To all of you here today, I want to tell you what an absolute pleasure -- a thrill -- it is to be a part of this historic week-long celebration of the first 100 years of the Columbia School of Social Work. But even more important than this wonderful institution which has spread its knowledge across this country and around the world, are all of you-- and the thousands of past graduates who are not here today. I'm speaking of today's Hall of Fame Award winners -- Ada Deer, Sister Mary Paul Janchill, Alfred Kahn, Helen Rehr, and Herman Stein. And I'm speaking of the 15 "pioneers" in social work whose life work enriched the field. But I'm also speaking about every graduate, every teacher who has worked to improve the social welfare of this nation.
Mahatma Gandhi taught that "consciously or unconsciously, every one of us does some service or other. If we cultivate the habit of doing this service deliberately, our desire for service will grow stronger and will make, not only our own happiness, but that of the world at large."
Your training here at Columbia -- whether recent or decades in the past -- clearly has inspired you and cultivated in you that "habit of doing service deliberately." And your individual work -- whether in community social welfare or health care programs, in schools and hospitals, in times of disaster, or in jails and prisons -- has connected you forever with this nation's mothers and fathers, grandparents and children.
I want to talk about an area of excitement and importance to me -- family-centered work. I know it's not a new concept to you, but it is, I believe, a remarkable springboard for mobilizing and directing this nation's public health and social policy in the coming century. And it's an area in which both Al and I have been actively engaged for quite some time, both as individuals and in our respective public lives.
Just stop a moment and think about what has transpired in the past 100 years to shape and change the American social landscape. And consider what the field of social work -- a profession born of compassion and caring, of good works and philanthropy -- has meant to the people of this Nation, providing a guiding hand through the social and political, economic and educational forests of that changing landscape.
Whether it was the ancient practice of leaving the corners of the fields of crops unharvested so the less fortunate might glean food for their families or ministering to the physical and social ills befalling sharecropping families. Whether it was leaving the comfort of the middle-class home to do service in wartime hospitals or working with immigrant resettlement or victims of natural or human disaster. Social work --your discipline --was born of the religion-based ethic of doing for others. But at the turn of the century, early in the Industrial Revolution, the role and importance of good works and philanthropy took on new urgency.
Industrialization brought us a host of changes including the growth of the cities and greater wealth among a larger number of people. But at the same time, it also brought us the rise of abusive labor practices such as sweatshops and child labor; it brought us slums and the attendant public health and social problems that follow.
And in this environment, the social work movement gained its foothold. The Charity Organization Society, which had operated for some time in England, Canada and the United States, realized that the needs for social reform in this country demanded more than a willing mind and heart. Its program of "friendly visitors" needed a cadre of trained individuals, if social advocacy, support, and counseling were to have real and lasting effects. And so, 100 years ago, in 1898, The New York Times announced the creation of the first course in social work education in the United States -- a class in "practical philanthropic work", established by the Charity Organization Society. And thus, the history of social work, of this, the first school of social work in the Nation, began.
This discipline that has forged community-based linkages among school, family, workplace, corrections, and health care grew from our growing human awareness that we are a social society with a public responsibility for aiding each other. And as a civil society, we knew that we had the responsibility to be a socially aware and active one.
As the field of social work advanced, thanks to many of the "pioneers" being honored today, its curriculum and direction began to take shape, mirroring the growing national social conscience.
The mark social work has placed upon our social fabric is indelible. You have been in the forefront in labor and criminal justice reform, in civil rights and voting rights, in health and mental health treatment and disease prevention, in championing the rights and opportunities that must be available to the nation's voiceless and vulnerable.
And today, as social work enters its second century, you have the opportunity to do still more, continuing to provide counseling, support, and guidance to help improve our increasingly diverse social environment by battling against the continuing social ills --some new, some generations old --that beset us as individuals, as communities, and as a nation.
You are at the hub of most efforts that reach out to, empower and embrace individuals and, importantly, the families in which they live. That's what social work is all about, whether you're involved with children in school, with senior adults in nursing homes, with juveniles in trouble with the law, or with new immigrants struggling to gain a toe-hold in the social structure of this land.
You see, as I've traveled around the country, I've had the opportunity to see a number of innovative family-centered programs in action, programs that help preserve and safeguard families in the face of tremendous adversities --such as serious mental illness in adult members or severe emotional disturbances in children, criminal involvement, drug abuse, profound poverty, and physical illness. These programs not only are uplifting, but they are working! And, you may be proud to know that, perhaps not surprisingly, social workers are at their heart!
Over the past years, we have also learned that a family-centered approach is good for public policy, too. Later this month, Al and I are convening our seventh family-centered conference, our seventh "family re-union" when we engage families and those who care for them in a national conversation about a critical social policy issue. The conferences are built around a belief in the strengths and assets of whole families. They stress the importance of listening carefully to their needs in determining policy, rather than building bureaucracies around individual pathologies.
Later this month, our family re-union will focus on families and health. We know, for example, that families want to be full partners in their health, but that, in traditional care settings, they remain left out in the waiting room. Yet we also know that parents can and should be the real experts in their young children's health and well-being. And we know from some of the recent work being done by the Center for Mental Health Service's Children's Initiative that engaging parents in care decisions, in building true systems of care for their children, works to the benefit of the entire family.
Our conference is going to address ways in which the health care system --from disease prevention to the management of chronic illness --can engage and involve family more closely in the health care decisions that affect everyone in the family. And families themselves will provide the answers.
I hope that each of you will consider what you do in your individual work; think about how a family-centered approach may be an appropriate addition. More important, consider how family-centered approaches at the policy and program levels could reframe caregiving, reframe social services from a focus on the individual with a problem, to a family in a difficult social context.
A century ago, we all but lost the extended family; in many ways, social work has taken the part of the extended family. Through family-centered policies and programs, through a re-dedication to the principles of concerned compassion, together, we can help ensure that the family remains and its members thrive.
While I can't tell you what the next 100 years holds for either social work or the social welfare system as we know it, I can tell you that we can begin to help shape it and point its direction., beginning today. After all, the author of the Little Prince -- one of my children's favorite books of all time -- once wrote that "as to the future, our job is not to foresee it, but to enable it." And that is my challenge to each of you here today, and for the Columbia University School of Social Work: to enable our collective and individual social and health futures as a nation of families.
Thank you and God speed.
Gore, Mary Elizabeth (Tipper), 1998. "Columbia University School of Social Work." The White House. https://clintonwhitehouse4.archives.gov/WH/EOP/VP_Wife/speeches/19980612.html.