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Field trips help students learn about social work practice

Students who enroll in the MSW course, “Social Work Practice with Organizations and Communities,” always get a healthy dose of classroom discussion on the interpersonal skills they will need to develop to effectively work with nonprofits, government agencies, and human service systems. But this semester, students received an up-close lesson on community social work by visiting some of the North Carolina towns where practitioners are working daily to address problems such as homelessness, domestic violence and hunger.

School of Social Work instructors Josh Hinson, Joanne Caye and Mat Despard organized and promoted the field trips to Siler City, Burlington, and Durham as opportunities for students to see first-hand how social work practice—especially in rural areas—has evolved over the past decade or more because of shifting community demographics, job losses, and a declining economy. In some cases, such challenges have exacerbated poverty rates, race and class issues, and led to an increasing demand for public and nonprofit services.

In preparation for the trips, which were taken in late September and early October, the instructors shared their own knowledge of the social, cultural, and economic effects on these towns. But each agreed that students would learn more if given the chance to hear of the struggles and strengths of these communities from the perspective of local residents, social workers, educators and others.

“Experiential learning is an essential component of social work education,” said Hinson, a clinical instructor. “We hoped that these field trips would help illustrate the fact that all social work practice is related to the communities and organizations in which we—and our clients—live and work.”

Despard, a clinical assistant professor, accompanied two classes of students to Durham, including to the historic American Tobacco Campus and into the older mill community of East Durham, which for years has struggled with poverty and crime. Much of the decline in East Durham began decades ago after tobacco and textile industries closed. However, there are some signs of a slow recovery. Residents have begun restoring and renovating homes. Vacant storefronts still line several streets, but a few businesses, including a popular diner and a local grocery store run by a nonprofit, have moved in with hopes that others will follow.

Despard, selected the area because he said he wanted the “students to understand how a lack of economic opportunities exist for some community residents, despite signs of development and progress” and “how despite social and economic challenges, residents are taking charge in East Durham and why it’s important to understand what’s happening in a neighborhood from the perspective of people who live there.”

Students also visited with representatives from the East Durham Children’s Initiative and from Durham’s Partnership for Children—two organizations focused on improving the health and education of children and the overall well-being of their families.

“I also wanted students to understand neighborhood-focused initiatives and how services alone are not enough to promote community development,” Despard said.

Like so many cities and towns across North Carolina, those the social work students visited have also experienced a significant increase in their Latino populations. For the field trips to Burlington and Siler City, much of the discussion focused on this growth and how public and nonprofit agencies have stepped up to assist these changing communities.

“A lot of what (nonprofit and human service representatives) talked about is how they get information from the community and how they connect to people in the community,” said Caye, a clinical associate professor, who accompanied 20 of her students to Burlington, where an estimated 16 percent of the population is Hispanic. The students heard from public health workers, social workers and other agency officials on children’s health, prenatal care, environmental health, and domestic violence and sexual assault services.

“The biggest thing for me was that these students see that community agencies must stay attuned to the communities they serve,” Caye said. “If communities change, then what you do has to change. And it’s not something you do once; it’s something you do over and over. That certainly came through loud and clear from the people we met with.”

That message was equally clear in Siler City, where today, an estimated 50.1 percent of the town’s population is Latino. Much of the explosive growth occurred in the mid to late 1990s when waves of Hispanic immigrants poured into the town, primarily for jobs at three poultry processing plants.

Townsends, the last of those processors, announced in July that it’s shuttering its plants in Siler City and Mocksville, eliminating more than 1,100 jobs and impacting another 200 chicken farmers in Chatham and surrounding counties.

At Siler City Elementary, where 63 percent of the estimated 700 students are Latino and 79 percent are on free and reduced lunch, a federal sign of poverty, teachers and staff are working harder to identify assistance for families affected by the plant’s closing, said Sally Scholle, a school social worker. Among other ideas, Scholle helped organize a community garden project that is teaching young children how to grow their own food.

Though not ideal, many families are also supporting one another by opening up their homes, she explained. “I really thought we’d see a mass exodus of kids, but we’re actually seeing more homeless children because parents are losing their homes and doubling up with others,” she said. “It’s really sad because so many families had just started to buy houses, and now they’re being foreclosed on.”

Still, the visiting social work students said they were impressed with the school’s history of resilience. During the 1990s when Hispanic families first started enrolling their children, many Siler City residents removed their own kids and placed them in the county’s newly developing charter schools. Today, Scholle said the public elementary school has very supportive and involved parents who have eagerly embraced the school’s dual-language program. Now, all students spend half the school day in classes taught in English and the other half in classes taught in Spanish.

“People have started calling wanting to know more about the program,” Scholle said. “I think they’ve realized that being able to speak two languages is a very marketable skill. But all of this has been a gradual process.”

During the last two decades, Siler City has also seen growth in the number of nonprofit and human service agencies working closely with the Latino community. Social workers from the Chatham County departments of Public Health and Social Services and representatives from the nonprofits, The Hispanic Liaison and the Coalition for Family Peace, were among those who spoke to social work students about their organizations’ services and efforts to address the community’s changing social, health and economic needs as well as efforts to foster cultural understanding between Hispanics and other residents.

Such organizations are important because traditionally, the Hispanic community does not speak up for itself, said Paul Cuadros, an assistant professor at UNC’s Journalism School and the author of, “A home on the Field,” a book about his own experiences in community organizing in Siler City. Cuadros advocated for, developed and coaches the boys’ and girls’ soccer teams at Jordan Matthews High School in Siler City.  He led the boys’ team to its first state championship in 2004. That winning team has helped many of the school’s Hispanic students to think differently about their futures, he said.

“I think what the soccer program ultimately did was show to that class of students that they could achieve and succeed and participate in a way that they wanted to do,” Cuadros told the social work students. “So now we have participation at that school at all levels—not only in athletics but with clubs and programs.”

Seeing community social work and community organizing performed, especially in a rural area, was an eye-opening experience for first-year MSW student Sara Skinner. “I’ve lived in big cities for a very long time, so I have this idea of what social work looks like and the only social workers I had ever met were in big cities,” Skinner said. “So going to a town the size of Siler City and that has the problems that the town has had showed me that this type of social work is really different.”

That realization is exactly the lesson that Hinson had hoped students would learn.

“Understanding a community is absolutely the first step for working in a community,” he said, “and acting as a change agent.”