Wurzweiler Conference Provides Strategies for Change

Keynote Speaker David Remnick Lauds Social Workers for Their Efforts in Challenging Times

In celebration of its 60th anniversary, Yeshiva University’s Wurzweiler School of Social Work convened close to 100 social workers and other health care advocates on April 13 for a conference titled “Social Work in Challenging Times” at the Yeshiva University Museum. The keynote speaker was David Remnick, writer, journalist and editor of The New Yorker, and the conference featured three workshops on the impact of recent events on the fields of medicine, mental health and immigration.

David Remnick spoke about free press in the era of President Donald Trump.

“The political landscape in which social workers and mental health providers work has changed dramatically over the last 13 months, with substantial changes in policies toward the poor and ill, toward immigrants, toward children and the elderly,” said Dr. Danielle Wozniak, David and Dorothy Schachne Dean of Wurzweiler. “But what hasn’t changed is social work’s dedication and passion for helping our society’s vulnerable populations. This conference looks at how we can uphold our professional mission and values.”

Remnick was introduced by Froma Benerofe, chair of the Wurzweiler Board of Overseers, who noted that in her own social work practice cases of anxiety and depression “have been skyrocketing” and called upon Remnick to “help us understand our challenging times.”

Remnick’s speech focused on the freedom of the press in the era of President Donald Trump. He began by declaring, “It is my belief that we live in a state of political emergency that demands that we be on guard against a frontal attack on democratic values that we, liberals and conservatives alike, hold dear.” He followed this declaration with a litany of challenges to democratic norms in general and the First Amendment in particular that he believed could be, and must be, resisted. From flagship media institutions to local newspapers, journalism’s role, in an age when both “everything is true and nothing is true,” is, in Remnick’s estimation, to “put pressure on power—investigative pressure, intellectual pressure, polemical pressure.”

Cardozo Professor Lindsay Nash (left) discussed challenges facing immigrant families applying for asylum in the United States.

But even more important, Remnick said, is that citizens must also put pressure on power, and social workers, whom he described as being of “enormous heart and empathy and whose sense of their own personal reward from their work has to be at the highest level of idealism,” are uniquely positioned to do so. He quoted the writer George Orwell to make his point: “ ‘The relative freedom which we enjoy depends on public opinion….If large numbers of people are interested in freedom of speech, there will be freedom of speech, even if the law forbids it.’ ”

He concluded by saying, “If we are to emerge from this moment of challenge intact, we must protect a set of phrases that are at the center of the American value system. The First Amendment is more fragile than we often assume, but it is also our source of strength and a beacon to tell truth from falsehood.”

After the keynote address, participants attended three workshops focusing on the challenges presented to social work in mental health, medicine, and immigration. Regarding mental health, Faye Wilbur, deputy director of The Jewish Board of Family and Children’s Services, discussed Acceptance Commitment Therapy (ACT), a solution-focused approach that is outcome-oriented and measurable. “The great strength of ACT,” she said, “is that while it can’t change the times in which we live, it does give us a measure of power to change how we respond to the world around us so that we don’t become discouraged and passive.”

Dr. Penny Damaskos, director of the Department of Social Work at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, discussed the adoption by hospitals of the principles of patient- and family-centered care. 

Dr. Penny Damaskos, director of the Department of Social Work at Memorial Sloan Kettering Cancer Center, addressed the medical disparities within the health care system and the power that social workers have to mitigate them, especially with the adoption by hospitals of the principles of patient- and family-centered care and the advantages provided by the Affordable Care Act. “The code of ethics of the National Association of Social Workers demands that we work for social justice,” she pointed out. “Forty-five percent of social workers are in health care, and demand for social workers is predicted to rise by 12 percent over the next decade. We are in position to become stronger leaders in realizing the values that define the profession.”

Lindsay Nash, visiting assistant clinical professor at YU’s Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, works with immigrant families applying for asylum in the United States. One of the great challenges, she noted, was getting these families, who are often traumatized, to tell their stories in a way that will convince the government officials to grant their petitions.

On a recent trip to family detention centers in Texas, she was accompanied by Dr. Katherine Mitchell, associate professor at Wurzweiler, and current Wurzweiler student Domenica Galati-Scoles. “The work they did, as social workers, to get the people comfortable enough to tell their stories, can only be called magic,” Nash observed. “We need to do more of this collaboration with social workers because if our families can’t tell their stories, they will not be granted refuge.” The main challenge now is finding the funding to build a stable collaboration between the two schools.

Melissa Paige, who runs a private practice in the Chelsea area of New York City, came to the conference because “I found the combination of the keynote address and the workshops focusing on contemporary issues really exciting,” and Susan Rosenbaum ’08W liked the mix of workshops and networking opportunities along with the chance “to get myself ready for the challenges ahead.”

“The conference theme has a double meaning to it,” said Dr. Wozniak. “On the one hand, this time of political and economic uncertainty challenges our ability as social workers to fulfill our ethical responsibility to promote social justice and deliver compassionate care. On the other hand, though, these uncertain times give us a great opportunity to craft new strategies for carrying out the very necessary work we do as a profession and as committed individuals. This conference is one in a long line of efforts by Wurzweiler to maintain the relevance and the necessity of the social work profession.”

The conference was dedicated to the memory of Dean Carmen Ortiz Hendricks, the first Latina dean of a New York school of social work, who led Wurzweiler from 2012 until 2016.