Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Social Work Superheroes: Interview with John Vassello, MSW

[Episode 112] Today's episode of the Social Work Podcast is about the parallels between social workers and superheroes. I spoke with John Vassello. John is the Associate Director of Field Education and Admissions in the Binghamton University Department of Social Work. He also serves as the Continuing Education Coordinator.

John and I talk about an innovative approach to marketing the University of Binghamton's social work program AND the buzz he creates at conferences and recruitment events, all with squishy little superhero stress dolls.

John connects the dots between superheroes (origin stories, secret identities, costumes, code of ethics, and more) and the life and times of social workers.

Although John is not the first to talk about the social worker as a superhero (see Dean Anna Scheyett's excellent 2015 TED Talk on Social Workers as Superheroes), he is the first to create an action figure that brings to life so many aspects of social work.

You can purchase a complete set of the Social Justice League superheroes, all proceeds funding Binghamton social work student scholarships, here: bit.ly/SocialJusticeLeague.

Download MP3 [27:12]

2019 Update: Newest superhero: The Scholar
Image may contain: 5 people, outdoor


Hey there podcast listeners, Jonathan here. Today's episode... [Cataclysmic Molten Core (Sting)] Wait. Sorry. My secret podcaster decoder ring is glowing. I'm getting a message from command. It says, Must... read... intro... like... it... is... a... superhero movie. Holy cliches batman, are you really going to do it?

[cue: Amazing Plan - Silent Film Score]
Audio podcast, not a silent movie. Work with me people!!!

[cue: Dangerous]
In a world where social workers are vilified and most conference swag is as predictable as movie trailers, there is one metaphor that has risen like a phoenix from the flames: The social work Superhero. "Everybody at some point needs a superhero; someone who is not afraid to jump into the chaos and fight the good fight with us shoulder to shoulder" (Dean Anna Scheyett in her 2015 TED Talk). Like all superhero stories, this one begins with a kid and a dream and ends with a committee decision and a prototype that became an actual superhero. By day a squishy little stress ball, by night a... squishy little stress ball.
[fade out...]

Ok. I can’t do this anymore. Can we go back to the regular script?


So, today's episode is, no joke, about social work superheroes. It's about how John Vassello, Associate Director of Field Education and Admissions in the Binghamton University Department of Social Work, took his love of superheroes and convinced his bosses to make social work superhero action figures.  I talk with John about how that little seed of an idea went from being something that he and his buddies talked about during their MSW program to an entire marketing campaign – and something that really does ignite the passions and excitement of social work educators every time they go to the social work education conference. I first met John at the Council on Social Work Education Annual Program Meeting. I was really excited when I heard there were these little action figures and I wanted to know what the story was behind it. Well, I found the story to be really inspiring and I hope you do to.

Thanks to Kevin MacLeod for the great background music, courtesy of the YouTube Audio Library:
Amazing Plan - Silent Film Dark by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
Source: http://incompetech.com/music/royalty-free/index.html?isrc=USUAN1100737
Artist: http://incompetech.com/

Dangerous by Kevin MacLeod is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution license (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0/)
Source: http://incompetech.com/music/royalty-free/index.html?isrc=USUAN1100414
Artist: http://incompetech.com/

and Jingle Punks' Cataclysmic Molten Core (Sting)

If you're interested in connecting with the tens of thousands of social workers around the world who listen to the Social Work Podcast, please join the Facebook page at facebook.com/swpodcast, follow the podcast on Twitter at @socworkpodcast. If you appreciate episode transcripts please consider donating your time and transcribing one for the podcast. Just send me a message on the Facebook page.

And now, without further ado, episode 112 of the Social Work Podcast: Social work superheroes: Interview with John Vassello, MSW.

Jonathan Singer:   John, thank you so much for being here on the Social Work Podcast and talking with us about today about this really interesting and innovative approach to marketing. The question on everybody’s mind: Why superheroes?

John Vassello:  So, uh, first and foremost, you know, while I was in my MSW I was reading a lot of comic books and reading a lot of other, uh, superhero lit. There’s [crosstalk]

Jonathan Singer:  [crosstalk] Instead of your HBSE texbooks? Is that what you’re saying? [laughs]

John Vassello:  Uh, supplemental. [crosstalk]

Jonathan Singer:  [crosstalk] Oh. [laughs]

John Vassello:: So really, I had been a big comic book fan throughout my childhood. I remember, like, some of my fondest memories being with my family watching, you know, the old batman 66 show, the animated series’, you know. So basically I had this in the back of my mind and then I remember in my practice 1, actually the guy who I work with now, Brian, was my instructor for that course. I remember thinking wow these skills sound like an incredible superpowers. Like tuning in, like that sounds like extra human. Clarifying or reaching into silences, all of these sorts of like skills you need to acquire to be effective social workers, really sound like superpowers. And I’m thinking you know, and then there were some of us in the cohort at the time, and they were like, we need to have a comic book, we can have these sort of characters and you know we went through of course field, and all of the other parts of the MSW, and that sort of went to the back of my mind.

Jonathan Singer: [laughs] As the reality of social work sort of, and you feel less like a superhero and more like a social worker

John Vassello: yeah, yeah, and all of the other systemic things. So not only the superpowers, but then also there’s a huge number of other connections that social workers and superheroes have in common. You know, after I was in practice I worked at a hospital, and then I worked at the promise song which is like community schools initiative, so I was working with a lot of students and interns. Again, this idea was in the back of my head, the connections. So one of the first things I was able to do in my current job is to teach an undergrad class that really gets the students really excited about the profession, and the way that I ended it was to really draw the parallels out. So first thing, the super powers, and then those the different skills that we need as social workers, and of course the Code of Ethics, you know, every superhero has a code of ethics in which they abide. Right, so they need to, you know this is what informs what’s right what’s wrong and you know superheroes and social workers also had similar code of ethics. Chief among them is the quest for justice, you know we are working to help vulnerable and oppressed folks, disenfranchised people were working with some of the people who might be living on the fringes of society and you know that’s what really spoke to me there. And then not only that, we seem to constantly fighting a series of villains, right. So that may be other burnt out professionals, especially as a young social worker, sometimes you’re contending with somebody who may have seen the worst days of many, many, many people’s lives, and so having to contend with that and fight that battle on regular basis as a young professional was sort of invigorating, and I saw that as sort of a villain that I needed to take on. Not that the social worker, you know the senior person, was a villain themselves, but that burnout was in fact one. Oppression, patriarchal power and privilege I mean, those are all of the things I had on my power point and like the little starburst we need to fight: People’s mental health concerns, working to help address some of them, and helping folks living healthy and productive lives. Also thinking along those same lines, you know, Batman has a really cool car, wonder woman has the invisible jet, and so most social workers also have a cool car, it usually tends to be an agency van. (Jonathan laughed). In my case it’s a 2010 Ford Focus in silver, and it is an awesome car

Jonathan Singer: [crosstalk] I know, I have a 2002 Ford Focus

John Vassello: [crosstalk] Okay, no it’s a solid car, it runs [laughs]And then you know, on top of that, what’s really important for many social workers and I really get to see this in the admissions side of things is that people come to this profession because of something. Their origin story is huge in the reason why they choose social work. So you have some folks who are like superman, they were born you know they showed up they have these powers they need to help others and they knew their whole life that they needed to become a social worker.  Then you have some other folks who you know might have something you know happen to them tragically, you know like batman, and that sort of informs their life’s work to help protect others and make sure that nobody has to befall kind of similar experience. And then you have somebody who in a lot of ways you know something happens to them, like sort of Spiderman and they get bit by radioactive, well not in social work, probably not, [laughs]

Jonathan Singer: I think HR would want to know if you got bit by a radioactive spider, yeah

John Vassello: yeah there’s a whole form [crosstalk]

Jonathan Singer [crosstalk] [laughs] yeah there’s a whole form

John Vassello At least at our university yeah [laughs]…

 [8: 28]
Jonathan Singer [laughs] yeah we have a whole radioactive spider form too

John Vassello: and they sort of fight with that they struggle with that initial you know wanting. This is something they know that they have to do but they really struggle with the idea of it, and so I mean even though I really like Batman, I feel like I would fall into category of Spiderman social worker. Somebody who was reluctant at first, to really join the ranks of the profession and then really I had this was the story that I was able to share with Brian you know who was the director of student services admissions. I said I’m really proud of this PowerPoint I showed it to my class, they really loved it and I want to show it to you too. And he was like wow this is great this should be how we get new social workers, a way to attract people to the profession. Not only our program, but the profession into a really positive frame.
Jonathan Singer: Just as you’re talking about the idea that there are these superpowers, there are origin stories, there’s the vehicles, you didn’t talk about it, but there’s the uniforms, right. Certainly Batman and wonder woman and all those folks they have far sexier uniforms than we typically hopefully wear in our jobs, but there is that same idea, so I love how you frame this, and it’s beautiful that you brought this out of what was exciting for you, and what you did. It sounds like what you did was probably in part as a way of stress relief as a way of kind of coping with stuff throughout your program and I imagine afterwards this um comic books looking at superheroes and really cool that Binghamton said this is a little off the grid and lets go for it.

John Vassello: Yeah

Jonathan Singer: So how did that happen?

John Vassello: So… oh and one other thing that I forgot to mention is that it sort of the secret identity, right? You know on one hand you have the superhero that is fighting crime and doing all that but they protect their friends and family by the secret identity so they don’t ever disclose that to anything. And that to me is a nice metaphor to great boundaries, right? So you have your work life, and you have your personal life, and so good boundaries mean that you’re a superhero during the day and a regular person during all other times, it’s okay to have those solid boundaries

Jonathan Singer: Well it’s also great because it gives this idea of confidentiality, and keeping your work life at work and your home life at home; that division that we have to for legal reasons and ethical reasons. It makes it bigger than just “oh I’m sorry honey I can’t tell you what happened today because, well you know, rules”. It’s like, no, this is what a superhero does.

John Vassello: And then of course, like many social workers, the humility. You know when someone swoops in to save the day they don’t say “um, I’ll take my payment now”, they say “all in a day’s work” , that’s just part of who they are and why they are there and that’s I think the humility, you know, the modesty sometimes of our profession that’s really all in a day’s work. Of course were going to tackle social injustice, all in a day’s work. That’s really invigorating and really exciting and I think what’s really drives my enthusiasm behind not only my professional life as a social worker but then also when I’m talking to new students and really telling them why they need to be a social worker and not some other helping profession. This is what their lives work should be as well because it’s bigger, it’s broader than just going to a job every day.

Jonathan Singer: So I want you to talk about how you took this concept and you’ve turned it into actual superheroes, cause folks who are listening are like “wait a minute, real superheroes?” So talk to me about that.

John Vassello: So back to that similar idea where I had this idea and was really proud of this PowerPoint of why social workers are superheroes, I showed it to Brian, and then our chair Vicki Rizzo got a meeting with her I had, you know, a PowerPoint, and was going to show her the PowerPoint and I was going to come up with the idea you know it should be our marketing or recruitment, these are what we should give out. So I came up with a couple of…[crosstalk]

Jonathan Singer when you say give out, what do you mean?

John Vassello: Oh, little swag items, little stress reliever, little squeeze-y things. So we were able to find a few sorts of stock superheroes. That in of itself is fine, stock superheroes little stress relievers that are shaped like superheroes is fine, but I think what really was the exciting part was not the fact that they were these little cute superheroes, but the fact that they had these superhero social work names. So the first one was, his name was The Reframer. Secret identity Norm Alise, his practice focus was families. The next one was The Clarifier and her secret identity is Emma Pathy. And so, if you haven’t caught on already in good superhero form they have very puny names and that’s another sort of pleasure and joy of mine is bad puns. Students that know me know that they can prepare to roll their eyes several times in that class. So Emma Pathy is The Clarifier and her practice focus is individuals and then on the next slide I have The Advocate, our community focus social worker. His secret identity is M Power and the last one of the four that I pitched was The Tuner, and he is our ethicist and our group worker and his secret identity is Ed Thicks. I thought for a second after I sent out these puny names and I had these pictures up and I had you know like a really rough draft of a trading card, I thought Vicki my boss was going to laugh me out of her office saying okay that’s cute, let’s get to real work. Instead the reaction was yes, we need to do this and we need to take a risk we need to really embrace this idea. She loved the idea and we were able to run with that. One of the problems though with the initial form is that we really wanted a female superhero of color to really round up the group and really lead the social justice league. So we couldn’t find any company who had one and that seemed to be a problem in comic culture and a problem in movie, pop culture. We wanted somebody that looked like the profession. We wanted to represent a lot of different groups and so we worked with a company to custom create the change agent and she was the leader of our social justice league and her practice focus is organizations and her secret identity is Lee Dership. Our students when we unveiled the first 4 or 5 they really loved the idea, you know we had little corresponding trading cards with sort of superpowers and really getting them excited about the idea of social workers as superheroes and these are social justice league members. And so different members of the social justice league speak to the different areas you know of practice, and for our students at least it was I really want to be a group worker, I really want Ed Thicks, you know, the tuner. I have a couple of students who use him to toss around in a group of kids, and that’s the talking stick. You know, but that’s Ed, the group worker, they all know. So moving forward it was great with our students, our faculty loved them, but we were really wondering what the response would be at the Counsel of Social Work Education. All of the other schools of social work here at this big conference, how are the other schools going to react. The strategy sort of was, we have 5 superheroes. This is the first year. How are we possibly going to give them out if people going to come up and say I want this one, this one, like a recruitment event, and I said no what we need to do is like they do at a comic show or what they do on black Friday. You give out certain ones at certain times in the early days I just had the hand written piece of paper with a different times on them and people took pictures and put them in their phone. We were on twitter a little bit, using conference hashtag to get the word out a little bit and then the first night we gave out the change agent you know the lead off the social justice league you know at the conference. And then the embrace that we felt from everybody there, these are the folks that have been practicing social work for many, many years, people that have been faculty, other places around the country they just loved the fact that the change agent was the leader of the social justice league this was somebody who embodied a lot of different core values of our profession and really spoke to them in a different way and they looked at us and said “are you going to give away other superheroes?” and we said “yes, actually through the whole conference” and so they learned the different times and they learned the different opportunities that they could get and sure enough by the end of the conference we had like a hardcore group of folks who were at our booth you know, creating some buzz you know and just telling us how much they love how much this superheroes speak to them and really the response has been just incredible that first year and that sort of propelled us to continue the campaign into the next year and so we added healthcare social worker and a service dog whose name is Bingo. The healthcare social worker, her secret identity is Gerry Atritian and then we typically give away the new superhero the first night of the conference and then we have them available to our students as well we unveil them though and so there is usually lot of buzz on our Facebook page and twitter accounts you know, who is going to be the new superhero and we’re really sort of quiet about that. And then the newest one, which  we’re extremely excited about, and it seems like, I also work in the field office so you know we couldn’t have a program without our field instructor so that should be our next superhero. When Brian and I were at the conference last year, he sort of drew this rough sketch of what the next superhero should look like and actually my girlfriend sort of took that and made it into colorful look you know sort of drew up the sketch of what the field instructor should look like we gave it to that same company and then they created you know the field instructor. And of course, her secret identity is Sue Pervision [Jonathan laughing] and all of her superpowers rides around working with students like, you know, for many field instructors the ability to find one hour a week to meet with their student is in fact a superpower because they are juggling so many different tasks. And then this year you know, what we also wanted to add on the back of the trading cards is different competency so think back to the 90s when marvel trading cards you would learn a fun fact about them at the bottom but then you would also see their abilities strength and you know well all of our superheroes are super strong so we don’t need to have that in there but we also sort of took the competencies and put them into their points so no one of them is perfect score across all of them have varying so they need the whole team to create a solid and well-rounded group

Jonathan Singer and by the competencies you’re referring to the Council on Social Work Education, educational competencies that all social work students are measured against in terms of their knowledge, and skills, practice, behaviors, values, all that sort of stuff, and so you have those on the  back of the card

John Vassello: yeah and a little sort of graph so our community social worker is going to be the Em Power the advocate he’s going to have the higher score in terms of engaging with policy and different type of practice where Emma Pathy who is our clinical social worker individual focused social worker she’s going to have a higher score when it comes to assessing and evaluating. So this sort of well-rounded team reflects the areas of social workers practice it really helps to sort of show not only prospective students but also those who’ve been in the field for such a long time you know these are different ways to embody those professional competencies and things. Really exciting

Jonathan Singer: I’ve been coming to APM regularly since 2005 I have never seen like a 100 people descent on a single table at the same time and be so excited about getting a little chachki little thing to bring home and it’s not just because the latest and greatest technology it’s not a selfie stick, it’s not a fidget spinner, it’s a piece of foam right that could be used as a stress ball but really it  embodies so much more and I think that’s one of the beautiful things that you have created and what Binghamton has done is not only you created this sense of the superhero mythology for social work but in the conference itself you’ve created a buzz around visiting the booth and people talk about the superheroes. I have my superheroes on my desk at work and I know that there are deans and directors and heads of programs that also have the superheroes on their desks and so your idea has crossed the country and is probably international, which I think is a real testament to what you tapped into and you made tangible and so I think that’s really impressive

John Vassello: you know for me, I mean, and I know a lot of my friends, lot of our students are big into comic books they go to the comic con various cons around the country and so it almost seems like how come somebody didn’t come up with this idea sooner . How come nobody came up with these ideas and characters or the idea? Like, for me it was sort of an idea that made sense it’s like how come nobody came up with this before you know, and we’ve been around with this about a hundred years or so as a formalized profession so and have you know so many superheroes so were pushing 75-80 years for Batman and Superman some of the oldest ones and even before that you know we’ve had this mythology of various different heroes coming to help and save  and that’s really the idea you know a lot of ways you know social workers are a professionalized group of heroes you know and of course, keeping the humility you know it’s not about us taking the credit it’s about really putting the credit back on the client you know really making it it’s their credit and were being able to enjoy and being satisfied with them being the client being able to enjoy that success.

Jonathan Singer: I think the idea of social workers as superheroes has been around for a while, but I think what you did and what Binghamton did is it took it from being just a thing that we say right social workers have superpower. Like I’ve heard people say that for years, but you actually made it something and then you expanded it. And I think this is something for folks to just keep in mind as you’re going through your day as you are social worker, you’re going to have these brainstorms and there is value in pursuing them and there is value in saying maybe somebody else thinks this is important now in the worlds of business and marketing that is the way people think. People think if it’s not out there and I think of it somebody else will be interested in it In social work I think for the most part it’s like well if I’m thinking that and it’s not out there it’s probably because I haven’t looked or maybe it’s just not that important right because we’re are so constantly putting out fires and were dealing with like what goes on in the moment. So I love the fact that you created this superhero mythology and you actually have these tangible superheroes it’s also great that people can get them at the conference. Now can you tell the listener how they can get their own superheroes if they’re not lucky enough to attend CSWE conference.

John Vassello: So we actually, because there was such a huge response, you know, we typically come down with 2200 or so and we leave with none, and people come multiple time you get to meet a lot of new friends that’s exciting

Jonathan Singer: and that’s how we met

John Vassello: Right, right. People come to the booth and people come to say hello and its funny how folks ranging from the wait staff from the exhibit hall and all many deans and directors across the very nationally internationally known programs want them and are unified by the same experience. But for those folks that can’t make it, we had a lot of response a lot of emails I talked to again the folks in our faculty and specially Vicki and Brian and they said you know we could create a social work superhero scholarship at our university and benefit some MSW students in the way. That would be what the superheroes would want, right? So were going to make money off of them we might as well put it to something very beneficial to our students and helpful. So we try to keep them as reasonably priced as possible you know they’re like $10 each and $50 for the whole set which is all 7 which is exciting which comes with trading cards. So that folks can go to continuinged@binghamton.edu if they would want to order and at the top of the page it says social work superheroes or they could reach out to me at jvassell@Binghamton.edu I love when people reach out to me via email or they have pictures if they’ve gotten a superhero and they have a picture of they’re sitting on a desk or if they’re using in a classroom or a group, as long as there is no clients, of course for confidentiality, but wherever those superheroes found a new home we love to see where they go it’s so exciting for us I feel like in a lot of ways like a proud parent you know when my kids have gone out into the world and or something like that. You know some days can be worse than others so it’s a fun reminder that we are resilient cause they’re stress ball they’re very resilient, were resilient, were also we have a sense of humor about ourselves as a profession, and then we can inspire change and that’s really the core mission of these little cute social justice league characters [laughs]

Jonathan Singer: Well John I really appreciate you having the brainstorm, and having the support to move forward with this, I think it’s great. It’s a great way to create buzz at the conference and it’s great that folks can purchase these and contribute to the scholarships I think that’s amazing. And I consider you a superhero so thank you so much for being on the podcast and talking to us today

John Vassello Thank you so much for having me I really had a good time



Transcription generously donated by: Anastasiya Jenkins, MSW from Dallas TX

APA (6th ed) citation for this podcast:

Singer, J. B. (Producer). (2017, October 24). #112 - Social work superheroes: Interview with John Vassello, MSW[Audio Podcast]. Social Work Podcast. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkpodcast.com/2017/10/superheroes.html

1 comment:

Unknown said...

The Binghamton Superheroes are my favorite swag from CSWE - they, along with their trading cards are permanently on display in my office. This was a phenomenal idea as social worker's truly are heroes - these figures are a wonderful reminder.

I am always thrilled to support this great team despite the fact that I work at a different School of Social Work. Brilliant idea bringing much levity and fun to the tough work social workers are engaged in.