There are many different settings and environments social work students and social workers can choose to work in including rural, suburban, or urban settings. Each of these types of communities has its challenges, particular challenges come with working in an urban environment. Students and graduates should think carefully about whether working in an urban environment is right for them. In making a decision they might think about their upbringing, their interests, their familiarity and comfort with cities, and their capabilities. For example, it may be very difficult for a student who grew up in a small town to work in a large metropolitan area, or vice versa.

From nonprofit agencies to community agencies, government agencies, and private practice, social workers will find abundant opportunities in cities. Students and professionals considering working in the city should begin their job search by learning about the city they live in or have moved to. They should learn about the social work landscape in this city including what the leading human service, nonprofit, and government agencies are in the city. Also, they should gather information about where vulnerable populations live in the city, what kinds of services there are for these communities, and what the gaps in services are, if any. If they are interested in private practice they should learn about the process of getting licensed (in that state) steps for establishing a private practice including how much office space costs, which areas are under-served, and if there are any city regulations they should know about.

Five things social workers should consider before seeking a position in an urban environment include (1) Are they willing to work with ethnically and culturally diverse populations? (2) Are they able to work with people from a range of socioeconomic backgrounds? (3) Are they able to navigate the city’s social service systems? (4) Are they able to get around a large city confidently and safely? (5) Are they knowledgeable about environmental and other social policy problems the city is facing?

Work with ethnically and culturally diverse populations

Social workers working in urban areas must have cultural competence. This means they are interested in and knowledgeable about working with different ethnic and cultural groups. Cultural competence can be built up over time, but before working in a diverse urban area they develop their competence through coursework, training, reading, and talking to people who have worked with different communities in the city. Cultural competence means not only listening and learning from your clients but also having cultural humility — that is your clients (not you) are experts on their own culture.

When working with a specific cultural, immigrant, or ethnic group you must be aware of culturally adapted evidence-based interventions that you may want to use with your clients. For example, an intervention called Safety, Mentoring, Advocacy, Recovery, and Treatment (SMART) has been used to treat sexual abuse trauma in primarily African American child victims. You should not only be familiar with these culturally adapted interventions but you should also research outcomes and potential problems with their delivery. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has resources on cultural competency for clinicians.

Work with Different Socioeconomic Groups

            Social workers working in large urban areas should be prepared to work with clients from a wide range of socioeconomic backgrounds. They should not make assumptions about clients’ or economic circumstances but find out through intake and assessment. Social workers working in urban areas may end up working with lower-income communities and individuals, but they may also interface with middle class and even well-off individuals and communities. It depends on the type of work that they do, but if they are in private practice or in child welfare they will interact with people from all different backgrounds.

Social workers should also become familiar with the challenges facing other marginalized groups that may or may not be low-income including immigrants, ethnic and cultural minorities, or the LGBTQ community. A social worker should learn about each of these communities’ unique histories and unique challenges. When working with lower-income groups social workers should become familiar with all possible government services and supports their clients are eligible to apply for or that entire communities might access or apply for. They also should seek to understand barriers their clients face in obtaining these resources.

Understand Urban Social Service Systems

Large urban social service systems can be overwhelming to navigate. To increase your knowledge about large child welfare, human services, homeless services, and other social service systems a social worker new to an urban area can learn about these systems online. A city’s government website should have links to all major government agencies. The agency sites most likely will describe each agency’s responsibilities and subdivisions. Social service systems also include non-profit partners and agencies at other levels of government; agency sites may also have information about these service partners. Here is New York City’s Human Resources Administration/Department of Social Services website. Note the downloadable guide to social services. Most city’s social services websites will have similar information.

Social workers working in large urban areas also should become familiar with how city government is organized including at the level of the mayor’s office and city council. They should learn about the current mayor and the political makeup of the city council. They should find out who represents the neighborhood or district where they work. This information is critical for policy advocacy, which every social worker is responsible for engaging in.

Think about Transportation and Safety

            As a social worker in a large urban area you must know how to get around efficiently and safely. If you are coming from a small town or suburb you may not be familiar with public transportation. Before you begin your job you need to study a map of public transportation options if you don’t have a car, or if you do have a care, you should become familiar with the layout of the neighborhood where you will be working. You might have a friend who is native to the city show you around before you begin your job.

If you know the area you will be working has a crime problem think about how you will remain safe in the course of performing your duties. Get a high-pitched keychain alarm or another safety device you will feel comfortable carrying with you. Learn self-defense techniques. Talk to your supervisors about what areas to avoid at night. If you work in child welfare you might be able to visit homes with a police officer. Make sure staff and community members walking out of neighborhood meetings at night exit the building in a large group or have a ride waiting for them in front of the building.

Understand Environmental and Social Issues

            Finally, social workers working in cities should learn what current social policy and environmental issues the city is facing. For example, low-income and communities of color are often disproportionately impacted by pollutants such as chemicals or waste from factories and other facilities. Environment social work is just as important in urban areas as it is in rural ones.

Social workers working in urban areas should also learn what social policy issues the neighborhoods they work in and the city, in general, are facing. Policy issues may include a potential raise in the city’s minimum wage, a new anti-discrimination law, a change to municipal services, a new policy that will affect the homeless, or affordable housing proposals. Social workers are responsible for fighting for social justice and must understand all of the diverse social problems and policy issues on the agenda in their city.

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

December  2019

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