Kia ora koutou katoa. Warm season’s greetings to each and all. The RSW collective developed this blog space in April 2015. Time moves. We have aimed to provide a platform for critical dialogue about social work and the political context of our practice. We believe that dissent which troubles the mainstream narrative is vital in an unequal society like our own. We also believe that social workers have something to say about the imperative need for social justice in Aotearoa – and the means to achieve it. The intent has been to give voice to critical, radical, alternative, subversive ideas – big and small. The following brief reflections – differing perspectives and stories – are shared in the communal spirit of hope and solidarity as 2017 draws in.
As a social worker and a socialist, it’s impossible for me to disentangle the political and economic sphere from the world of social work. Well, I mean it’s possible to do so, and I guess most of us get through our working day without thinking constantly about political economy or envisaging a post-capitalist social order. And yet, so many of the troubles that beset social workers, and our citizen service users, are political problems: whether they are about the resources available to do our job, or the resources available to people to meet their needs. Not only that but the political is underpinned by the ideological: neoliberalism isn’t just about the economy, it’s about our very souls as Margaret Thatcher once said. The triumph of neoliberalism has had a profound impact on our social relations, our desires, the way we think about ourselves and others. To change that, and change it we must, will take a revolution. A revolution in the way we think, plan and organise. We need to construct a bold, utopian vision for social work, and for the world we live in. A vision that challenges the old order and promotes new ways of working together. A vision that values cooperation, openness, and participation; one that embraces manaakitanga, one that refuses to let people with management degrees turn our public services–and educational institutions–into machine bureaucracies. Forward to 2018, let’s turn the world upside down!
What I want for Christmas:
First off, let me be clear. I’ve already unwrapped my main present. It’s a nice shiny coalition government, full of nice shiny new ministers who want to change things. Many people glimpse a ray of hope as we enter a year of change. But before we get too excited, let’s remember that sometimes shiny presents aren’t so flash after a few days – or, in politics, after the first 100 days of getting at least part of the main election promises realised.
So, I want to share some things I’d like under our tree. I have a very long list, so I am going to focus on one aspect – social work education. Here goes:
- Decent funding that is respectful of what we try to do in preparing graduates for this demanding and crucial work.
Support for students and agencies for field placements, including –
- The capacity to pay for the high-quality supervision needed to support field education.
- Living allowances for students on placement so they don’t have to work 7 days a week.
- Adequate funding for cooperative resource development across schools of social work so that knowledge and expertise can be shared and developed cooperatively.
Initiatives to connect practice relevant theory with communities of practice, including –
- Scholarships for research degrees.
- Properly resourced postgraduate education so that it is accessible to graduates and practitioners.
- A pool of contestable funding for workforce and education research and development.
So, let’s hope 2018 is the year when we see some real investment in the education and professional development of social workers. There are huge challenges for the people we work with and we need to be critical, creative, challenging and compassionate to do our jobs.
I met a woman recently at a party: an engineer from a country in South America. She works for a large and famous company, and came to Aotearoa after a glittering career journey via many other countries. Clearly a smart and successful woman. When I told her what I did, her eyes lit up. “My mother is a social worker back in my country. She works in the courts, with victims of domestic violence, making sure they can access education, so they aren’t so dependent on their partners. When I grew up, we always learnt about justice, about equality, that we are all equal no matter who you are”.
I was heartened. We went on to talk about being mothers, and about politics. She was saddened by the increasing and unnecessary poverty she sees here, and hoped that the new government might reverse it. She said at her workplace, most people voted right so she had learnt to keep quiet about her political beliefs. She said many of her colleagues believed that if only you worked hard, you could be successful. “But because of where I come from, I know better”, she said. We commiserated about the last 12 years and agreed we hoped for change.
This woman; a migrant, a high-status professional working in a non-traditional occupation, understood the need for a political system that promotes equality. She understood that if we agree that all people have the same civil and social rights, then we must have structures in place to enable and protect them. To get there, we need to engage a wider range of people in conversations that will lead to change. We need to form alliances, get over nuances of theoretical and finer political differences and all pull in the same direction. And remember allies might be found where we least expect them.
As we near the end of another challenging year – and I reflect on the ‘first world’ problems that beset my daily existence – I am preoccupied with the conviction that rethinking and reimagining the theory and practice of child and family welfare is a critical task facing all of us who are interested in developing a progressive future for social work in Aotearoa. I most definitely do not think that the solution lies in the design and application of more risk averse predictive algorithm technology. Child rescue is not a proxy for social justice in my book. Neither do whole answers lie in addressing income inequality or in reclaiming the relational nature of social work engagement. Class-based exploitation, gendered inequality and violence, and the living legacy of colonial racism continue to shape our society and impact upon the lives of individuals and whanau. This understanding can and should inform both policy and practice. We need a new paradigm that does more than identify risk and save children from the monsters in or midst – we need to develop a ‘poverty aware’ social model of child and family social work. This should, can and must be done in my humble opinion.
I have been a social worker for over 30 years. This has not been a career so much as a way of life. Throughout my career, I have witnessed some of the horrific outcomes that capitalism has forced upon society.
The festive season, a season that is built on a discourse of happiness, family togetherness and customary gluttony, is experienced by many through misery, debt and violence. To me this is the epitome of the neo-liberal deficit agenda caused as right-wing policies sprint towards deregulation and reduction of social programmes, hidden in the trickery of promises of wealth and opportunity for all.
What better metaphor to reflect upon this time of year than the beautifully gritty Fairytale of New York. Voted this week by Twitter as the most popular Christmas song, MacGowan and MacColl’s melancholy voices echo a message of promise and hope, of love, big cars and rivers of gold; reverberating from a reality of life caught in poverty and addiction, of broken dreams and relentless misery. This metaphor and song resonate strongly with me every year, emulating, in my mind the relatively rapid economic degeneration of society here in beautiful Aotearoa. The irony of the fate of the artists being all too authentic.
I too hope that the early Christmas present of a new coalition government fulfils the promise of alleviation from this decline. We will see. Regardless, RSW will continue to pressure the incumbents and remind them, on a regular basis, of their pre-election promises. This is social work.
A little boy with two older brothers and one younger one, said to me the other day when we were travelling in a cramped noisy car that I shouldn’t expect things to be fair. He looked deeply and sharply into my eyes as if he was teaching me an important adult lesson – while hoping I would find some way to tell him he was wrong. We moved on to some stupid fart joke but the image of his little face in that dark car and his eyes looking wisely at me through his too-big glasses kind of haunts me. Probably because I was sad he’d lost that bit of hope for the world, angry he was right, and gratified how easily we could move on and laugh so hard together at something so, well, childish.
The two best things in my internet world now are Harry Leslie Smith’s Twitter feed and Loz’s Magnificent 7-tone Fart Symphony. Each offer a lot to inspire us social workers well into 2018. First from Harry: learn from our mistakes, be angry, never – no matter how long we are privileged to live – never give up on the human right to equality. Second from Loz: relax – very important things can arise from the absurd!
This is a salutary note to finish on – people, even at our best, are often somehow faintly ridiculous. We need to stay grounded while also recognising that the struggle for justice still burns all over the globe – animating our hopes, dreams and professional lives.
Finally, then, the Reimagining Social Work collective wish you all a time of relaxation and laughter to replenish your hearts and minds over the holiday break. We welcome and encourage you to contribute to the unfolding reimagination conversation in 2018.
Be safe and take care of one another – Haere whakamua, hoki whakamuri.
Neil, Liz, Emily, Ian, Simon & Deb.
Image credit: allispossible.org.uk