The best books for igniting students’ passions about policy change

Melinda Lewis Author Of Social Policy for Effective Practice: A Strengths Approach
By Melinda Lewis

Who am I?

I am a policy advocate, grassroots activist, university professor, and author committed to social change—at scale—to advance social work values of racial, economic, environmental, and social justice. Recognizing that most social workers are drawn to our profession because they want to make a difference in the lives of their clients, one by one, I invest my energies and skills to making policy study and practice accessible, relevant, and urgent. My students quickly get used to noting the book recommendations I sprinkle throughout class discussions and in assignment feedback, because when you see the world through a social policy frame, everything has a policy implication! 

I wrote...

Social Policy for Effective Practice: A Strengths Approach

By Rosemary Kennedy Chapin, Melinda Lewis,

Book cover of Social Policy for Effective Practice: A Strengths Approach

What is my book about?

Social Policy for Effective Practice provides students with the knowledge they need for policy-informed, policy-relevant, and policy-influential social work practice. The text examines social policies across domains including civil rights, child welfare, mental health, disabilities, aging, and economic justice, through the lens of the strengths perspective. The broad sweep and preparation for multisystem competency makes it a valuable complement to the education of social work students in a variety of fields.

Accompanied by peer-reviewed interactive cases that apply policy learning to realistic practice scenarios and fully updated for the 6th edition, Social Policy for Effective Practice empowers students to engage in policy debates, navigate policies to meet clients’ needs, and advance a policy vision of justice and inclusion. 

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The books I picked & why

Book cover of How the Word Is Passed: A Reckoning with the History of Slavery Across America

Why did I love this book?

To prepare students to critique and reform inequitable social policies, social work educators need to cultivate students’ critical thinking, including the ability to critically examine narratives and presentations of fact that shape what we have come to believe about our country and the legacies of injustice.

Smith’s text does that expertly, through the compelling presentation of significant sites in U.S. history—particularly around slavery and racial oppression.

Students can be assigned to read a chapter about Monticello, Angola Prison, or downtown Manhattan. They’ll be transported to a different place and time, and they will learn to see our own moment differently.

By Clint Smith,

Why should I read it?

7 authors picked How the Word Is Passed as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


'A beautifully readable reminder of how much of our urgent, collective history resounds in places all around us that have been hidden in plain sight.' Afua Hirsch, author of Brit(ish)

Beginning in his hometown of New Orleans, Clint Smith leads the reader on an unforgettable tour of monuments and landmarks - those that are honest about the past and those that are not - which offer an intergenerational story of how slavery has been central in…

Book cover of Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants

Why did I love this book?

Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book engages students in seeing the natural wonders that surround us, and it calls us to action without resorting to the apocalyptic alarm of many books about the related crises of indigenous oppression and environmental destruction.

The essays and stories she shares are imbued with science about nature and about humanity. Many students find the book soothing, which so many people acutely need in these times of strife and disconnection.

I use excerpts of this text for students in human rights, policy, and community practice courses, and I return to it myself, to be in the presence of a wise sage of our age.

By Robin Wall Kimmerer,

Why should I read it?

39 authors picked Braiding Sweetgrass as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

Called the work of "a mesmerizing storyteller with deep compassion and memorable prose" (Publishers Weekly) and the book that, "anyone interested in natural history, botany, protecting nature, or Native American culture will love," by Library Journal, Braiding Sweetgrass is poised to be a classic of nature writing. As a botanist, Robin Wall Kimmerer asks questions of nature with the tools of science. As a member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, she embraces indigenous teachings that consider plants and animals to be our oldest teachers. Kimmerer brings these two lenses of knowledge together to take "us on a journey that is…

Book cover of Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents

Why did I love this book?

Wilkerson’s scholarship on race and injustice is certainly not a secret, but I still find some colleagues who have not yet read this book.

To convince people to pick it up, I promise that its language is poetic and imminently accessible, and I share the two pieces that have remained top of mind for years: first, Wilkerson’s research about the lessons Nazi Germany took from the racial caste system of Jim Crow United States, and second, the way she crafts an analogy of a crumbling house to make the case for reparations for racist harm, which—like cracks in the foundation of a house you just bought—may not be your fault but are still your problem.

I am forever grateful to Wilkerson for gifting us her insights and rhetorical tools, conveyed so skillfully in this tremendous contribution.

By Isabel Wilkerson,

Why should I read it?

13 authors picked Caste as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?


"Powerful and timely ... I cannot recommend it strongly enough" - Barack Obama

From one of America's most celebrated and insightful writers, the moving, eye-opening bestseller about what lies hidden under the surface of ordinary lives

In this brilliant book, Isabel Wilkerson gives us a masterful portrait of an unseen phenomenon in America as she explores, through an immersive, deeply researched narrative and stories about real people, how America today and throughout its history has been shaped by a hidden caste system, a rigid hierarchy of human…

Book cover of A Knock at Midnight: A Story of Hope, Justice, and Freedom

Why did I love this book?

Social work students are people people, so even with the interactive cases and vignettes that connect policy knowledge to practice, it can be difficult for students planning for a career in interpersonal therapy or crisis intervention to connect emotionally to complex policy topics like Social Security reform, net-zero carbon emissions, or criminal justice reform.

Barnett’s non-fiction title on the latter topic is page-turning and infused with heart. It also relates her activism and community organizing, in service of advancing justice in policing and corrections.

This part of her story helps students see how they, too, can take actions—even as an individual—that bear witness to our values and advance toward a vision of social change.

By Brittany K. Barnett,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked A Knock at Midnight as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

LOS ANGELES TIMES BOOK PRIZE FINALIST • NAACP IMAGE AWARD NOMINEE • A “powerful and devastating” (The Washington Post) call to free those buried alive by America’s legal system, and an inspiring true story about unwavering belief in humanity—from a gifted young lawyer and important new voice in the movement to transform the system.

“An essential book for our time . . . Brittany K. Barnett is a star.”—Van Jones, CEO of REFORM Alliance, CNN Host, and New York Times bestselling author 

Brittany K. Barnett was only a law student when she came across the case that would change her…

Book cover of How to Have Impossible Conversations: A Very Practical Guide

Why did I love this book?

There are many examples in this book that make my students angry—which is one of the reasons I want them to read it.

As people committed to engaging with others to pursue justice, we have to become proficient—if never comfortable—in having conversations with people who do not share our worldview, and in using our active listening skills and deep regard for human relationships to find common ground.

The skills and practices in this book equip us for effective engagement beyond the silos we frequent, help us see our own arguments as others may encounter them, and catalyze the kind of thoughtful interactions social change demands. 

By Peter Boghossian, James Lindsay,

Why should I read it?

1 author picked How to Have Impossible Conversations as one of their favorite books, and they share why you should read it.

What is this book about?

In our current political climate, it seems impossible to have a civil conversation with someone who has a different opinion. Dialogue is shut down when perspectives clash. Heated debates on Facebook and Twitter often lead to shaming, hindering any possibility of productive discourse. How to Have Impossible Conversations guides readers through the process of having effective, civil discussions about any divisive issues--not just religious faith but climate change, race, gender, poverty, immigration, and gun control.

Coauthors Peter Boghossian and James Lindsay distinguish between two types of conversations: those that are oriented toward arriving at truth, and those that may require…

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