Social work provided a back-door entrance into politics for newly elected state Rep. Aftyn Behn of Nashville, Tennessee, who spoke to a Middle Tennessee State University audience earlier this month about how to effect policy change.
Behn, who earned a master’s in social work administration from the University of Texas at Austin, won the District 51 seat in a special election held in September after the June death of longtime fellow Democrat Rep. Bill Beck.
“I wasn’t sure where it was going to go, and I wasn’t sure how I was going to use it. But (social work) was the backdrop I needed to be where I am now,” Behn told the crowd of social work students, faculty and administration gathered at the Cason-Kennedy Nursing Building on campus Nov. 2.
The lecture was organized by social work graduate student Erin Sheehan, an MTSU National Association of Social Workers ambassador who has followed Behn’s political career over the past year.
“I noticed very early on in her campaign she was … hitting every hot-button subject and she was going up against a very tough crowd,” said Sheehan, also a Nashville resident.
Watching Behn’s approach to her new role piqued Sheehan’s own interest in politics and policies. So she reached out to the newly elected representative, who agreed to speak at MTSU about how a career in social work goes beyond the clinical level.
“I think there’s a real disconnect from real-world stuff, and students are focused on writing papers and meeting (degree) requirements,” Sheehan said. “But my hope is that social workers realize … advocacy and social justice is so much of what social work is.
“We can do that and talk amongst ourselves all day long. But if it’s not getting to the right ears, then it falls short.”
There are three levels of social work, Sheehan explained. The micro level focuses on improving personal experience of individual clients in a one-on-one setting. Mezzo social work deals with institutions like schools, community centers and hospitals. Macro social work focuses on improving the collective experience of a large group or segment of society, often by advocating on a political level — right where Behn has been much of her social work career.
An active Girl Scout until she was 18, the Knoxville, Tennessee, native was always drawn to leadership. In addition to earning the Girl Scout Gold Award, Behn was nominated to represent the Knoxville Mayor’s Youth Council.
‘Policy change will help’
Following a graduation from the psychology honors program at University of Texas at Austin, Behn enrolled in UTA’s Steve Hicks School of Social Work, where she specialized in disability studies and public policy.
“I remember being in my practicum for clinicals and I thought, ‘I’m never going to solve the world’s problems. But I know policy change will help,’” Behn recalled.
During her last year in graduate school at UTA, Behn held an internship working with the specialized refugee population through the United Nations. “It opened my eyes,” said Behn, whose experience sent her back to Tennessee to get involved in politics.
After a meeting in 2016 with state Rep. Gloria Johnson — known as one of the “Tennessee Three” for standing up for gun reform — Behn was on fire to effect change. Upon her return to Tennessee, Behn took a community organizing job at the Tennessee Justice Center and was “thrown into the trenches” of health care advocacy.
Community organizing, advocacy and social justice work came together to create a political candidate poised to face a Tennessee General Assembly entrenched in “good ol’ boy” policies and cronyism.
“Don’t underestimate me,” Behn joked. “I have the community organizing experience. I have the direct service experience. I have the policy experience. I am pulling all these things together. It’s so fluid. I love it.”
Behn’s attitude and perspective drew supporters like Sheehan, whose own social work career is now careening toward the political arena after getting involved in activism.
“The micro and mezzo are important,” Sheehan said. “But we are screwing ourselves if we think change is only happening at that level. Far too long, Tennessee has been a state that is not for the people.”
Watching Behn stand up for vulnerable communities drew Sheehan’s attention.
“There’s a big chunk of what we do that we can bring to legislation. We need to be on that side of history,” Sheehan said. “Being able to be part of a movement is really important.”
Interventions at a broader level will make a difference to effect change, said Cathy McElderry, chair of the Department of Social Work.
“We need interventions at a broader level to make a difference,” McElderry said. “Policy is very important in shaping what social workers do. Therefore we have to be a part of the decision making. The work (Behn) is doing is awesome.”
MTSU offers two accredited degree pathways in the Department of Social Work.
The BSW degree program is designed to prepare professionals for working with issues at the individual, group, family and societal levels. The program is a 54-credit-hour major and includes a two-semester internship in which students participate in current social work practice in a social service agency setting.
The MTSU MSW Program prepares students to serve as social work practitioners, scholars, and leaders who assist individuals, families, groups, and communities at the local, national and international levels.
To learn more, visit https://www.mtsu.edu/socialwork/.\
— Nancy DeGennaro (Nancy.DeGennaro@mtsu.edu)