How a Social Worker is Helping Diversity, Equity and Inclusion – in 280 Characters or Less
Minutes before she walked the stage at USC Commencement this past May, Marium Qureshi’s phone rang with an unfamiliar number. Luckily, she picked up. Twitter was on the line, offering this new Master of Social Work (MSW) graduate a job as a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) specialist at the company’s San Francisco headquarters.
“I was thrilled,” she said. “It was like everything I had worked for coming to fruition.”
For-profit and nonprofit organizations are intentionally embracing DEI as organizational values and are finding ways to ensure that these values are reflected in the policies, operations and activities of the organization, according to Renee Smith-Maddox, clinical professor and diversity liaison to the university for the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. This organizational change increasingly creates career opportunities, and Smith-Maddox notes that social workers are uniquely suited for DEI jobs.
“They are trained to advocate for equality, equity and human rights,” she said.
Many inside and outside the field of social work assume that a social work degree prepares students for careers engaged with society’s most vulnerable members, be they youth, the elderly, the poor or the disabled, said Ruth White, a clinical associate professor at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work. But that’s a narrow understanding of the social work mission, she said.
“The setting is not what makes the work about social justice,” White said. “It’s about the goal of the work, the outcome of the work. You are helping make access to the careers of the future for marginalized populations going forward.”
The work is being driven by public demand. “Customers want the social justice perspective now,” she said. “They want companies to be more accountable to the communities that they serve.”
What does it mean?
According to Smith-Maddox, diversity and inclusion are outcomes, whereas equity refers to the process an organization engages in to ensure that people with marginalized identities have the opportunity to grow, contribute and develop.
DEI work can include a variety of duties and responsibilities. A DEI specialist might help plan a company’s retreat to make sure the activities are not inappropriately gendered, White said – for instance, that all the outings aren’t traditionally men’s activities, such as golfing, where women either don’t feel welcome or lack the skills to participate. Another duty might include examining a company’s hiring practices to see if they translate into geographical and socio-economic diversity – or, if by hiring only from the same set of elite schools, the company is merely replicating its existing workforce.
For her part, Qureshi’s job at Twitter is to support what are known there as the Business Resource Groups. These are run by and serve to advance the goals of particular interest groups at the company, such as African Americans (Blackbirds), Asians (TwitterAsians) and women (TwitterWomen). In her first month on the job, Qureshi jumped into helping TwitterOpen, which represents the LGBTQIA community at Twitter, orchestrate and host events for Pride Month. TwitterOpen hosted a panel discussion on how to be an ally to someone who is openly LGBTQIA in the tech workplace, and as Twitter’s intersectionality, culture & diversity coordinator, Qureshi helped the group make that event happen.
Like those in other Business Resource Groups, TwitterOpen members volunteer on top of their full-time jobs. “My role is to support them and their initiatives and make sure their voices are amplified and heard when Twitter is making decisions,” Qureshi said.
Qureshi began the MSW program at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work in 2017 with the express goal of getting into the DEI field. In fact, it was the reason she decided to attend USC, even though she would have to do it virtually, because she lived in the San Francisco Bay Area. She wanted a degree from a school that would help her build connections in the corporate world; a friend already enrolled at USC assured her the school had a strong network of alumni and other connections.
She was inspired when she took professor White’s class and learned about her work in workplace resiliency. “I thought, okay, I can do this, too,” she said. She reached out to White, who gave Qureshi her cell phone number and provided support and insight into the world of corporate jobs.
When the time came to apply, Qureshi cast a wide net. “I was doing massive searching,” she said. “My LinkedIn was constantly open.”
Landing a corporate job may take some extra thought and work for those with a social work degree. Employers are often looking for someone else – a person with an MBA, for instance, or somebody with previous business experience. But employers are persuadable, said Juan Macias, associate director of alumni career and professional development at the USC Suzanne Dworak-Peck School of Social Work.
“You need to be able to pitch your story,” he said.
Social workers come with skills that businesses desire, he said: relationship management, community development and engagement, the ability to do a multi-dimensional needs assessment of an individual or a marketplace. “We’re trained to be change agents with people from zero to 100,” Macias said.
Once a social worker can get in front of an interviewer and make their case, it’s often pretty compelling. “Most of the time, if you can talk about the transferable skills, people get it,” he said.
White agreed. “It’s on us to sell them on what our degree is,” she said.
That can start with the resume. White advises students interested in nontraditional social work careers to put their skills at the top of the first page and their degree at the bottom of the last. When responding to postings, remember that many desired business skills are part of a social worker’s traditional job description. “If they are looking for problem-solving skills, you totally know how to do it,” she said. “People who can operate in a high-stress environment – that’s us!”
Macias suggested networking to land that initial interview. Reach out to friends and to friends of friends. Request informational interviews from people at places you might like to work – you never know where a chat could lead, he said.
When Qureshi saw the initial ad for the Twitter job, her first response wasn’t to apply – it was to reach out to a friend who worked at the company. “Her referral was vital,” she said.
Beyond DEI, USC social work graduates have leveraged their degrees into an array of nontraditional careers outside of the nonprofit world. Macias pointed to Mia Bennett, a vice president in the Life Services Management department at Wells Fargo Bank; Florence Chung, who worked at Target building strategic community relations before becoming a consultant to police foundations; and Janel Byrne, who works in leadership development and employee engagement at Children’s Hospital Los Angeles.
“We need to bring our values into the corporate setting, to bring the elements of social work into corporations,” Macias said.
That’s because it’s not only the down-and-out who need help, White said. “My particular tagline is to have healthier and happier workplaces and workforces,” she said. “No matter where you are doing your work, you are making the world a more just place for people working on the margins.”
That’s the sentiment that gets Qureshi excited about getting up and going in to her new job every day.
Qureshi worked at a number of nonprofits before going to grad school, and got frustrated with how little headway her efforts seemed to make in the grander scheme of things. She wanted to effect not only individual change but systemic change. And in her eyes, that possibility seemed more immediate in the tech world. “I’d seen the impact tech had on communities, particularly communities of color,” said Qureshi, who emigrated from Pakistan when she was 18 months old. “I wanted to be a part of those decisions.”
In her new role, she hopes she’s beginning to do that. “I think it’s possible to support folks that need immediate support,” she said, “and also be a part of creating this community and this system that does provide this possibility for larger growth and change.”
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