Macro Social Work: A Seat at the Policy Table

June 9, 2021

I’ve always had a passion for helping others.  As a student at All Saints Catholic High School in Washington, D.C., I joined the Community Service Club and remember the rewarding feeling I felt as I volunteered at local nonprofits like Martha’s Table, S.O.M.E., Saint Ann’s Infant Home, and Catholic Charities. In college, I continued to follow this passion as a Big Sister with Big Brothers and Big Sisters of Central Maryland. All these experiences were life changing for me. I realized I could make a difference in the lives of individuals and children who needed encouragement and a helping hand.

Ultimately, I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Social Work, and I chose to start my career in Micro Social Work. This type of social work is the kind most people are familiar with, wherein a case manager works with individuals and families to connect them to resources, services, and programs within the community. I enjoyed working with clients in Baltimore, Prince George’s County, and Washington, D.C.  However, during my time as a case manager, I found myself asking the same question over and over: How can these programs and policies become more effective to truly meet the needs of clients?

Eventually, I realized I wanted my career to go in a different direction. I saw that there needed to be more Macro Social Workers at the decision-making table—people who were active participants in the development of social and human services programs and policies. Too many of these are created without consulting the expertise of professionals who work in those systems every day and who understand the real needs of individuals and families. I realized I wanted to get involved in the legislative process for social justice issues and policy reforms. As a result, I returned to graduate school at Howard University to pursue a Master’s of Social Work degree in Macro Social Work.

So, what is Macro Social Work exactly? Macro-level social work addresses the challenge of alleviating societal problems to improve the quality of life locally, nationally, and internationally ( Macro Social Workers look at the “big picture.” These social workers work to confront issues at the systems level. They work in regional and federal government agencies, universities, human rights organizations, and nonprofits. The roles of Macro Social Workers vary and may include advocacy, community organizing, program development, and policymaking.

As a Macro Social Work Intern at Iona Senior Services, I’ve had the opportunity to assist with Iona’s online Aging Solo program. Aging Solo is a program created by Dr. Deb Rubenstein, Iona’s Director of Client Services, to educate and help older adults to be proactive about issues related to aging. Aging Solo promotes self-determination and helps older adults choose how they want to live out their later years.

In weekly webinars, we facilitated discussions with older adults about advanced healthcare planning, end of life planning, wills, how to create a support network, aging in place, senior housing options, money management, and additional topics. One of my assigned tasks was conducting outreach among faith communities throughout Washington, D.C., with a focus on Wards 7 and 8.

Historically, Wards 7 and 8 have been underserved in the city when it comes to healthcare, mental health services, education, and food security. These resource gaps are especially devastating for older adults who are aging alone with limited resources. Research shows that racial disparities still exist today in terms of access to quality treatment and services for older African Americans and other minorities, especially in healthcare, mental health services, housing, food security, advanced health care planning, and hospice care.

When the Aging Solo class began, we had over 40 older adults from diverse racial, socioeconomic, and cultural backgrounds. Iona wanted every participant to see themselves reflected in the Aging Solo curriculum. The course helped participants prioritize next steps needed in order to successfully age on their own.

Testimonials after the course showed that it was life changing for participants. One stated, “I want to try to make decisions for myself before I can’t.” Another said, “You can start a little at a time, but just get started.” Most participants reported an increase in confidence in their ability to engage in activities that are important to as they grow older, maintaining a social network, knowledge of services to help if they have difficulty performing daily activities, readiness to talk to financial decision-makers about how they want their finances managed, and having friends and/or family to support them as they age.

The Aging Solo curriculum is vitally important for Black older adults living in Wards 7 and 8, as well as those nationwide who may not have access to or knowledge about their options as they get older. This curriculum provides that access at an affordable price (Aging Solo is offered on a sliding scale based on income). Aging Solo shares valuable local, regional, and national resources and includes the experiences of Black older adults who are aging on their own.

My experience as an African American middle-aged social work intern at Iona Senior Services has been a unique and extraordinary one due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This internship journey has also been educational and insightful in that I am aging as well. As I enter the next chapter in my life, my purpose as a Macro Social Worker is clearer than ever before as I witness the health disparities and lack of equal access to COVID-19 treatment and vaccinations for older adults and individuals who come from underserved, marginalized, and oppressed communities.

As social workers, we cannot afford to sit on the sidelines. We must be active participants at policy and legislative tables on local, state, and federal levels in order to ensure that fair and just policies and programming are available for older adults of color. Where do I see myself in 10 years? Sitting at the table with agency directors, policymakers, and local politicians—just as I’ve witnessed with Iona Senior Services’ leaders and staff. We must fight for these priorities because ALL older adults deserve them.

By Angela Mitchener