OK Social Work?

A guest post by Jude Douglas

For years when I was working in statutory child protection I didn’t easily admit to being a social worker. There was a sense of shame for me personally about the control aspects of the work and also, people’s ideas of what a social worker was were hazy at best and often just downright wrong. So I just put my head down and did the job. Several years ago and about the time I was moving to broader level roles and when the debates about registration and professionalisation were really ramping up I decided that there was an opportunity to reclaim the title of social worker and own it, and put out there what we did. This was without a strong media interest in issues around social care – it’s still that way unless of course there’s a disaster – then there’s a baying of hounds for a while and the silence resumes.

Now we’re on track for mandatory registration and to a large extent the work that has been needed with that whole process has been completed.  It is now time for the energy and focus it has taken for our relatively small community to get this point to be redirected into our broader and more central mandate of working towards social justice.

The interest in social media groups like the Facebook group Social Work in Aotearoa New Zealand, current membership over 1800,  the presence of this  excellent  Reimagining Social Work in Aotearoa New Zealand blog which hosts frequent posts from our best writers and thinkers, the opening up of our professional journal which continues to grow in quality and international reach and our access to the wave of rethinking that has gone on globally as we finally admit to having been too silent for too long on the impact on neoliberalism on those we work with, all suggest a re-energising of the social justice roots of the profession.

That’s why I’ve been disappointed with what I see as the lack of response to the Covid-19 crisis nationally. There are pockets of writing and good ideas, very few of which are making the headlines. When they do, the media framing of social work and  broken families adds to misinformation and a limited understanding of the breadth of social work. But where was our response as a profession? Who was leading this? Where even was our immediate response to this crisis?  It felt like we were invisible, although we knew that social workers were struggling like other professionals to meet client and community needs via zoom and phone.

The professional association did set up some useful ‘sharing and support’ zoom meetings which were initially well attended, indicating a need among practitioners to meet as a professional group. A volunteer register was also started but these initiatives were internal and did not amplify the voice of the profession more widely.

The Student Volunteer Army was able to use their experience post Christchurch earthquakes with ready to go systems which were effectively put into practice almost immediately. Many marae and community groups managed to get organised to identify and respond to immediate needs within days. Iwi Māori stepped up to protect their rohe in the face of racist criticism. Social workers worked long hours to try and make sure services could continue to be offered safely. But the social work profession as first responders? Forget it … we were  simply not organised enough. Will we be any better when the next crisis hits?

Green MP Chloe Swarbrick’s explanation of her use of the term “OK Boomer” in response to an older MP during a parliamentary session was that the expression, first used in social media, acknowledges that “you cannot win a deeply polarised debate – facts don’t matter,” and that “it’s better to acknowledge that perhaps energy is better spent elsewhere.” My reference in the title of this piece refers to the latter idea that sometimes it’s best to move on and put energy into the next important piece of work.

Disappointing though the profession’s leadership was during the early days of lockdown, it’s time now to focus our attention on what we need to do now. In this next phase we have a chance to put forward ideas which are underpinned by our professional values and to harness our knowledge of how poverty and inequality impact on the wellbeing of those we work with. These are the things the government needs to be hearing as it carefully considers a plan for next steps.

Are we going to let others, in particular the business community and the global corporates have their way again as they did after the global financial crisis, which resulted in even greater inequity? Or are we going to say ‘enough’ and work alongside the people who use our services to insist on steps that will make our country fairer and more equitable today and for future generations? And what mechanisms do we have to gather our thoughts, to debate and respond quickly and nimbly as a profession?

We in Aotearoa New Zealand treasure our unique bicultural viewpoint(s) but I see little evidence that Indigenous knowledge and ways of resolving major issues are being held and amplified by the wider social work community. For too long they have been overlooked and silenced by dominant Western paradigms and the structures in which they are embedded. It’s time for us to generate ideas together, to make sure all voices are heard and those seldom heard are centred in our recommendations for responses.

It seems to me that in this current crisis the response has been led from the ground, those working with whānau directly, from the bases of marae, community organisations and using local networks. All of these groups have had to do some quick thinking about how to respond quickly and all are engaged in thinking through next steps on a local level, thinking about supporting specific individuals, families and groups who are hardest hit. They had early conversations about how it could and had to be done to be sure everyone was catered for.

In my neighbourhood, the local community centre led this work after consultation with community groups. A letterbox drop to the most vulnerable was almost immediate. Systems were improved iteratively during the next days and weeks. This happened by continuous consultation with those impacted. By listening to the voices of people they work with, in food banks, in community centres, in marae and also thinking about those new groups, those who are not traditional users of social services who have suddenly found themselves in need; by working creatively and collaboratively, support which was local and reflected the community was offered quickly, cheaply and informally.

Wider conversations about what sort of world we want to move to are now taking place in the stock cupboards of the foodbanks, by those driving the vans as they deliver the food parcels, in the kitchens of the whare kai, within and between community groups both online and face to face.

Where are we as a profession in advocating for those most marginalised who we know and see at close range who will be the most impacted by the loss of jobs, the painful rebuilding of our economic system and infrastructure? Where are their voices and what role are we playing in amplifying the voices of people whose homes we visit, whose stories we hear and whose realities we know intimately?

I realise I am asking more questions and what I am really looking for is answers.

Some are suggesting ways forward. As Mike O’Brien says in his recent blog post, it means “articulating a vision for the new normal which looks above the daily parapet, joins with colleagues and supporters from different places to set out a new picture, a genuinely different picture which will give practical meaning to the new normal for those we work with, for our colleagues and for ourselves in all aspects of our lives. This is a time, despite the social distress ahead, to aim for real change in the social.” (emphasis mine)

Recently I’ve been looking at some of the reports on the tracking of the Sustainable Development Goals, (SDGs) which will take us to a fairer more equitable world by 2030 if we can meet them. The 17 SDGs can be grouped into three pillars; social, economic and  environmental, and no longer separate nations by their development status, but rather see every country as a developing country that has to contribute to the full extent of their means to “transform our world”, to “protect people’s and nature’s wellbeing” and to “leave no one behind.” (UN, 2019).  Under the 17 goals sit 169 specific targets to address social, economic and ecological change. All goals and indicators are of equal rank and interrelated, but their relevance for action varies by country and/or region. For us in the Asia Pacific, the biggest geographical region which represents about 60% of the world’s population, not a single one of 17 goals will be met.

The SDGs and the global agenda for social work (2012) which detail the profession’s commitment to action, clearly align. We need to make more of these international instruments to both inform our next steps and to ensure that our unique voice in Aotearoa is in turn informing the global strategy. IFSW President, Silvana Martinez and Rory Truell, IFSW Secretary-General, recently issued this potent invitation, titled Time for a new social rights revolution to us all to participate in next month’s global conversation to inform the next phase. This will be the focus of the IFSW free conference to be held online between July 15 -19th.

Our response must be both local and global. There’s no point in closing our borders and our minds to the inevitable. A significant proportion of world’s population lives in poverty and is not directly responsible for the situation we now find ourselves in with climate change. The finger points clearly at the global north – that’s us. We have had much more than our fair share all these decades, while our Pacific neighbours and those in the global south where life is lived at subsistence levels, have not contributed to the problem but stand to lose most from both the current lockdowns and rising sea levels. This situation is mirrored locally where there are gross inequities of resourcing towards wellbeing, longstanding for certain groups, traditionally the ones social workers have had the most contact with. Eradicating poverty and inequality while promoting environmental sustainability must be our starting points for both settings.

Attending to the local and the global simultaneously is not an easy place to be. It is however, where we must be as we move forward. As Mike O’Brien suggests, it is we social workers who are able to take the social part of the vision forward, and to do so must link with others who share a similar vision. And we need to start now. This is the time, not in spite of the distress ahead, but because of it.

Photo by Anastasiia Chepinska on Unsplash

7 thoughts on “OK Social Work?

  1. Kia ora Jude, what a fantastic post and one that hits to the very heart of the frustrations I sometimes feel – of our silence during times when we need to be heard.

    Although, I have learnt to be a little more empathetic with my profession over the last 3 months as I too have found myself feeling tentative to speak out about issues.

    I agree with you, and can back you up from personal experience, that the response during this crisis has indeed come mainly from the grass roots. While I was in the hills of the Hurunui during the lockdown the communities have stepped forward and shown us what can be possible when partnerships are forged through the fires of a crisis with a common purpose to lead us forward.

    But I do believe that we have turned a corner of sorts. Through mainly the ANZASW FB page and through this marvelous blog I am, slowly, starting to see different names pop up discussing, arguing and noting different view points.

    Your blog will definitely help in bringing other voices to the fore.

    Kia kaha

    1. Kia ora Eileen and thanks,
      Agreed and we also need to challenge our employers and managers, especially in the public sector, who say it is not appropriate to hold political opinions and to speak out. Guidance from the SSC states clearly that ‘state servants have the same rights of political expression outside the workplace as ordinary members of the public’ with some provisos.
      When that’s too hard, our unions and professional associations are excellent places to go.

  2. Thank you Jude – your writing is a powerful call to insight, hindsight and action

    Wondering about culture and connection or disconnection, I visited conversations in the USA currently. Bodyworks community project feature’s awareness raising activities with focus of Cultural somantics ( visit RESMAA.COM). That being in our body and awareness of neurology offers a place of knowledge, to notice how our body is holding experiences, trauma; that there is a space from which to be enabling consciousness, insights and action for social justice.

    Revisiting then these conversations within current calls to know these terms :’White Supremacy’, ‘Genocide’, ‘Institutional racism’ can open (k)newness, consciousness which locates, grounds the dispossessed local peoples stories as the seed bed for social justice in social work.

  3. Fantastic post Jude, found myself nodding along with it. So many social workers have become gagged by their contracts that we need our professional association (and those of us who can speak out) to speak out and do so loudly. My answer to where are we? We have become so acculturated to having our voices gagged that we don’t even notice when we can take action and so avoid all action. Social workers in NZ need to take action, we need to stop trying to please everyone (that way leads to inaction) and we need to be bold in out demands. We actually need to centre social justice and occasionally (maybe even more often than that) bite the state hand that feeds us.

    1. Cool comments – to bite the hand which feed us suggests querying of social justice became enabled, at all, in the registration of social work. Registration cuts at the base of women workers needing reg to be paid and support families so we accept compliance over assertion. Across my life experience, I see that is is local people whom must define ( and redefine) social justice, not the State alone. I believe the Reg process has colonized, even seduced us, away from the fire in the belly-that fueling knowledge for working for justice within local community. Be interested in fresh thoughts

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