Frontline Initiative

"Cautiously Optimistic":
Examining the Proposed Alliance's Goals and Potential


Steve Moser is a residential counselor at Nekton ⁄ Norhaven in Minneapolis, Minnesota

If nearly seven years in this field has taught me anything, it’s that the nature and responsibility for direct support work is far from matched by the compensation and standards for the worker. Low wages, minimal standards and poor career opportunities have resulted in both an inability to attract highly skilled workers and a high level of turnover among those who do join the direct support worker ranks. That situation may be about to change.

A proposed alliance for DSWs made up of representatives of professional and provider organizations, consumer and advocacy groups, academic, government, union, and private institutions will seek to address many of these issues. This Alliance for direct support workers proposes to develop strategies and activities to achieve a number of goals related to improving conditions for DSWs.

The idea of a representative group for direct support workers is very appealing. As of yet, there is no such specific body and there are certainly issues it could be helpful in addressing. However a concern surrounds the Alliance’s ability to affect change at the level of the individual worker. The proposed Alliance membership seems very broad. While this no doubt provides important perspectives to the issues the Alliance will address, this group may also face difficulty in arriving at a consensus and implementing specific strategies. 

Two of the Alliance’s proposed goals include improving job skills and competencies for all DSWs and reducing turnover. Although job skills and turnover are vital concerns for every agency, they are ultimately improved at agencies’ direct service levels. Another concern for this Alliance surrounds its ability to affect these issues with anything beyond rhetoric? A national organization like this risks setting goals that are too idealistic and disillusioning their constituency by failing to provide significant change. It will be important for the Alliance to continue to determine what’s needed within a changing service system and to examine and understand these complex issues as they seek to address them at a national level.

 Another of the Alliance’s proposed goals that causes at least this taxpayer to be a bit cautious is that of “disseminating model legislation that provides incentives to agencies for staff training, salary increases, and career ladders for qualified workers.” The purpose of the Alliance is to increase the ability of the people closest to this field to implement change. This goal seems to hand that power back over to the government. I caution the Alliance that legislation at the federal level won’t likely affect change at the individual level; networking and developing specific strategies across agencies and states may be a more appropriate goal. Although, thus far, this article has focused on areas of caution for the proposed Alliance and may appear critical of it, the truth is that this proposed organization should excite anyone in this field. The advocates for this Alliance have clearly done their research and know the issues and challenges facing not only the DSW but also the people they serve and the agencies in which they work. The Alliance seeks to do everything from improving communication to establishing effective standards to even offering scholarships for DSWs to attend annual conferences. Although achieving their goals will take considerable time, effort and a great deal of support from all of us in the field, the rewards will be enormous. The Alliance for Direct Support Workers is an idea that is long overdue and should be welcomed by all of us. If successful, it could be a powerful catalyst for needed changes.