A guest post by Lauren Bartley.
Nine months ago I wrote a reflection on my first few months as a social worker, and the disillusionment I faced in realising social work practice was not necessarily social justice practice. Read it here! The following post is a down-the-track reflection on my thoughts from that time, and on my first year as a social worker in a child and family-focused NGO.
2018 was a challenging year as a new-grad social worker. I entered the profession as a fairly naïve and idealistic young social worker determined to change the world! I quickly learnt that putting critical and radical social work into practice is bloody hard work. I learnt what it means to be constrained in my practice by caseload demands, to have no contractual obligations – and therefore no organisational support – for a more structural approach, and that putting out fires takes priority over addressing the systemic cause of the fire. I found it hard to seek opportunities for macro-practice when my social work colleagues seemed reluctant (or uninterested) to do the same. I learnt first-hand how flawed the NGO funding system is, and how the government is able to control and silence community services through strict funding criteria, results based accountability, and competitive contracts. (Is it just me, or is anyone else confused about how NON-Government Organisations are almost solely funded by the government to deliver on government objectives and priorities? (What is up with that?).
I attended a rally with Auckland Action Against Poverty in May against Section 70A of the Social Security Act (where women are financially penalised for not naming the father of their children on birth certificates). I presented a number of arguments to my employer as to why protesting this clause was crucial for our organisation which works predominantly with women and children. In my naivety, I envisaged a whole team of social workers attending the rally as social workers and publicly standing in solidarity with the women and children we work with. Instead, I was told that under no circumstances was I to advertise the rally to the wider team, and that if I was to attend, there would be serious ramifications if I made it known where I worked. I’ll add here that the organisation I work for does excellent work and has a strong commitment to tamariki and whānau. However, the current funding regime seems to have turned a community organisation with huge potential to challenge systemic injustice into one that it too fearful of risking precious government contracts to challenge any approach that isn’t simply about adjusting people to their circumstances.
But the year wasn’t all disheartening! I also learnt about the power of relationship, and saw many positive, albeit often small, successes through treating people with simple respect and humanity. I laughed and cried with people, I learnt to be comfortable with my own vulnerability. I learnt that the simple act of following through with what I say I’m going to do speaks volumes, and that a bag of oranges at a home visit works wonders. I learnt to not write people off when they became defensive or abusive, that their abuse was not directed towards me but towards the system, and that I could try again tomorrow.
However, by far the biggest learning in my practice came through an intensely personal experience. Soon after writing the first blog, I began to experience, not for the first time, sexual harassment in the work place from a person of power (not a social worker) whom I worked closely with. He would put his arm around me, he would try to massage my shoulders, he would call me “gorgeous” in front of others. At first, as most women who experience this do, I brushed this behaviour off as acts of friendliness and support. However, when it got to the point where I couldn’t stand to be in the same room as him, I realised the impact it was having on me and my work. I told my manager and together we confronted him. In the classic male privilege response, he told me that he treats “everyone” this way and that no one else reacts the way I do, and so it must be my problem. He suggested that I had not received enough therapeutic support for a previous experience of harassment, because obviously it was still having a traumatic effect on me. I was blindsided by his refusal to take responsibility, and quietly pointed out to him that though he may indeed “treat everyone this way”, I hadn’t noticed him touching the older women or the men in our workplace.
This experience changed everything. It was the first time I had been explicitly told that I was to blame for someone else’s behaviour. Though relatively minor, it gave me new insight into the injustice of what it means to be a woman in that situation, to be blamed for the actions of a man. I felt silenced and discredited as a social worker, as a woman, and unable to advocate for myself or for the whānau I worked with.
This experience led me to begin to explore the ways in which gender impacts on the experiences of the women I work with. I have always considered myself to be a feminist, but had focused most of my radical attention onto the injustice of poverty. I began to become more aware of the ways women are marginalised simply for being women. A phrase that I came across frequently over the year, said by social workers and therefore usually females, is “this mother is exposing her children to family violence”. Every time I heard this I was baffled by the notion that a woman who is a victim of violence could be blamed for her child witnessing that violence. Why is the blame not attributed to the perpetrator of violence, i.e., the man? This phrase has caused irreparable damage in the lives of several women I have worked with, whose children have been uplifted due to blame for violence being wrongly attributed. Deb Stanfield’s illuminating question in the last post really struck me –“How can we support women and children to adapt to life in a society that does not truly have their ‘well-being’ at heart (Waring, 2018), and still call ourselves social workers?”
But why do we stop there? Framing marginalisation in the silo approach of POVERTY or GENDER or ETHNICITY (as well as sexuality, disability and others) waters down the experience of people who are poor, who are women/trans, and who are a minority ethnicity. (Kimberlé Crenshaw has a great TED Talk on this!)
The social world is shaped by “simultaneous, multiple and interlocking” (Mann & Grimes, 2001, p.8) intersections of power that perpetuate violence and oppression. Recognising that marginalisation is intersectional and compounded highlights the need for social work practice and theory to go beyond a single-factor analysis, and instead position individuals’ experiences of injustice within the context of the larger structures of power and oppression that shape marginalised people’s lives, such as racism, sexism, economic exploitation, homophobia and ableism (Bograd, 1999; Josephson, 2002; Sokoloff & Dupont, 2005). I argue that for the vast majority of people receiving social work services (Māori or Pasifika women/mothers who are receiving a low income) intersectional oppression is a daily reality. There seems to be very little awareness from the social workers I have contact with of the compounded injustice that whānau can face as a sum of their ascribed identity. We would much rather focus on each issue as a silo, because it is easier, more achievable, less confronting to ourselves. But for intersectionally marginalised people, this simplification invalidates their experience, leaving it unexplained.
As social workers, as women, we need to be better than this. We are supposed to be the ones who understand and challenge the mechanisms of oppression and discrimination, and fight the structures and systems that uphold these. However, more and more, I fear that we aren’t attempting to understand or change the reality of intersectional oppression, and are simply adjusting people to their experience of disadvantage. We need to stand in solidarity with our sisters, and instead of blaming them for circumstances, we need to seek to understand not only the experience of marginalisation, but also the spaces between each component of marginalisation.
That’s all very well and good in theory, but putting these ideas into practice is a different story, one that I am very much still trying to figure out. In fact, this is something I really struggle with – I can go on and on about what’s wrong with contemporary social work practice/society, but coming up with realistic, practical alternatives, I come up blank. The issues seem so big and scary, and there are no easy answers. So I’m starting small with just a few goals for my second year in practice. Of course, these are not going to start the revolution, but my hope is that by taking small but significant steps, I will become a better, more confident, more radical social worker. That’s the dream!
Feel free to join me in these, to add to them, or to completely disregard them!
- Consciously make note of the ways in which the choices available to whānau are constrained by intersecting oppressions, and find ways to make visible how this perpetuates disadvantage;
- Keep intersectionality on the addenda through my assessments, in supervision, in informal conversations and in team meetings;
- Constantly ask my colleagues, my employer and other like-minded practitioners across the profession about what they are doing in this space;
- Having courageous conversations with practitioners whose comments may be unhelpful or damaging to whānau. This is not to challenge or undermine the practice of others, but to hold each other accountable to our shared values, to do better as a profession. I hope that others will call out my harmful practice in the same way.
If you come across me out there, please hold me accountable to these intentions. Please ask me, please challenge me, and please keep pushing me to be the most radical social worker I can be. And together, let’s bring in the revolution.
Image credit: Christopher Dombres
Bograd, M. (1999). Strengthening domestic violence theories: Intersections of race, class, sexual orientation, and gender. Journal of Marital and Family Therapy, 25(3), 275-289. doi: 10.1111/j.1752-0606.1999.tb00248.x
Josephson, J. (2002). The intersectionality of domestic violence and welfare in the lives of poor women. Journal of Poverty, 6(1), 1-20. doi: 10.1300/J134v06n01_01
Sokoloff, N. & Dupont, I. (2005). Domestic violence at the intersections of race, class and gender: Challenges and contributions to understanding violence against marginalised women in diverse communities. Violence against women, 11, 38-64. doI: 10.1177/1077801204271476.