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A Message from the Dean for Social Work Month

Empowering Social Workers

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) theme for Social Work Month this year is “Empowering Social Workers: Inspiring Action, Leading Change.” Social work empowerment theory (Gutierrez, Parsons, & Cox, 1998[1]) taught me that social work practitioners are at their best when they partner with clients and communities to overcome barriers and pursue clients’ personal and professional goals, critique and challenge inhibiting institutional structures, and work for social change. In this conceptualization, social workers were seen as the people with access to many resources, knowledge, and skills that could be leveraged with and on behalf of others, so that clients and communities can better use their own resources, knowledge, and skills to reach their identified goals. But other than emphasizing self-care, there was little focus on the need to support and empower social workers themselves.

I learned more about empowerment when I was doing my dissertation research on the implementation of an anti-poverty program in a low-income community in eastern North Carolina. In response to a question about empowerment, a local resident said to me, “You can’t empower nobody unless you give them opportunities to act powerful.” I have carried those words with me ever since, and I always strive to infuse that ethos into my practice. In my role as Dean of the College of Social Work, I routinely reflect on how we can make social workers more powerful.

We know that social workers face many challenges: high stress jobs, student loan debt, institutional barriers to advancement, lack of public recognition and respect as professionals, and insufficient pay and reimbursement rates. In fact, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that Tennessee social workers average between $42,000 – $54,460, which is shockingly low, given that most social workers have master’s degrees. Social workers who are part of marginalized populations face even higher barriers rooted in individual bias and institutional discrimination.

Our college has taken many steps to empower social workers financially, including:

  • Increasing our minimum scholarship amount.
  • Creating even more scholarships for students across all programs.
  • Working with placement agencies to increase the number of paid and employment-based field placements from 16% in 2022 to 31% in 2023 to reduce the need for relying on other income sources.
  • Bringing in coaches to better prepare students for the job market, with specialized trainings related to interviewing and salary negotiation.
  • Offering low-cost continuing education opportunities to social workers online and around the state, including at our annual (free) eVOLve conference.
  • Providing discounted materials to support students and alumni in preparing for their licensure exams, even subsidizing free materials when a graduate has not passed the exam on their first attempt. (Contact Margaret McMillan at for more information on exam prep.)

The College is also empowering our social work students and alumni in other ways. The College has created numerous opportunities for students to be powerful, such as: including student and alumni as members of our advisory groups; supporting the creation of the Coalition for Black Social Workers and the Rainbow Coalition student organizations; sending students to regional and national conferences, trainings, and field trips to educational settings; and funding Social Justice Innovation Initiative grants that support partnerships with community organizations to support social justice goals.

You can join NASW and the College in empowering social workers in numerous ways:

  • Fight for higher wages and reimbursement rates for social workers.
  • Support student loan debt relief for social workers.
  • Get involved in voter registration, canvas for politicians who support social work values, engage in political advocacy, and/or run for office yourself!
  • Claim your identity and your expertise as a social worker in professional and personal spaces.
  • Build bridges and find shared political and professional interests with social workers of different races, ethnicities, sexual orientations, gender identities and expressions, physical and mental abilities, citizenship statuses, and other identity differences.
  • Disrupt racism, sexism, heterosexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, ageism, and other forms of discrimination and bias that hold back social workers, our clients, and our communities.
  • Seek out opportunities for leadership, to speak out, to be powerful, and to work for change.

Together, we can empower one another and make a difference for social workers and all those who benefit from our work.

[1] Gutierrez, LM., Parsons, RJ., & Cox, EO. (1998) Empowerment in Social Work Practice. A Sourcebook. Pacific Grove, CA: Brooks/Cole Publishing Co.