Interview with Melinda Lewis, Social Worker and Adjunct Instructor at the University of Kansas

We recently had the opportunity to interview Melinda Lewis, a social worker and university adjunct instructor in the Kansas City metropolitan area, who practices statewide in Kansas, and to some extent, in Missouri. Melinda earned a BSW at the University of Kansas, and a MSW at Washington University in St. Louis. For her latter studies, Melinda’s individualized concentration focused upon “macro-level strategies for poverty eradication, with an emphasis on Latino immigrant communities.” Melinda, who has 14 years’ experience as a social worker, specializes in advocacy and social change, working with nonprofit and direct-service organizations. She has worked in Latino immigrant communities, in domestic violence and with adolescents, as well as on a crisis hotline. But her primary activities have centered on policy advocacy and community organizing.

melinda-lewisPlease describe your typical workday, Melinda.

One of the things that is most rewarding about my social work practice is the degree to which it allows me to vary my schedule, which, as a mother to young children, is imperative. I traditionally work about two days per week, in very long days – 14 or 15 hours – as well as a lot of evenings and weekends, when I might be writing or creating materials for organizational clients, facilitating community meetings or focus groups, or interacting electronically with students. During my work days, I will have meetings with nonprofit leaders who are trying to integrate advocacy into their programs or teach classes. I teach social policy and advocacy/community practice courses in the MSW program at the University of Kansas, and I spend some time in the state legislature.

What are the greatest challenges you face in your job? How do you overcome them?

I face the same challenges that nonprofit organizations face: lack of adequate time and resources to take on advocacy, in addition to direct-practice demands. I try to help organizations overcome them by instituting structures that weave advocacy into their work, helping them to see that promoting social change is really more about the way in which you approach your work, rather than something else that you need to add to your list of things to do. I also try to add capacity to nonprofit organizations, as a way of helping them do more than they would normally be able to do, in pursuit of the social changes they desire and their clients need.

What aspects of social work do you most enjoy?

I love when my advocacy skills and knowledge can help social workers work collaboratively with their clients to realize significant policy and social changes. In some ways, I’m a policy wonk who really loves winning, but it’s a tremendous feeling not primarily for the competition but for the fundamental benefits that policy improvement can bring to people’s lives. And there is nothing as wonderful as seeing people who have experienced oppression experience their own power, and reap the benefits that exerting their power can bring. In terms of the work I do right now, the most rewarding aspect is how I get to work on a variety of issues and with organizations engaged in different types of intervention, with different populations. I might spend the morning helping a community mental health center shape its advocacy messages, lunchtime meeting with a Board of Directors to write testimony against mandatory drug-testing for public assistance recipients, early afternoon doing storytelling training with a child abuse prevention center, late afternoon writing issue briefs on the need to expand childcare assistance, evening giving a speech about the need for comprehensive immigration reform, and then the later evening grading papers and exchanging instant messages with students just embarking on a policy analysis project. It would be impossible to choose a favorite out of that.

Can you share a particularly meaningful experience you have had in your career?

I was part of a coalition that, in 2004, changed Kansas’ policy regarding immigrant students’ access to higher education. As a result of our work, much of which centered on helping immigrant students organize to provide testimony that transformed the policy debate, thousands of immigrant students in our state have had the opportunity to go to college, when they otherwise would not have. In turn, many more thousands of Kansans have met immigrant students and learned about the contributions they are making and can make to our state and our economy. I have loved almost everything about being a social worker, but the moment I will remember forever is when I called the students who had worked the hardest on the bill, on the way home from the capitol, to tell them that they won. We won, together.

What advice would you give to those just starting out in a social work career?

I tell my students all the time that they should choose their first job, in particular, based on an organization that they’re excited about, more than a job description. Job descriptions can change, but finding an organization whose culture, approach to the work, and commitment to clients you find inspiring is the best indicator of long-term satisfaction with your career choice. I also tell social workers all the time that our Code of Ethics means that we have to engage in advocacy and social change; the good news is that combining excellent clinical skills with a commitment to macro change is the best way for social workers to also live our primary professional obligation—to serve our clients.

We thank Melinda for sharing her wide-ranging social work experiences and thoughtful words of wisdom. For more insight into the field, visit Melinda’s blog, Classroom to Capitol.

Learn about how to become a social worker in Kansas.