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.