Interview with Nancy Wackstein, who speaks about macro practice in social work:Nancy Wackstein speak about social work macro practice
Interviewer: I’d like to introduce Nancy Wackstein, who’s the Director of Community Engagement and Partnerships at Fordham University Graduate School of Social Service. Welcome, Nancy.
Nancy: Thank you, Dana.
Interviewer: And you wanted to start off by kind of talking to the students about how you ended up starting working and doing macro practice work.
Well, sure. And let me just say I’ve been at Fordham Graduate School of Social Service only for 2 and 1/2 years. The bulk of my career was spent working both in city government and for a nonprofit organization in New York City. So my work here at Fordham follows a long career in doing advocacy, and policy, and administrative work.
I’m a social worker. I got my MSW many decades ago from Columbia. And the reason I went into social work always was to change the world. I’m of a generation in the late ’60s, early ’70s that became very socially active around the Vietnam War, stopping the Vietnam War, and other social issues of the day, like civil rights, and women’s rights, and gay rights, and all the turmoil that was happening in our country around that time. Actually, the time we’re in now is reminding me more and more of that time, so maybe there’s even more relevance to this conversation.
So when I went to social work school, it was very much to see how I could get better skills to help change policies. I felt there was profound inequality in our society and wanted to do something about it.
I come from a family of teachers and helpers, and I just was always pretty aware of what the world around me looked like, even though I didn’t have the words back then of understanding what privilege was and who had it and who didn’t. And social work school actually was a good place to learn more about that. As I said, it was a time of social teaching around social justice. I think here at GSS we still teach about that.
So right out of social work school, I got a job with an advocacy organization here in New York called Citizens’ Committee for Children. And I wrote reports and did a lot of organizing, actually, around issues affecting homeless families and children.
And homelessness in New York in the ’80s, which is the era I’m talking about, was quite politicized and very, very public. Every day in the newspapers– and this was a time when people get their news from newspapers– there was something about the conditions of homeless children and families and these horrible welfare hotels.
And so it was very, very compelling to me. These were very poor people and generally poorly educated, poorly housed, et cetera. So I wanted to do something about it.
And it was really one of the most remarkable phases of my career, because we did do something about it. And I remember, even as a very young social worker out of graduate school, meeting with the commissioner of HRA, the Human Resources Administration, to talk about how to improve conditions in welfare hotels, and congregate shelters, and things like that. It was quite a heady experience for a young person.
And from there, I was hired by David Dinkins. David Dinkins ultimately became the mayor of New York City, the first African-American mayor of New York City. But he hired me based on my work around homeless advocacy for his staff when he was Manhattan Borough president. And then I kept writing reports about homeless children.
So, for me, writing, being able to write and understand how to speak to different audiences was a key part of that era of my career. And I think it’s one of the things that you learn in social work school, I think, is that you have to be able to speak to different stakeholder groups– elected officials, clients, and everybody in between. So that was a skill that really helped me in my career.
And then when David Dinkins was elected mayor, I was the director of a unit of the mayor’s office on homelessness, which was quite a demanding job, and was leading policy around that. And tough job.
I left then to– and it’s interesting. My career is– I never set out and said, oh gee, I want to work for an elected official. I want to work for the mayor. I never said, oh, I want to run a nonprofit organization, but this is what I ended up doing.
So when I needed to get out of the mayor’s office, I was working all the time, and it was very, very tough to be the subject of attacks by everybody, from the New York Post to advocates, who used to be my friends, et cetera. So I really wanted to do something else.
So through a connection, somebody I knew from the world of homelessness, the head of Henry Street Settlement at the time, told me that there was a job available running a settlement house on the Upper East Side called Lenox Hill Neighborhood House, and I was hired by the board to run that.
I was young. I was not yet 40. They wanted somebody who could raise the profile of that organization. And the settlement house is a really– it’s a community-based organization that’s placed based, placed in one community, doing work with multiple generations, providing services, and community building, and all kinds of interesting things going on there.
They even had a fitness center. I had to learn about what the proper temperature of the pool would be, which I did not learn in social work school.
And so that was a wonderful, wonderful job. A settlement house is like a family in a way. Yes, you supervise the staff, but they’re also your colleagues. And a whole lot of different stakeholder groups, from community people, to the board of directors, to clients, to staff. And I think that part of social work training, as I said earlier, is to learn how to manage and manage different groups and weigh those different issues.
So I was there, and that a direct service agency. We ran everything from Head Start to senior centers. And I learned a lot about people, and I learned a lot about what makes a good service there.
But I missed advocacy. I had started my career doing advocacy on social policy issues. And so I ended up seeking and getting the job as the head of the federation of all the settlement houses. There’s 38 settlement houses and community centers in New York.
So for 13 years I was the head of that federation, and we did a lot of policy and advocacy work on behalf of our member agencies. So it’s a kind of a long answer, Dana, to your very simple question.
And it’s interesting. The issues that I was working on at the end of my time at United Neighborhood Houses a couple years ago were the same issues I started working on at Citizens’ Community for Children 30 years prior, or 35 years prior. And I don’t know what that says. It doesn’t say much for my advocacy, but it says that some of the societal problems that we deal with are very difficult to solve– poverty, homelessness, child abuse and neglect.
These are very, very difficult problems. They don’t get solved overnight, as much as politicians would love to think that there’s a magic bullet. There isn’t.
And so there’s been a certain consistency in my career about working on behalf of the most vulnerable people. And now I’m in Fordham and happy to bring my expertise in these areas to our students.
That’s great. And what a great history. You’ve accomplished so much.
Nancy: You know, I don’t know. There’s still poverty and there’s still homelessness, as I said.
Interviewer: Right. So if there was a student who was really interested in going into macro practice work, what would you recommend for them, like to kind of get into it?
Oh, boy. Well, I think you certainly have to pay attention to the current environment and trends in the field. I mean, if you wanted to do– the interesting thing about my career is that all the jobs that I got, I got through people. Especially back then, there was no such thing as Idealist website. There was no such thing as a website.
And so networks of people, of colleagues, were important, and are important, I think. So if you decided I want to do advocacy on behalf of immigrant children, for example, the best way to find out what’s going on in that field is to talk to people who are doing it now.
And that’s what I did. It was a simpler time in a way because you just talk to people and found out about things from other people, not through the internet.
Look, certainly, being a good writer helped me. There’s no question that I was hired– so writing skills are important. I think a big part of my career was also about communication, being able to, with both oral and written communication, synthesize ideas and make arguments.
When you’re an advocate, you’re– it’s like fundraising. You’re selling a product. You’re selling an idea. You’re selling a notion. You’re selling something that you want to happen. And being able to articulate well what that is, and not go on and on and on but to be succinct about it, I think, in both writing and in oral communication is really an important skill to doing this work.
Now, in terms of being an administrator, which I was for the last 25 years, when you’re running a nonprofit, you’re running a business. You’re running a very complicated business. And I would argue it’s even more complicated than a for-profit business because you’re usually doing it with fewer resources and fewer people.
And so you really have to understand– being a leader of an organization, I think you have a real responsibility to your staff. I always, in a sense, looked at the staff of my organization as my clients since I wasn’t doing– I wasn’t a clinician and I wasn’t doing direct service. But I always said the staff are the people that I had to make sure– my job is to make sure that they can do their jobs.
My job is not to go to fancy parties, although I did have to do that to do fundraising. My job is to make sure that those people have the resources they need to do their jobs, because they have the most important job. The social workers on the ground who were dealing with older adults, or children, or are homeless people, whatever it was, they have a really hard job, and my job is to make sure that I can pay them, I can give them health insurance, and make sure that their offices are clean.
So I saw it as a very basic responsibility of leadership to do that. And I think when I’ve seen leaders of nonprofits go bad or go wrong, it’s I think when they forget that, what they’re there to do. They’re there to provide services to clients and make it possible for the staff to do that. So that was always something that was pretty important to me.
But I will tell you, running a nonprofit business, I to know– and I had to learn on the job basically– human resources, fiscal management, facilities management. We were in an old building when I was at Lenox. So we were in a building that was built in 1929. And believe me, there were always things wrong.
So, for me, these were like– information technology, even back then, when people were just beginning to use technology, computers, I had to figure out what computers to buy. I said, really? And I was not an HR expert. I was not a fiscal expert. I was not an IT expert.
But you had to figure out what people to surround yourself with who were. So being a good read of people– you can call it a social work skill or you can call that just a skill of humanity, but being able to see who– being able to select the people was a really important skill.
Similarly with fundraising. When you’re in an administrative role or a leadership role in social service agencies, a big part of your job is fundraising. So I had to have the ability– I felt sometimes like I was at the UN, that I was an interpreter. So I would interpret the needs of clients– our clients are elderly clients or homeless clients– to wealthy donors or to foundations. So in a way I felt like I had to speak different languages to different audiences, and that’s a skill also.
Again, being able to make the case to donors or to private foundations why you should support this program or this institution, that’s a social work skill. You know why? Because you have to listen. You have to be an active listener.
What is that donor interested in? Does that donor herself, does she have a child in early– a toddler? So if she does, then I talk to her about the early childhood program.
We had a donor who had an elderly mother who was suffering from Alzheimer’s. Then I talked to her about the– or him about the social adult day program, that work with people with Alzheimer’s. So you just have to really pay attention to what people care about. And to me that’s a social work skill.
Yes. I feel like you summed it up so nicely. I really did. Before we finish up, Nancy, is there anything you’d like to add?
No. I mean, the only thing I’d like to add is that I think we’re living in a time right now in the United States where social activism, the social activism that gave birth to my career, is more necessary than ever, and I would love to see more social workers go into advocacy work and cause work. I think it’s desperately needed.
There’s a lot of social work students, I think, who think, oh well, that’s government work or advocacy work. Other people do that. Or even running organizations, other people do that. MBAs do that. We don’t do that. We do do that, and I think we have the skills to do it well.
So I would just hope that social work students have a really open mind about those kinds of careers. And you know what? Hugely actually satisfying. You do make a difference.
I went into this profession to make a difference. You do make a difference. Maybe we haven’t cured poverty but maybe things are a little better for a few hundred people. That makes a life worth living, I think.
Absolutely. All right. Well, Nancy, thank you so much for your time. This was–
Interviewer:—so valuable for our students. And that’s it. So thank you.
Nancy: Thank you, Dana.
After listening to Nancy Wackstein speak about social work macro practice, what one aspect of this type of practice do you find most appealing and why? (150 words)