We heard from YOU about how YOU MSW

collage of illustrations of non-traditional social workers.

By Jana Eisenberg

Our feature story in the Fall 2018 issue of Mosaics about MSWs working in non-traditional social work careers and fields resonated with a lot of you—we got a great range of responses. Here are highlights from a few of them:

A farmer with empathy and an appetite for food justice

Andrea Grom, MSW '05, is an organic vegetable farmer—after she got hooked on farming during grad school, she stuck with it, and now works at Windflower Farm in upstate NY. The community supported agriculture (CSA) vegetable farm has over 1,000 members who live in New York City.

For Grom, organic farming is not just about growing delicious food in sustainable ways. Along with the farm’s owners, Ted and Jan Blomgren, she believes that everyone should have access to that food.

“Like social work, farming has rewards and challenges. My interest in macro social work is fed through my advocacy for food justice,” she wrote in response to the article. “I work closely with our New York City site coordinators and membership to make sure [CSA] members with lower incomes have access to our produce via sliding scales, donations and SNAP. I also deliver perishable produce to our local food pantry, making sure that nothing goes to waste.”

Her ability to view people—both members and colleagues—through the lens of “where they’re at” also reflects her social work background.

She empathizes with farmers, who as a group face many stressors, and, for many reasons, including how hard they work and how tight their funds can be, are among the least likely to seek help in relieving those stresses. “When I sit down with farmer friends, I feel like I’m a social worker—in a good way,” she said, of her ability to listen and provide emotional support at some level.

She is also acutely aware of the bigger policy issues in the national conversation about immigration, considering that many farmers employ migrant workers—some from other countries, who are here through the H2A visa program.

She sees that migrant population—hard-working, highly skilled people—as deserving to be treated well. “They are trying to make ends meet and work hard like anyone else,” said Grom. “If more people got to know them and what their needs are, there would be more understanding overall regarding immigration in general.”

“It’s like a family on the farm,” she said. “The culture is inclusive and respectful; a lot of that because of the boss. We each make contributions, and it wouldn’t work without any of us.”

A lifetime of participation may lead to a life in politics

While Veronica Golden, MSW ’11 does have a traditional social work job in Erie County Medical Center’s outpatient dialysis unit, her path seems to have been written much earlier—and (possibly) headed in a different direction. In addition to her “day job,” Golden is a twice-elected Erie County Democratic Committee member who also sits on the Erie County Youth Board.

Her lifelong experience with volunteer work and being involved in the community has contributed to Golden’s current mindset. When she first started college, she thought she’d be a nurse. By the time she got her bachelor’s, she was majoring in health and human services. During her undergraduate work, she did two terms with AmeriCorps, and ended up working at the City of Buffalo’s Division of Citizen Services. Among other things, that office handles quality of life calls about things like broken street lamps and unsafe sidewalks.

“If someone can’t push their stroller on the sidewalk because it’s cracked and broken, they walk in the street,” she said. “Then it’s more likely that they will get hit by a car.” With this view, she sees cultural and social problems as being solvable by virtue of being “little things,” and, she said, “working on the little things can lead to greater outcomes.”

Her political involvement has further opened her eyes to the impact of policy and legislation. “It's important to stay on top of what's going on in the community as a whole at the county, state and federal level because the effect always trickles down to the individual, and also has an effect on what we as social workers do. I like to be at the table—I’m involved in block clubs and attend community events,” she said. “If the opportunity arises, I might like to be more involved with government and politics, legislation and decisions.”

A winding road led to his calling

By the time he was studying for his MSW, at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, Drew Mendoza, BSW ’77 knew that he had a variety of interests. After his early career, which included urban planning and going into (and burning out on) the restaurant and food business, Mendoza got a job as an executive recruiter in the hospitality industry.

This circuitous route led to Mendoza eventually finding his passion. He’s now managing principal at The Family Business Consulting Group, a company that works with families to facilitate all levels of planning and communication.

“Communication is one of the cornerstones of successful multigenerational family businesses,” said Mendoza. “Our clients view me as a neutral yet interested and committed professional—they rely on my ability to help with conversations among family members.”

His social work education—learning about communities and systems—helps him understand the inner workings of families, as well. “Members of families who own businesses can have powerful bonds,” he said. “I’m able to ask questions as they relate to family relations.”

Mendoza has worked in this field for over 25 years. “I estimate that the number of people employed by the family businesses that we’ve served in that time is over 1.25 million,” he said. “We’ve worked with these families to create healthy communities of people who have jobs. That huge impact is similar to the impact that administrative social workers can have.”

He also notes the need for more social workers or those with a social work mindset to also learn something about business and/or the law, and to apply their combined knowledge and skills in varied sectors—especially in finance.

“It’s difficult finding people with that perspective and training and who understand aspects of business, like sales, corporate governance and strategy,” said Mendoza. “It’s a huge gap. Most professionals have a pretty narrow focus—therapists, lawyers, CPAs…it’s great to have advisors who get the different pieces. When you think about having an impact on our society, it’s an area where social workers could be having a great effect.”