Putting Research into Practice: Making Real Change

The social work department’s annual Leadership Education Advocacy Day (LEAD) trip

For students with a passion to make a change at the highest level of the Indiana state government, the social work department’s annual Leadership Education Advocacy Day (LEAD) trip offers an amazing opportunity to make their voices heard. This year, the group of students, led by juniors and seniors, made their way to Indianapolis on Feb. 20-21, 2023, to meet with legislators, discuss important issues, and use what they’ve studied to make the state better. 

While LEAD has been a longstanding annual event for Valpo social work majors, Caroline Ban, MSW, assistant professor and BSW Program Director,  decided it could be something more.

“When I came here six years ago, the only LEAD day we had was going to a conference with other social workers,” says Professor Ban. “My background was in lobbying, so I decided we could definitely provide a richer experience.”

Now, students are required to select a bill currently being debated at the state level and dedicate themselves to researching it. They also identify the major legislators surrounding the bills, compiling white papers and fact sheets to figure out how best to approach representatives and discuss their findings before going to speak with them during the trip. Some of the discussions are advisory, some are in opposition to the bill, and others are just to keep the legislation top-of-mind for the representative as the vote approaches. 

For social work students, having a grasp of policy, an understanding of how bills become law, and a good relationship with their local representative can prove vital to thriving in their choice of careers. 

“It’s important for us, because we get to hear about different types of social work than the micro level of case management,” says Katie Deluca ’23, a social work major. “It’s at the macro level, it’s policy, and it pertains to the classes we take with Professor Ban.”

Katie took the reins of this year’s LEAD trip by taking on the role of LEAD project manager. She and her team were tasked with managing the logistics of the trip, booking speakers, reserving spaces, and making sure everyone had what they needed to get the most out of their visit. As a second-timer, having gone on the LEAD trip her junior year, it was also her responsibility to adjust their plans according to what she learned in the spring of 2022.

”One of the things that we saw last year was that, previously, it was very easy to pull a legislator off the floor during a session to have a conversation,” Katie says. “Since COVID, that has not been the same.”

Katie’s action plan for the trip was to meet with Representative Garcia Wilburn to discuss House Bill 1321. The bill focuses on police training reform, providing officers with tools and resources to ensure their own mental health remains stable in the face of their demanding job — and the bill itself was not purely the creation of politicians. 

Katie had a memorable meeting with Rep. Garcia Wilburn, with a sophomore social work major, Abby Manak, shadowing the meeting. “We discussed that she had spoken with law enforcement officials and made them part of the process of drafting this bill,” Katie says. “That was awesome.”

The social work department’s annual Leadership Education Advocacy Day (LEAD) trip

Another bill being discussed by students was House Bill 1161. The bill revolves around food insecurity in higher education, and would fund grants that support food pantries and other programs that make sure students get enough to eat. Lesley Padilla ’23, a social work major, met with Representatives Earl Harris, Chuck Goodrich and Mike Andrade to discuss the importance of the bill and the impact it could have on students in Indiana. 

“I framed it as an investment, that he was keeping more students in the state and helping the economy. I had to be strategic in that way,” Lesley says. 

Lesley was inspired to research the bill due to her own experience interning with student affairs at Valparaiso University, where she has been a firsthand witness to the impact of food insecurity in a campus environment. 

“This trip is really transformative,” Lesley says. “I’ve had an opportunity to create big change with these legislators, who are making decisions that affect our populations every day. It’s really making sure that issues that are important to us get attention.”

Students also had a chance to hear from Clo Perkins, former Valpo Social Work Major, and current Budget Committee Intern for Democratic Caucus. Only one person every two years is chosen to fill this role and Clo cited Valpo Social Work as the reason for getting the job. To read Clo’s story, click here.

The trip involves more people besides just Social Work Majors. The orientation dinner the night before featured SouthPaw Soul Kitchen, a local Black-owned business in Indianapolis. Entrepreneur, Aaliyah Harrison, who works for SouthPaw Soul Kitchen, spoke about her dad’s story and vision to open the restaurant. SouthPaw’s delicious dinner was sponsored by Michael Chikeleze, the Valpo Gozon Chair of Leadership. 

Additionally, for the second year, students coming from outside the social work department included members of Valpo’s Black Student Organization (BSO), including computer science major and social work policy-practice Minor, Chris Gatlin ’24, the organization’s treasurer.

“Our former president — David Sanders — was a social work major, and he worked to integrate BSO with the social work department,” Chris says. “He was there lobbying last year, and got to meet with the Black Caucus. He was the main driver.”

The social work department’s annual Leadership Education Advocacy Day (LEAD) trip

As a current member of the leadership team who went on the spring 2022 LEAD trip, Chris took up the challenge of organizing the event for his classmates this year, including arranging vehicles, hotel rooms, and making sure that every BSO member in attendance had a plan on what they wanted out of the trip. 

“It teaches you a lot about the government and different legislation, especially on the state level,” Chris says. “You learn about different bills, and controversial bills. This helps make sure people know what’s happening around them.”

The BSO met with Representative Harris, Chair of the Black Caucus, and Derion Searcy, Executive Director of the Black Caucus, to discuss how their identity helped inform their views on policy, and Chris himself was present for the discussions of the proposed police training reform bill. 

No matter the students’ intent, the LEAD trip to Indianapolis represents the kind of unique leadership and advocacy experience that Valparaiso University students have the opportunity to participate in during their undergraduate studies. 

“I would say that it’s even unique among graduate programs,” says Professor Ban. “We have a graduate at a policy-focused MSW program in Connecticut who could talk extensively about how she’s doing things that we did at Valpo that they’re not even doing at her graduate program.” 

“Just from my experience at my internship, currently at Porter-Starke Services, and conversations with people who have just graduated or are still at school, when I tell them the things that we’ve done at the Valpo social work department, they’re shocked,” Katie says. 

Whether it directly relates to their careers or not, the knowledge and confidence required to push for real change can be an immense benefit to any student, and to any citizen. 

“A lot of times people are too scared to even think about policy, or research it because they’re overwhelmed,” Lesley says. “Everyone says ‘let’s change,’ but they don’t know how to get involved in politics, but it’s so simple, just looking up a bill on the topic that you’re passionate about and contacting the author. If you’re really passionate about a topic and want to see change, it starts with that.”

“Always stay socially and politically connected,” Chris says. “Know what’s happening in politics and in your community.”

Putting resarch into practice