About 25 years ago, Dr. Debbie Rice met a young woman through her church who was a victim of sexual violence and had nowhere to turn for her emotional and mental recovery. This is often the norm in rural communities, where access to social workers and social services are still too often limited or unavailable.
As a licensed clinical social worker for more than 30 years, Dr. Rice has worked throughout her career to identify and address the needs of people in rural communities in North Carolina. To help the young woman she met, Dr. Rice founded her community’s first sexual assault support group, which later became a family service organization, offering clinical counseling and crisis intervention services for those in need.
“I decided to become a social worker because I wanted to make a difference,” says Dr. Rice, academic coordinator for Walden’s Doctor of Social Work program. “My parents taught me to give back, and my faith led me to want to make life better for others.”
Complementing Walden’s 50-year history of empowering the greater good, Dr. Rice is one of many social workers advocating for social change to create a lasting impact in her field and across the U.S. Last year, her county’s only homeless shelter was unexpectedly asked to vacate the property where it had operated for 25 years and did not have the resources to immediately relocate. Dr. Rice worked with her community to help relocate the shelter to a church, especially after hearing it would be forced to close, leaving its residents without refuge right before the cold winter months.
“The church is now a haven for the homeless in our community,” says Dr. Rice. “They attend Sunday breakfast with churchgoers, and we have all had an unexpected opportunity to form relationships with people we may not have otherwise met.”
The impact relationship-building can have on an individual led Dr. Rice to create the NETworX USA model, which aims to reduce poverty from a holistic perspective, addressing the issue’s often-overlooked social challenges. The initiative focuses on building relationships by encouraging community members to come together to share their strengths and learn how they can help one another. Since 2007, the initiative has developed in 14 sites nationwide, facilitating weekly meetings in which participants explore topics such as equity and inclusion, resources and self-awareness.
“In order to address poverty, we need to focus on much more than just the financial or workforce development aspects of the problem,” says Dr. Rice. “The social aspect is also a crucial element, and the NETworX USA model aims to address this by building authentic, lasting relationships across race and class lines.”
Dr. Rice believes social workers can enact social change by helping to create access to the resources needed to support well-being at the individual, family, community or organizational level.
“People in financial poverty often don’t have the social relationships and social capital to make changes,” says Dr. Rice. “If you were looking for a new job, you’d call your network for help, but many people experiencing financial poverty don’t have that network or the resources to build it. Across the nation, we are seeing people who are involved in relationship-building programs gradually increase their opportunities to transition out of financial poverty.”
For Social Work Month, Dr. Rice emphasizes change happens in small steps more often than in large transformations. With more than 700,000 social workers in the U.S. making a difference in the lives of others, it’s important to remember touching one life has the potential to build positive momentum.
“Social work has taught me to be persistent and believe that change is possible,” says Dr. Rice. “Just listening to someone and offering the gift of time and attention can make a difference. As a social worker, be the one who strives to make each interaction with another human being meaningful.”