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Students visit legislature, learn advocacy skills on Lobby Day

By Susan White

On March 30, more than a dozen UNC social work students joined nearly 250 social workers, students and others from across the state at the 2011 Social Work Lobby Day in Raleigh. The annual event, sponsored by the N.C. Chapter of the National Association of Social Workers, brings social work students and professionals together each year to learn more about the legislative process and to engage with each other on how to better represent vulnerable families and individuals.

“Lobby day is a wonderful opportunity to demystify the policy process and to show students how social workers and the profession can be more involved in legislative advocacy,” said Lisa de Saxe Zerden, a visiting instructor who teaches a health access and health disparities policy class at UNC’s School of Social Work.

Students also learn more about the importance of working closely with coalitions and organizations, such as NASW, to further support clients and address their needs, said Berg-Beach Distinguished Professor Marie Weil, who teaches advanced policy practice at the School.

Lobby Day also gives students the chance to meet face to face with lawmakers to discuss proposed legislation that directly affects clients, such as Senate Bill 121, which would require those seeking public assistance to submit to drug testing to be eligible for services. Many of UNC’s social work students voiced worries over the bill and spent the day trying to share those concerns with numerous senators and representatives.

“There is already so much stigma around people who seek out public assistance,” Robin Roche, a second year MSW student explained to Sen. Josh Stein, a Democrat from Wake County. “This (bill) would also label them as substance abusers. Furthermore, (clients) should not have to prove that they are worthy of seeking public assistance.”

Megan Key, also a second year MSW student, wondered how the proposed drug testing would be paid for, especially during such a tight economy.

Stein thanked the students for discussing their concerns and left them with perhaps some encouraging news. S.B. 121 was referred to a rules committee, he said, where bills traditionally are sent “to die.”

“The fact is so many bills are being introduced, and you never know which ones will take seed,” Stein said.

Because of competing committee meetings and other legislative obligations, many lawmakers were unavailable to meet. However, the missed opportunities did little to deter students, most of whom left position papers with legislative assistants as a way of explaining the NASW’s concerns on specific bills. For Roche, the overall experience was worthwhile.

“I’ve really learned how important it is to stay educated and informed on issues that may affect our clients,” she said. “A big part of our profession is speaking up for and looking out for those we serve.”