Ronnie Swartz

Each semester, Social Work professor Ronnie Swartz has projects, exams and thousands of hours of community-based experience for his students. Each semester, the department chair, who keeps a guitar in his office, will also try to give a special musical performance as an opportunity to examine social justice through a different lens.

"I'll sing a song that somehow relates to an example in class," he says. One of his favorite selections is the migrant worker tune "Pastures of Plenty" by Woodie Guthrie, with the lyrics: "I harvest your crops … cut the grapes from your vine, to set on your table your light sparkling wine."

This song, says Ronnie, is an example of interconnectedness of a variety of social aspects including class, labor conditions, economics and the environment. While it may be a Depression-Era folk song, understanding that interconnectedness can provide insight to the present as well. "For example, people might not know that we divert water from the Eel River so that Santa Rosa can have grapes for its wine," he says. "It affects species, culture—even taxes."

For Ronnie, Social Work shouldn't focus solely on an individual. It has to give attention to all of the interconnected systems of oppression. "Just trying to work with an individual will only make them a little more comfortable in their suffering," he says. "We do a lot more than that."

Students in the Department of Social Work are consistently engaged in fieldwork in the community, contributing roughly 50,000 hours of service each year. Much of the focus in his teaching connects people to resources that could improve their lives.

Recently, the department expanded access to social work education by taking the program online. "Learning happens in many contexts of peoples' lives," he says. "In social work, as well as in teaching, you have to help people build on and learn by using their strengths."

While his work—ranging from counseling at-risk youth and persons contemplating suicide—has tested the limits of his own strengths, nothing, he says, presents more of a challenge nor provides as much joy as being a parent. Through his profession, Swartz hopes to contribute to a world of fairness, justice and opportunity, not only for his clients, but for his own daughter as well.

He Teaches Students to 'Take a Sad Song and Make it Better' »

The stories people tell about themselves—and those that others tell about them—have a huge impact on how they live and cope. By teaching narrative therapy, Swartz gives students the tools to help people take control of their life narratives and take back the power to shape the story of their own lives.

Being a Social Worker is Not Like Being a Mechanic: There's No Owner's Manual for People »

To be an effective social worker, says Swartz, it's important to take into account a person's humanity first and foremost. "People aren't machines, and I don't have tools to use on them." Instead, he shows students how work with people, keeping in mind the context of their culture and community.

Playing to Your Strengths »

One of Ronnie's first experiences with social work was as a teacher with the Alternative Learning Project, where he worked with at-risk youth. Often his students came to program after being expelled from their traditional schools. To connect with his students, Ronnie used facets of the student's lives to make otherwise intimidating material relatable. "As much as we were talking about fractions," Ronnie says, "we were talking about their lives."

Ronnie Swartz
Professor of Social Work