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About Arlene Istar Lev


Keynote Address

Arlene Istar Lev LCSW, CASAC
May 19, 2007

Thank you and welcome, to Dean Briar-Lawson, to my colleagues, to the families and friends of our graduates, and especially to our MSW students. We have all gathered here today to honor you, this graduating class, in a grand accomplishment. It is with great respect that I welcome everyone here with all my heart.

It is an enormous honor for me to share this stage today with my esteemed colleagues, some of whom were actually my professors when I was a student here at the University of Albany. 20 years ago, I was sitting in this very same auditorium, accepting my Master’s degree in Social Welfare.

I actually have a vivid memory of the keynote speaker at my graduation, Fred Newdom, who was then the Executive Director of the New York State Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers and currently serves with me here on the adjunct faculty at the School of Social Welfare. When Fred spoke to my graduating class, he challenged us to think about what it means to be a social worker, to embark on a career as a social worker, to be a “change agent.” This invokes the question: what is it that needs “changing”?

I humbly beg your forgiveness in advance, but I must now tell you the requisite bad joke that is the mainstay of all keynote speeches. How many social workers does it take to change a light bulb?

The answer: The light bulb doesn't need changing; it's the system that needs to change.

This is an interesting joke at a time in history when we face an ecological crisis of global warming. As many of you know, one suggested solution to help cut greenhouse gas emissions is for each of us to stop using incandescent light bulbs and replace them with compact fluorescent bulbs. Indeed, it is not simply that the bulbs need changing, but our entire system, the very way we think about light and heat and energy needs to change.

What a great metaphor for our Social Work profession! At its heart, social work is a field focused on the relationship between individuals and our environment. We speak about families and communities and ecological systems. We – social workers -- do the simple daily work of assisting people to find housing, helping children cope with divorce, holding people’s hands while they watch a loved one die, but our eye is always on the larger issues of social justice and social change, the relationship between human suffering and the social environment, the systems, in which we live.

The light bulb, of course, is the image we use to illustrate a moment of recognition, our collective cultural metaphor for a creative idea. Social workers spend a lot of time changing light bulbs, and we also spend time educating people about the need to change the kind of light bulbs we use (shamelessly, we even do this in keynote speeches). And although we recognize that changing light bulbs is only a small part of a much larger systemic problem, these small changes over time have influential effects causing veritable paradigm shifts, and social transformations – trans means to cross-over, to go beyond.

As a social worker who has dedicated my career to working with families, I am, aware that I am speaking today in a room filled with not only with social workers, but also of your families. I know many of you have traveled from far away to be present for your children or your parents on this graduation day. You have come to honor your friends and family members who are graduating today with a Master’s Degree in Social Work. For some of you your graduate may be the first member of your family to receive a Master’s degree – my Master’s was also the first in my family. It is a moment of solemn pride, and great joy.

I also know that, although all of you are proud of your graduate today, some of you are more than a bit mystified by their choice of social work as a career. From the stereotypes of the bleeding heart liberal, to your fears for a secure financial future for them – surely, some of you have thought, there has to be a more lucrative profession they could have chosen? Social workers are often viewed as the lackey’s of a broken system, incompetent and bumbling, we are often the brunt of political criticism and the focus of a near malicious kind of journalistic humor. Why would your loved ones choose social work as a career?

Let me tell you a bit about social workers: Social workers are the largest group of mental health service providers in the America. According to the US Census Bureau there are more than 800,000 professional social workers in the USA, providing more services than all other helping professionals combined.

Social workers practice in many areas including mental health, child welfare, and aging. We work in adoption, substance abuse, and disaster relief; we work in hospitals, prisons, and schools. We assist people living in poverty, people who are homeless, and people with disabilities. We work directly with those who are vulnerable and marginalized and we are also managers and administrators in agencies.

We are researchers and scientists working in collaboration with other academics; by publishing our findings we assist in furthering the knowledge base of many allied professions. We are grassroots organizers, working in diverse disenfranchised communities and we are members of Boards of Directors in both for profit and not for-profit organizations.

We also advocate for social policy change in national, state, and local government. There are more than 150 social workers in elected office in the USA, including Senators and those serving in the House of Representatives. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the need for social workers is expected to grow twice as fast as any other occupation.

Your loved ones have chosen a good profession, with many opportunities for meaningful work that will support them financially, while they do their work of helping support their communities. Social work is filled with people who are not only compassionate, and who, by the way, bumble no more or less than those in any other profession, but also people of great courage, immense creativity, and, extraordinary endurance.

Those of you in this auditorium receiving a graduate degree in social work today have passed the first test of courage, creativity and endurance, by successfully completing the boot camp we call a University education. The long classes, the even longer articles that you had to read, those group exercises that you hated, due dates, and project deadlines have prepared you by developing skills that you will use every day of your work lives.

I spoke with a graduating student the other day who said, “Everyone is very happy for me, but they see the degree as a tool for my future employment – something that they congratulate me on completing, on getting through. They are excited for me to reap the benefits, but don’t really see it as an accomplishment in and of itself.”

I want to recognize this accomplishment. I know how hard you worked, because, well, I pushed you again and again to work even harder. And I told you, if you put in the work, you would not only get the grade to reflect your work, but more importantly you would truly learn and be transformed (there’s that word again) we are transformed by the very process. Maria Montessori, one of my personal educational mentors has said, “The greatest sign of success for a teacher is to be able to say, "The children are now working as if I did not exist."

I hope that in your time here at the School of Social Welfare, you have felt moments of this great joy in the act of learning, of being so engaged in the process of doing your work that you are no longer doing it for the class, or the professor, but to understand in greater depth what it is your are studying.

As I read your papers, your online discussions, and hear you talking in the hallways, I see you wrestling with deep questions about religion, about class privilege, about racial and cultural differences, and always about how to speak truth to power. This process, this engagement, has changed you.

Perhaps you did not plan on changing when you first began this journey. Perhaps you did not want to change (some light bulbs are more resistant to change than others). Perhaps some of you have not yet noticed that you have changed. If you are not sure how you’ve changed, ask those friends and family who are paying for your dinner tonight. I assure you they can see it.

On the eve of your graduation, recognizing that arriving at this moment is an accomplishment in and off itself, I am here to tell you, that your work is not over. For that matter, it has not yet begun.

You are entering a professional world at a pivotal time in history. There is no doubt to anyone who reads the newspaper or watches television how deeply the systems in which our lives are embedded are flawed, and how desperately the needs are that we are asked to address on a daily basis.

Fred Newdom, whom I mentioned earlier referenced a quote in his keynote speech 20 years ago, that I have never forgotten. He said that our task as social workers is to “comfort the afflicted and to afflict the comfortable.” His words became a guiding principle and left me to figure out “how” to best respond to the directive: I found the answer within Jewish tradition a concept called “tikkun olam.” Tikkun olam means to repair the world.

Tikkun olam encompasses both an outer and the inner understanding -- both a service to society by helping those in need and also service in a more spiritual sense. Tikkun olam recognizes that human suffering and broken social systems cause deep ruptures in the universe, and that by repairing the outer world, we are in essence liberating the spark of life within each of us. It is each of our responsibility to do our small part of repairing the world; one light bulb at a time.

As social workers, whether you are working directly with clients and consumers of services, or working in management and social policy arenas, you will be impacting changes in the quality of people’s lives. Whether you are working with a pregnant and frightened adolescent, or a resistant and angry substance abuser; whether you are working with survivors of war -- including the war that ravages the lifeblood of our inner cities – or with refugees running from brutality in their countries of birth or refugees running from brutality in their own homes, or whether you are teaching the next generation of social workers who will come after you, you will not only be providing needed services for fellow humans, and not only fighting injustice, but in that very process of doing your work with dedication and passion you will liberate the sparks within your own souls.

Sometimes when we see all the work that is before us, it is easy to despair. A Talmudic story tells of a traveler who saw a man planting a carob tree and asked him how long it would be before the tree bore fruit. When the man said it would take 70 years, the traveler asked “Surely you do not expect to live that long and eat the fruit of your labor?” The man answered: "I did not find the world desolate when I entered it. As my ancestors planted for me before I was born, so do I plant for those who will come after me."

Here at the School of Social Welfare we have offered you seeds, seeds that you have planted and watered and tended and now you reap the harvest of those seeds. You have learned much about the process of change, in part by watching yourself change. You have become change agents.

You must now go plant some seeds of your own. You have the basic tools you need; you will acquire many more. It is my personal hope and goal for you that you continue your work with dedication and tenacity engaged only in the work you have chosen, as if we, your teachers and mentors, did not exist.

On this day of pride and accomplishment I leave with these questions: what is it you will plant for those that come after you, the fruits of which you may never see? What legacy will you bring to the social work profession?

What will you say in 20 years when you are asked to speak to the graduating class of 2027, some of those students may be graduating this week from their local Montessori Kindergarten classes?

What kind of change agent will you become? How will you comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable? What will be your contribution to the ongoing process of tikkun olam? How will you help to repair this world?

I came up to this stage to congratulate our MSW students. I leave the stage welcoming all of you to the Social Work Profession as my colleagues. Thank you.




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