Social Work | Social Justice

SSA students in UChicago’s Human Rights Program traveled around the globe to explore broader societal implications of social work.

By Ed Finkel

News Type
SSA Magazine (Archive)


Jonathan Lykes found the connection between social work and human rights work in Cape Town, South Africa, where he organized a sleep-in at the parliament building to protest mismanagement and a lack of water, electricity and libraries in the schools of the poverty-stricken surrounding townships.

woman with a red bandana holds a basket over her shoulder


SSA students in the University of Chicago Human Right’s Internship program join the long tradition of linking social work with social justice issues. In South Africa, Nicaragua, Nairobi, Taiwan and even Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, five master’s students worked on projects as diverse as policy advocacy around HIV/AIDS services, creating a programs that serves young mothers who have been victims of sexual assault, and teaching high school math. The common framework was seeing the connection between helping individuals and advocacy for large-scale change.


Published in the Summer 2012 issue of SSA Magazine

Erin Bradley discovered the connection in the Granada region of Nicaragua, where she joined an agency that both counsels and advocates for women who were victims of domestic violence. For Ashley Hildred, the connection came while teaching math at Social Justice High School in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, where she gained first-hand experience with the implications of unequal education funding here in the U.S.

For all three SSA students—and two of their classmates—participating last year in the University of Chicago’s Human Rights Internship Program was an opportunity to join a long tradition of linking social service work with a human rights perspective.

“There’s a history that clearly connects social work as a field to concerns about and advocacy around social justice and human rights,” says Robert Chaskin, SSA associate professor. “Some argue that the human-rights orientation is fundamental and foundational to social work practice in general.”

Typically about 30 to 35 students across the divisions and departments at the University of Chicago participate in the program each summer, through which they receive grants to explore human-rights opportunities that the students carve out for themselves at nongovernmental organizations, government agencies and international entities. For several years, SSA students have been disproportionately represented in the mix of University students, a fact that make sense to Susan Gzesh, the program’s executive director.

“The internship program supports SSA’s mission of dealing with structural problems in society that turn out to be rights problems—workers’ rights, access to health care, access to medications, access to the courts,” Gzesh says. “SSA students bring this a priori sense that what they are doing in the classrooms is going to be tested in the real world. It comes naturally to them because of the way the SSA curriculum is designed.”

For Jonathan Lykes, it was clear in his internship that he needed to address both the immediate needs of the people with whom he was working and the underlying causes of those needs. “You’re working with individuals on the ground on the one hand, and then on the other hand feeling you’re making some sort of systemic change,” says Lykes, a combined bachelor’s and master’s student. “You’re helping them cope with a bad situation—but it’s not just that.” 

A desire to visit South Africa had been percolating in Lykes since high school, when he worked for a civic education program called “Facing History and Ourselves,” through which he met Albie Sachs, the renowned South African human rights lawyer and jurist (Sachs later came to the University of Chicago as the first Richard and Ann Pozen Visiting Professor of Human Rights).

Once in South Africa, Lykes was thrust into the role of interim education director for Equal Education when the permanent person in that role left for sabbatical the first day of Lykes’ internship. That led him to the parliament building sleep-in where, after pitching tents and declaring they would not move, “The students almost got arrested,” he says. “I was scared because if I had been arrested, I would have been sent home. It was amazing, and scary, and weird, and awesome all at the same time.”

Lykes says he found the experience of landing in a foreign country and being called to help be an organizer for change rather humbling, and it made him think about the role of a social worker in general. “What does it mean for you, as an outsider, to come into someone else’s community and think you can help them?” he says.

In Nairobi, Mike Reddy was also presented with a mix of individual problems and larger societal issues at Heshima Kenya, a safe-house and community center where he worked with unaccompanied refugee minors whose families had been killed in high-conflict areas. These teenage girls had been victims of sexual assault, and many of them had children due to rape, in some cases, when the girls were as young as 14.  

Having social workers on the ground helped shine a light on the harrowing experiences of these teen girls and increased the chances their needs would be accounted for by distant government agencies. But it can be a frustrating process, says Reddy, who served as a business consultant for a social entrepreneurship venture at Heshima Kenya that teaches the teens how to make scarves to sell at market.

“Too many decisions are made at this macro level, by people who don’t have any interaction with the populations they’re making decisions about—politicians, think tanks,” he says. “Social workers can humanize these decisions and ensure that the real-world experiences of the people who are affected are taken into account.”

Reddy recalls one young woman offered asylum in the U.S. who had to get permission from the rapist who impregnated her to bring his child with her. “Had her social workers been consulted, or someone with intimate knowledge of the situation, oppressive policies like this could have been avoided,” he says.

During his time in Nairobi, Reddy drew upon his dual degree training at SSA and University of Chicago’s Harris School of Public Policy Studies to help the refugee children making the scarves streamline their work process to meet rising demand. As an Indian-American, he learned about how his ethnicity was viewed in East Africa. In a country where Indians represent the largest minority—and earn an estimated 80 percent of total business revenue—that perception wasn’t always positive at first.

“There’s a lot of ambivalence in Kenya about Indians,” he said, with popular perceptions that they’re stingy and don’t treat workers well. “There were a lot of preconceptions about me walking in the door, especially as a business consultant. They assumed I would not really care about these girls and just focus on the bottom line.” 

Reddy believes his dual-degree training helped him to walk that fine line. “I’m able to think in terms about what we want production to look like,” he said. “But I was also able to use my SSA background to ensure that the mission of the organization wasn’t being changed, that the girls were being taken care of, that we were honoring their past and the struggles they were going through. A lot of those preconceptions died out when they saw what was important to me—it wasn’t just the numbers and the money, it was creating the best organization for the participants.”

For SSA doctoral student Chengshi “Koh” Shiu, returning to his native Taiwan in the Human Rights Internship Program was an opportunity to link his work in the past as an activist around HIV rights and LGBT issues with his training at SSA. “After I came to the United States and began my research career, I didn’t know how I could apply this set of skills and knowledge to human rights work,” he admits.

Last summer, though, Shiu was back in his native country working for PRAAT, an agency that provides legal and social services, talking with individuals with HIV and AIDS about their daily lives and the barriers they might face without free medications. Recently, HIV and AIDS activists have faced the specter of the government cutting off free medications for HIV and AIDS patients who live in poverty, as Taiwan has provided since 1997. That would have a major impact in a country where one-third of people with AIDS live under the poverty line, Shiu says.

Shiu interviewed people with HIV and AIDS about how the policy change would impact their quality of life—he spoke with 30 of them—and compiled their stories. Advocacy groups are pressing the government to either switch to generic medicines or find other ways to lower the prices. At less than $100 per month, the medications are still exorbitant, particularly for those who are too sick to work—or whose employment prospects are dimmed because of their HIV status.

“I applied a social worker’s clinical techniques or knowledge to assess the barriers or strengths of the individual person with AIDS,” he says. “Using my clinical skills, people there became very open about how they suffer from stigma. It enabled me to better understand their lives, and my research skills enabled me to identify patterns emerging from their lives. I used patterns from the interviews to inform policymakers.”

In Nicaragua , Erin Bradley traveled with colleagues as part of a mobile health unit called Sex Movil throughout the countryside, showing videos, leading discussions and passing out condoms and educational materials about domestic violence and sexually transmitted diseases. “The clinical skills I gained my first year helped a lot, in terms of empathetic interviewing and discussing some sensitive issues,” says Bradley, who interned with the education director at an agency called Ixchen Centro de Mujeres. “So did the cultural competency that we talk about so much at SSA.”

That mix of skills helped Bradley navigate scenarios like giving a talk on sexually transmitted diseases as “the only blonde girl” in an all-male Nicaraguan prison. “People were respectful and asked good questions,” she says. “It was different, but not in the way I thought it would be. They were appreciative we were giving them the information.”

Bradley didn’t find it hard to make the intellectual connections between helping individual women achieve their rights and empowering them within the broader society. “We all had the mindset that social work is human rights work,” she says. “Domestic violence is a huge problem. There’s a larger national discussion [in Nicaragua] about whether women have the same rights as men, and if not, what can we do to change that?”

The agency and location appealed to Bradley for a number of reasons: Her fluency in Spanish and previous time spent in Spain and Mexico sparked a desire to travel to Latin America. She wanted to build on the experiences she gained as a domestic violence counselor at Metropolitan Family Services in Chicago during her first-year field placement at SSA. And the internship also hit the intersection of human rights work and social work that she hopes to pursue in her career.

“A lot of social workers don’t view themselves as human rights workers, when, in reality, much of what we do is directly tied to advancing human rights for individual clients and on the systemic level,” Bradley says. “I wanted an opportunity to bring social work skills and perspective to a human rights internship, and then use what I learned to bring a human rights lens to my SSA education and my career as a social worker.”

For Ashley Hildred, the one SSA student in the Human Rights Internship Program last summer who didn’t go overseas, the issue of how social work connects to human rights wasn’t as necessarily as clear initially as for those who went abroad. After all, we rarely talk about the human rights of our fellow American citizens— it’s usually in conversations about developing countries far away when the idea of human rights is broached.

But as Hildred deepened her understanding of the history of framing education “as a form of liberation and independence, and something that increases the number of options an individual has available,” she says, she began to think about how the capacity to access that power is based on socioeconomic status, race and ethnicity, and isolation and marginalization. “[Education] is something we guarantee in the United States, but the quality of service is not standardized. I became aware of how resistant, as a nation, we are of discussing this as a human right that’s being denied to people in the United States,” she says.

Social Justice High School was created in 2001 in response to a hunger strike in the community to demand better education options. “They never wanted to forget the struggles that led to justice,” Hildred says, noting the school’s mission contains unusual language, like: “Our students will cherish and preserve their ethnic and cultural identity, will serve and determine the future of our community, and will have a passion for peace, justice and the dignity of all people.”

Hildred said she arrived to work not knowing she would soon be teaching math. With no lesson plans, few classroom management skills and “lots of energy and enthusiasm,” she arrived in a low-performing school where teachers sometimes burst into tears when progress— or lack thereof—was announced on standardized tests. “I tried to construct a social justice curriculum around math, which was hard to do,” she says. “Social justice combined with academics is really, really difficult to establish as a newcomer to teaching in general.”

She did her best, using curriculum from UIC to teach students, for example, how to calculate percentages using word problems tied to issues in the community. “You move conversations forward and get investments from kids by making it relevant to them,” Hildred says. “They were spicy kids. They got sassy. They were very inquisitive. They would engage in debates. But no matter who you were, they were very respectful.”

Hildred reexamined some of her preconceived notions about public school employees and teacher’s unions, which had been mostly negative. “My beliefs reflected the discourse in the news and the media,” she says. “My views changed when I actually worked with teachers who worked really, really hard on behalf of their students and on behalf of the school, using a social justice philosophy and framework. They busted their butts.”

Like Lykes and other students in the program, Hildred reminded herself not to foist her own mindset on those with whom she worked. “I realized how imposing that can be, to make assumptions about what other people need,” she said.

“When a school like Social Justice has such dismal test scores, people judge the teachers in the high school. It’s not a comprehensive view of how we have a system that contributes to this. It lands in [teachers’] laps.”

Field work and internships of all types expand the perspective of students learning social work. For those in the Human Rights Internship Program, the added framework of how social justice is woven into all aspects of social work both locally and globally—and can become the dominant framework—is a benefit that will continue to pay dividends throughout their careers.