35 thoughts on “What would a profession which was committed to fighting injustice look like?

  1. If language is an organising agent within each professional group – perhaps a whole new joined up discursive practice is necessary in order to objectively gaze at our professional efforts and united opportunities, compared with our hopes for social renewal or changes to structural parameters?

    1. I recently tried to engage a social workers in a discussion about the neo-liberal capture of language around competencies and other aspects of professionalization. What I learnt from that enquiry and other discussions was that the acceptance of neo-liberal dogma is dominant and normalised in the profession.

  2. In reply to John Darroch’s question to me (and because it might look like his question – and the moderator’s decision, has silenced me if I don’t try again, to answer): Perhaps after the Social Work degree, graduates could take up postgraduate studies in political science and policy development . Then, standing for local territorial authorities or regional authorities, health boards and even becoming central government candidates – in an electorate of interest to them – where they can truly influence and act with and for people? Supporting each other to do the campaigning and intra-professional support of such candidates, would provide the influence and power necessary? It you get nowhere throwing spears at the Castle wall, then organise, and go take the Castle! In other words – its about Power to embedd change and about who has that power.

    1. Thanks Moderators, I see my mistake. All my responses are indeed on the blog. I’m thankful the initial discussion points and questions that generated the blog are being given space and its great to know a variety of people are pondering how to develop ways of working professionally, ethically, egalatarian-ally – when the societal structures and systems frame and position us so thoroughly. We are all to some degree, working to the tune of those who Master us. The Lecturers are Mastered by the Universities need for bottoms on seats. Students mastered in their learning to a significant degree, by thier markers schedules, thereafter, by their employers, some of whom may be mastered by the influence of Big Gambling or Big Alcohol or Big State, funding rounds. We are all made subject, under the guise of becoming agents of freedom and knowledge. This is life, keep keen, organise, box on – we are all born for this time in history!

      Jenny A

  3. Great thought provoking conversation going on here. Thanks John for your piece that has initiated such discussion. Over the past few years I have felt somewhat disheartened about how politically powerless the sw profession has seemed. I agree with Jenny that around 2/3 of sw’s are contractually bound not to overtly ‘rock the boat’ and that many sw practitioners are trying to earn a living, pay student debts etc like everyone else. Job security isn’t as stable as it was 3, 2 or 1 decades ago which means self interest and survival may take presence over the greater good. When I look around me, most sw practitioners are ‘heads down …’ trying not to be overwhelmed by the growing demands made on them and the level of distress/trauma they attempt to manage on a daily basis with their client groups. It is common knowledge that we are working within systems/processes/organisation’s and government policies that are fraught with neoliberalist and individualist dominant philosophies. We are as much impacted by these as
    our clients. I note that times we have opportunity to be ‘rightfully’ political, ‘have a say’ and maybe influence social policy via government consultation documents – the time frames are often very short and the opprtunity gets missed as sw’s either have little time to read/analyze or don’t understand them to comment. Yet I witness sw practitioners who bring passion to their work and a heartfelt commitment to ‘fighting the good fight’ (social justice) at a micro level (with their clients) and a meso level (within their organisations of work). Sw’s are working hard to be innovative, think ‘outside the square’, and push the boundaries of the box. It is about individual energy and how far one can spread it. True, that there is greater power in numbers when combined, however, this becomes difficult when numbers cannot gather. Perhaps it is fair comment that our sw schools are focused primarily on the individual and personal aspects of practice ie: interviewing, assessment and we have lost sight of translating these concepts to community development where collective empowerment might actually be more demonstrative of a politically face of social justice. I like the idea of interdisciplinary/multi-professional voice particularly in light of some of our most pressing social issues eg: poverty, homelessness etc. This could be the ‘new radical’ approach that exemplifies the ‘loud and proud’ protests of the 70’s with a more strategic dynamic utilization of political activism – of the people, for the people, with the people, on behalf of the people, evidence based … the whole kit and kaboodle. Just imagine what a wonderful chorus might be made if all helping professions were singing from the same song sheet!! I wonder if we may shape social policy more than it is shaping us?

  4. Of course, whilst a student we all can be radical thinkers, notice the injustice and engage politically. This soon ceases or dumbs down in the harsh reality of earning money and when the state contracts stitch the thinking and intervention up. No-one can bite the hand that feeds them…..one cannot speak out against their employer – the contractual clauses in NZ usually specify that Govt workers and their contracted agencies can neither criticise their employer/funder, nor be seen to criticise their employer/funder…..so many social service staff, social worker, counsellor, health worker, teacher etc; are bound and gagged by the need to earn money. Under the Gaze, as Foucault and others mentioned in their observations of sociology.
    I have noticed that if indeed we were all free to act on and achieve the changes that we think are politically and socially better for the people and the nation – that over all these 30-50 years now, in NZ at least, then things would have radically changed. But no – every generation of uni students learns about and hopes for more – then ends up in what I have coined “the missionary position” – which can be thought of in many ways, but includes that of going forth and hoping to convert folks into new freeing ways of living their lives, only to stumble on establishment, on the realities of earning a living, on the political strategies of the time – that recruit these missionaries into smooshing the masses of people with “hopefulness” and a sense of “human support”, only to dance forever in a square waltz; forward, side cose, back , side close, forward, side close….etc. without power the people perish.

    To bring about radical and meaningful change, we all must be willing to abandon the missionary position. Or somehow replace the government entirely.

    1. I appreciate that this post probably read as utopian and possibly even naive. This was a deliberate attempt to contrast what we would like to be doing with what is currently being done within the profession. This is because, despite spending two years scouring the literature, and talking to social workers, I still have virtually no idea what it is the profession actually aspires to do.

      I agree that it is pointless setting social work students up to fail. I have gone out of my way over the past few years to highlight the very real barriers that exist within the profession. I talk extensively to students about political silence and the realities involved in even surviving within such a demanding profession, let alone challenging structural injustice. This is something which I and others in my cohort feel was neglected in my own training. We were presented with vague statements about the professions commitment to social change but were not given the tools or knowledge to make this a reality.

      Given you have suggested that it is possible to create radical and meaningful change I would be interested in how you would suggest doing this? You’ve portrayed young social workers as being naive missionaries with no idea of the realities of practice. What is it you think they should be doing instead?

  5. I’ve very much enjoyed this debate. I too have found that ‘social justice’ is easily mouthed and written, but a lot more difficult to find examples of what this actually means for social workers in their daily practice. This was one of the reasons that I started the ‘Social Work in 40 Objects’ project. Apologies for the shameless plug, but collecting people’s stories through a chosen Object brought up some great concrete examples of social justice in action (as well as the whole rainbow of activities we know as social work). The ‘School Bag’ from a French social worker working in Ile de Reunion is a super illustration, I think, of true empowerment in a whole community through a community development project – and one that has endured more than 40 years. It was so powerful that I paired it next to ‘Foundling Hospital Token’, which speaks to individual and familial loss and separation, to powerfully illustrate the spectrum of social work activity via two fabric-related objects. These two Objects and the stories behind them open the book derived from the Objects project – ‘Social Work in 42 Objects’. We need to tell these stories of social justice through social work much more than we need textbooks exhorting us to ‘practise social justice’. An Object seems to be a a powerful way to tell and show social justice in social work.

    1. Hi Mark – a lovely project. So many intriguing stories about social workers’ journeys, told with reference to their own sense of justice and commitment and a symbolic object. I look forward to seeing it.

  6. Greetings John and commentators. Excellent discussion. I enjoyed teaching social work/social policy in the Massey BSW in the 1980s. The social policy title was added around 1985 when community social work was fashionable and seen as the answer for tutors and social workers who were confused by individual and family dilemmas. I left my lecturing position when papers teaching family systems and attention to individual issues were being downgraded in favour of community social work papers. I watched community workers achieve significant change in an era when Tangata Whenua were at last being acknowledged and most social institutions (church, education marriage, family etc) were being strongly challenged. However, I also watched the demise of ‘counselling’ and family systems skills as agencies moved towards a political stance. Then came hierarchical accountability processes within the Department of Social Welfare and a preference for ‘specialisms’ in social work that eliminated the effective ‘knock on the door to see how you are going’ approach so successful in the 1970s and 1980s. I became a psychotherapist where I encountered the same splits in practice approaches albeit with different names. NZAP is now working hard to address community issues b ut like most professions, we feel alone in this. There is, in my view, only one way forward. We have to work across professional boundaries if we are going to be ‘political’. Working within our separate health related professions will never carry enough weight. Complying with the creation of state registration boards for each profession has been a huge mistake because that structure supports us in our silos. Time to acknowledge commonalities and pool national and regional resources with colleagues in culturally based agencies, medicine, psychology, psychiatry, social work, psychotherapy and education. A multi-disciplinary, multi-ethnic conference would be a great start. Locally, multi-disciplinary health centres are the future especially when cultural belonging is taken into account.

  7. Great to read this discussion – can’t resist adding a thought – perhaps we don’t know where the boundaries are till we push them. Getting back to your suggestion of a social justice focused social work being (probably) an enemy of the government – how much training in the skills for a practice of dissent and subversion of dominant economic doxa would the liberal state sanction? How might we find this out … While we are talking of stirring pots … Excellent provocation John …

    1. I think this is an excellent question and it’s one I was discussing with my partner the other night. We decided that teaching students non violent civil disobedience techniques like how to chain yourself to things would probably be pushing the boundaries 🙂

      1. Great article John,
        You identify the the Janus faced / dual faced nature of social work well.

        Personally I think SW has always been an in-between place that rides the surging tensions between the demand to enforce social norms and rules and the liberatory impulse to challenge the structural harms that are an inevitable result of capitalist societies.

        Where i find myself agreeing with you the most is in identifying that right now the rhetoric of SW outstrips its capacity (or willingness) to engage directly with the hardest battles. Those battles being against the brutal and brutalising impacts of neo-liberalism on how we live and who we are.

        I tend to think SW had its origins in times firstly; when the class lines were very clear – and then; flowered more recently post WW II when western liberal democracies tried out a gentler form of capitalism. The ideological conditions post war until the Keynesian disjunct suited an industry able to manage the sneaky business of having (some – and varying) alliance to both the status quo and those harmed by that status-quo.

        The brutality of the current neo-liberal conditions – (with their co-option of not just economies but what is understood as social common sense) – are a tougher gig for an industry based on fighting the good fight while also remaining inside the camp.

        There has been a recent call for a politics of dissensus instead of what can seem the endless compromising slide to the right of the politics of consensus under a neo-liberal hegemony. For myself – I support that call. I am no longer sure that compromise with neo-liberal agendas and ideologies does anything more than open up new spaces for marketisation. Good for you John – and thank you. I’ll take your thoughts and do some pondering about how to create more space for dissensus – (both sneaky and bold) in what i teach.

    2. Great question Ian. I’d love to hear thoughts from experienced SW educators on this and how much room we have to move. The classroom can feel like quite an autonomous space (which is great!), and I’d love to hear from others about the various ways that social work education is restrained by, and accountable to, the state.

  8. Many thanks for this excellent provocation John, one that has obviously resonated with lots of colleagues. However, I do wonder whether what you are describing is “social work” or the “radical social work” tradition (a tradition to which I would also subscribe).

    It could be argued that social work is simply an occupation (like nurse, psychologist, teacher, police officer, soldier) and that inside each of these occupational groupings there may be different political currents or tendencies. The confusing thing about social work is that, as you say, its literature refers to social justice. Yet this is a term that has a plethora of meanings and is associated with different interpretations and practices at the micro, meso and macro level. Just to add to the discussion, and to stir the pot a bit, colleagues may like to reflect on this 2013 UK article on: “Can you be a tory and a social worker?

    1. Those are good questions. When I started on my Masters I was pretty much of the view that social work was an occupation which was a broad church not requiring social workers to hold particular positions or to be politically active. The ANZASW code of ethics and SWRB core competencies are pretty clear though in their requirement for social workers to be active on policy matters. I spent many months banging my head against the wall (metaphorically and occasionally literally) trying to get my head around what it was that social work was asking of social workers. I simply believe it is impossible to read core social work documents and not conclude that social workers have a duty to be politically active. I’m not sure if this was the intent of the authors (I intend to find this out in future) but the language seems pretty clear.

      Take this intro to the ANZASW code of ethics for example “During its history, social work has developed a dual focus. Firstly, to enable and empower individuals, families, groups and communities to find their own solutions to the issues and problems that beset them. Secondly to learn from specific instances of need, to inform society at large about the injustices in its midst, and to engage in action to change the structures of society that create and perpetuate injustice.”

      It’s been a while since I read it but I believe the article by Kleppe et al. comes to a similar conclusion.

      Basically I believe that the social work profession has clearly committed itself to achieving a basic level of political and economic equality. I think Rawls theory of distributive justice is about where the profession is when core social work documents are analysed. I think think the profession has put the obligation for achieving these things onto social workers. I would be quite happy if my interpretation is wrong because thinking about this stuff still gives me a headache.

      1. Ha ha me too. I suppose my problem lies in what it means to talk about “the social work profession” as if it was a single coherent entity. Social workers in the US, NZ and Cuba function in dramatically different contexts. Though I do sympathise with your interpretation of the ANZASW code and the SWRB competencies. The fact that the SWRB core competence standards still refer to economic justice is remarkable.

        1. Hopefuly no-one mentions it to Anne Tolley 😉

          Point taken about the profession. It is incredibly heterogeneous domestically and internationally.

          I found a couple of interesting articles during my lit review arguing that social work should be apolitical and have room for people from the right which I found interesting but unconvincing. Worthwhile considering the perspective however.

  9. Hi John.

    Great article; absolutely love it!

    Your idea about teaching social campaigning in social work education really hit home to me. I am currently in my third year of a BSW and I am finally doing a macro perspective paper in community development and it annoys me that social work, both professionally and educationally, seems to be heading towards this micro focused approach to our practice. I would live to see more macro and structural focused papers in social work education as I feel the next generation of social workers are missing out on this important part of social work. I would warmly welcome a paper that was dedicated to social campaigning as this would help to light a fire in the new generation of social workers to fight for social justice plus have the skills to do so.

    Thanks again for your article! Look forward to the future posts from you on this topic!

    Reese

  10. I agree fully with John’s call for social action by social workers and others. However it doesn’t help to single out social workers as the only professionals (apparently not psychologists) who are committed to doing this. However the Code of Ethics for Psychologists in Aotearoa New Zealand specifies that:
    (4.1.5) “Psychologists have a responsibility to speak out and/or act in a manner consistentwith the four principles of this Code if they believe policies, practices or regulations of the social structures within which psychologists work, seriously ignore or oppose any of the principles of this Code” and
    (4.2.4.) “Psychologists recognise that from time to time structures or policies of society may be inconsistent with the principles of respect for the dignity of peoples, responsible caring and integrity in relationships. Where these inconsistencies are identified, psychologists advocate for change in these structures and policies”.
    We are all actually working towards the same broad goals. Peter Coleman MNZPsS

    1. Hi Peter, I think the difference is that the fight for social justice is implicit in the very nature of the Social Work profession. This doesn’t mean that other professions wouldn’t be interested in these themes, but it does mean that by definition, social workers should be.
      The global definition of Social Work:
      “Social work is a practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing.

    2. Great points Peter and I did not mean to imply that only social workers have such an obligation to stand up against injustice! I’ve looked at codes of ethics from similar disciplines such as nursing and there are close parallels.

      What I meant in the introduction to this piece is that it is claimed by social work academics that social change as a core function of the profession is unique. The uniqueness is in part predicated on the fact that working towards social change is presented as being of equal importance as working with, or empowering, individuals and families. I’m ambivalent about this claim and specifically referenced it for this reason. It is a claim which is widely repeated.

      I do agree entirely that we are all working towards the same goals. As an example my sister is a nurse who regularly sees the impacts of extreme poverty on children. Her commitment to social change and understanding of the social causes of dysfunction is equally strong and her training covered these areas. Like most social workers she doesn’t have the opportunities to do as much about this as she would like either.

      1. Kia ora John and thanks for a piece which has identified and raised some important points. I’m enjoying the discussion and also feel the tension between supporting practitioners (as a supervisor and an educator) to be activists as part of their role but very aware of the pressures of day to day practice. My experience has been, for myself and for some others, that it is this work on a macrolevel which often sustains practitioners, otherwise bowed down by the sheer demands of working in an under resourced system. If they are able to find some meaning in social activism, whether its inside or outside of work hours, this becomes a source of energy and sustenance. It was heartening that in my recent appearance before the social services select committee to speak to my submission on the Oranga Tamariki bill, on the same morning time slot I was joined by a psychologist, a midwife and a community worker. In fact I think interprofessional collaboration and solidarity is really important. We need to share ideas and strategies for social change much more than we do. Single issue groups like CPAG, iwi activist groups or clearing house curators like ActionStation are useful focal points while we wait for a broader progressive movement to take shape in Aotearoa NZ. Maybe we could add ‘social workers would actively network and collaborate with other professionals for social justice’ as part of your kaupapa.

        1. Those are all great points and that is definitely something I would add in to the list. I had added a few more such as the profession learning from and aiding other causes but I cut off a bunch in order to stay within the word limits.

          That’s really positive to hear that macro-level work is sustaining and positive. I worry that such activism can be a drain on already exhausted social workers – though perhaps this comes more from my own activism related burnout than the experiences of others 🙂

          I think this tension is something that we as social work educators really need to be aware of. I felt that when I went through my training that a lot of the social justice related material was quite divorced from practice and was largely abstract. As a result I’ve been experimenting with some more practical tools in some guest lectures and tutorials.

        2. All of the above few posts strike a resounding tone with the altruistic side of my professional background – Public Health/Health Promotion and the human geography side of resource management planning/community development. However again, in each of these roles,including your social work realms, the academic and theoretical learning and the call to go out and make meaningful social and structural change – is short changed in the actual workplace where the call for collaboration and and the contracting of roles merely supports the status quo. Albeit whilst discussing the options and reviewing the structural frameworks curbing or supporting our interventions and activities. Change can occur, but so slowly and in such a way that it can be overridden or simply recruited for some other purpose. For example, Health Promotion theory urges practitioners to work towards policy change, however most contracts held between government and practitioner’s employer, required us to abandon advocacy, work within the existing policy framework and support it when it reviews itself, by turning up to consultation meeings (but we always seek to retain our jobs so can only say a little, lest our employers fear loss of their next contract round with the Govt – take Problem Gambling Foundation’s experience of the past few years as an example of this.). Our prefessions are reasonable examples of “governmentality at arms length”. See – https://link.springer.com/article/10.1057/palgrave.cpt.9300280 G. Larner also writes interesting material about these sorts of community, practitioner, state, relationships. Overall I suppose I’m asking us all to gaze more closely at how we are positioned in our contracted roles when working. Where is the edge and what is at the foot of our exhaustion and frustration – is it where the theory and hope meet practice regimes? If ignorance is bliss and knowledge is power – how come we feel less powerful than we expected – what have we missed?

    1. I think we all would! The real question is how do we get there. This is something I intend to explore in future posts.

  11. Kia ora John! I loved reading this. Thank you. I agree with all the suggestions you put forward, especially your first point. The key question I grapple with is, how would we fund our work? Especially if we are considered an ‘enemy’ of the state. To me, funding seems to be the crux of the issue. Most of the radical social work I have been engaged in has happened outside paid work hours. I love the heart of our profession and, for me, that has often meant doing the work in my own time. As a social work educator in Te Tai Tokerau, I’m conscious that our students are studying social work as a means of creating change in their communities *and* because they need paid work to care for themselves and their whānau. Therefore, as an educator, I face an ethical quandary. I encourage activism and teach social justice as central to our profession, yet I also know that few of our local employers are likely to include such a focus in the roles our graduates will be employed for (in large part because of funding constraints). I am concerned about setting students up for disappointment as the profession they are paid to work in can be different from the one I have the privilege to espouse as an educator (I do talk about this challenge with students, but experiencing it is a different thing). I’d love to hear your thoughts about this aspect of the challenge. Thank you for holding on to the vision of our profession as committed to addressing injustice. I’m there with you! I hosted a conversation about this at the Massey Social Work conference last year. It was a energetic discussion – I think it’s a key question for many of us. Lets keep talking!

    1. Glad you enjoyed it 🙂 I don’t have any clear answers at this stage about how we move forward. Part of my thinking is that the government actually really needs social workers and we have far more power than we currently realise. For example through strategic campaigning which was focused on exposing the impacts of government policies we could win considerable political power. Another thought is that long term we may need to reconceptualise what the profession is and how we operate. The early Settlement House workers in the United States provide one example of social workers basing themselves in the community and working on their behalf. Developing models which were sustainable in the community and thinking of ourselves as organising with communities rather than solving problems might open up new opportunities. I’d love to hear more ideas from other people though as this is an area I feel stuck on too.

      I have the same concerns and have actually made preparing students for the realities of practice a key priority. I’ve been using some of the skills and exercises you taught at Kotare and from The Change Agency to get students to understand where power currently lies and the relatively weak position that most social workers are in. I felt quite bad earlier this week when I realised just how depressing this was for some students! I think that there are real ethical problems with preparing students to be agents of social change when we know the system is going to try and beat them down. I think that the disjuncture between training and reality is probably a considerable source of disillusionment and frustration and possibly even something which leads to people leaving the profession.

      I think that in order to manage the reality of this we have to teach students how to organise collectively and point them towards organisations which can protect them. I think in order to get around the fact that this is on top of an onerous workload we need to fight for working conditions which leave us with the energy to pursue social change. For example I’d suggest child protection workers shouldn’t be working more than 35 hours a week and should have considerably more support and lower caseloads. Union organising also provides a great introduction to campaigning and politics.

      All just ideas at this stage though!

      1. I’m intrigued by your statement about social workers having more power than we realise, and the potential of strategic campaigning and collective organising. I’m curious whether you have ideas about a useful direction for strategic campaigns that you think we are well placed to win? I’d love to have a yarn about this, and about how you have been utilising power-mapping etc in your teaching, next time I’m in Auckland. Or, if you are up my way, lets talk 🙂

        I need to co more reading about the Settlement House movement. From the learning I have done, it seems like key workers came from wealthy backgrounds themselves, which enabled them to keep their bills paid while doing unpaid community work. Am I right about that, or way off track?

        I agree that conceptualising social work to include a focus on community organising is a useful move, and one that excites me. If you have come across useful reading/case studies about cases when this has been effective, I’d love to have a read.

        Thank you again for sparking this conversation.

  12. Kia ora John,

    Thank you so so much for putting in writing what I have been feeling for a number of years now. I believe our fight should be absolutely at the structural policies that keep the majority of the world in a state of subordination. Front line client / practitioner practice is definitively needed however I feel it’s the structures that need attacking if we are to make forward motion.

    Thanks again and take care

    Luis

    1. if anything else that needs to be changed within the social environment of Aotearoa New Zealand it has to be its Social Policies. Look at CYF, it is going through structural change. It is Social Policies that will determine the Social structure of any organisation such as CYF. Restructuring CYF will never minimise the many social issues faced by individuals and children who are struggling out there. Why da heck are we removing children from their parents for? Are they the ones responsible for instilling miserable within families? No it is never their faults. why don`t we simply identify and remove the perpetrators from these homes and run programmes to restore resilience within themselves. I have been to workshops where these children who were under CYF care for most of their teenage lives give live testimonies as coming from worse to worst. most of the times, they feel like ending their lives. Perpetrators need counselling, parental skills, anger management, drug free, employment, resources etc not restructuring CYF. All CYF is doing is transferring more problems to someone else to deal with them. Enriching whoever is to foster this child, when the problem is still untreated and that is why the statistics are still increasing on a daily basis.
      It is the families and whanau that have the wisdom, mana and ideas to bring positive changes and resilience for their own families. But not someone from CYF who may not have children himself/herself, no life experience at all. All you are doing is enforcing, colonizing and imposing your ideas which do not suit the problematic family in one way or another.

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