Bill Whitaker 

For the past 40 years, Bill Whitaker has dedicated himself to the service of others. From his first job as program director for a teen camp in Columbus, Ohio, to his current position as coordinator of the masters of social work program at Boise State University, Whitaker has worked to improve society as a whole. During his five years at the university, he has also served as president of United Vision for Idaho, a statewide group coordinating services for those in need. He was recently recognized when he was named Idaho's Social Worker of the Year by the Idaho chapter of the National Association of Social Workers. While Whitaker's tenure at Boise State will end with this academic term in May, he took to time to sit down with BW to discuss his life's work.

What got you interested in social work?

I actually had been a student in sociology, and I had been taught by sociologists that social workers were second-class citizens; they were muddle-headed old ladies in tennis shoes, who weren't really clear thinkers, etc., etc. I was a student finishing my master's degree in sociology at Ohio State at the time and ... I went to a coalition peace meeting and thought I had to make a flip remark about social workers ... and the woman who was the chair of another peace organization said, "Mr. Whitaker, before you start talking like that about social work, you had better meet my husband." So we did and I met Bernie Wall, who was director of (Southside) Settlement House in Columbus, Ohio, and that really changed my life. Before the evening was over, I had been offered a job as a program director for the teen camp for the Settlement House camps. It was a place that was interracial and had campers who were both white, black and from different income levels and different religions, and both boys and girls. So just an absolutely amazing place, and the philosophy of the Settlement House camp just really grabbed me.

What was your work like there?

People in family council (a Settlement House program) were concerned with survival. People lived in very bad housing oftentimes. When I moved into the area of the Settlement House to look for an apartment, one of the major slumlords in the area, his wife took me around to show me some housing, and it was amazing. We would walk into a house, and she would describe it, "Oh this just needs a little bit of paint," but what she was describing didn't fit with the reality of the rat holes gnawed in the walls, the holes in the floor, the broken windows, all kinds of problems. And as I began to meet more people, I learned that folks were really struggling to provide for their families and at that time, public assistance was even much worse than it is today, so the budget for a welfare family included 21 cents per meal for food.

What do you think is the biggest misconception about what a social worker is?

I think that a lot of people see social workers as basically do-gooders, and they think that the only kind of social work is the person who works in child welfare, which is a very important part of social work. And they think that social workers do a lot of counselling, which is true, but they don't understand that social workers really need to walk on two feet. So you have one foot of direct service and engagement with people and responding to the needs that they have, and the second foot is really that of social justice, or advocacy. A good social worker needs to be able to do both of those things. Direct service and be an advocate. I tell my students, it takes two feet to walk.

What do you see as some of the biggest issues facing this community?

Boise is like most other places. We have a lot of unmet needs and we have a lot of people who are trying to respond to them. On one hand, Idaho has a very high rate of people who are either hungry or food insecure, to use the jargon the government uses. They really don't know where their next meal is coming from on a regular basis. I've been involved in working with a group of people that's now called the Idaho Interfaith Roundtable. We've been encouraging the Legislature to take steps to try to address some of this. We're the seventh hungriest state in the nation. We were actually, a couple of years back, the fifth hungriest state, and we've improved our position, not because of anything has happened here, but because other states have gotten worse, so we've kind of stayed where we are. The food stamp program for example, only 58 percent of people in Idaho who are eligible for food stamps actually receive them.

The group hosted a hunger summit last October. What came from that?

Out of that came the identification of a number of things that needed to be done, and one of them was the change the rule on food stamps that had said that if you owned a vehicle that was worth more than $4,000, you were ineligible for food stamps. A $4,000 car these days isn't much, and people needed cars to get to work or look for work and so on. So the rule changed with the collaboration of the Department of Welfare. [It] now excludes for each adult in a family, one car, regardless of what it's worth, so people are no longer penalized for trying to work.

Around here, it doesn't seem like an in-your-face issue. Do you think that might be one of the problems with raising awareness?

I think that's true. Low-income people who run out of food stamps, or don't have enough money to get through the month, look a lot like you and I. The clothes that people wear are very similar, and we may not see them, the same way we don't see the homeless population.

What about your work with United Vision for Idaho?

United Vision is a coalition of 23 mostly statewide organizations working to make Idaho a better place than it is today. They're religious organizations, environmental groups, labor groups, social work in a variety of ways. People are coming together to say, "What is it that needs to happen in our state for this to be the best possible place to be, and what are some of the kinds of things that people can work on that cross lines, and issues, and bring together the concerned people across the state?"

What are some of the top things that need to be done most immediately?

As far as I'm concerned, the single, most important issue all of us are facing, that really goes beyond the Treasure Valley, is the whole issue of global warming and the climate change that's related. Because, unless we as a society and a world really reverse the emissions of carbon dioxide that are going on, in the next 10 years or so, there are going to be dire circumstances.

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