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Humphreys Institute strives to engage clients in political process

by Ken Best & Sherry Fisher - October 30, 2006

Interns at the University's Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work are trying to make a difference: They hope to get their clients to vote in the upcoming election.

"Our goals are to explore ways for social workers to increase the political involvement of the clients they serve, and to increase the number of social workers who hold elected office," says Nancy Humphreys, founding director of the Institute.

Created 10 years ago, the Institute was an outgrowth of the increasing awareness of the need for social workers to become more active in the political process, says Humphreys, a professor of social work and former dean of the UConn School of Social Work.

It is the only one of its kind in the United States.

The goals of the Institute are accomplished through education and training programs, research activities, and service to the community.

During the third week of September each year, students are asked to set up voter registration activities in their field placement agency.

"There's a good deal of national data saying that about 40 percent of the people social workers deal with are not registered to vote," Humphreys says.

"We're deciding elections by very small margins, and having a large segment of the population disempowered by virtue of not being registered is a big issue," she adds.

"If people don't participate, they don't get the benefits of our democracy. We have data that shows that if you get people registered, they vote that first time. Social workers are committed to empowering their clients to become more efficient and functional participants in the social system."

Interns at the Institute are partnering with the Village for Families and Children, one of the largest and oldest non-profit social service agencies in Hartford, to encourage clients to vote and to assist them in the voting process.

"We're helping them understand the importance of voting, and urging them to get their friends and neighbors to register," Humphreys says.

"We want them to know where to go, and what to expect when they get there. People are often hesitant when they haven't done something before."

Humphreys says that for many years, professionals in the field of social work have wanted to encourage more of their peers to pursue politics, not only to get elected as candidates for office, but also to work for politicians.

Kay Davidson, dean of the School of Social Work, says "Nancy Humphreys has developed a unique institute that prepares students and members of the wider professional community to influence social policy at a state and national level. Through the institute, UConn offers students exceptional opportunities to learn many ways to participate in the political process."

Nancy Humphreys, professor of social work and founding director of the Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work.
Nancy Humphreys, professor of social work and founding director of the Nancy A. Humphreys Institute for Political Social Work.
Photo by Peter Morenus

The School of Social Work highlights national political figures who are social workers in its recruitment materials and on its web site, including U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski of Maryland and Ron Dellums, a former member of the U.S. House of Representatives from California.

"It's a logical next step for those social workers who see themselves working in politics," says Humphreys.

Sometimes those involved in politics will transfer their interest in helping others by becoming social workers. Humphreys' current graduate assistant is doctoral candidate Shannon Lane, who previously worked on the staffs of U.S. Sens. Mark Pryor of Arkansas and Ben Nelson of Nebraska, and former Sen. Tom Daschle of South Dakota.

Humphreys says the Institute is following the campaigns of social workers who are running for office around the country, with a goal of increasing the number of social workers who are elected to office.

And, if students and others involved in social work want to learn more about political campaigns, a weekend program is available to do just that.

The Institute holds an annual two-day "Campaign School" in May to teach social workers and other interested social services workers how political campaigns work and how to become involved in them.

The program has been replicated for groups in Kansas and Nebraska.

The Institute has also developed legislative handbooks for social workers in Connecticut and Massachusetts.

Humphreys notes that three Connecticut state legislators are alumni of the School of Social Work: State Sen. Edith Prague, '75 MSW; House Majority Leader Christopher G. Donovan, '80 MSW; and Rep. Kenneth P. Green, '79 MSW.

Social workers are found everywhere, Humphreys says.

"We are in schools, health care settings, employee assistance programs at work, and family service institutions," she says.

"The only place you don't find social workers is in leisure time places, and I think it's only a matter of time before you'll find them there."

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