Chapter History

The National Association of Social Workers and the Rhode Island Chapter: A Brief History

In the opinion of this writer, principles that apply to Social Work began well before the start of written history when mutual aide was first given. Like a good folk song, Social Work developed over a long period of time from a host of trends, needs, and human ingenuity. Also like a folk song, Social Work speaks to human potential, passions, love, desires, needs, and tragedies.

Many professionals consider 1898 as the beginning of professional Social Work. This is the year the New York Charity Organizations sponsored the first training program for Social Work in the country. However, one certainly could argue that Dorothea Dix (community organizer, lobbyist, and mental health advocate, 1841) and Jane Addams (founder of Hull House in 1889, advocate, and educator) are the founding “mothers” of Social Work. Many organizations and movements developed in the late 1890s and early 1900s and were comprised of advocates both formally and informally trained. Whether considered professional or not, the foundations of social work continued to be laid with the refinement of community organizing knowledge and the development of case management and therapeutic services. The first two professional social work organizations were the National Social Workers’ Exchange (1917) and the American Association of Hospital Social Workers (1918).

As the decades rolled by, more specialist groups were developed, and in 1955, the National Association of Social Workers was founded from seven membership organizations: the American Association of Group Social Workers, the American Association of Medical Social Workers, the American Association of Psychiatric Social Workers, the American Association of Social Workers, the American Association of Study of Community Organization, the National Association of School Social Workers, and the Social Research Group. (The Council of Social Work Education was founded in 1952.)

The Rhode Island Chapter of NASW was founded in 1963. Our Chapter reflects the varied paths social workers travel to “get the job done.” Community organizing, clinical/mental health practice, political activism, school and medical social work, and public office are just a few of the areas chapter members are involved in. We are concerned with economic justice, civil rights, as well as provision of effective and meaningful services. A review of key issues NASW-RI has worked on over the decades indicates our commitment to all areas of social work advocacy and practice.

In the 1970s a few of the key issues revolved around women’s rights, in particular choice, getting anti-discrimination ordinances passed, the right to confidentiality in providing services, and exploring professional licensing. In the 80’s, focus was placed on Gay and Lesbian rights, mental health issues/de-institutionalization, reactions to the dismantling of social programs by President Regan, and professional licensing.

The 1990s brought attention to political activism, issues with hospital privatization and insurance oversight, mental health parity, gay and lesbian rights, and passage of the Social Work Licensing law.

In the twenty-first century, we continue to face many of the same issues, but framed in a slightly different way. Marriage equality, public education, healthcare/insurance reform, stemming the attack on welfare, and punitive oriented laws are at the forefront in Rhode Island.

Our Chapter now stands at 747 members. We cannot control the future, but one promise is certain: We will continue to fight for civil rights, economic justice, and many other issues our constituents face every day. For the old adage still applies: “The rich get richer and the poor get poorer.” Another way of looking at it is “the powerful may get more powerful, but the less powerful…well…can get more powerful too.”

Rick Harris, LICSW
Executive Director
NASW-Rhode Island Chapter

Rev. 5/2019