Be an Agent of Change: Ray Schwartz (’70) Recounts His 50 Years in Social Work

I became a Social Worker by accident while at UCLA, studying for B.A. and M.A. in History.  With no job in sight, I saw one for a state job in “public welfare” and took it when offered.

After 4 months of training in all of the rules and regulations required of an applicant to be eligible for public welfare, the first case was sent to me, an elderly woman who had just lost her husband.  She was destitute, no money for health needs of herself, food, clothing needs, etc.  She sat down and began weeping loudly, saying she was so ashamed at having to apply for this “welfare.”  Yet her record showed she had worked some years, and her husband had worked many more years, and together they had paid taxes to both state and federal goverment. All that time.  I took hold of her hand and told her, “No, this isn’t just something we give away.  It is your tax money coming back to you.  You earned this, you and your husband earned all of this for you to use now.”

She stopped crying and we proceeded.  And she met all the qualifications for the program.

This was something I never forgot.  This made me realize what a little empathy can do for the person in such pain and sorrow.  When I heard from a fellow worker about being a social worker, and getting a master’s degree in Social Work, I applied to UC Berkeley and to San Diego State College (at that time) and was accepted here in 1968.  I got the MSW in 1970.

But the most glorious and greatest way of coming into this program was this: The Dean of the School of Social Work was Dr. Earnest Witte, who had already opened 7 other schools of social work before coming to San Diego.  And what is more is that his father, Prof. Edwin Witte of University of Wisconsin, helped to write the legislative act that was social security which President Franklin D. Roosevelt wanted to enact and when it passed through congress, Prof. Witte was its first Director.

Dean Witte used a very good way of introducing us to Social Work immediately.  All of us first year students met in a large meeting hall with him.  He then spoke to us:

“You are agents of change!  What I expect you to do is this.  Go into the community, any community, and using your eyes, ears and nose, look around, notice.  Then find out what is needed, and do it!  Don’t ask permission.”   And he added, “If you go out and do this and somehow get into trouble, I will be there any time, day or night and get you out of jail.”

I never forgot his message and I lived by it for my whole career.  And I urge others to follow the words of Dean Witte: Be an Agent of Change.


At SDSC, in my first year I was awarded a state grant at Fairview State Hospital in Orange County which housed people with severe mental disabilities who were unable to live with their families. At that time the state had not developed licensed residential care homes for them.  I was asked to find ways in which some of these residents would get released and live in a more normalized setting again.  I used group sessions with six residents.  The idea was to “train” them in self-care, and in anything that might insure they could be safe in public when released.  As I started, I noticed something.  Not one of them paid attention to anything I said. And they did not pay attention to anything any of them said to each other.  This started me to think of something that might help.  What do you imagine can be of help?  Be an Agent of Change!

Remember at this time there was the tape recorder which allowed you to tape anything by using a camera filled with a reel of tape?  I asked the hospital to allow me to record my sessions, and told them I wanted to record the people as they watched each other and what they saw each other doing at various times.  The staff were a bit skeptical but allowed it.  And when I showed them some tapes, they realized what I began to realize.   The clients were totally within themselves, looking to see their own needs and wants. So I altered my session in this direction and dealt with what each person in the group wanted now!  And asked the person how he or she might be able to get it, ask for it, etc.  And slowly, the group began to ask for ways, other ways to see how it might be possible to get something, do something that they like.  It was a start for them in finding a way to satisfy themselves, and also to realize they can do something for themselves.  I left there in 1969 and hoped they had learned an important lesson that could last for their lifetimes.

My second year at SDSC, I interned at a small church in South East San Diego to work and develop a “welfare advocate bureau” and teach welfare recipients the regulations, and advocate for new welfare families.  I also trained other advocates to do this. I also volunteered to help develop a new medical clinic that opened on 30th St. & Imperial Ave., in South East San Diego, which offered free assistance to users.  I was one of 5 involved, and loved doing this as it was so much needed here!  Our group got interns and licensed doctors to come and serve patients in the clinic, and we offered social work to them.

Since graduation in 1970, I developed many programs as an MSW and 10 years later as a licensed clinical social worker (LCSW).

  1. Free speech & hearing program in South East San Diego by contracting with San Diego Speech & Hearing. They contracted for a mobile service to see 200 children from grade schools in the area to check on hearing problems.
  2. Opened the first licensed home for adults with developmentally disabilities fresh from a state hospital in Pacific Beach. However I saw many violations of state regulations by the owner- manager, which continued despite my warnings, so I decided to move on.
  3. Joined San Diego County Mental Health in 1979. My first year I worked in the  conservatorship unit, which deals with full legal aspects of responsibility for adults with mental disorders.  Here the issue is whether the person is a threat to self or others, and if so all legal rights are removed by law and the person can be hospitalized against his/her will until a psychiatrist has said the person is now safe medically to be released to a proper facility, home etc.
  4. Next year transferred to mental health. There I got heavily involved in licensed residential care facilities which were used to house the person after release from the inpatient stay or state hospital. They were not able to live in the family home due to the amount of necessary extras a family cannot provide.   This occurred because I was asked by one of the psychiatrists I worked with to find out why a number of his patients recently released from 3-6 months of stay at our locked psych hospital units were coming back, after just a few weeks, worse than ever.  I went to the first program near us.  Just as I entered the place, one of the staff was handing out medications to the residents.  I asked her, what was the medication she just handed out to the person.  She did not know its name.  I asked what is it for, and she said she just was told to hand it out, that is all.  I asked her what are the side effects of the medication and again she did not know.  So I asked, how do you know if it is working?  She did not say anything.  I went back to County Mental Health and told the doctor, and said let me write up a training program for staff, and he got it approved after he saw what I wrote.  And I began with that program, and others followed.  Soon someone from Northern California for my training manual. He sent this to all of the northern part of the state in my name.  And the state realized its effect and required this training to be used for all new owners and staff hired at these homes!  See the effect of Agent of Change!
  5. I then created the first 24-hour board and care hotline phone service, which gave a person on a medical program what places were available with an empty bed anywhere in the county. I also created the first program to train senior volunteers to be senior peer counselors and had this brought into 6 areas of the county.  Assisted in getting this done in 4 Spanish speaking areas as well.  I left county in 1996 after almost 20 years.
  6. Worked at various organizations for short periods of time. The best time I had was with the United States Naval Medical Hospital, where I helped those who were affected by awful military experiences (PTSD).  As a veteran myself (3 years, 1953-55 and 15 months in Korea in Oi-Jong-Bu by the Yalu River), I was most proud to do my share to assist.

So, become that Agent of Change.  The need is certainly there, and the feelings you get in pursuit of this are great! 

Raymond Schwartz, MSW, LCSW (retired)


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