Looking Back to Move Us Forward

Social Workers Deliver Justice as Human Rights Professionals


  • Shirley Gatenio Gabel Fordham University
  • Susan Mapp
  • David Androff Arizona State University
  • Jane McPherson School of Social Work, University of Georgia




human rights, social work education, justice, social work curriculum, rights-based approach


Social work was a progressive profession at its founding, and social workers sought to transform people’s lives through wide-ranging reforms and work with individuals and communities. Over time, social work has evolved into a more conservative profession. Social workers have perpetuated oppressive policies, structures, and practices that marginalize vulnerable populations. This paper revisits the history of our profession and presents a human rights approach toward justice in social work practice and education that is more in line with its roots and the intentions of its founders. This renewed approach requires the participation of communities and the full inclusion of client voices, creating an atmosphere supportive of human rights, different curricular methods of delivering human rights and justice content, and new skill development in courses and fieldwork. This paper demonstrates how a rights-based approach bridges the divide between macro and micro practice and permeates all professional education and practice aspects. The paper shows how social work education can orient classroom and field curricula to promote human rights by emphasizing community-based practice frameworks and system-wide changes.


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