By MATTHEW BIDDLE
Published May 26, 2023
This spring, School of Social Work student Kayliee Bertrand-Henretta was in the New York State Assembly Chamber when Assembly Member Chantel Jackson introduced a resolution celebrating Social Work Month across the state. A social worker herself, Jackson listed each of the profession’s values and thanked the students assembled in the Capitol that day.
“We are the healers of the world. This is our month. We come here and do this work tirelessly, thanklessly, and I say thank you today for being here,” Jackson said before advocating for increased pay for social workers.
For Bertrand-Henretta, a UB MSW student, it was a powerful moment that solidified her desire to follow Jackson and other social workers into politics.
“Social work is inherently political,” she says. “It's right in there in our Code of Ethics — we have to advocate for eradicating injustice and removing oppression and look critically at those systemic barriers that are preventing so many people from achieving their true potential.”
Throughout the spring semester, School of Social Work students had multiple opportunities to see the political process firsthand and consider how roles in politics and government — or macro practice more broadly — fit within their career goals.
In February, Bertrand-Henretta and PhD student Jessica Mencia traveled to the University of Connecticut for the Campaign School for Social Workers. The two-day workshop teaches social work students how to become politically active as candidates, staffers, volunteers or advocates for social change.
In one exercise, students were assigned roles on a fictional campaign — from campaign manager and treasurer to the candidate themselves — to learn how a campaign operates. Mencia enjoyed connecting with students from across the country and hearing from a panel of elected officials about how their expertise helps them to serve their communities better.
“I know I want to go into a non-academic sector, which is not as common for people who are getting their PhD,” Mencia says. “Meeting people at the Campaign School showed me that there are so many directions I can go in. That’s really exciting to know that a social work degree is so versatile that I bring a lot of valuable skills to a lot of different sectors.”
Mencia, too, is a strong proponent for the role of social work in politics. Before coming to the UB for the dual MSW/PhD program, Mencia earned her bachelor’s in public policy from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she did advocacy work to help undocumented students and increase abortion access. While at UB, she has continued to be active as a volunteer with the New York Birth Control Access Project.
“Policy is really at the heart of what social work is,” Mencia says. “Even if you are working at the micro level, the people you’re working with are heavily influenced by policy and the way policy shapes society, whether that’s in a good way or in a way that’s making them suffer.”
Later in the spring, several social work students saw advocacy in action during events at both the state and federal levels.
During the virtual Student Advocacy Day on the Hill, MSW student Clare Falkowski learned more about macro social work at the highest level of government.
“This program gave me the confidence to know there are people in the government and throughout the legislative process advocating for social workers and basic human rights,” she says.
Falkowski also joined Bertrand-Henretta and four other MSW students in Albany for Legislative Education and Advocacy Day (LEAD).
During LEAD, students crisscrossed the State Capitol building meeting, with representatives and advocating for critical social issues. Bertrand-Henretta says she logged about 12 miles walking throughout the building in a single day.
In addition, the students took part in a press conference on the Capitol’s “Million Dollar Staircase” and observed legislative sessions, including the speeches from Jackson and Sen. Julia Salazar recognizing them and Social Work Month.
Bertrand-Henretta was so inspired by her experience at LEAD and the Campaign School — as well as her field placement with Assembly Member Jonathan Rivera’s office — that she decided to run for her local school board. Moving forward in her career, she hopes to continue being a voice for social workers and the wider community in government.
“Politics is so contentious, but social workers can see the whole picture,” she says. “We have the ability to heal and change our communities.”