Quiet Social Workers Voice Big Concerns

May 20, 2003

Mary Ann Travis

The public forum needs many voices, even, and perhaps especially, those of quiet, dedicated social workers. "As social workers, there always comes a time when you have to take a stand."

That's what Diane Jacobs, assistant professor of social work, tells her students. And once you stake out a position, "You have to be prepared to stand behind your statements."

Jacobs, who has more than 20 years of experience with child protection services in Canada, is finishing up her work on a PhD in social work from Arizona State University this month. In both Canada and Arizona, Jacobs wrote newspaper columns on social work concerns. Jacobs said she "fell into" writing for the public when an editor of a community newspaper in Montreal asked her to write for his paper. She got so much response that she eventually began to write for the mainstream Montreal Gazette.

In Arizona, Jacobs wrote for the Arizona Republic. "I found an avenue for myself, a voice to express my views on social issues," said Jacobs. Curious about why the bylines of more social workers don't appear in newspapers Jacobs surveyed editors from several U.S. newspapers. The editors replied that while social workers do write and have "unique" voices that need to be heard, their writing tends to contain too much "social-workese."

This spring Jacobs is co-teaching the course Theory of Human Behavior and Social Environment that examines issues that affect the clients of social work. Rather than give students another test on theory, Jacobs devised an assignment that draws on her freelance journalism background and fosters the students' skill-development for advocacy.

The assignment: Write a letter on a social issue to The Times- Picayune. Jacobs' caveat: "Take an issue you feel comfortable with--and you must sign your name." Among the letters, which were mostly published in March, was one by Leyton Orillion decrying the New Orleans Police Department destroying evidence from criminal investigations.

Angela Cruz expressed dismay about the proposed state budget that drastically reduces funding for health care. Stephanie J. Clements asserted the importance of rape victims' right to know about the option of emergency contraception. Maurya Glaude lamented an apparent conspiracy of silence by neighbors who probably knew perpetrators involved in a local murder. Dana Savoy complained about police not being helpful when she became lost after a Mardi Gras parade.

Others wrote about the absurdity of politicians' proposals to change French fries to "freedom" fries, the validity of the Sept. 11 monument at the World Trade Center site and the need for the community and parents to get involved in public schools.

"I see the media as one means of advocacy," said Jacobs. What she realizes after years of writing for the public is that the media has "a power much beyond the one-on-one we do as social workers." And even though her students resisted the assignment at first, once their letters were published, they were pleased. Jacobs said, "It's a tremendous boost for them. It's a very empowering thing."

Mary Ann Travis can be reached at

Tulane University, New Orleans, LA 70118 504-865-5000