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Interview with Rachael Stern

By Rachel L. West, MSW, LMSW
The Political Social Worker

At Social Work Helper we like to bring you interviews with social workers who are doing interesting and unique things with their social work skills. Recently I had the pleasure of interviewing Rachael Stern who just started a new job with NationBuilder as a Community Taxonomist, a position she describes as working to “create systems by which we can understand cultural competencies and community structures and am working to create a way to document this in a way that shows context and relationship.”

Rachael received a Bachelor of Arts in Musical Theatre and LGBT Studies from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She also participated in Middlesex Universities study abroad program. Rachael later received a Master of Social Work Degree from New York University.

Over the years Rachael has had a diverse career having worked in private practice, as a Community Organizer, teacher, and as New Media Director for Marylanders for Equality.

Why did you decide to pursue an education in social work?

As a community organizer and political wonk, I was entrenched in communities and how they work. A friend kindly pointed out to me (amidst PHD and JD applications) that I might want to consider social work. I have practiced all facets of social work from policy to clinical work, so I guess you could say it was a perfect fit.

You were the New Media Director for Marylanders for Equality and you are currently working as a Digital Strategist. Can you please explain what those jobs entail and how does someone with a social work degree end up doing that kind of work?

As the new media director on the Marylanders for Marriage Equality campaign, it was my job to manage a team and create/oversee digital strategy leading towards winning marriage equality at the ballot box. That includes online fundraising, social media, volunteer recruitment, website maintenance, email strategy, messaging and lots more. So how does someone with a social work degree wind up “doing digital?” They see the inherent connections between people, systems and identify the digital sphere as an intersection at which so many people meet and interact. As someone who was always a digital native, I viewed the internet as a place to create change, have conversations, and do the hard work it takes to turn ideas into realities. Certainly I have training as well and I do believe that social workers of all sorts should learn digital strategy and be provided with at least rudimentary training. Whether a psychotherapist needs to figure out how to create a website or a policy analyst needs to monitor public opinion or source ideas – it is a vital place for a social worker to be.

Today social work is heavily focused on direct practice and clinical work. Was there a time you considered going in that direction? What led you to focus on community/macro practice?

Does that make digital strategy indirect practice? I think the ways in which we think about our profession are quickly becoming outdated as the barriers between us fall further and further away. I have had a clinical practice, I have taught in the University of Maryland’s school of social work – social workers are often more than just “one thing.” It is what makes our degree unique.

What classes have you taught?

I have taught more in the clinical realm, but I always incorporate both. I taught an Eating Disorders class, which has made up the bulk of my clinical work (eating disorders, self injury, trauma, couples). I would absolutely LOVE to teach more in the digital realm in a social work school. Perhaps somewhere in California needs a good adjunct?

Have you used social media as a learning tool in class? If so, can you elaborate on what you did?

My first class was 3 separate days of 6 hours, so instead of teaching them all by myself, I invited experts in from around the nation by Skype. As educators and students, we are no longer limited by geography. I also spent a good amount of time talking about digital resources for clients. Often we forget that there is much support available in the digital realm. For this class, I spoke about specific youtube channels that helped clients as well as apps and healthy online forums.

Do you believe NASW and CSWE need to do more to encourage and train students in incorporating technology into social work practice?

Absolutely. I see no reason why social workers shouldn’t have a class in graduate school dealing both with technology and ethical boundaries, using the digital world to help clients on micro, mezzo and macro levels, and much, much more. We are in the 21st Century and our profession has moved on and grown so much from it’s initial conception, but we still aren’t up to speed with the world our clients live in. We can certainly do better by our students and our clients by contextualizing ourselves using all that is available – that includes the digital sphere.

What are your long term professional goals?

Is “yes” an okay answer? Delving into my new role at NationBuilder, I am excited to further bridge the divide between social work and the digital sphere.

Maryland is so far the only state to win marriage equality at the ballot box. How much of a role did online advocacy play in that victory?

***Minor edit*** Maryland isn’t the only, but it is the first – I am going to answer this based on that.

Becoming the first state in the nation to approve marriage equality at the ballot box was a huge victory, not just nationally, but internationally. After over 30 states had tried, Maryland set a historic precedent. We were quickly joined by Maine, Washington and Minnesota, who all stood for loving and committed families.

I believe that the digital shop played a large role in our victory. From showing the entire nation what was going on here to raising more online than has ever been raised in the state, we were a critical piece in the overall campaign strategy.

I would like to thank Rachael for taking the time to talk with us. You can connect with Rachael on Twitter at @twistedbarbie and at her blog RachaelStern.com which is still under construction.

Photo Credit: courtesy of Rachael Stern

Posted by Rachel L. West

In addition to being the founder of The Political Social Worker blog, I am a consultant. My consulting practice offers advocacy and community outreach solutions to nonprofits, social good organizations, and private practitioners. Additionally, I offer career coaching to macro social work students and professionals.

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