Micon Remarks – IU School of Social Work Distinguish Alumnus Award

IU School of Social Work Alumni Association Awards
Friday, March 6, 2020
Remarks by Joe Micon, LUM Executive Director

Thank you Karen Jones for your kind introduction. Thank you Mark Thomas and Eileen Weiss from the Lafayette Urban Ministry for nominating me. Mark is with us this afternoon.

Thank you to the awards committee from the IUSSW Alumni Association for this great honor.

I would like to introduce my wife, Jo Micon MSW, Dean of School of Public Affairs, Education and Social Services, IVY Tech – Lafayette Campus.

I would also like to introduce our son Jonathan, daughter Katie, son-in-law Robby as well as my good friend former LUM Executive Director Jud Dolphin.

In 1980, exactly 40 years ago I entered the graduate school of social work because I wanted to make the world a better place. Much to my parent’s chagrin I was OK with not making too much money and I didn’t particularly mind long hours or stressful work. I was young and idealistic. I was captivated by our profession’s long and storied history not only of doing good, but also of organizing communities and fighting for social justice.

I was captivated by a profession that produced people like Nobel Peace Prize winner Jane Addams who advocated for immigrants, the poor, women and peace throughout the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. She said, “the cure for the ills of Democracy is more Democracy.” And “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”

People like former Senator Barbara Mikulski of Maryland, daughter of polish immigrants who grew up in Baltimore in the early 1960’s during a time when she said neighbor looked after neighbor. In 1968, she was a young social worker with a big voice, she stood up to Baltimore’s old-boy political machine. Her goal: to save two communities from being plowed under to make way for a 16-lane freeway through the heart of her city. She won that fight and, in the years that followed, she’d battle many more times for her city, state and country. She once said, “I do get emotional about my causes. I get angry. I get outraged. I get volcanic. Deal with it!” She said, “Each one of us can make a difference, but together, we win change.”

Or people like Alice Walker, animal rights activist, novelist and social worker who wrote The Color Purple. She said “the animals of the world exist for their own reasons. They were not made for humans any more than black people were made for white, or women created for men. And she said, “No person is your friend who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow.” Perhaps most famously she wrote, “I think it pisses God off if you walk by the color purple in a field somewhere and don’t notice it.”

How could you know about these people and not want to become a social worker?

Looking back over 40 years of public policy advocacy on behalf of the disadvantaged and dispossessed of our state, you can’t help but notice how far we have come.

When I see Pete Buttigieg running for the highest office in our land, proudly, confidently, without premise, I think back to the battles in 2004 – 2006 in support of LBGTQ Hoosiers, that so many of us fought and won in the halls of Indiana’s Statehouse, and later in the United State Supreme Court — and I am proud of the efforts of our profession.

When Indiana held the dubious honor of being the first state in the nation to introduce and pass voter suppression legislation impacting minority voters, our profession sprang into action. When we lost our battles in court we took to the street, started voter registration drives and significantly increased the numbers of poor and minority participation in the electoral process. So many of us continue to advocate for legislative redistricting and campaign finance reform.

During my tenure in the General Assembly I proudly fought together with my social worker colleagues to move Indiana forward on behalf of the children and families we all serve. As a result, Indiana’s minimum wage increased, full day kindergarten was implemented, tax laws for working families became more progressive, funding for school children in need of summer remediation grew and Indiana’s 21st Century Scholars Program was expanded. Consumer protections were strengthened, death rates for teen drivers decreased.

When I was a brand new graduate, with my new MSW in hand, I was young, energetic, eager to dream, to fight and to show fidelity to our profession’s rich history of advocacy and activism. So I learned how to be a better speaker, a better writer and I learned the intricacies of local and state politics.

If I were to go back in time and bump into that young MSW, I would encourage him to keep getting out there, keep pushing, keep pulling because you are actually making things better not only for your generation but for generations that will follow.

We have come so far more than 40 years, but there is still such a distance for our profession to travel. We have now arrived at a point where children and babies have been taken from their parents and put in cages and I don’t think that history will be kind to us about it. Last year we tolerated 39,000 deaths from gun violence, 24,000 of them from suicide, 30,000 injuries from gun violence and 418 mass shootings. What will history say when it observes us as having failed to act to stop the carnage?

One of my favorite quotes these days is from Robert Frost: “Now that I am old, my teachers are the young.” and while there isn’t always a lot to relish about aging, I am grateful that it has given me the opportunity to learn from those who are younger. I am so inspired by how this generation of social workers continues to speak out so forcefully on issues of environmental protection, racial justice, and the rights and dignity of women, immigrants and refugees. You, in your own manner, with your own skills and in your own ways are proudly carrying the torch passed to you by the likes of Jane Addams, Barbara Mikulski and Alice Walker.

The 19th century English poet Lord Alfred Tennyson, while not a social worker, was perhaps the major social commentator of his time. He said,

“We are part of all that we have met
And though much has been taken from us, yet still more abides.

That which we are, we all are together. One equal temper of heroic hearts. Strong in will to strive, to seek, to find, and not to yield.”

It took us 188 years to elect our first social worker to the Indiana General Assembly. I encourage each one of you to consider elected office now. Despite the countless ways in which politicians have failed to act with distinction of late, despite the ways that our precious democracy has been tarnished, I fervently believe that public service remains an honorable undertaking – an undertaking that is tailor made for the likes of social workers. I am always available to talk, share and encourage those who are considering taking the plunge. Let’s not wait another 188 years.

Thank you so very much for the honor of receiving this distinguished award. It means all the more to me because it comes from you, my friends and colleagues with whom I so proudly share our profession’s rich legacy of service and advocacy.

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