Here is the full transcript of Anna Scheyett’s TEDx Talk: Social Workers as Super-Heroes at TEDxColumbiaSC conference.
I have a theme song, come on! I love this song! And I love this song because everybody needs a hero. And, in fact, at some point, when life throws us a big challenge, we need a super hero! Somebody who is not scared to jump into the chaos and fight the good fight with us shoulder to shoulder, right? So I’ve got good news for you today.
Because all around the world, cleverly disguised as mild mannered individuals, we have thousands of super heroes, over 600,000 of them in the US alone. We just call them social workers. Now, for some of you, when I said super hero, that might not have been the first thing that popped into your head was social worker. Maybe what popped into your head was something a little more like this, peering suspiciously at your parenting skills. Or, if not, maybe like this: Peace and love and singing Kum By YaH.
Well, I’m here to tell you social workers are neither of those things. My goal when you leave today is that the image you conjure when you hear social worker looks a little more like this. Social worker as super hero. And I want to spend the next couple of minutes talking to you about that.
Social workers are not just nice people with good hearts. Social workers are educated professionals who go through accredited university programs that are grounded in a rigorous research base. And what they learn there is part of what makes them a super hero. The two biggest things? They learn their mission, and they learn how to make change happen.
The mission of social work is to promote and support individual and community well-being, and to fight social injustice. Social workers do that because we learn how to see and understand the invisible inner connections between people, and their families, and their neighborhood, and their community, and society, and laws, and policies. And we know that when those connections tangle or break at any of those levels, problems happen.
So we learn evidence-based interventions that can help solve the problems around those tangles and breaks. And with that, we can make powerful change happen.
A second reason I like to think of social workers as super heroes is because, just like with a super hero, everyone is going to need a social worker at some point because everybody’s going to face a big challenge in their life at some point. Maybe the challenge starts early, and you’re born prematurely. Who helps your new parents find a specialist? Or figure out how to pay those huge hospital bills? Or find a car seat for a teeny tiny baby? Hospital social workers.
A little later on in life, you’re in school and maybe you’re being bullied, or you’re thinking about dropping out. Who designs and implements the anti-bullying and the drop-out prevention programs in schools? School social workers.
Later on, as you get older, maybe you face one of those grown-up problems, a divorce, or you lose your job, and you sink into a depression, maybe you even start drinking too much. Who do you turn to for counseling and therapy? Licensed, clinical social workers. Did you know that the majority of mental health services in this country are provided by social workers? It’s nearly 70%.
And, then we have those really tough end-of-life issues: your 86 year-old dad has Parkinson’s disease, but is insistent that he can live independently. Who helps you figure out if he really is safe? Or, who helps you find in-home health? Or navigate those really difficult conversations about wills, and power-of-attorney, and DNR? Geriatric social workers.
Then there’s the bigger picture. Who’s running the non-profit agency? Who’s organizing the community? Who’s fighting to make sure the laws and the policies are just and fair? Those are social work managers, organizers, and advocates. So at some point, everybody’s going to need a social worker.
The final thing that I like to think about when I think about social workers as super heroes came to me when my friend Carla gave me a mug for my birthday that had this saying on it, and at first I thought it was cute: “I’m a social worker; what’s your super power?” But then I realized, that’s exactly what social workers do.
We say, “Hi, I’m a social worker. What’s your super power?” Social workers believe in strengths and we help people find their strengths so that they can face the challenges that they’re wrestling with. My favorite social worker strength story comes from my friend, Martha, who was a social worker who lived on the coast and every year, she would take a social work intern. Well, one year she had a young woman she assigned him to a client named. I’ll call him Bob.
Bob struggled with a severe mental illness and isolated himself in his apartment and all he would do all day, obsessively, was listen to the radio. So Martha sends the student to do an assessment, the student comes back. Martha says, “So, what’d you learn?” And the student says, “I learned he is really good at listening to the radio”.
But she had a plan. She went to the local coast guard office where apparently there is somebody who has to listen to the short wave radio all day long and write down the announcements and the news in a log. And she convinced them to let Bob volunteer. Then she convinced Bob to try it: “Really Bob, they want you to listen to the radio!” Well he did.
And he listened to the radio better than anybody had ever listened to the radio. They loved him! They hired him part-time. So then Bob said, “OK, I have a little bit of money. I’m getting out of the house a little bit, I’d like to try eating out. I haven’t done that in years, but I’m scared to do it alone. Would you meet me at the local diner?”
So the student says yeah and the next day she gets there, but she gets there early, and she sits on the far side of the diner so that when Bob comes in, she hollers across the diner, “Bob, what did you hear on the radio?” Bob hollers back all the news. They do this a couple times a week, for several weeks, so every local in the diner knows that if you want to know what’s going on, you ask Bob. And Martha swears that by the end it was like that scene in Cheers when Norm walks in, and it was like “Bob!” So Bob has a job, and money, and friends, and it all happened because the social worker tapped into his super power of radio listening.