At the Crossroads of Social Work & Public Health
TRACEY SPINATO, LMSW, MPH | CHC PROGRAM MANAGER
My mother swears that my first words were “not fair!” While at the time I was most likely reacting to being the youngest child and only girl in the family, those words predicted the life-long passion I would have for social justice. As I got older, I chose a career in social work so I could address the larger societal issues I saw as being unfair. I went to graduate school for social work and public health because of the variety of career options I would have that focus on social justice. Social work, in particular, opens the door to different career paths within the field: there are those who work on the clinical side, either as a case manager or therapist; those working in more of a community capacity with smaller groups or institutions; and those who work at the larger, organizational level, through non-profit management, grant writing, or project management. With so many options in the social work profession, it can be difficult to know exactly where one fits or even where to start. Looking back on the last few years of my career, however, I can see now just how important it was that I started by working in the community.
As the current manager for the Institute of Women & Ethnic Studies’ (IWES) Collective for Healthy Communities (CHC) program, I work at the crossroads of social work and public health to promote mental and emotional well-being within the community. Although my focus has changed over the years, I began my career in a “boots on the ground” capacity, serving New Orleanians as both a health educator and social worker for IWES’ Believe in Youth - New Orleans, Louisiana (BY-NOLA) Program. For three years I taught youth about taking charge of their own health so they could feel empowered to make positive decisions at a time in their lives that can be so challenging to navigate. As the lead social worker for BY-NOLA, I also met with youth who expressed emotional distress; those who experienced trauma at the individual, community, and societal levels. I heard their stories, validated their feelings around personal experiences, and connected them to resources to cope with the stressors they faced. It was heartbreaking, at times, to hear stories of pain, abandonment or stress, and I know that not every youth I spoke with would get the help or support they needed. But every student, and every individual story, has influenced me and shaped my perspective on the work I do now as a supervisor to other social workers, as well as a manager for several projects focused on creating community and societal level shifts around mental health.
After being in the field for several years now, I often receive emails from those at the beginning of their careers, trying to figure out their next step. Many are eager to go straight to the managerial level of social work. My advice, always, is to start with the “boots on the ground” work first.
This will be the work that will be critical to your career, so that when you become the person at the leadership level--influencing larger societal change--you will come from a place of understanding and compassion for those you serve.