We asked several outstanding Hispanic social workers to tell us why they chose social work as their profession and what they see as challenges to serving the Hispanic community today.
Susy Villegas, Ph.D., LCSW
University of Oklahoma School of Social Work
Q. Would you please tell us about your area of expertise?
My name is Susy Villegas de Chaverri; I graduated some time ago with a BA and double concentration in psychology and sociology from a French university in north Canada. I also completed a graduate program in Psychology at the University of Costa Rica, my native country.
Later, I came to the United States where I graduated with a Master in Social Work from Kansas University, and completed two specialization programs from the Menninger Foundation one in human sexuality and the other in Marriage and Family Therapy.
Last year (2007), I completed my doctoral program at University of Texas at Arlington. I am currently working as an assistant professor at the University of Oklahoma School Of Social Work. During all these years, I have primarily worked as a clinician in direct practice with families and couples and child welfare populations.
Q. Why did you join the profession of social work?
As a young psychologist I found myself working with low income clients from remote areas in Costa Rica; it became clear during those early years that understanding the social context, culture, and environment was fundamental for intervention or treatment effectiveness. I later confirmed the same experience in the United States while working with Latino or Hispanic clients.
During my professional journey, I became a social worker, because as a discipline social work provides me the option of a larger and comprehensive scope of work. It allowed me to integrate my experiences into a holistic paradigmatic view that I value because of its complexity and practice flexibility. Independently of so many areas of professional practice, social work is embedded into a central set of ethical professional values that characterize social work as a value based professional discipline that is important for me.
Over the years and across my educational experiences, I continue to value the comprehensive, holistic, and integrative nature of social work. I completed my doctoral program because of my dream for a professional work that could allow me to practice in three dialectic areas which I believe crucial for balance-integrative professional work: direct client contact, teaching, and research.
Direct client contact or practice keeps me humble and grounded in the purpose and values of our profession, the complex realities of our clients, and the limits of our services. Teaching as I see it, is not only a privilege, but also allows me to engage in a stimulating exchange of ideas with students and colleagues that I value and see as instrumental for critical thinking. And then research, it represents for me hope and the possibility to contribute to our profession by searching for effective and appropriate interventions to the needs of our clients and communities. All of this is what motivated me to become a social worker.
Q. What you believe are the biggest challenges to serving our growing Hispanic population?
The lack of research about Latino/Hispanics in social work, culturally informed social policies, culturally relevant and effective programming, and culturally and linguistically competent professionals.
As the Latino/Hispanic population rapidly continues to grow, I am concerned that we as a professional discipline are not yet prepared to deliver culturally effective and responsive services to this particular client group. The thoughtful analysis and revision of main social programs and their cultural adaptation to the needs and characteristics of Latino/Hispanics is still missing. Also, as a professional group, we are experiencing a severe scarcity of culturally and linguistically competent social workers on all levels of the profession.
National demographics alert us that Latino/Hispanic clients seeking social work services is occurring at a rapid pace creating a time gap between topics on need for research, policy changes, relevant programmatic adaptations, availability of effective interventions, and competent trained professionals.
Research on Latino/Hispanics in diverse service areas is incipient and at early stages of development at best. Studies on Latino/Hispanic populations are complex as issues of culture, race, ethnicity, immigration, and social power imbalances need to be attended. So, research to guide policy and programmatic changes has been slow in relationship to field practice where there are increasing numbers of Latino/Hispanics seeking services. Under these circumstances, policies governing main social programs could be expected to enter a rapid transition to respond to the overwhelming demands of larger numbers of Latino/Hispanic clients; the dearth of research could challenge the integrity of clear standards of practice and even funding sources.
At the direct field level, effective assessments and evaluations essential to feed program and policy decisions may be challenged because of the existing diversity within the Latino/Hispanic community. Assessments and evaluations can only be effective if they respond to the characteristics and needs of the target population. Unfortunately, there is not sufficient information about the diversity of Latino/Hispanic families living in our communities that could allow us to identify the main issues of concern. Even though individuals are impacted by similar issues, some specific Latino/Hispanic characteristics may impact or aggravate their circumstances (e.g., Hispanic language barriers and immigration issues). In order to clarify these circumstances more information about Latino/Hispanics and their response to social programs and interventions is needed.
Concerning culturally and linguistically competent social workers, the need for analysis includes all areas of development of a professional social work career.
The recruitment and retention of students at all levels of academic programs needs to attend to the availability and accessibility of scholarship and funding options, the flexibility of education programs, the existence of support, and the clear value of diverse student representation. In the job market, the work conditions and available supports, the value and respect for the worker's family commitments and time, the availability of advancement options, the salary and benefits packages, and finally the tangible recognition for the cultural and linguistic skills of culturally and competent social workers serving Latino/Hispanic clients need to be competitive with those offered by other professions and careers.