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I recently received the following question from a young woman who is currently studying social work at an undergraduate university:

Hello! I just found your website, and I am blown away; you’re living my dream life! I’m currently one year away from graduating with my [Bachelors degree in Social Work], and am looking at different options for where to go next. Thinking about the future is scary!

Before flipping through your site, I had never heard the term “reproductive justice field”, but that’s what I want to work in, in a nutshell. But, “reproductive justice” isn’t on the list of social problems that we generally acknowledge in class, and sometimes I feel like I can’t pursue this topic that excites me so much with my social work degree.

So my question is, where do I go from here? I’ve been looking at different grad school programs, and there are so many different options! Do you think that a concentration in public policy would be more helpful than a general practice degree? Do you have any tips for actually finding employment in the “reproductive justice field”? I’ve interned with [pro choice organizations] and am looking into starting a pro choice group on my campus next year; but I’m looking for a sign that any of this can work beyond college.

Any suggestions would be appreciated! Oh, and thanks for being awesome!

Since March is National Social Work Month, I was really excited to receive this question. A degree in social work is one of the most diverse degrees one can obtain. There are many people in various social justice movements and in many career fields that are social workers. As a social worker, you use your skills of engagement to analyze, discover, and develop strategies to work with individuals, agencies, and communities in ways that are holistic and empowering.

Generally, most people are surprised to find out that I’m a social worker. When I’m asked, “What do you do?”, it’s the first thing that I mention. They’re even more surprised at the career I’ve developed and the experiences I’ve had throughout the years. Though I’ve been in the reproductive justice (RJ) field much longer compared to social work, the skills and theories I learned as a social worker student serve to enhance my work in RJ.

I’ve broken down the question above into four separate questions to tackle:

1) Which social work practice method would be best for a career in reproductive justice work?

2) Are there any social work programs that focus on reproductive justice?

3) Are there any tips for finding employment in the reproductive justice field?

4) Is any of this even possible after college?

So, is it possible to have a career as a reproductive justice social worker?

The short answer: Absolutely!

Here’s the long answer:

Which social work practice method would be best for a career in reproductive justice work?: In order to determine this, you need to think more about what would be your ideal role as a social worker within the reproductive justice movement. What do you see yourself doing? Get a clear picture of that and see if there is a particular social work practice method that would better fit your ideal. Take each of the practice methods that your program offers, and see how the RJ framework fits into it.

Depending on the social work program, there are usually four main practice methods that students choose from: clinical, public policy, administration, and generalist practice*. To answer the student’s question above, I think studying public policy is great because you’ll study how policies affect the target population you’re working with. Not only will you analyze different policies, you’ll also study their impact on an individual level and on an collective/societal level. This can be helpful within the RJ framework because you’ll have the knowledge of seeing how a policy will affect a particular community group. With regards to generalist practice, you’re focusing more on working within a holistic understanding of your client’s needs, as well as the agency’s needs and the community’s needs. Within generalist practice, you not only build your clinical skills but you’re also developing skills to conduct needs assessments, develop grant proposals, and design and evaluate programs and services. This is helpful within the RJ framework because you’ll have the knowledge of meeting the community where they are (a very social work-y phrase) to uncover their needs as well as their strengths.

For me, I knew that I didn’t want to go the clinical route and I wasn’t interested in studying policy or administration full-time. I chose generalist practice because I wanted to obtain a variety of skills that could lend themselves to me going into any position in direct practice or program development while feeling competent in what I’m doing.

Are there any social work programs that focus on reproductive justice?: In most MSW programs, after you choose a practice method, you choose a specialized field of practice. Depending on the program, the field of practice can be a variety of things, including aging, schools, family and children, general health and mental health, and social issues. While RJ could definitely fall into the social issues category, there are no social work programs that have RJ as an entire field of practice (that I am aware of). If anything, your program may have women’s health, reproductive health, or something similar as a field of practice, or it may be lumped into a general health focus.

After I chose generalist practice as my practice method, I chose contemporary social issues as my field of practice. This often includes HIV/AIDS, homelessness, substance use, domestic violence, to name a few. I had two field placements (i.e. internships) during my time in school, and while they were centered around HIV, I knew that I wanted to focus on RJ, which does (in my opinion) include HIV prevention and treatment.

Fortunately, many schools allow you to enroll in other programs within the university that have a sexuality and RJ-like component, or there may be a class within your program that is RJ-focused. I ended up taking a sexuality course and learned a lot about the stages of sexuality, which helped a lot as I participated in RJ activities outside of school. I also made it a point to seek out school and community groups that had a sexual and reproductive health or RJ focus. This gives you actual experience within RJ, plus you’ll be out doing work in the community.

Are there any tips for finding employment in the reproductive justice field?: A good way to find employment in the RJ field is to do the same thing you could do for any field: Seek out agencies and organizations that have volunteer opportunities. There are many instances in which people have volunteered or had an internship somewhere and ended up being hired. Volunteering and interning allows you to be around staff. They will see your enthusiasm and your commitment as well as your knowledge of the program, which can work in your favor.

In regards to a social work graduate program, you will have two field placements. Before your first year of school begins, you will be contacted by your program’s field practice office and will be asked for your resume and to describe your ideal working environment. Most likely, you won’t end up in your ideal setting, and maybe not even with the population you want to work with. If that happens, do as best as you can to develop the skills needed to be in that placement. Your first year’s field placement will help you become clearer on your ideal practice method and field of practice. You will also have a field advisor to assist you along the way.

In the spring semester of your first year, you will have more control over where you’re placed for your second year in the program because you need to declare your practice method and field of practice. Go to your field placement office to see which organizations have more of a pro choice or RJ framework , and inquire if they have placements that are specific to your practice method and field of practice. If you find a placement that sounds promising, ask your field placement office if you can contact current students in that placement to get their experiences of the agency. Even if you find nothing in the RJ field, you can always look for opportunities off campus to get involved with sexual health and reproductive justice activism where you can use your social work skills.

Is any of this even possible after college?: Yes, it’s completely possible! Use your creativity to develop the best academic and career path for you. Don’t let any perceived lack of reproductive justice focus in your MSW program deter you from wanting to be a reproductive justice social worker.

* This post is based on my experience as a social work graduate student during my time at the Columbia University School of Social Work.

RAISE YOUR VOICE: Do you have any questions about social work, reproductive justice, or anything else on my blog that you find interesting? Are you a social worker or social work student and want to weigh in? Let me know in the comments section below (or contact me here) and I’ll answer them.

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