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Continuing the Conversation with CISWH Director Tami Gouveia: Shaping the Future of Social Work in Health and Public Health

Tuesday, February 06, 2024

In October, Dr. Tami Gouveia, Center for Innovation in Social Work and Health (CISWH) director, in collaboration with Boston University School of Social Work (BUSSW) dean Barbara Jones, explored the pivotal role that CISWH and BUSSW play in elevating the influence of social workers in health and public health.

Following the event, CISWH reconnected with Dr. Gouveia to hear her responses to unanswered questions from the audience. 


What can we do to preserve what little we have, while also addressing the elimination of social programs? 

I often reflect on the significant impact of money in politics, a foundational issue that heavily influences the individuals elected into office. The transparency around PAC (Political Action Committee) donors is limited, and these committees often attempt to sway voters. While it may seem unconventional, understanding the role of money in politics is critical because those who are elected determine our investments. They decide whether we prioritize school lunches, affordable housing, and a reliable transportation system. Social workers play a critical role in electing legislators who will listen to the needs of our residents and who will prioritize our patients’ and clients’ health and well-being. Social workers are out there every day advocating for programs that support the well-being of our clients. We need legislative leaders who are partners with us and who are not beholden to special interests influenced by dark money donors. 


Can you speak to your experience as a social worker in the state government? How can fellow social workers navigate advocacy through the state legislature?

Social workers who run for elected office or who serve in appointed offices have a unique opportunity to leverage the skill set that we have. Our values and our code of ethics are so fundamental to health and well-being. When I was in elected office, I came across social workers who were advocating for all kinds of issues. I interacted with social workers who were fighting for reproductive justice and access to abortion as health care. That’s just one example of how social workers show up in pushing elected officials toward health equity. I’m always encouraging social workers to run for office. Social workers make the best policy makers because they understand the issues that people are dealing with, they have the research and clinical skills, and they have the ability to connect people to community-based care and resources.


How do we continue to invest in and develop the field of social work to ensure we have a voice in health and public health? 

Social workers are often the glue that’s holding a lot of teams, particularly clinical care teams, together. We’re also major advocates of public health. However, we often get overlooked. It’s on us to produce the research that demonstrates the value of social work leadership and social workers in health and public health. It’s also about making sure that we’re investing in ongoing education and workforce development so that social workers who might want to tap into a career in health care or public health have the skills and the background necessary to thrive in those fields. The reality is that every single person in our country will need a social worker at some point in their lives. It’s really important that we do the work to make sure that the general public, our policymakers, and larger institutions really see the value of social workers as part of their teams.


What are your thoughts on the maternal health care crisis in the Black community? 

Not only are Black communities impacted severely by the lack of access to affordable healthcare, but also by racism that continues to pervade healthcare institutions. This includes the ways healthcare providers interact with Black families and Black pregnant people, and the ways that our financing system makes it so incredibly difficult for people to access the information and care that they need and deserve for healthy and safe pregnancy, delivery, and follow-up care. I am really excited about the programs and projects at CISWH that have been ongoing, including the Black Women First Initiative led by Dr. Linda Sprague Martinez. This is a crisis that has persisted for several centuries, and it’s time that we make the investments needed to support Black parents, moms, babies, and families so that everybody has the opportunity to thrive. 


How are CISWH and BUSSW actively working to diversify the social work profession? 

We need to tackle the issues facing the social work workforce and profession from multiple angles. First, we know we don’t have enough social workers to respond to the mental health crisis we are in. Second, we know that we are not always effectively meeting the needs of our diverse population because we don’t have enough social workers of color, or social workers who are multicultural and multilingual. We must work to eliminate the structural barriers that lock first-generation, low-income, disabled, LGBTQ+, multi-lingual, and folks of color out of the profession. Debt-free higher education and student loan forgiveness as well as paid practica can alleviate the financial burdens many students face. Many social work students have several jobs, are responsible for the care and financial needs of other family members, and have to take out hefty loans to finance their education. If we are serious as a society and as a profession about supporting the mental and physical well-being needs of our residents, then we must do more to support students who wish to pursue social work as their chosen profession.


Read more about how social workers can become leaders in health and public health.