The big picture: School of social work talk looks to the past for lessons

By Casey Schmauder / For The Pitt News

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Imagine if, on the first day of classes, every student walked out to protest the increasing cost of higher education. According to Tracy M. Soska, they should.

Soska is the chair of the masters of social work community organization and social action concentration. On  Sept. 23 from noon to 1 p.m. in 2017 Cathedral, Soska, who also serves as the director of continuing education for social work professionals, led a talk called “Lessons from the Demise of Hull House” as a part of the School of Social Work Lecture Series. Social workers in Pittsburgh, he said, could take lessons from the generosity of the owners of the Hull House.

According to Soska, successful social work, including rallying to lower the cost of a college degree, should be organized, and people should work together toward a common goal. In a lecture to more than 80 students and adults, Soska said it’s the big picture that matters most when it comes to social work.

As an example of what productive social work looks like, Soska used Pitt students protesting education costs. When citizens aren’t advocating and aren’t voting, they lose their ability to address and solve their own problems. Soska called this big picture social work.

This point hit home for Allison Little, a doctoral student of social work who attended the talk.

“It can be very expensive to get those degrees that are very useful,” Little said, talking about pursuing a degree in social work, a field that pays little..

Another example of the big picture, Soska said, is the Hull House from Chicago.

Soska, on the surface, spoke about the demise of Hull House, a settlement house on the near west side of Chicago that opened its doors to European immigrants. Early social workers Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr founded the House in 1889, soon prompting other homeowners to do the same. One hundred and twenty-three years later, in January 2012, Hull House declared bankruptcy, giving its 300 employees only a week’s notice before it closed.

From 1889, Hull House had evolved into a multi-service organization and lost some of its involvement in community work. The House, which had been famous for socioeconomic and political advocacy — fighting for child labor laws, increased minimum wage and nondiscriminatory provision of public services — came to rely on government money and therefore had to be cautious that it did not “bite the hand that feeds them,” Soska said.

The House was slow to act when the government cut its budget. Soska talked about how the operators could not strike a balance between providing services and managing the business.

“I didn’t hear much out of the social work community about this. Where were we when this all happened?” Soska said.

Soska asked: can the work of the Hull House continue in Pittsburgh? The Hull House’s type of work falls under macro social work, looking at large systems like communities and organizations. According to Soska, only 8 percent of all Pitt social work students are studying in areas of macro practice this year. Usually, he said, Pitt has about 20 percent of students studying macro practice.

“We’ve tended to look at people as clients,” Soska said. “We’ve moved to looking at them as consumers, but what if we just think of the people we work with as the citizens we serve?”

The lecture series will have four additional speakers this academic year. The next comes from Noel Busch-Armendariz on Nov. 17 at noon in 2017 Cathedral and is entitled “Are Children and Women for Sale? Yes, and It’s a $150 Billion Industry.”

Soska emphasized the importance of working with communities. He said he wants social workers to return to the Hull House’s roots when the House was working with instead of for people. As social work moves toward commercialization, Soska explained how citizens are behaving as consumers, consuming the services rather than being part of them.

“Good social work and organization is when the task is done and the people say, ‘We did this ourselves,’” he said.

According to MSW professor Liz Winter, the Hull House and the cost of higher education are connected.

“I think it’s deeply significant at a time when we are looking at similar economic inequity as the time when the settlement houses emerged,” Winter said. “And we haven’t figured it out yet.”

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