Westmont Magazine Seeking Social Justice Through Social Work
Jill Carmichael ’03 loves being a social worker, but admits it can be trying at times. “When you do clinical work, you get frustrated because the system doesn’t work very well,” she says. “You want to focus on developing new policies. But then you discover that changing policy is even more frustrating because it happens so slowly — and you can get really far removed from the people you want to help.”
After little more than a year as a case manager with Housing Counseling Services in Washington, D.C., Jill has learned that people committed to social justice need to do both clinical and policy work. One day she hopes to run a non-profit organization and bring these two components together to “help people become what they want to become.”
Her passion for social justice began at Westmont, where she co-directed off-campus programs for Westmont Student Ministries and served as a resident assistant. “I feel called as a Christian to bring my faith into practical life, to feed the hungry,” she says. “That’s why I became a social worker.”
Jill worked with children in her church’s Sunday school and day camp during high school. At Westmont, she volunteered for Compassion Outreach, a domestic violence shelter where children and their mothers recover from abuse and prepare for a new life. She took a year off from college to work full time in a residential facility for adults suffering from schizophrenia. That experience helped convince her to pursue social work professionally. So did an internship with Santa Barbara County Child Welfare Services.
After graduating from Westmont, Jill earned a master’s degree in social work at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Va. The first year focused on clinical work, and she provided therapy for adolescents struggling with anger. She gained policy experience during her second year working with a coalition opposing the death penalty and lobbying the Virginia legislature.
Jill discovered Housing Counseling Services through the Web site www.idealist.org after deciding to seek a job in a big city with diversity and public transportation. The organization helps HIV-positive clients find a place to live and become financially independent. While she often deals with people in crisis, she relishes the success stories, like the single mother with three children who has a good a job and is becoming self-sufficient.
“D.C. has four times the rate of HIV infection of other American cities,” Jill says. “Poverty is so prevalent — the nation’s capital has some of the richest, most educated people in the country and some of the poorest. HIV is a huge problem here. So much attention focuses on AIDS in Africa — and it’s important to fund programs there — but it’s also a big problem in our country.”
One thing that frustrates Jill is the ignorance about HIV. “People don’t want to talk about it,” she says. “Education at a basic level is so important.”
Jill’s responsibilities as a case manager don’t include education about HIV, but she can raise awareness through National Community Church, where she belongs to a small group committed to social justice. They volunteer at a soup kitchen, do some lobbying and sponsor a social justice week for the congregation. “I love being involved with a church that is socially active,” she says. “I have hope that we can help people manage and even prevent HIV infection.”