Where has my radicalism gone? Revisited (again!)

This is a guest post from Lauren Bartley

Over the last few years, I have contributed a couple of blogs to Reimagining Social Work, reflecting on the grief I felt at losing my sense of radicalism once I started working as a social worker. You can read those blogs here and here, but a quick rehash: throughout my degree, I became pretty disillusioned by how little focus contemporary social work placed on social justice. It seemed that social work was more about putting plasters on people, and adjusting people to their circumstances, rather than trying to change those circumstances. I had created a name for myself as a bit of a radical and got pretty fired up in my classes and assignments about what social workers should really be doing. And then I got my first social work job, and reality hit. Workload, time constraints, and organisational suppression of anything remotely political meant that I was really restrained in what I could do, and I quickly felt my sense of radicalism slipping away.

Fast forward to a few months ago when I was asked to give a guest lecture at university about advocacy in social work. At first I felt pretty under-qualified to present such an important topic, but I agreed to do it, and I’m so glad I did. It gave me the opportunity to think back over how my thoughts on advocacy and social justice have changed and developed over time, and to acknowledge for myself that actually I have been “doing” social justice all along, just in ways that were different to what I had anticipated.

I am now a social worker at E Tipu E Rea Whānau Services, a very small kaupapa Māori organisation providing wrap-around tautoko to mātua taiohi / young parents, and hapū māmā across the Auckland region. I am in a really privileged position in that the CEO of the organisation (Zoe Hawk – Ngāti Hako, Ngāti Paoa) has a public health background and is deeply committed to improving equity, addressing racism, stigma and discrimination, and removing barriers faced by young parents. There is a very strong acknowledgement that these issues can only be addressed at a structural, political level, and that we can only do so much by working with individual whānau.

To that end, she added to my job the role of Policy and Advocacy Lead. Now I actually get paid to write submissions, letters to MPs, press releases and speak to media – I don’t have to do it undercover anymore! I’m really proud of this new role, though I don’t always do it very well! I’m learning that policy and advocacy work, particularly with the media, is very strategic and oftentimes baffling. I have made a lot of mistakes and am still trying to figure out how to do it.

For example, avoid sending out a press release on the opening day of the Olympics, and when you do, make sure not to turn your work phone off at your usual clock-off time: reporters have weird schedules and will call you after-hours for an interview. Don’t make public digs at other community organisations (it was unintentional, I swear!) and definitely don’t make a comment to a reporter, and then ask them not to publish that comment.

One of our major focuses at E Tipu E Rea is on housing and homelessness of mātua taiohi. Over the last year, more than half of the young māmā we work with have spent some time in emergency motels. Motels are obviously not appropriate housing for young people, let alone young people with children. The rooms are tiny, not child friendly, there’s no space to play, and they’re not allowed visitors, which is really hard as a new young parent. On top of that, motels are not safe or secure, with many of our māmā reporting intimidation, harassment, and violence.

While we can do individual advocacy for each of those young whānau to their case managers and housing providers, we just see the same pattern repeating itself: young māmā can’t continue living at home for various reasons (family breakdown, overcrowding, safety); we refer to housing providers who say this māmā is too young, too old, they can’t take children, they can only take children and this māmā is hapū, they can’t take couples, they’re full … often the only option we’re left with is emergency housing (despite its unsuitability), and even that is getting harder to access. What this requires is hard-out high-level advocacy to decision-makers and funders that the current model of community and emergency housing is broken, and that the unique needs of young hapū māmā, mātua taiohi and their tamariki are being constantly overlooked.

Enter Manaaki Rangatahi, the first multi-organisation collective speaking into the issue of youth homelessness in Auckland and Aotearoa more broadly. E Tipu E Rea is a member of Manaaki Rangatahi, and we’ve found huge solidarity and power in the collective action of the group, rather than struggling on as individuals. As a large collective, Manaaki Rangatahi garners a lot of media attention, and is able to distribute that around the members of the collective to give public insight into the unique housing needs of their community (eg. queer young people through Rainbow Youth, young people leaving care through VOYCE, and hapū māmā/mātua taiohi through us at E Tipu E Rea). This has allowed us to begin to develop our own relationships with journalists, which means stories and statements get picked up more quickly and we are able to extend and broaden our advocacy work.

It has been both deeply refreshing and saddening to realise that political advocacy in social work is possible. The fact that my CEO chooses to prioritise this (in ways that are safe for our contract and funding), means that so many others choose not to. Imagine if all social workers had a Policy and Advocacy component to their role, if we were all able to use the individual experiences of the whānau we work with to directly challenge Government and decision-makers, if we were not all so worried about our contracts and gag-clauses and remaining politically neutral. Imagine the social justice we could manifest then.

Instead though, most social workers have to keep their advocacy on an individual level, ensuring the whānau they work with are having their needs met and their rights and entitlements fulfilled. And while it can often feel like we’re not doing enough, and we feel the overwhelming impacts of being up against the machine of bureaucracy and oppression, we have to remember that every piece of advocacy is a step towards social justice, and that deserves to be celebrated.

Every time we do these things, amidst all the complexities and contradictions of our profession, we are doing social justice, and that in itself is pretty radical.

I titled the talk I gave at Uni, “Advocacy in Social Work: Reflections from a wannabe radical social worker”. I am in no way an advocacy expert, and I still often feel riddled with inadequacy and guilt that I haven’t been able to do enough, but being able to call myself a radical social worker is my greatest ambition, and I hope that every little piece of advocacy I do is a step towards that goal.

Image credit: Mark Klotz

4 thoughts on “Where has my radicalism gone? Revisited (again!)

  1. Kia ora Lauren,

    Thanks for your piece. Indeed we are a profession that seeks to uphold our truths and that won’t always be easy.

    I wrote a piece on the broken justice system a few weeks ago – and as a result have been told by my employer that I cannot write such things as someone who works in a prison.

    The reality is that our social work professional code of conduct will at times clash with our employers’ – or system at large – attempts to protect their reputation and positions of power.

    We need to provide and support eachother with practical ways of engaging in “radical” social work where we can make a difference within unjust systems while challenging them at the same time.

    Ngā mihi, ka mau te wehi!

    1. Kia ora Bex,

      Thanks so much for sharing that, I read your piece and was really moved by it: it was strong, gracious and hopeful. On one hand, I’m really surprised your employer has reacted like that as I thought you handled the tension so delicately and with such a strong focus on rehabilitation, which is the supposed/alleged goal of prisons.

      And on the other hand, I’m not surprised at all – yet another example of the state controlling and censoring our collective efforts to create social change. I’m sorry you have experienced that, and it has been a humbling reminder of the privilege I have in being able to speak publicly without (much) fear of retribution. Although I haven’t shown my piece to my boss yet…

      I guess that was the message I wanted to get across – that a lot of us will be faced with threats from our employers for trying to do something bigger and more radical, and that we should not lose sight of the fact that small actions of advocacy, empathy and solidarity are steps towards that bigger goal.

      Don’t lose your hope.

      Mauri ora,
      Lauren

  2. Kia ora Lauren,

    Great piece, great work and keep up the good fight.

    While I agree that ‘every piece of advocacy is a step towards social justice, and that deserves to be celebrated’ I am also cognisant of the fact that if every social worker had, as a given, ‘Policy and Advocacy’ installed into their JD and it was encouraged to be practiced, the role of social worker would be so much more powerful.

    The collective profession would / could make so really positive changes then.

    In solidarity

    Luis –
    Hasta la victoria siempre

    1. Kia ora Luis,

      Thank you for your comments. I totally agree that it would make a world of difference if every social worker had an component of policy and advocacy attached to their job, that is exactly the point I was trying to make. I absolutely recognise the privilege I have in having that as part of my job, and I am slowly learning how to live up to that responsibility.

      As a profession, we have been silenced by politically neutrality and precarious contracts, all while our core competencies obligate us to promote social change and social/economic justice, and I’m not sure how we do that while remaining politically neutral. Other than a radical reform of social service provision and funding, where NGOs are actually NGOs, and statutory services are headed by social workers and not business administrators, I’m not sure where the solution lies. Until it is found, however, I think it is important for social workers to not give up hope, to not get complacent, to keep fighting in whatever way they can, whether that’s advocacy with individuals or on a bigger scale, and to celebrate each achievement. If enough of us are doing that, maybe one day our dreams of a truly radicalised social work profession will be realised.

      Mauri ora,

      Lauren

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