1. Great to see the debate about the future of social work and Jimi’s comment that perhaps we should call ourselves social welfare officers, as this more truly reflects the realities of what social workers do. I retired a few years ago after 40 years of being a social worker, starting in the late 1970s. I have spent much time and sleepless nights reflecting on the wrongs I have been part of and how powerless I have felt in progressing social justice. I do think that a sense of social justice lets us practice in ways which can avoid the worst of attitudes and actions, if our agency’s policies allow that. And encourages us to take what action for social justice we can, even if that needs to be in our own time. If capitalism is to be replaced by a fairer system, then at least social workers could avoid getting in the way of change. I know that doesn’t sound much, but it’s better than nothing. Social workers are so hedged in by the twin pillars of professionalism and agency policies that I don’t think that much more than this is possible. I would be delighted to be told I am being too pessimistic here!

    1. Tena koe Jackie
      I was being somewhat facetious with my welfare officers comment – but if the shoe fits…. and for the past 140 years it appears to have fitted well for some at the expense of others.
      Yes, the majority of our current practice types reflect an absence of social justice which is a core fundamental component of social work. Again, a myriad of reasons written as to why this is.
      Given our new legislative requirements – I think its timely for the profession (not government bodies, or ministries), to articulate the ‘practices’ of social work. Some work has already begun on this around readiness to practice. Central to the conversation must be how does our practice embed and reflect Mātauranga māori; and how does our practice embed and reflect Social Justice.
      I think it is the responsibility (me included), of members of the ANZASW, TWSAW, CSWEANZ, and PSA – as non-government stakeholders in the profession, to pause, consider, and articulate what are the baseline expectations and practices for social workers (and their agencies) in terms of social justice?
      Another key here is ‘the agency’. As it currently stands, the legislative requirements are centred around the ‘individual social worker’ being held to account; with no legal mandate required from the agency/ service they work for. This is problematic, as there is no legal expectation/consequence placed on the agency (as the barrier) to enacting social justice social work practices. And what we know from the literature are that the barriers to enacting social justice and Mātauranga māori in social work are themselves the agencies systems and structures.
      Could be time for a national hui whanau?
      Nga mihi nui e hoa

      1. Perhaps it would be easier to see the future for social work if we stopped using the word ‘profession’ and started using ‘job’ instead. There are few social work job descriptions which mention social justice, let alone having it as the main course. If social work is a socially constructed occupation (vis Malcolm Payne), then it is the Government (the principal funder) and its agencies (OT, DHBs, dependent-on-Govt-funding NGOs) that call the shots. Social workers are no different from any other workers: if we don’t do what the bosses want, we are at best marginalized and at worst sacked. I can think of three times in my own career when things went down to the wire on social justice issues- the result was a win, a lose and a draw- but I certainly felt the full force of the threat of no job, no pay coming down on me. And like any worker, I needed to eat and have a roof over my head. So when our employers are more interested in us ticking off KPIs and getting that patient out of that bed yesterday, it’s one huge contradiction to expect social workers to make social justice a priority. And why would we when our employers don’t expect that of us?

  2. Kia ora Jimi

    Thanks for your thoughtful contribution as ever. As Maylea suggests, the breadth of social work is both a strength and a weakness, making it hard to find a clear place to stand politically. And social work can’t avoid its political location or its less than spotless history.

    However, even in statutory practice with all its supposed obligation of political neutrality there is a need for social workers to think, understand their context and make their voices heard individually and collectively when necessary. I think you are right that we need to continue to teach critical sociological analysis, tools for dissent and advocacy in relation to structural change.

    Don’t get me wrong, the last National-led government gave us the social investment model with all its nineteenth century poor-bashing overtones and I don’t want to go back there. But we also need to be wary of the current message that kind capitalism is the best of all possible worlds. A lot more could be done to make decent housing accessible and affordable for example. The commitment to never considering a capital gains tax is difficult to fathom outside of it representing some sort of line in the sand, guaranteeing unearned income from private property as the liberal birth-right of ‘middle New Zealand Kiwis’ – which itself is a pretty dodgy construction if you ask me!

    It is really important to have these critical conversations. Assuming social workers are hopelessly ham-strung is a pretty debilitating position and taking the conservative approach that our on-paper commitments to social justice take us outside of politics is naive. There are always tensions and contradictions and you are right that discomfort spurs change.

    Liberal politics has always sought to exclude those who capitalism pushes to the margins and social workers have something to say about the root causes of inequality and social suffering. Garrett argues there is a world – a different world – to be won. He may be right but social justice for the excluded is not about to be presented on a plate. He suggests that social work is one of many sites of conflict – the flurry of battle comes and goes Jimmy – but it never seems to end. As social work teachers we too must continually think and re-think our war of position – we too have our challenges, contradictions and opportunities and fighting alone never the best of strategies in the long run.

  3. Tena koe Ian

    I suspect we are at an uncomfortable crossroads in terms of social work practice and social work education, which is a good thing!

    As a social worker and social work educator I see that our dominant current social work practice types no longer reflect the definition of social work. The IFSW is clear “…social work engages people and structures…”. The key here is ‘structures’. Our dominant practice types have become welfare work with individuals. Given the neoliberal social work which dominates our profession – we simply don’t engage with structures and the majority don’t do social justice social work.

    “I practice social justice with my clients” readers may cry! Sorry to burst your bubble, but chances are what you’re practicing with the individual or family is an individual social welfare response. Yes, this is needed, but this is not a social justice social work response. Social work must include addressing structural discrimination and oppression in all our practices, our communities, our organisations, relevant government ministries, policies, and law. Social work practice is both personal and political. If Social Justice isn’t being practiced by us and our organisations, then we are remis in calling it social work. Addressing structural discrimination and oppression is a fundamental and necessary part of our social work practice. A good critical reflection to ask ourselves and the organisations we work with could be; ‘how have you addressed the poverty at a structural level this year?’

    If this makes the reader uncomfortable, it should, as it does me…

    Our dominant practice types in the statutory areas of child, justice, and mental health have devolved into primarily ‘policing functions’. Like the Police, these policing roles maybe needed but in good conscience they bear no relation to the definition or complete practices of social work. It doesn’t take much to compare current job descriptions of statutory services to see that it bears little connection to complete practices and definitions of social work.

    Social Justice social work is a core fundamental and defining feature of social work. If our practices are not engaging in structural oppression and discrimination, then we are not fully practicing social work. I would suggest that for many, the reason isn’t a lack of desire, but that the social welfare system (and social work education) of the last 40 years, has eroded the space, skill, and knowledges for social workers to enact social justice social work practices. For many social workers – I suspect they wouldn’t know how to do this, where to start, or what to do.

    If we want to continue in our work and not engage in structural oppression and discrimination then by all means carry on – but don’t call it social work, maybe social welfare officer (now that’s a blast from the past). But for those who want to engage with structures as is ethically and legally mandated by our profession, then at your next supervision, peer or group supervision take the following terms and start to unpack them – ‘critical social work practices, structural social work practices, radical social work practices, extra-legal social work practices, professional resistant social work practices, indigenous social work practices’.

    Ian, I think the profession has lost is way – primarily because we’ve neglected the primarily defining feature of our practice – social justice social work. I’m hopeful we can let ourselves get uncomfortable with this, dig deep, and rediscover how we can do social justice social work practices.

    Nga mihi e hoa

    Jimi McKay

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