On Friday, May 9 I was honored to speak at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Social Work graduation. My remarks are below.
Thank you so much. Thank you Dean Hinterlong, Dr. Fabelo, the faculty and staff of the School of Social Work, and the friends and families of the graduates here today, and of course to the graduates. I am honored and humbled to be asked to speak to all of you, as you move forward to the next stage of your life.
So many people choose professions seeking ways to earn the most money and prestige possible. Well, I know that you are not those people. The decision and the drive to go into social work revolve around caring for people and wanting to make a difference. You are among the people that do not equate the pursuit of happiness with the pursuit of the dollar. You understand that success means much more than wealth. I applaud you for that.
While I have worked alongside social workers during my time as a lawyer and as a guardian ad litem, the biggest collaboration lies ahead.
Now, I am a lawyer and a politician so you can believe every word I say. I only have a couple of points to make. First, your ability to adapt to changes in society and changes in the workforce and changes in your own lives, is key to success. You have to be the change you want to see.
Almost 20 years ago I attended a dinner at a private college in Virginia. After we ate, the president of another college addressed the group. He gave a speech that I still think about today. He said that it was not enough for any of us to say that we were ready for change or look forward to change. We have to meet change in the middle of the road; mount it like a horse and take it in the direction we want it to go.
I have often thought about that metaphor as I consider the changing world we live in.
By choosing to devote your life’s work to this path, you have made a difference already.
Whether you are working in a local social services agency, in private practice, the school system, in a hospital or nursing home, you can make a tremendous difference for people at the beginning, middle, and the end of their lives.
In a sense, social workers are helping individuals learn to control their own reins. But, as a legislator, my hope for your work is much broader.
Every year, without fail, my office receives a handful of emails from social work students about legislation pending before the General Assembly. Given the regularity of the messages, I suspect a public policy course is mandated in the program. While your focus must always be on the people you serve, I cannot overstate how important your voice is to our discussions in Richmond about our laws.
If you see a child suffer because of a flaw in the law, if you see a family split apart because of a lack of funding, if you see an individual deteriorate while waiting for services, you must take the reins of that horse. While in your day to day work you help individuals, you help families; you can also use your voice to help everyone. Change isn’t easy and it doesn’t happen overnight, but the people writing the laws need to know what is broken before we can even begin to start down a path to fixing it.
I began my work to overhaul Virginia’s mental health system this year and will be working diligently over the next four years to improve the way we deliver mental health care in Virginia.
Most of you will work with or within this system every day. Your elected leaders need to know what works and what does not. You can choose to idly hope for change, or you can grab the reins and help steer the change.
My second point relates to the way you go about your work every day. I know that you will soon start jobs. You may change courses a number of times in your career but it is easy to slip into a routine. The second point is this: Never lose your sense of urgency.
You and I are not so different. In many respects, our chosen professions are not different at all. I am a lawyer. People who are happy do not come to me very often. I work with people in trouble, people who get hurt, people who have lost a loved one, or people whose families are breaking down. Over the last 30 years, I have had a lot of crying clients in my office.
Sometimes I can help, and sometimes I cannot. Sometimes we cry together, sometimes we laugh together.
Sometimes the toughest thing I do is go to court and try the kind of case I have tried hundreds of times. I know that there is a reason for people to be so cynical about lawyers and government. The kind of case I have tried dozens of times a year, every year, for the last 30 years, might be that client’s only time in court or their only experience with government. If I am just going through the motions, I have let down my client, my profession and our justice system. It is not good enough for me or the lawyer on the other side, or the judge to look bored and just do it like we’ve always done it. We owe it to the clients and the people that are in court watching, to be fresh and to treat every case with a new set of eyes and with a sense of urgency.
Likewise, my message to you is that you cannot afford to lose that sense of urgency. In the line of work that you are entering, every situation you face is one where life and death may be at stake. It is simply not good enough, in fact, it is not even acceptable to treat the people you serve like the people you have always served. Each individual is worthy of respect and dignity and compassion, and concern. You began this work because you care about people. Don’t forget that; those people need you desperately.
People have often asked me how I could represent someone that I know is guilty. And of course, I have a lawyer answer for that. It goes back to the Constitution and everybody having a right to a lawyer, a fair trial, and the state having to prove the crime beyond a reasonable doubt.
But what it really goes back to is this: Every person who is charged with a crime, at one time in their life, had a mother, father, sibling or other special person who loved them. Every person you serve is entitled to that same respect and dignity. Every day you go into work you have to be fresh. You have to be compassionate. You have to be open to saving lives.
If you cannot be, you need to take a break and rekindle that fire in your belly to help. Social work is hard work. The stories you have heard and will hear can break your heart and make you question humanity. At those moments, remember how you feel today. The excitement. The hope. And the drive to help others. Remember those whom you have already helped through the toughest hours of their lives. And, above all, take care of yourself.
We are in such a confusing time and now more than ever, we as people need each other. Be a change agent. Adapt to the situation. Be kind. Be compassionate. Never lose your sense of urgency. Thank you.