from the VA system since 2001—about 600,000—far exceeds his earlier projection.] How do we get our heads around $3 trillion? If you counted one number a second—1, 2, 3, 4 and so on—it would take almost 85,000 years to get up to three trillion. If you were given $1 million a year to spend it would take you three million years to blow $3 trillion (http://www.dispatchpolitics.com/live/content/national_world/stories/2008/02/04/trillion.html?sid=101).

Three trillion dollars. And the lion’s share of that money isn’t even going to support our brave soldiers. To illustrate, consider this. While the average army private’s income is $25,942, the average income of CEO’s of the top military contractors is over $9 million with highest paid CEO—Robert Stevens of Lockheed Martin—making over $24 million (Pollin & Garrett-Peltier, 2008 and over-billing the U.S. government by military contractors is commonplace.

The costs of fighting two wars hampers our ability to solve other problems and thus the cycle of violence that was started on 9/11 circles back to our economy and the violence of poverty and inequality here at home. Domestic programs like education and healthcare for our children were deemed too expensive while we spent $4,563 per second in Iraq—that’s $12.3 million for the duration of my speech if I speak for 45 minutes (Vila, 2008). The money spent on war each day—each day—is enough to enroll an additional 58,000 children in Head Start for a year or make college affordable for 60,000 low-income students through Pell grants (Herbert, 2008).

Threatened Loss of Democracy

It is only by educating and mobilizing Americans that our problems can be solved. An informed citizenry is the bedrock of democracy. This leads me to the third source of distress: a threatened loss of democracy. A politics by bullying is systematically attempting to silence or misinform people. Fear and smear election campaigns repeat blatant lies to get people to act against their own self-interests.

The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling opened the doors for unidentified donors and corporations to flood the airwaves with misleading and dishonest ads. In effect, the rich and corporations can now determine what opinions can be heard. While unlimited campaign spending is a problem, the real threat to democracy is making meaningful discussions about candidates and policies impossible. The premise of the First Amendment is that citizens must be free to speak, not only because this is a fundamental right of human existence, but also because democracy depends on deliberations among reasonable people. In dialogue with others, our presuppositions are challenged; we revise our opinions based on alternative ideas and come to reasoned judgments different from what we would have concluded before. But corporations do not reason; they are incapable of deliberation and dialogue. Their minds cannot be changed; their presuppositions cannot be challenged; they cannot enter a town hall and engage in discussion with their fellow citizens. The point is that when the political process becomes nothing more than promoting corporate self-interest, then those with the most money win and democracy loses. As Bill Moyers recently said, money in politics is a dagger directed at the heart of democracy.

In addition to an informed citizenry, another bedrock of democracy is voting. Voting rights sounds like such a solid thing, yet it has been anything but that over the course of our nation’s history. In the not-too-distant past the right to vote was limited to people who owned land—to white people—to men. And today the U.S. is the only democracy in the world that denies people who have done time in prison the right to vote, a disproportionate number of them African Americans (Vanden Heuvel, 2008, July 21/28).

Voter suppression, a long and ugly tradition, continues to thrive through the use of an endless variety of obstacles such as outright intimidation, false notices instructing people to vote on the wrong day or at the wrong place, blocking phone lines used to arrange rides to the polls, making voter registration drives more difficult, using scare tactics to keep poor and minority folks away from the polls, requiring voters to present a photo ID, and not providing enough voting machines as happened in several states in 2008 where African American voters had to wait in line for hours while voters in white areas voted quickly and easily (Vanden Heuvel, 2008, July 21/28).

I don’t know about you, but the pessimist in me is at full alert right now. I’m way out of whack.  Like the twins in a joke that was a favorite of President Reagan.

There were two five-year-old twins who had developed extreme personalities—one was a total pessimist, the other a total optimist. Their parents became so concerned about it that they took them to a psychiatrist. 
The psychiatrist met with the pessimistic twin first. Trying to brighten his outlook, he took him to a room piled to the ceiling with brand-new toys. But instead of yelping with delight, the little boy burst into tears. “What’s the matter?” the psychiatrist asked, baffled. “Don’t you want to play with any of the toys?” “Yes,” the little boy bawled, “but if I did I’d only break them.”

Next the psychiatrist met with the optimistic twin. Trying to dampen his out look, he took him to a room piled to the ceiling with horse manure. But instead of wrinkling his nose in disgust, the optimist emitted just the yelp of delight the psychiatrist had hoped to hear from his brother, the pessimist. Then he clambered to the top of the pile, dropped to his knees, and began gleefully digging out scoop after scoop with his bare hands.

“What do you think you’re doing?” the psychiatrist asked, just as baffled by the optimist as he had been by the pessimist.

“With all this manure,” the little boy replied, beaming, “there must be a pony in here somewhere!”

Now we come to the part of my speech where we look for the pony, the hope, in all the manure I laid on you.


When faced with the kinds of threats I’ve described, we have two choices: we can determine that the world is an unjust place, or we can determine that it is a just place and decide that the folks that aren’t doing so well must somehow be responsible for their suffering. A belief that the world is just can act as a psychological distortion that encourages support of political agendas focusing on individual effort rather than structural change—like blaming the poor and the unemployed for having an insufficient work ethic. It is when we face the fact that as fragile human beings we are subject to indifferent and sometimes malevolent forces more powerful than we are, that we can find responsible ways to embrace the realities of vulnerability while working to address the impact of injustice. The point is not to assert that the world is just but to help make it so (Harris-Lacewell, 2010).

The challenge, of course, is to figure out what to do and how to believe anything we do will make any difference. The challenge is as much psychological as political. As Paul Loeb (1999) says in his book Soul of a Citizen, “Society has systematically taught us to ignore the ills we see, and leave them to others to handle. Understandably, we find it unsettling even to think about the huge crises facing us . . . We’re led to believe that if we can’t solve every one of the problems, we shouldn’t bother to become socially active at all . . . Whatever impulses toward involvement we might have, they’re dampened by a culture that demeans idealism, enshrines cynicism, and makes us feel naïve for caring about our fellow human beings or the planet we inhabit”(p. 6).

As social workers, we know this is called learned helplessness. And the antidote to helplessness is hope: defiant, resilient, persistent hope. We can find that hope by turning to history, to the stories that teach us to find common solutions by seeing the world clear-eyed and yet acting with courage to make change, to believe in spite of the evidence and then watch the evidence change (Sojourners magazine founder Jim Wallis, 2004, p. 203).

Nothing buoys the spirit and fosters hope like the knowledge that others faced equal or greater challenges in the past and continued on to bequeath us a better world (Loeb, 2004, p. 6). Yet when we turn to history, we need to see it as it really was. We need to be careful not to create myths about our heroes that make it harder for us to act. Let me give you an example (from Paul Loeb, The Impossible Will Take A Little While, 2004). The Rosa Parks story, as popularly told, is that one day she refused to move to the back of the bus and that started the civil rights movement. The story makes it sound like she acted completely on her own, that she acted kind of unconsciously because her feet were tired so she just didn’t move, and that her action led to instant change. None of this is true. Rosa Parks acted as part of a community. She had been active in the NAACP for 12 years and was the secretary for the local chapter. She went to the Highlander School Civil Rights Center the summer before her arrest where she strategized and brainstormed with people who had been active before.

Rosa Parks didn’t make a spur-of-the-moment decision and her action on that bus was very conscious. She didn’t single-handedly give birth to the civil rights efforts. She was part of an existing movement for change at a time when success was far from certain. And many people were involved—often in seemingly insignificant ways.  Their stories show us that change is the product of deliberate, incremental action. Sometimes our struggles will fail, other times they bear modest fruits, and at times they trigger a miraculous outpouring of courage and heart—as happened with Rosa Parks’ arrest and all that followed (Loeb, 2004, p. 288-292). We get hope from knowing the real stories of courage, not mythical magical courage like Superman but the courage of ordinary people who acted despite all their uncertainties and doubts.

When people are given a real opportunity to make a difference, they step forward in huge numbers. Progressive groups are connecting online in record numbers. The story of one such group, MoveOn,org, show how a small action, when combined with the small actions of many people, can turn into a roar. The day after 9/11, Eli Pariser was twenty years old and living in Boston. Fearing that vengeance would bring even greater tragedies he created a small website that included a petition to President Bush and other world leaders asking them to use “moderation and restraint” in responding to the attacks . . . rather than [using] the instruments of war, violence or destruction.” Then he emailed the petition to thirty friends. (Hayes, 2008, p. 14).

Within days his inbox was filled with thousands of emails from strangers. His server started to crash. Within two weeks, 515,000 people from 192 countries had signed the petition. Before long Eli connected with the founders of MoveOn.org where he is now campaigns director and MoveOn has become a major force for progressive change, its membership growing from a few hundred thousand to 5.2 million as of 2009 (Hayes, 2008).

The reality, nonetheless, is that change is slow. When I get discouraged, my hope is reactivated by turning to the stories of people who perservered over time and no matter what. “My Favorite August” by Gail Collins is one such story:
The story of American history I most like to tell is the one about how women got the right to vote 90 years ago this [year]. It has everything. Adventure! Suspense! Treachery! Drunken legislators!
But, first, there was a 70-year slog. Which is really the important part. We always need to remember that behind almost every great moment in history, there are heroic people doing really boring and frustrating things for a prolonged period of time.

The great suffragist and excellent counter, Carrie Chapman Catt, estimated that the struggle had involved 56 referendum campaigns directed at male voters, plus 480 campaigns to get Legislatures to submit suffrage amendments to voters, 47 campaigns to get constitutional conventions to write woman suffrage into state constitutions; 277 campaigns to get State party conventions to include woman suffrage planks, 30 campaigns to get presidential party campaigns to include woman suffrage planks in party platforms and 19 campaigns with 19 successive Congresses.

And you thought health care reform was a drawn-out battle.

The great, thundering roadblock to progress was—wait for the surprise—the U.S. Senate. All through the last part of the 19th century and into the 20th, attempts to amend the U.S. Constitution ran up against a wall of conservative Southern senators.

So the women decided to win the vote by amending every single state constitution, one by one.

There were five referenda in South Dakota alone. Susan B. Anthony spent more time there than a wheat farmer. But she never lost hope. The great day was coming, she promised: “It’s coming sooner than most people think.” I love this remark even more because she made it in 1895, [25 years before it happened].

Sometimes I fantasize about traveling back through time and telling my historical heroes and heroines how well things worked out in the end. I particularly enjoy the part where I find Vincent van Gogh and inform him that one of the unsold paintings piled up over in the corner will eventually go for $80 million. But I never imagine telling Susan B. Anthony how well American women are doing in the 21st century because her faith in her country and her cause was so strong that she wouldn’t be surprised.

The constitutional amendment  . . . finally . . . came up before the all-male House of Representatives in 1918 with the two-thirds votes needed for passage barely within reach. One congressman who had been in the hospital for six months had himself carted to the floor so he could support suffrage. Another, who had just broken his shoulder, refused to have it set for fear he’d be too late to be counted. Representative Frederick Hicks of New York had been at the bedside of his dying wife but left at her urging to support the cause. He provided the final, crucial vote, and then returned home for her funeral.

The Senate failed to follow suit. But Woodrow Wilson, a president who had the winning quality of being very vulnerable to nagging by women, pushed the amendment through the next year. The states started ratifying. Then things stalled just one state short of success.

Ninety years ago this August, all eyes turned to Tennessee, the only state yet to ratify with its Legislature still in session. The resolution sailed through the Tennessee Senate. As it moved on to the House, the most vigorous opposition came from the liquor industry, which was pretty sure that if women got the vote, they’d use it to pass Prohibition. Distillery lobbyists came to fight, bearing samples.

“Both suffrage and anti-suffrage men were reeling through the hall in an advanced state of intoxication,” Carrie Catt reported.

The women and their allies knew they had a one-vote margin of support in the House. Then  the speaker, whom they had counted on as a “yes,” changed his mind. . . .

Suddenly, Harry Burns, the youngest member of the House, a 24-year-old “no” vote from East Tennessee, got up and announced that he had received a letter from his mother telling him to “be a good boy and help Mrs. Catt.”

“I know that a mother’s advice is always the safest for a boy to follow,” Burn said, switching sides.

We celebrate Women’s Suffrage Day on August 25, which is when the amendment officially became part of the Constitution. But I like August 18, which is the day that Harry Burn jumped up in the Tennessee Legislature, waving his mom’s note from home. I told the story once in Atlanta and a woman in the audience said that when she was visiting her relatives in East Tennessee, she had gone to put a yellow rose on Harry Burns’ grave.
I got a little teary.

“Well, actually,” she added, “it was because I couldn’t find his mother.” (The New York Times, August 13, 2010; www.nytimes.com/2010/08/14/opinion/14collins.html

When we know our history, we can see how far we’ve come and how we got here. The common thread that weaves all the stories together is the story of democracy, a story that is still unfinished. We don’t know whether it will end in tragedy or in joy or somewhere in between (Loeb, 2010).  But I believe we social workers are destined to play key roles in shaping the story.


Which leads me to the third part of my talk. Let me start with three assertions. First, to work for social justice means to work for peace when peace is seen as both the absence of war and the presence of justice. Second, social workers are inherently well-suited for peace and social justice activism. Underlying our social work values, ethics and practice principles is what I call a professional peace consciousness that links peace to issues of social justice, human rights, and development—issues that are the heart and soul of social work And, third, the personal qualities and skills required to be effective social workers parallel those needed for peacemaking and community activism (Van Soest, 1997).

The idea of a peace consciousness is not new to our profession. Many of our foremothers and other active leaders for social change understood global interdependence and the interrelatedness of peace and justice. In 1915 Jane Addams demanded not only women’s right to vote but the transformation of international relations, an end to the war, and a new world order. The first woman elected to Congress in her own right was Jeanette Rankin, a social worker who voted twice against war—the first woman to serve in a President’s cabinet, Frances Perkins, was a social worker—President Roosevelt’s closest aid, Harry Hopkins, was a social worker (Nancy Amidei, Commencement Speech at University of Washington School of Social Work, June 2008)—Dorothy Height, a leader of the African American and Women’s rights movements for nearly 80 years who died this year at age 98, was a social worker. Bertha Capen Reynolds, another of our social work foremothers who was active in the peace and social justice movements who challenged social workers of her day to see that it is not only as citizens, but as an organized professional group, that we are challenged to take our place in the national and international movements of today.

In order for social work to be an effective force for change I suggest that we find ways to use our pessimism to confront our fears and our optimism to activate and sustain our hope and energy. I want to offer 10 suggestions to help us keep going, especially in the hard times when our spirits begin to flag.

Use your imagination.

Allow yourself to imagine a better world and hold on to this imagination no matter what evidence there is to the contrary. For example:
Imagine all children being provided with what they need. Imagine the U.S. investing $75 billion per year in federal funds to ensure that every child has enough to eat, access to better education, and a place to call home. Imagine that our nation can afford this. Because it can. After the quick bailout of Wall Street, there should be no doubt that the government can come up with billions of dollars to deal with a problem when it is deemed important enough. An investment of $75 billion per year would equal less than what the 2001 tax breaks alone gave to the wealthiest one-in-a-hundred Americans each year (Edelman, 2004).

Imagine the world you would like to inhabit and then believe it is possible to create such a world.

Be a critical, analytical thinker with a heart.

Don’t unquestionably ingest what you see or hear or read in the news. Think about what you are being fed and ask uncomfortable questions. Strive for enlightened perspective (Sirota, September 20, 2010). When someone uses the words social change or social justice, don’t assume they mean what we mean. Ask who is saying it and what they mean. Here’s an example: Charles and David Koch have for years spent millions of dollars to bring about “social change” to advance what they called their “radical philosophy.” Who are they? Billionaire oilmen. What social change platform are they working for? The abolition of social security, minimum wage laws, gun control, all personal and corporate income taxes, for starters. And when you hear them talk about their strategy, listen to how much it sounds like social work strategies: they talk about education and grassroots organizing and lobbying and political action (Alterman, 2010).  Think critically. Ask questions.

Know that no action is too small, that every action counts.

Taking even one small step on the journey changes one’s perspective on the landscape. Action, either practical or symbolic, overcomes the inertia and apathy connected with the absence of hope. Don’t hold yourself up to the perfect standard. You don’t have to do everything, be everything, be impossibly eloquent and confident and certain in a way that nobody is. That is a trap. It keeps us from taking action. No matter how small each individual effort might seem know that every single one of us can make a difference because it is our combined efforts that produce change. “Small acts, when multiplied by millions of people, can transform the world” (Zinn, 2004, p. 71).

Don’t let “those who have power” intimidate you (Zinn, 2004).

No matter how much power they have, they cannot prevent you from living your life, thinking independently, speaking your mind. Don’t believe the messages you may have been told that what you feel doesn’t matter—that what you believe is ridiculous—that what you envision is worthless or impossible. Follow the still small voice that whispers the truth to your heart.

Pair a deep-seated sense of social justice with pragmatism.

Don’t assume that people are either with us or against us. They are not arrayed along a simple ideological spectrum from right to left nor do they occupy any given spot consistently. Many people who are not ideologically driven, but who may hold strong opinions on various issues, make up a vast center (Hardisty & Bhargava, 2010).  Be willing to work with that center to enact reforms that are a beginning rather than an endpoint in the process of societal transformation. As American history consistently instructs us, this is pretty much the only way things change in our system. Over time, reforms like social security, medicare, the voting rights act, and, yes, health care reform can add up to a kind of revolution, one that succeeds without bloodshed or widespread destruction of order, property or necessary institutions (Alterman, August 30/September 6, 2010).

Reframe issues to effectively reach more people.

Our brains allow us to have contradictory worldviews and go back and forth between them. Many people have both conservative and progressive worldviews but on different issues. George Lakoff , in his excellent book Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know your Values and Frame the Debate (2004, Chelsea Green Publishers), calls such people “biconceptuals.” To reach the millions of biconceptuals we need to reframe the issues to match the progressive part of their worldviews. Lakoff makes the point that frames (or worldviews) trump facts every time. Don’t just negate the opposing position’s claims, he urges, but instead tune in and reframe issues according to what’s important to people.

Never give up.

Making our country and world fit for our children and grandchildren is a task for marathoners—not sprinters. Keep coming back. Remember there is no silver bullet that will unlock all our problems at once. Change is a complex and long-term struggle that requires persistence.

Know when to step back.

When we feel our red-hot rage—no matter how justified—at the trampling of our country’s values it’s time to take a breath and de-escalate, take a look at the spiraling anger of others and make the choice not to ratchet it up. The theatrics of rage can easily backfire. Righteousness, when not rooted in humility and focused on results and persuasive power, offends more than it attracts and falls victim to its own arrogance. As Cornel West (2004) says, “we need . . . the courage to be impatient with evil and patient with people” (p. 296).

Hold our leaders accountable.

Hold yourself accountable for holding our leaders accountable.  I know that some politicians at all levels are telling people that they shouldn’t even bother to ask for anything that costs money—that deficits are terrible, our economy is sinking, we’re at war, and it is just the wrong time to ask.  Don’t believe them. History proves otherwise. Consider this: the social security act of 1935 was passed in the depths of a depression—disability coverage under social security and women being included in welfare (AFDC) were both passed during the Korean conflict—federal involvement in higher education started during the Cold War when millions of dollars were tied up in competition with the Soviet Union—the Civil Rights Act, Medicaid and Medicare, the Elementary & Secondary Education Act, the WIC program, and the economic opportunity act were all passed during the Vietnam War era. Each of these laws was lobbied for and passed during a time when our government was engaged in costly foreign wars or “bad budget” years. Many of those laws took years to win but when people held their leaders accountable even during times of turmoil, they made them happen (Amidei, 2008).

Believe that, in the long run, justice will win out. Cast your lot, as Adrienne Rich (2004) wrote, “with those who age after age, perversely, with no extraordinary power, reconstitute the world” (p. 274).


In closing, let me repeat the three points that I hope you will go away with today:

Point #1:  Yes, we live in a time fraught with turmoil and facing that reality is the first step toward solving our problems.

Point #2: There is hope. Our most serious problems are our common problems and they can be solved only through our common efforts. [We are part of] a community of like-minded souls stretching across the globe and extending backward and forward in time” (Loeb, 2004, p. 3).

Point #3: Social workers can be an effective force for social justice by employing pessimism to confront their fears and activating optimism to find and sustain hope.
I want to end with a quote from my favorite historian, Howard Zinn (2004):

“An optimist isn’t necessarily a blithe, slightly sappy whistler in the dark of our time. To be hopeful in bad times is not just foolishly romantic. It is based on the fact that human history is a history not only of cruelty but also of compassion, sacrifice, courage, kindness. What we choose to emphasize in this complex history will determine our lives. If we see only the worst, it destroys our capacity to do something. If we remember those times and places—and there are so many—where people have behaved magnificently, this gives us the energy to act, and at least the possibility of sending this spinning top of a world in a different direction. And if we do act, in however small a way, we don’t have to wait for some grand utopian future. The future is an infinite succession of presents, and to live now as we think human beings should live, in defiance of all that is bad around us, is itself a marvelous victory” (p. 71-72).


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