August 20, 2018  

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Social Work Students with Political Aspirations Attend Connecticut ‘Campaign School’

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From left, Evelyn Sullivan, UConn campaign school director Tanya Smith, Chelsea Porter, Miranda Williams and Brian Beck.

One wants Hattiesburg Mayor Toby Barker’s job, another Gov. Phil Bryant’s, and a third would like to be a legislator for her home county. A fourth is drawn toward politics but also wary of the negative connotations.

The four are social work students from The University of Southern Mississippi who in early March attended a two-day “campaign school” in Hartford, Connecticut, that prepares social workers for the political arena as candidates, campaign workers, volunteers or advocates for social change. The students are:

  • Miranda Williams, a Bachelor of Social Work student, Hattiesburg, Mississippi;
  • Chelsea Porter, BSW, Long Beach, Mississippi;
  • Evelyn Sullivan, a Master of Social Work student, Gulfport, Mississippi; and
  • Brian Beck, BSW, Hattiesburg.

‘Who Better … To Make Policies?’

“One of the biggest takeaways from the conference was that social workers really are qualified to run for office through what we learn,” Williams says. “Who better than social workers to make policies that benefit the people we serve? Who better to fight for social justice and make sure the legislation matters for everyone and is a benefit for everyone? It’s almost like it was always meant to be us, rather than lawyers, but it hasn’t been represented that way.”

That’s just the outcome that Tanya Smith was hoping for. Smith is the director of the University of Connecticut’s Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work, which hosts the campaign school. In its 21st year, the school has more than 1,000 alumni.

“While not all social workers want to run for office, they can and should participate in the political system to shape the public policy that affects our clients and communities,” Smith says. “Campaign school emphasizes why the profession’s training, code of ethics and commitment to social justice makes them uniquely qualified to serve in political settings.”

Williams, who also wants to pursue a master’s degree in social work and work with veterans, has long-standing aspirations to succeed – eventually – Barker, as well as one of her professors, Johnny DuPree, the former mayor and current adjunct in the School of Social Work.

“If you ask my friends and family, they will tell you they are sick of me talking about, ‘One day, I want to be mayor,’ ” she says. “My dream, right now, is just to serve in local government because of the impact you can make and how you can see the changes being made.”

‘An End Goal … is to be Governor’

Porter says there are a number of tips she picked up in Connecticut that will help her when she, too, decides to run for office after continuing her education with a social work master’s degree from USM and likely a Ph.D.

That advice: “You have to ask everybody you’ve ever met for money, put in a spreadsheet people that you know who would be valuable to your campaign, clean up your social media account, and communicate to others that you’re wanting to run, so it won’t be a shock when you do.” 

“But at this point,” she says, “education is the priority. An end goal – and it may not be realistic – is to be governor of Mississippi. That’s really big, and I’m aware I will have to start a lot smaller than that … but anything to get my foot in that area.”

Prospective Candidates Should ‘Start Now’

Sullivan says the biggest lesson was, “I need to start now. If I want to run for any type of political office, it doesn’t start a few months before, it starts years before.”

She says her policy focus would be on better funding for education and programs to keep graduates from leaving Mississippi. The state Legislature’s schedule would allow her to hold office while also practicing social work. “They’re in session only from January through early April, so you have the rest of the year to focus on being a social worker.”

‘A Stronger Desire to Change … Policies’

Beck says he wants to lay a strong foundation as a practicing social worker, and possibly attend graduate school, before considering a run for office. He says his skeptical view of politicians has convinced him that he – and others with similar convictions – must get involved to reshape politics.

“Growing up, several people told me I should be a politician, but for me, it was synonymous with corruption,” he says. “I struggled with it.”

Discussions with School of Social Work Director Tim Rehner and UConn’s Smith convinced Beck to pursue the campaign school to learn more – and it worked. “After going to Connecticut, I have a stronger desire to change some of the policies that we hold in Mississippi,” he says. “I have a better view of how a policy can negatively impact a state. I think there are a lot in office who cannot relate to the majority of the population who are below middle class. How can you help when you don’t know their problems?”

‘At Some Point I Have to Step Up’

All four want to stay in Mississippi and help change policy.

“The big question of the weekend (in Connecticut) was, ‘Are you leaving Mississippi?’ ” Williams says. “Between the four of us, it’s not really an option. I have a firm belief that you can’t run from your problems; sometimes you have to turn and face them.”

Beck agrees. “I feel things need to change,” he says. “I feel like at some point I have to step up, otherwise we’ll keep waiting on the next person to make a change.”

Sullivan says any move from Mississippi would be temporary to pursue her education. “I have aspirations to leave and learn things I need to do to make the state better, but I do want to come back.”

Porter says she intends to stick around and fight for change. “The idea of leaving sounds comfortable, but I didn’t get here because I want to be comfortable; I got here because I want to change things. I feel like I can be an asset to the state in terms of reform. We need so much help here, I feel like leaving would be a waste of talent and passion that I’ve worked so hard to gain.”

Smith gives her new alumni’s sentiments high marks.

“From our perspective, we encourage social workers to lead and cultivate political power in their communities,” she says. “We loved having Mississippi students here. They were a wonderful addition and brought their passion and commitment for their work and community with them.”

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Learn more about the USM School of Social Work.