Defining Social Justice

Working toward social justice is a core ethical requirement of all social workers. The Social Work Code of Ethics preamble states, “Social workers promote social justice and social change with and on behalf of clients……. Social workers are sensitive to cultural and ethnic diversity and strive to end discrimination, oppression, poverty, and other forms of social injustice.”

Working toward greater social justice is one of the six core values of social work as outlined in the Code of Ethics. In the ethical principles section of the Code, social justice is defined. As one of the six core values of social work, the Code defines social justice in this way:

“Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social workers’ social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. These activities seek to promote sensitivity to and knowledge about oppression and cultural and ethnic diversity. Social workers strive to ensure access to needed information, services, and resources; equality of opportunity; and meaningful participation in decision making for all people.”

Social work is not the same thing as social justice; rather it’s something social workers strive to achieve alongside their clients and colleagues. Social justice may also be pursued by those who are not social workers including citizens, community organizers, nonprofit organizations, elected officials, and activists. Social work recognizes the numerous social injustices that persist in society and require professional social workers to be aware of these injustices and work toward change.

Fighting for Social Justice through Policy Practice

As noted in the NASW Code of Ethics, social workers are expected to work with and on behalf of their clients. Schools of social work prepare the social worker to work toward social justice through policy practice and policy advocacy. Policy practice entails empowering clients to advocate for change on behalf of themselves and their communities. Policy advocacy means advocating for change on behalf of vulnerable groups.

Hoefer (2019) describes the “unified model of policy practice” as a clinical approach that combines generalist practice with policy practice. In this unified model, the therapist asks clients to become social change agents. They are encouraged to advocate first or themselves to address challenges or injustices they are facing in their lives and then to try to make broader changes that will affect the entire community. The clients are empowered while the clinicians also address clinical issues through generalist practice.

The following is an example of how the unified model of policy practice might work. a client comes to see a social worker working in a therapeutic or government setting and complains (among other concerns that may be clinical or also policy oriented) that her landlord is not responding to requests for repairs to be made to her apartment. The social worker works with the client on clinical problems such as depression or anxiety  (in a clinical setting) while also empowering her to advocate on behalf of herself and her family. Instead of calling a government agency to make a complaint about the landlord on behalf of the client, a social worker will encourage the clients to make the call herself.

The social worker then encourages her client, and perhaps works with her, to advocate for a new law in her town or city that would require landlords to respond to repair requests within a given time frame. By empowering clients to become their own advocates, social workers help clients create positive change in their own lives and in the community. The social workers build the client’s sense of agency to change her own circumstances, which in itself can also help alleviate depression and anxiety.

Fighting for Social Justice through Policy Advocacy

Policy advocacy is slightly different. It involves working for social justice via policy change on behalf of vulnerable populations. A social worker may join a coalition or work with community members, or she might be more of an individual activist. All social workers are expected to work toward achieving greater social justice as policy advocates no matter what setting or capacity they work in.

Social workers may go about their advocacy work by lobbying elected officials, working within their own agencies to make change, or by building coalitions around particular issues in the community. Social workers empower communities to advocate for change and they also do some of the work themselves. Social workers learn how to become policy advocates as students. They learn that they can get involved in a wide variety of advocacy activities including organizing meetings, educating the public, writing letters to the editor, creating petitions, or engaging key stakeholders.

Recognizing Social Injustice

Social workers should fight for greater social justice in several key areas. They should recognize when certain communities are being marginalized or disenfranchised and fight for greater power and influence for these communities. They should always combat racism and oppression, gender inequality, and discrimination wherever they see it. These are vital issues of social justice.

Fighting for social justice also involves advocating for a more just economy. Economic injustice may come in the form of low wages, job discrimination, a lack of job training opportunities, or high unemployment in certain communities. Social workers can fight for greater economic social justice by advocating for policies that reduce poverty or increase employment and training opportunities in communities.

Unfortunately, social injustice is prevalent throughout society and occurs not only in urban areas but rural and suburban ones as well. Social injustice also occurs in organizations and in social institutions and systems such as the education system, criminal justice system, or in healthcare. Social workers are expected to be able to identify many different types of social injustice.

Social workers should have the tools they need to understand power dynamics, which stakeholders need to be engaged, and how to advocate for policies or programs that can reduce social injustice. Fighting for social justice should be central to the work of all social workers across settings, including in counseling agencies and offices, schools of social work, human service agencies, public schools, and community organizations and nonprofits.

Stephanie Bosco-Ruggiero

B.A. Political Science| Vassar College

M.A. Urban Affairs | University of Delaware

Social Policy | Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service Doctoral Program

January 2020

More Articles of Interest: