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Social Work Leadership in Health: A Q&A with Ellie Zambrano

Tuesday, March 29, 2022

Historically, social workers are change leaders. They have been at the forefront of critical moments in U.S. history, advocating for civil rights, minimum wage and safe workplaces, women’s reproductive rights, immigrants, and LBGTQ communities. Because of this experience and exposure, social workers are uniquely qualified to understand the social complexities that influence health and how those factors impact peoples’ everyday lives. Most recently, we are seeing an integration of social work and behavioral health within medical care settings, with policy and funding to back it up. How do we build on this interdisciplinary momentum to create systemic change in healthcare that supports the whole person? The answer is social work leadership.

CISWH Executive Director Eleanor Zambrano paints a picture of social work leadership and explains how CISWH supports social workers who are looking to become leaders in the field.

What is a social work leader?

Social work leaders are the community engagement experts–the community organizers, activists, and advocates. They are systems thinkers. Social work leaders understand that change has an ecological impact. That’s why it’s always so important to think about a whole person, because if their socio-economic situation or status is inequitable, there are direct correlations to how it impacts their health.

What role do social workers play in community health settings? What does that landscape look like currently and how is it evolving?

Social workers really value the importance of direct practice, clinical practice, or interactions with communities. I think that informs a lot of social work leadership and there is an opportunity here to utilize practice experience to drive health policy. That’s why interdisciplinary work is so important. We need to have a cross-sector of professionals at the table when we’re making or changing policy.

Social workers’ direct experience, expertise, and practice within community health settings; their understanding of community engagement; are all invaluable when it comes to community change. They have the ability to amplify the voice of a community and to understand what is needed in terms of how healthcare systems plan for care.

Additionally, we learn a lot about policy in our work. Even when a policy is really well thought out, we need to think about how we engage communities in those changes. Without that preliminary relationship-building, it makes it really difficult to create real change. Social workers have a unique ability to capture opportunities and make connections, build upon existing relationships, and create partnerships in their communities.

What does civic engagement in social work look like in practice?

We recently hosted an event where two social workers spoke about their work in civic health and it was a great illustration of what it looks like. For example, Justin Hodge is a professor at the University of Michigan. He has been serving in public office, and is also teaching in academia and training social workers. A big part of his work is focused on how do we engage social workers in the political context and help them understand how it impacts the work they’re doing.

A lot of times there is a disconnect about whether or not it is ethical for social workers to be political. There’s also the concern that we’re not going to have much impact. But the truth is, policy changes and leadership decisions impact us all the time, because it directly affects the way in which we can engage in the delivery of care–whether it’s through parity in reimbursement for care or whether it’s in how we access communities to provide innovative types of care.

How is CISWH supporting social workers to become leaders in their communities?

One of the areas that we’re focused on is the representation of social work in healthcare. We are developing research and data that supports the need for social work in healthcare settings. The impact is pretty significant when you talk to healthcare providers, because these are issues that really impact the future of care. For example, if you have patients who need care but are struggling to get to their appointment, social workers are the ones who help them access or navigate systems so they can follow through with doctor recommendations.

Another way is through our CISWH fellowship program for graduate students. Most of the CISWH fellows work closely with social work leaders including our Core directors. These provide opportunities for them to see themselves in leadership roles. And they can explore potential future career opportunities as they see what goes into developing social work strategies. We’re focused on building communities within the Center and inviting leaders and students to participate, provide feedback, and inform the work that we do.

How do we center social justice in this work?

Social workers often need to maintain a balance around racial equity and health equity in various settings. When you work for government or state programming, there are a lot of restrictions in terms of disclosure and how you interact with these types of political systems. But there are also many non-partisan ways in which you can advocate for people to ensure everyone has what they need to thrive.

Social workers are focused on this – making sure everyone has what they need in order to be their healthiest–and that is a social justice issue. We know that our society is unhealthy in many ways. . So we ask, do our clients have access to what they need? Do they have opportunities to thrive? These are the questions that we really need to focus on.


Learn more about CISWH’s work.