Jeanette Lewis

Recipient: February 2003

Viewed by her peers as a leader within the social work profession, Jeanette Lewis is currently the Executive Director of the Ontario Association of Children's Aid Societies and has been a social worker for more than 30 years. After graduating with an MSW from McGill University in 1971, she launched her career in Saskatchewan in the mental health field and has since expanded her career to include the field of child welfare. Jeanette was recently interviewed in honour of Social Work Week, the theme of which is "Social Work: A Unique Profession".

When asked her perspective on the mark of a leader, whether in social work or in another domain, Jeanette identified "vision" as a key attribute. In her view, it is imperative for a leader to have an expansive view of the world in order to provide inspiration and the focus to keep oneself and others going in the same direction. She stressed that, in addition, a leader must have the capacity to be introspective, giving oneself permission to be human and to make mistakes. Leadership is not just about structure. In fact, value-based leadership, or ethical leadership, entails fairness, honesty, justice and tenacity. She stated that she is proud to be a member of a profession that can bring about changes in the world, and this sense of making a difference and of being of service to others can be both inspiring and reinforcing. She believes that another essential attribute is personal strength and moral courage to stand up and speak out and keep going with conviction that your work has meaning.

Jeanette observed that the social work profession has experienced not only phenomenal growth in numbers in the years since she began her career, but also in its knowledge base. The diversity within the profession is exciting, from generalists at one end to a great degree of specialization at the other. While there has been less growth in some areas, for example, community development, the same potential for growth exists in these areas.

Jeanette Lewis believes strongly that social workers must rediscover the skills to become better advocates and effective spokespersons for their increasingly diverse client groups. One way to build culturally competent practices will be for social workers themselves to reflect the diversity of the client groups they serve. She noted that children's aid societies have made strides in achieving a better balance in gender at the leadership level (where previously, a majority of administrators were male while a majority of front-line workers were female), but there is more work to be done to accurately represent racial, ethnic and cultural diversity. She suggested that the profession look at different models of achieving this goal, for example, by creating apprenticeship programs to help new social workers develop skills. Distance education presents another potential solution. Attention must be paid to the fact that there may be many individuals suited to the profession who cannot afford to take time off and pursue social work degrees for family and economic reasons. As shortages occur similar to the late 1960's, it will be important for the profession to look again at how people are supported to get social work qualifications, in order to greater reflect the diversity of the populations served and to return to the roots of the profession as advocates.

With respect to the role of social workers as advocates, Jeanette highlighted the need for social workers to increase their abilities to influence the power brokers. She emphasized that social workers need to have the moral courage to speak out strongly on important issues and have the skills to present issues to help power brokers to understand them- in essence, to do advocacy through better marketing of the core messages that they need to impart.

One of the major challenges for the profession, according to Jeanette Lewis, is the sense that social work is often demeaned in the media. While the profession has grown, this has often not translated into greater self-esteem or positive recognition. She noted that this is the risk for any profession working in the public arena.

Jeanette also stressed the need to make the social work profession attractive for young people. Recalling that when she entered the field, there was the attitude that "we will change the world", she wondered if that sense of hope and enthusiasm is being transmitted to current students. She suggested that social work is not seen at the forefront of the professions selected by young people, which raises the challenge of how to make the profession a legitimate vehicle for young people to see their dreams realized. To do so, it is important to show how the profession is relevant with respect to issues facing the world, for example, the environment. She noted that some agencies have been targeting the new generation in their recruitment campaigns by using catch-phrases such as: "Are you looking for a sense of adventure?", "Do you want to make a difference?" and "Would you like to change the world?". At the same time, a sense of adventure alone will not be sufficient, individuals entering social work also will need to have strong observation and writing skills, not always an easy combination to find.

To ensure that the profession does not lose the benefit of skilled clinicians, Jeanette Lewis stressed that we need to support and reward front-line and community workers who want to remain in hands-on practice. There is a need to re-examine the traditional social work career ladder, where career advancement has been tied to becoming supervisors or managers, roles that may or may not suit everyone.

Jeanette has retained her sense of passion for social work and attributes this to what her career gives back to her - a sense of excitement that greets every day, the pace of her job, the stimulation of seeing what other social workers are doing, as well as the feeling of satisfaction from giving service to others. She cited as an example in child welfare, the pride in seeing a child grow up to receive a bursary because a social worker had helped in the past. These are the reinforcements that renew her enthusiasm for social work.

Jeanette Lewis is a social work leader - inspiring, passionate and visionary. Celebrate the unique profession of social work during Social Work Week, March 3-9, 2003, and throughout the year.