People Over Politics

Hold my Drink Podcast Blog, Episode 44

People over Politics: Social Workers and Viewpoint Diversity

By Matthew Watson, LCSW


Social work is primarily social. It’s been said that “The personal is political.”[1] I believe the personal is far more social than political. Social justice is an essential element of social work practice; social work is the only helping professional with social justice as a foundational value. But social work is more than social justice, for the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) Code of Ethics states that it “does not specify which values, principles, and standards are most important and ought to outweigh others in instances when they conflict.”[2] There is no values hierarchy in the NASW Code of Ethics. Social work focuses on social justice but need not be dominated by it.

Furthermore, there is more than one way to pursue social justice. Are political solutions the most effective way to address social issues, including social justice? Or is it perhaps more effective and sustainable to engage other means of social change, including community action, faith communities, interest groups, families, private enterprise, and personal relationships? Politicized social justice may be efficient in achieving short-term goals, but it is debatable whether it is as durable as non-political approaches. Indeed, many well-intended solutions imposed by the force of government are quite fragile (see the persistent efforts to overturn the Affordable Care Act as an example) and hinge on decisions often made by a single judge.

Should social justice be pursued at the expense of all other elements of the Code of ethics: service, the dignity and worth of the person, the importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence? Doing so would simply impose a tenuous brand of social justice most likely to crumble when held up to different types of scrutiny: pragmatic, moral, ethical, philosophical, and scientific. Efforts to enact one ideological and political brand of social justice are currently being challenged and are well documented.[3] Similar efforts are criticized as reflecting ideological imposition and religious rigidity rather than rational rigor.[4]

It is tempting for some to engage the force of government to promote an ideological movement. However, doing so comes at a cost: dividing a community and undermining non-political solutions. Examples of this include the politicization of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic. It was a primary point of contention in the election, and many believe it contributed to Joe Biden’s defeat of Donald Trump. The politicization of the pandemic presents a problem: many Trump supporters who likely would have followed the president’s example of getting vaccinated now resent and resist it. One might ask if there would be an oppositional response from Trump antagonists if he would have prevailed in 2020. Interestingly according to the New York Times, young people of color in New York City are also quite distrustful of the vaccine.[5] When fact, truth, or science is politicized, it evolves into an institution rather than a process or philosophy. Human institutions are imperfect, have often been used to oppress minorities, and subject to skepticism. Institutionally politicized science invites distrust. In contrast, what might have happened if the pandemic was not politicized? Would more people have a favorable impression of an apolitical vaccination strategy? This is not a critique of either major political party per se, as much as it highlights the pitfalls of politicization and any candidates’ pandemic political posturing to smear an opponent.

Political diversity is a codified element of the NASW Code of Ethics that is often ignored. It was not until 2008 that the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) codified political diversity as an accreditation standard.[6] The Code of Ethics clearly promotes political diversity via numerous references intended to prevent discrimination in general and collegial condemnation based on political and religious beliefs. I often wonder how many social workers are aware of the Code’s emphasis on political diversity.

During the summer of 2018, I noticed a discussion on an online members-only NASW forum. The social worker stated the following (shared with the permission of the author): “Regardless of where I'm living or which NASW Chapter I belong to, I find that many of the most liberal of our profession seem to look upon their more conservative colleagues as less than ‘real’ social workers. I have even heard that ‘you can't be a social worker if you are a Republican or conservative.’ I find this demeaning in the sense that if/when we react in this manner, we are not living up to the basic tenets of the NASW Code of Ethics - the inherent worth of the individual. I'm curious to know what other NASW members think. Thoughts, anyone?” 

The median temperature of social worker keyboards rose a few degrees that day. A flurry of activity ensued with interesting perspectives and dialogue. Some social workers were sympathetic to professional political diversity; some were neutral; some agreed that there was no room for conservative or Republican values in the profession. They suggested that professionals who “lean right” bore the burden of demonstrating how their values align with the NASW Code of Ethics. Those who “lean left” apparently bore no burden to demonstrate the validity of their values and beliefs.

After a few days I accepted the challenge and posted traditionally conservative positions that aligned with the social work values. It wasn’t difficult, but was met with some criticism, yet also received a great deal of support. I engaged in respectful dialogue with many social workers, many who disagreed with me but helped me refine my thinking and positions.

An NASW Press acquisitions editor reached out to me a few months later and asked if I had ever considered writing a book. After several conversations, I ultimately concluded that I didn’t want to author an ideological book about social work; rather I had interest in an edited work engaging multiple authors who would contribute perspectives on viewpoint and political diversity in social work.

One of the first people I contacted was a contributor to the same online forum: Zander Keig. Zander and I are in many ways polar opposites. I grew up in a relatively ethnic, religious, and culturally homogenous community, living with both parents and in the same home for most of my life. I’m white, straight, cisgender, traditional in some ways, Christian, able bodied (yet bald), etc. etc. etc. As a “paragon of privilege,” how could I possibly be a social worker? Zander is definitely more of the prototypical social worker: child of a Mexican immigrant family, spent time in a group home, became in his words a “radical separatist lesbian” before transitioning to live as a man. Zander was awarded the NASW 2018 California Social Worker of the Year. He was subsequently named the National NASW Social Worker of the Year in 2020. We are in some ways an ideological “odd couple.” While we come from very different backgrounds, we are great friends and colleagues. We are both Centrists. We have developed some fluency in identifying and appreciating politically diverse approaches. We have friends that lean left; and friends who lean right.

We are co-creators of a project that will result in a published book and have started a community of politically diverse social workers. We have connected with dozens of social workers to find contributors. Several have committed to submit contributions to our book and we are always seeking more authors. Our project moves slower than we would like but continues to move along despite being an “after hours” effort.

What are the bases of our movement and united effort?

1)     We value, appreciate, and are refined by viewpoint diversity.

2)     We don’t sacralize the political – we are not beholden to any one political party’s ideology or preferred solution to social problems.

3)     We commit to goodwill and give each other the benefit of the doubt in good faith.

4)     We maintain an open stance, a commitment to intellectual humility, and a willingness to learn and stand corrected.

5)     We emphasize the social in social work.

6)     As people of faith, we know the difference between indoctrination and education. We can differentiate between rational social work and religious social influence. We don’t proselyte each other, our clients, or others, but seek to understand.

7)     We believe in the divine within humanity and thus privilege humanity over political or ideological differences.

8)     We acknowledge differences, dialogue, and seek common ground.

9)     We are willing to forgive when mistakes are made.

10)  We prioritize individual identity over group identity.

In summary, we are social workers.


In the Hold my Drink — navigating culture with a chaser of civility, and Counterweight podcast, Episode 44, we speak with social workers Zander Keig & Matthew Watson. Zander and Matt are on a mission to promote viewpoint and political diversity in social work. Social workers advocate for social justice, but a strict definition of social justice and adherence to rigid ideologies often places politics over people. Social workers face a diverse constituency and therefore themselves, must also embrace diversity within their profession to create the greatest social impact. All discussed with a chaser of civility, of course, and a pina colada popsicle, guava nectar, a grapefruit Radler and a spiked root beer float.

Hold my Drink welcomes all people with all kinds of beverages to join us as we explore the truths of a chaotic and beautiful world, together.

Find us on Apple Podcasts and Spotify, or watch the conversation unfold on YouTube, and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram.


What Matt is Reading:

The Boy Crisis, Warren Farrell and John Gray.

What Zander is Reading:

American Essence Magazine, August Edition


Zander Keig is a proud Coast Guard Veteran and an award-winning Social Worker, Educator, and Public Speaker with subject-matter knowledge and experience in developing LGBT diversity and inclusion programs, interpersonal and organizational conflict management training, clinical peer consultation and mentorship, and corporate mental wellness program development. He has served in various capacities: clinician, trainer, speaker, consultant, coach, advisor, facilitator, mentor, networker, educator, leader, and community builder.

2020 WPATH Harry Benjamin Distinguished Education Award | 2020 NASW National Social Worker of the Year | 2020 WPATH Certified Gender Specialist | 2018 NASW CA Social Worker of the Year | 2014 San Francisco CARES Social Worker of the Year

Matthew Watson is a licensed clinical social worker and has provided therapy in a variety of settings for 25 years.  He has been employed by Family Services of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints since 2002 as a counselor, agency manager in Georgia and Arizona, regional manager, mental health adviser, and field group manager in the southwest United States, Mexico and Central America.  He was previously employed by Primary Children’s Medical Center in Salt Lake City, Utah where he provided therapy for abused children and their families.  He started his career working with his wife as group home parents to 45 different young women.  They have been blessed with four sons.  Matthew’s professional interests include evidence-based practice, viewpoint diversity, translating and integrating differences, and religious liberty. He is working on a project with several contributors to promote viewpoint diversity in professional social work practice.


[1] Hanisch, C. (1969). “The personal is political.” http://carolhanisch.org/CHwritings/PIP.html  Retrieved November 12, 2019.  

[2] National Association of Social Workers. (2017). NASW code of ethics. Retrieved August 22, 2021, from https://www.socialworkers.org/About/Ethics/Code-of-Ethics/Code-of-Ethics-English *Note: The 2021 changes in the NASW Code of Ethics to be implemented in 2022 do not change the assertions in this essay.  

[3] Ray, R. and Gibbons, A. (2021, August). “Why are states banning critical race theory?” Brookings. Retrieved August 22, 2021, from https://www.brookings.edu/blog/fixgov/2021/07/02/why-are-states-banning-critical-race-theory/

[4] McWhorter, J. (2018, December 23). “The virtue signalers won’t change the world.” The Atlantic. Retrieved August 22, 2021, from https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2018/12/why-third-wave-anti-racism-dead-end/578764/

Hughes, C. (2020, August 19). “A better anti-racism.” The Manhattan Institute. Retrieved August 22, 2021, from https://www.manhattan-institute.org/a-better-anti-racism

[5] Goldstein, J. and Sedacca, (2021, August 13). “Why Only 28 Percent of Young Black New Yorkers Are Vaccinated.” The New York Times, A(12). Retrieved on August 23, 2021, from https://www.nytimes.com/2021/08/12/nyregion/covid-vaccine-black-young-new-yorkers.html

[6] Compare and contrast the standards from 2001 and 2008:

· Council on Social Work Education. (2001). Educational policy and accreditation standards. Alexandria, VA: Author. https://www.cswe.org/File.aspx?id=13780

· Council on Social Work Education. (2008). Educational policy and accreditation standards. Retrieved from https://www.cswe.org/Accreditation/Standards-and-Policies/2008-EPAS