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College of Social Work

  • Mary-Stuart Tinkler

How Social Work and Politics Can Work Together to Solve Pressing Issues

Feb. 18, 2020
Chris Woodley 

Politics have always been part of advanced year MSW student Mary-Stuart Tinkler’s family. Her cousin, Mary, is the Charleston County treasurer and a former state representative. An uncle also ran for political office. Tinkler previously served as Vice President for College Democrats of South Carolina, served as a Mayor’s Fellow for the city of Columbia, and has volunteered for several political campaigns. But as a graduate student, she has developed a better understanding of the connections between politics and social work. 

“My family was always involved in politics. I've been interested as long as I can remember, and my mom has always been interested in public service,” Tinkler says. “My dad was a physician, and my mom put her time into volunteering and philanthropy. Growing up and seeing my parents’ example of service and how it relates to politics and later social work was important. Watching my parents inadvertently made me interested into politics, even if I didn’t realize it at the time.” 

Tinkler graduated with a degree in political science from nearby Columbia College in 2017. Unsure of her future, Tinkler returned to her hometown of Greenwood, South Carolina to determine how her degree and interest in politics could be applied to a more viable job and give her a better chance of success in the workforce. 

“My mom’s friend is a social worker, and we had a conversation while I was at home,” Tinkler says. “She asked me about my interests and for each answer she kept saying, 'social workers do that.'  The deadline to apply to the College of Social Work was quickly approaching, so I decided to apply instead of spending another year in Greenwood. I was accepted, and it’s been a good fit. I'm happy with my decision and don't regret anything.”  

According to Tinkler, social work is predominately policies; therefore, social workers must be political, whether they want to or not. They must also advocate for different populations, which each face a specific set of issues. Even her current field placement at Lutheran Hospice has a political angle.   

“When I decided to work at Lutheran Hospice, I thought there was absolutely no way that it would be political. But we look at different obstacles that our patients may face regarding Medicare policy,” Tinkler says. “Social Workers lobby to have services expanded or amended to better meet the needs of their clients. It’s interesting to see how elements of policy are in my field placement.”

As Tinkler continues to witness connections between social work and politics inside and outside the classroom, she believes more students and social workers must embrace both areas to help best serve those in need.

“I hear people say, 'I don't like being involved in politics,' or 'I'm not political.’ But I would disagree and say that everyone is political,” Tinkler says. “Some people have not yet found those issues that make them passionate and excited.”

Policies can help provide social welfare programs and opportunities for the people and communities that social workers serve. But some policies are mismanaged, leading some people to fall through the cracks in the system. Consequently, some lawmakers oppose certain social welfare programs while attempting to ensure that the mismanaged programs are discontinued.

“Politics can certainly help or hinder social work and welfare programs,” Tinkler says. “It's social workers responsibility to advocate for their clients and inform politicians that these programs are meant to help people and not waste tax dollars, which I think is a huge misconception.” 

Tinkler believes that politicians can assist in improving the lives of individuals and communities by simply listening to social workers expertise.

“We (social workers) are the experts who invest the time and resources into understanding our specializations,” Tinkler says. “Lawmakers just need to start investing in the people who know their specialties instead of making the call on what they know.”

She added that continuing education, which is important for social workers, can help politicians better understand the social issues that some of their constituents might be facing. 

“People are frustrated with politicians because some are elected and then they’re done. They vote how they want to and don't want to hear anything else,” Tinkler says. “Politicians must humble themselves and realize that they never have all of the answers. It's important to listen to people currently studying the research and staying updated on the issues being discussed. If everyone was more receptive to new information, I think that would solve about 90 percent of the current issues.” 

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