This is a guest blog post by Lauren Bartley: a recent graduate and practising social worker.
I’ve spent the last four years at university banging on about social justice while doing the BSW at the University of Auckland. This was the very reason I began a career in social work, because I had deep sense of the injustice in the world and wanted to do something about it. I prided myself on being an activist, a radical. It became my passion, my defining feature. Early into the degree, I realised that there was a major incongruence between what I thought social work was, or should be, and what it actually seemed to be. By the end of my second year, most of my assignments had the same running theme: that as much as social workers espouse the value of social justice, social workers aren’t actually doing it. I deeply connected with Ferguson and Woodward’s (2009) criticism that social workers tend to “play down the structural factors and to focus on individual and personal issues.” (p.8). I was constantly frustrated and dismayed by how little attention seemed to be paid to the wider factors of colonisation, capitalism and neoliberalism, both in the degree and in the profession, and how little those structural inequalities and oppressions seemed to matter to everyone else. I challenged visiting social workers who presented in class, and was intensely critical of them when they said they had “no time” to address structural issues. Putting plasters on people was all social workers seemed to be doing, and this made me angry. A placement at Auckland Action Against Poverty served to fuel this cynicism, and I came to the point of having a crisis of faith, seriously reconsidering social work as a career.
After taking a few months off to recover after finishing the degree, I began working as a community social worker in a child and family-based NGO. Now, after eleven weeks of calling myself a practising social worker, I am beginning to understand the barriers of high case-loads, limited time, and having no contractual mandate or objectives towards social justice goals. I have been surprised and disheartened by how easily I seem to have lost sight of my own values of social justice. I have become overwhelmed by the day-to-day firefighting of individual-based work, and I have had no time or extra energy to consider the structural and political factors at play in people’s lives. Though this acknowledgement is devastating for me, I am determined to redefine my vision for my professional identity.
Contemporary social work has been described as neoliberal social work, and under the current state-mandate, it conforms to and reproduces austerity and neoliberal politics through discourses of risk, vulnerability, eligibility and targeting (Duvnjak & Fraser, 2013). With the relentless focus on evidence-based practice, results-based accountability, outcomes and efficiency, it is no wonder that social work has neglected its social justice mandate (Pease, 2009). We have become numbed by the neoliberal managerialist agenda of those who sit in offices in Wellington and know nothing of what social work is. A pertinent example of this disengagement is the Social Services Select Committee’s inability to define the scope of social work practice because it is too broad, too ambiguous (Hyslop, 2018). I argue that if social justice and liberation are the global goals of social work practice (International Federation of Social Work, 2014), how can that sit within with the state’s neoliberal agenda that supports capitalism and austerity? I do not see how social work can profess a commitment to social justice, and also be practicing in a way that upholds neoliberal politics. In my mind, the two simply cannot co-exist.
It has been argued that evaluation models such as results-based accountability (RBA) are a direct compromise of social justice (Keevers, Treleaven, Sykes & Darcy, 2012). RBA is focused solely on measuring outcomes using empirical evidence, and neglects to acknowledge the structural factors that cause and maintain inequality and disadvantage. Arguably though, social work is not about outcomes; it is about relationships and processes that cannot be measured, “but which are the essence of what social work is.” (Ferguson, 2008, p.17).
I have become keenly aware of the obsession with outcomes and numbers while trying to make sense of the accountabilities demanded in my monthly reports: numbers of referrals received, numbers starting and completing programmes, numbers of Reports of Concern made. I can’t help but wonder why my work is being reduced to numbers, and feel that I am not being recognised for the processes of my practice: the hours I have spent agonising with families over the behavioural and emotional challenges of their child caused by years of intergenerational disadvantage and marginalisation; building relationships with children who have very little trust of adults due to the damaging and long-term effects of state intervention; getting buy-in from whānau who have very little trust of anyone because of the regular humiliation and dehumanisation they face from Work and Income. I have begun thinking about social justice not just as an outcome (the eradication of poverty, for example), but also as an organising principle and process. All of these activities, though they are not measurable and therefore not recognised by the Ministry of Social Development as relevant, are actually essential to increasing the sense of belonging and identity, empowerment to fight back against the neoliberal agenda, and emancipation from the multiple and intersecting oppressions that grip whānau and communities. These are not “outcomes or achievements but moment-by-moment practices that are situated, precarious and ongoing” (Keevers et al., 2012, p.107).
As an act of resistance against neoliberalism, social work must reassert its position towards social justice, and this is invariably a political endeavour, which understandably scares social workers. But as McKendrick and Webb put it, the decision for or against a political stance “becomes a little clearer when one understands that the decision is also a choice for or against social justice” (2014, p.358). Social workers should be at the forefront of social change, and this is my vision for my practice. In the midst of all the day-to-day demands, we must keep our focus on the immeasurable processes of social justice in our practice: the building of relationships, the bolstering of dignity and respect, and the increasing of self-determination. We must become radical activists in the fight against the structural issues that make life so difficult for so many, and seriously question why our contracts do not prioritise this. We must continue to assert our stance on the politics of inequality, and stand in solidarity with people who are marginalised. And we must continue to campaign for recognition of the social work profession, and not stand by while bureaucrats define (or not) what we do every day.
And if the whole definition fiasco goes unfavourably, maybe we should insist on changing our job title to Social Justice Worker to remind ourselves and others of exactly what we do. There can be no ambiguity in that.
Image credit | John Darroch
Duvnjak, A., & Fraser, H. (2013). Targeting the ‘hard to reach’: re/producing stigma? Critical and Radical Social Work, 1(2), 167-182. 10.1332/204986013×673245
Ferguson, H. (2008). The theory and practice of critical best practice in social work. In K. Jones, B. Cooper & H. Ferguson, (Eds.), Best practice in social work: Critical perspectives. (pp.15-37). Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan
Ferguson, I., & Woodward, R. (2009). Radical social work in practice: Making a difference. Bristol, UK: The Policy Press.
Hyslop, I. (2018). Social work bill ‘nonsense’. Retreived from https://www.newsroom.co.nz/@future-learning/2018/04/23/106052/social-work-bill-nonsense on 24/04/18.
International Federation of Social Workers. (2014). Global definition of social work. Retrieved from http://ifsw.org/policies/definition-of-social-work/ on 24/04/18.
Keevers, L., Treleaven, L., Sykes, C., & Darcy, M. (2012). Made to measure: Taming practices with results-based accountability. Organization Studies, 33(1), 97-120. doi: 10.1177/0170840611430597
McKendrick, D., & Webb, S. A. (2014). Taking a political stance in social work. Critical and Radical Social Work, 2(3), 357-369.
Pease, B. (2009). From evidence-based knowledge to critical knowledge on post-positivist social work. In J. Allen, L. Briskman & B. Pease (Eds.), Critical social work: Theories and practices for a socially just world. Second edition. (pp.45-69). Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.