Social Work: What is it and how did we get here?

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Published 03/10/2022
Joe Rosenfeld, PsyD, professor of human services

Joe Rosenfeld, PsyD, professor of human services


The social work profession can be traced back to the work of two amazing women, Dorothea Dix and Jane Addams.  

Dix (1802 – 1887) was born in Hampden, Maine. She suffered from several physical problems and spent a great deal of her young life recovering from those. At one point, she went to Europe to seek treatment. While there, Dix met with groups interested in changing the care for people with mental illness. This became the passion of her life. Once she returned to the United States, she began to reform the mental health system in America despite her ongoing health problems. When she began her efforts, there were few organized methods to treat people with mental illness. Most were kept in cruel conditions in their home communities. Her almost single-handed advocacy changed this and organized humane mental health centers funded by the public began opening across the United States. This includes the Elgin Mental Health Center, whose original building was designed by Dix. If this were not enough, she organized a corps of nurses who served on the Union side of the Civil War. The success of these nurses under terrible conditions advanced the role of nurses in the medical profession and encouraged the development of professional training programs.

Jane Addams (1860 – 1935) was born in Cedarville, Illinois, a town not far from Freeport. She was the first baccalaureate graduate from Rockford Female Seminary, now Rockford University. In 1887, Addams visited Toynbee Hall in London’s East End. Toynbee Hall was a “settlement house.” Settlement houses were situated in poor neighborhoods and provided shelter, educational and cultural opportunities, and other activities to help people lift themselves out of poverty. 

Addams decided to bring that concept to the United States and opened a settlement house, named Hull-House, on what is now the University of Illinois Chicago campus. Fellow Rockford Seminary graduate and Addams’ close friend Ellen Gates Starr co-founded Hull-House alongside Addams. The house still stands today. By its second year, Hull-House served two thousand people each week. Addams expanded on what she had seen in Toynbee Hall and developed the fundamental components of what we call social work today. Among these innovations was deep advocacy. Deep advocacy, or what we would call “standing with” underserved or discriminated against populations, is at the core of social work. Advocacy included living within the community served, speaking out publicly, lobbying for legislative changes, and even acts of peaceful civil disobedience.

Hull-House, under Addams, also pioneered what we call today “Early Childhood Education” or Head Start. The fight for early childhood education continues to this day. The house also had had what we would call “professional listeners,” people who listened to the problems others were facing and sought solutions. Once psychotherapy came to America in the early 1900s, psychotherapeutic techniques were integrated into these listening sessions. Hull-House also began adult education classes, which continue today in literacy and English as a Second Language, and job training and retraining courses. Finally, Addams and Hull-House brought cultural enrichment activities to the community like art classes and theater productions. In 1931, Addams was the first female to be awarded the Noble Peace Prize. In 2007, Interstate 90, which runs from Chicago through Elgin and to the Wisconsin Border, was renamed in her honor.   

Looking at the above accomplishments, we can see that many of those initiatives have found a home at community colleges. Here at Elgin Community College, we have nursing, early childhood education, literacy services, adult education, job training and retraining programs, artistic enrichment programs, and a Human Services Program, to name a few. The influence of Dix and Addams on the programs provided by community colleges is ever-present and extensive. The Human Services Program, where I teach, continues the work of these outstanding pioneers by providing a career path for people in the community in diverse fields, such as preparing mental health, substance abuse counselors, and recovery support specialists; training students in advocacy and community organization; and in providing services to underserved populations. We are all honored to follow in their footsteps.

Joseph Rosenfeld, PsyD, CRADC, HS-BC, professor of human services