We have been talking, in varying ways, about social work and social justice on this blog for a long while now. Is this relationship possible, sustainable, realistic? We do need to keep talking about this and, more importantly, we need to start doing something about it or you can probably forget about it in ten years – the project will have been eradicated! I would like to know what others think – can social work be a force for progressive social change?
I often tell students that good social workers need to spend a fair bit of time swimming against the tide and that this process involves some courage and integrity. Or, at least we need to aspire to some courage and integrity, bearing in mind that we are no more or less human, no braver or better than the people we seek to support, or the managers and politicians who frustrate our intentions. In fact, citizen service users who have survived social, economic and state oppression often leave us for dead in the courage department.
However, to work for fair outcomes in tough conditions we do need a bit of guts and stamina. When something isn’t fair the temptation is to his hide in our bureaucracies – blame procedural constraints, lack of resources, or the poor work of others; the way that it is. Or maybe pick some people we can go the extra mile for? Now, don’t get me wrong I have met some damn good social workers in my time: people who front up to the impossible every day. And I have had the privilege to try to teach a few. But the model of the heroic practitioner charging off to set the world to rights is, truth be told, not a sustainable one. Unless we can change a few things around that is.
Our social work agencies – state and NGO alike – are mostly about maintaining the status quo in a fundamentally unequal society – putting derailed individuals back on the tracks as cost-effectively as possible. This is how the system is designed and funded. And there are no medals for bucking the system. Of course, helping people in need is useful but it does not create fundamental shifts in our social and economic order – it does not generate the sea change that is needed. Think of the kind of job description that might be required to liberate the colonised indigenous people of the world. Yellow Bird and Gray (2008, p.59) suggest the following:
Social Workers to Assist Indigenous Peoples
Indigenous Peoples are seeking highly motivated workers to serve their communities’ drive for self-determination, empowerment and complete return of their lands and other resources illegally stolen by colonial societies. The social worker will be required to develop aggressive programmes of decolonization that can be used to enlighten and reform members of mainstream society.
That sounds fit for purpose but not many jobs are shaped up that way. We now have a centre left coalition government. It might have stopped raining stones but, believe me, it is not about to stop raining altogether. We are not going to see any radical redistribution of wealth and opportunity because the exploitative foundations of our economy are accepted as normal, natural and necessary.
So, should social workers who aspire to redistributive social justice and changes to the relations of power that enforce this oppressive normality find another calling? I don’t think so, but we do need to be a bit smarter. Perhaps our strength has been our weakness – have we been focused on compromise and conciliation for too long? Social work in the welfare state was given a joint care and control mandate. Social change was in the job description. The time has long past to understand that this is no longer the case, and this realisation can be liberating. What we can (and must) do is re-imagine how practices of radical social work can be developed and applied in the here and now.
There are strategies available to us to become better informed, organised and politically active. We need to embrace the potential of trade unions as reflected in the work of the Social Workers Action Network within the PSA. Issues-based advocacy, including on-line work in the ‘third space’, is important. We can build alliances with other groups, workers and organisations, including making political connections. Educators need to champion the social work voice – we are not about to be given a state mandate to advocate for social justice, but we work with the human consequences of structural injustice every day. We have an opportunity to expose the myths – not to do so is a failure of nerve.
Image credit | John Darroch
Gray, M., Coates, J. & Yellow Bird, M. (Eds.). Indigenous social work around the world: Towards culturally relevant education and practice (Yellow Bird & Gray, pp.107-116). Burlington VT: Ashgate.