A Legacy of Social Justice

Social Work Mural
Rhode Island College Impact

For the past 40 years, the School of Social Work has dedicated itself to social justice.

Most of us don't tend to think of social workers as activists. Yet since the late 19th century, when the American social work profession was first established, social workers have been fighting for economic, political and social justice on behalf of the vulnerable and oppressed. Among the battles they fought and won were the Social Security Act, Medicaid and Medicare, the Fair Labor Law, laws to protect children from industrial exploitation and the prevention of child abuse and neglect.

Social workers are the epitome of the phrase "I am my brother's [or sister's] keeper" no matter your national, racial, ethnic, economic, gender or ideological differences, and they continue today to engage in social and political action, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed people. 

Widely recognized in Rhode Island and throughout southeastern New England as a center of excellence in education, training and advocacy, RIC's School of Social Work has within its mission statement a commitment to "social and economic justice in accordance with the NASW Code of Ethics." Over the years, faculty have shown what that looks like on the ground.  

"For the past 40 years, the School of Social Work at Rhode Island College has dedicated itself to teaching students strategies for creating and sustaining social, economic and environmental justice," says interim dean of the School of Social Work Jayashree Nimmagadda.  

"Several of our faculty are active change agents, working closely with community members on challenging societal conditions. As a result, advocacy and direct action are central to our students' educational experience," she says. 

2020 became a defining year for the State of Rhode Island when the activism and organizing efforts of Associate Professor of Social Work Wendy Becker led to the signing into law of the Rhode Island Uniform Parentage Act, granting equality to same-sex parents and those reliant on assisted reproductive technology. 

The new legislation repeals an outdated law regarding parentage and replaces it with a law that recognizes the diversity of today's families and gives children the security of a legal tie to their parents, regardless of the circumstances of their birth or the sexual orientation, marital status or gender of their parents.  

In building her coalition, Becker reached out to LGBTQ Action RI, an alliance she is a part of, gaining their backing along with the support of a group of interested parents. Together, they formed the Rhode Islanders for Parentage Equality coalition. 

During the four years that led to the signing of the bill, Becker listened to countless pain-filled stories by parents whose children were born through insemination or surrogacy and who had met with numerous roadblocks in establishing a legal tie to their own children. 

"Essentially they were being asked to adopt their own children," Becker says. "They had to hire a lawyer and go through a very expensive and intrusive process to prove that they will be good parents in ways that heterosexual couples would never have to go through. They had to undergo a home study, obtain references, talk about how they're going to parent and advertise for the sperm donor who had already signed away their rights. It's an extensive, expensive, humiliating process to essentially adopt your own children."  

Among other important protections, the new law provides clear standards for determining parentage for children born through assisted reproduction, surrogacy and to same-sex parents who aren't married; it ensures equality for LGBTQ parents to establish their parentage like other families; it provides a clear standard for courts to resolve competing claims of parentage; and it improves access, efficiency and consistency in Rhode Island family courts.  

"It feels great to know that all families will be treated equally and will be protected moving forward," says Becker.  

It was through coalition building that the new law was made possible. "No one creates social change alone," says Professor of Social Work Deborah Siegel. "You have to mobilize people at the grass roots level, working from the bottom up, top down and the sides, so to speak," she says. 

Siegel has been on the front lines of advocacy and community organizing for more than 40 years and she hasn't done it alone. Currently, she is advocating with and on behalf of people experiencing homelessness, in partnership with the House of Hope; she is developing an integrated behavioral health program, in collaboration with the Rhode Island Free Clinic; she is working to reduce poverty, as part of an interfaith coalition; and she organizes her community each year to lobby at the State House for legislation to end gun violence. 

During the 2020 presidential election, Siegel and her faith community joined the national effort to engage people to vote. "I find that most people care and want to get involved in change," says Siegel. "They just don't know how to help or they don't have the discretionary time to spare. I mobilize people in many ways. I show them how they can do just one small, doable thing such as make a phone call, write a postcard, knock on a door, attend a webinar to learn about an issue and then sign up to do a specific task. I give them the information they need to take action. Then I coach them and accompany them to an activity." 

Faculty like Professor of Social Work Frederic Reamer work with government agencies and think tanks providing the seminal research reports that shape the debate on social justice issues.  

He became a pioneer in professional and practical ethics in social work by conducting his own extensive research on ethics and applying it to the field of social work. 

He later chaired the national task force that wrote the current code of ethics adopted by  the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and insisted on adding language that highlighted the profession's core commitment to promote social justice.  

Over the years, he has trained Rhode Island's human services professionals and led ethics trainings in agencies across the country and abroad. His expertise is sought after on the local, national and international levels. 

Reamer notes that social work organizations like NASW highlight the educators' ethical duty to confront toxic forces within our society. "As a social worker, I am heartened and inspired by my profession's earnest determination to confront virulent forces. These are the instincts that make me proud to be a social worker." 

When asked how optimistic he is that real change can happen in this country, Reamer replies, "Our nation's history is filled with inspiring advocacy efforts that led to profound social change, but we have a long, long road ahead of us. Our obligation as social workers is to travel this road and to do our very best to fulfill the social justice and advocacy mandate that is at the core of the NASW Code of Ethics." 

"I am hopeful, as well," Siegel adds. "When we give up hope that we can co-create a better world, we stop trying to create one."