Advocating for individual need and structural change: Can we do both?

A guest post by Sophie, final year BSW student

As I reach the end of a 4-year Bachelor of Social Work degree, I am left asking myself how social workers can work to serve individual need whilst promoting social change? Can we be agents of change; do we further perpetuate oppression through practice? Or do we unknowingly do both? I have come to understand that what is really needed is the continuation and increase in support for individuals and families, however this alone will not alleviate social problems such as child poverty. Recently, several news articles have highlighted the faulty systems that social work has operated within for far too long. These demonstrate a heavy reliance on Western ideologies and a lack of understanding of Te Ao Māori by putting forth tokenistic gestures as a means of ticking boxes.

Some argue that the ability to analyse the class divide and challenge oppression within our society has been somewhat lost in social work practice. An emphasis on individual treatment and management makes it easier to ignore the increasing need to advocate for social change (Russell, 2007). Poverty is a political phenomenon born out of dominant discourses such as ‘at risk’ families who are stigmatized as the ‘other’. If such families are ‘lucky’, they will be provided support of an individual nature like emergency housing or Work and Income (WINZ) benefits. While these are all things we should be pushing for as social workers, we must be advocates for our most ‘vulnerable’, I ask, what are the structural issues at play here? How do we as social workers do both?

A politically aware paradigm suggests social work needs to operate in 3 parts; active mediation and advocacy, intervention in a real-life context and combining micro and macro practices (Krumer-Nevo, 2017). From what I understand, there is a huge amount of individual social work going on by social workers who have dedicated their lives to help others, however the macro level influences on individuals is what now needs to come more into focus. A lecturer once mentioned that as social workers, we should essentially be working to do ourselves out of a job. My worry is that without working to understand and challenge the social, cultural and structural environments that allow social problems to flourish, this is an impossible feat.

In saying that, there are groups currently doing exceptional work around advocating for social change such as Auckland Action Against Poverty (AAAP), fighting to increase benefit rates. The Child Poverty Action Group and We are Beneficiaries are also working to challenge structural inequality and the stigma of poverty. Unfortunately, systemic racism still lingers within many Aotearoa New Zealand institutions, as was identified by Pūao-te-Ata-Tū in 1986. Recent research into the experiences of Māori and Pasifika sole mothers with WINZ offers evidence of this on-going issue (Gray & Crichton-Hill, 2019). Many women felt they were more likely to receive their proper entitlements if they were placed with a non- Pākehā caseworker, someone who may better understand their worldview. Pākehā norms and values were discussed as underpinning the service and because of racialised welfare discourses, many of these women felt uncomfortable and out of place in this setting. I imagine there are some individual based solutions that could be suggested to remedy this, perhaps some kind of cultural training for caseworkers? But how much would that really change the overall system to make it more equitable for all?

I believe that social workers do have the ability to fight for social justice whilst also working with individuals. Working with individuals has been widely covered within my social work education, some suggest that more focus needs to be put on the ‘how to’ of becoming a social justice advocate for institutions to truly breed agents of change and not just maintain the status-quo (Walsh-Tapiata, 2004). This responsibility rests on the practitioner, their interest in political landscapes and exploring the impacts of history and dominant discourses, born out of neo-liberal ideals that have worked to create social inequalities keeping people in poverty. In addition to understanding such structures, social workers must also place emphasis and value in creating relationships with individuals and families to help shift the narrative of ‘broken families’ to one of broken systems (Hyslop, 2017). Critical reflection can also be used as a tool to analyse how structures impact on social work practice. This understanding helps inform our own ideas, actions and can guide us in having a more complex understanding of social issues such as child poverty (Mattsson, 2014).

The current political climate here in Aotearoa New Zealand is worrying when we have newly elected politicians making statements about the demonisation of being white. While some may brush this off merely as a bad choice of words, to me it indicates how people in positions of power sitting within macro environments either lack understanding around structural inequality or more likely, refuse to acknowledge it. Before any kind of structural change can occur, eyes and ears must be open to it. So far, this social work degree has taught me to look inward, then to understand history, colonisation and oppression and finally to analyse how as a Pākehā, I have benefited from systems that have oppressed others. Now, with that, and a head full of social work theory, I am left wondering how to navigate the next chapter. Will I be able to serve individual need and fight for social justice and change? I remain hopeful.

                                                                                                                                        Photo Credit: Celine Nadeau

References

Hyslop, I. (2017). Child protection in New Zealand: A history of the future. British Journal of Social Work, 47(6), 1800-1817. https://doi.org/10.1093/bjsw/bcx088

Krumer-Nevo, M. (2017). Poverty and the political: Wresting the political out of and into social work theory, research and practice. European Journal of Social Work, 20(6), 811-822. http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/13691457.2017.1318264

Mattsson, T. (2014). Intersectionality as a useful tool: Anti-oppressive social work and critical reflection. Affilia, 29(1), 8-17. doi: 10.1177/0886109913510659

 

3 thoughts on “Advocating for individual need and structural change: Can we do both?

  1. Kia ora Luis,

    Thank you for your thoughts & encouragement on this! I have some great lecturers to thank for shaping the way I think & feel about social work practice. Now I look forward to working with & learning from other like minded people in the next chapter.

    Sophie

  2. Referring to ; “I believe that social workers do have the ability to fight for social justice whilst also working with individuals….[it]… “ is worrying when we have newly elected politicians making statements about the demonisation of being white.” This matter [the demonisation of being white] came across as an example of public argument which trivializes and distracts more vital public election debate.
    These stunts are pulled regularly by media and politicians. Another example was the simplistic demonisation of residential tenants when the NZ residential tenancy regulations were being reviewed.
    Refferring to- “….indicates how people in positions of power sitting within macro environments either lack understanding around structural inequality or more likely, refuse to acknowledge it.” ….Is cowardly at best; for example- https://www.workandincome.govt.nz/online-services/info/relationships.html
    and – It is a reality that the amount of income allowed by the earned income threshold for both singles and couples is a joke, along withn their response and in spite the threshold being raised recently, especially when secondary tax has be extracted.

    The unprecedented zeal with which the community has been encouraged to focus on and pursue [often phony] ‘benefit fraud’ issues and perceptions in ways which alienate jobseekers and beneficiaries both as individuals and as a social group, from the “good will” component in the community and from within their own family networks. This resulting social alienation, instigated by irresponsible statements and actions made by prominent public personalities negatively impacts directly on public behavior, and the ability of individuals to chase opportunity be reemployed and places individuals who receive benefits at an unreasonable risk of social and relationship alienation, which is unacceptable and needs challenging with new regulatory perspectives. Susan St John covers the extent of this impact -link- https://www.cpag.org.nz/news/new-report-reflects-outdated-and-damaging/

  3. Kia ora Sophie,

    You ask ‘Now, with that, and a head full of social work theory, I am left wondering how to navigate the next chapter. Will I be able to serve individual need and fight for social justice and change?’

    I have to say that the very fact that you are asking this means that the answer to your question will be a resounding yes. You’ve obviously taken your first step to answering that question by writing this blog.

    From personal experience the first hurdle one needs to get over is about being receptive to seeing the structural inequalities so evident in our daily lives. Once you take the pill – think The Matrix – your lens is forever in tune with spotting injustice and you tailor your practice to work both individually above the trenches.

    The more you do it the more you come across other social workers who also work the same way and soon you have an entire cohort of colleagues that you are able to work with in strategic ways advocating for systemic changes, bounce ideas off and advocate in ways that were once unheard of.

    In short Sophie, you’re well on your way.. Look for the reason behind what is being presented and you will always find the system that needs to be changed.

    Kia kaha

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