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Social Worker as Capacity Builder: A Proposal for Radical Professional Change

Social Worker as Capacity Builder: A Proposal for Radical Professional Change

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Published by Alex Fink

A Proposal for a Radical Social Work Profession.

A blog post by Alex Fink available at http://publicfragments.org



A Proposal for a Radical Social Work Profession.

A blog post by Alex Fink available at http://publicfragments.org


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Categories:Types, Research
Published by: Alex Fink on Nov 20, 2012
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09/17/2013

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The Social Worker as Capacity Builder: A Proposal for Radical Professional Change 
 A Blog Post by Alexander Fink, @alexfink,alexanderjfink@gmail.comPh.D. Student, School of Social Work, University of Minnesota Social work practice and research are divided, contested spaces. There aremany divisions in social work, and in my education at both the masters and Ph.D. level, thesedivisions occupy an incredible amount of our time and energy. In the arena of practice, weconstruct arguments between micro and macro practice; between different models of casework, individual, and group therapy. In research, we argue about qualitative and quantitativeresearch, about our values, and about Evidence-Based Practice. In fact, we are so wrapped upin these conversations that I think we often forget (or maybe even choose to forget) that all of these debates are based on a lot of assumptions. We argue about research based on socialwork values and practitioner's wisdom versus evidence-based practice, but we forget in both of these frames, social work is still most often about working
for 
people, rather than working
with
them. Working
for 
is a synonym for “working on behalf of.” It can be seen structurally in therelationship between practitioner and client, where the practitioner is in a position of power 
over 
 someone else, regardless the ways they attempt to mediate that power in their relationship.Working
with
is a way of struggling with other members of the human race to create a societythat is more just, peaceful, and healthy. This is not simply a distinction between micro andmacro level social work. Many community organizers work
for 
people when they go tooppressed communities and try to mobilize them (this is common with union organizers). Whilesome social workers might be comfortable with the idea of working
for 
people, I see working
for 
 as another way of living out the hegemony of wealth and social class. I'm not the first to makethis argument, in fact it is an argument deeply embedded within the history of the pre-professionand profession of social work (Reisch and Andrews, 2002).The purpose of the social work profession I’d like to be a part of is to createtransformational social change toward the co-creation of a just and compassionate society. Thisview contrasts those that declare the profession and purpose of social work as the institutionthat enacts social welfare policy. If we are willing to accept my purpose for social work (which iscommensurate with a great deal of our professional and pre-professional history -- see Reischand Andrews, 2002), I think a few things are necessary. In particular, a deep commitment todemocracy is necessary. And I mean democracy in an everyday sense: self-determination, realchoices and the right and ability to make those choices, and spaces that embody collective andco-creative decision-making practices, rather than authoritarian ones (Tuck, 2008). For thesocial workers nodding along as you read this, I ask you to think hard about the institutions andwork you are involved in. I frequently hear stories of clients "in charge" of therapy or casemanagement sessions. This is a great step, but we need to ask ourselves:
who is framing the problems
? The people that frame the problems are the people with power (Chambers andWedel, 2008; Szasz, 1997). And in most cases, this is not our clients. We'll really embodydemocracy when we are framing the problems
with
our clients. This means unpacking a lot of assumptions about what is mental health and mental illness, who is helpless and who has giftsand services to offer, and who and how people are capable of what. Most of the time I believewe frame the problems (or the organization we work for, or the policy or funder that drives the
 
organization we work for). Most of the time, therefore, we are working on behalf of people, butwe aren't really working with them. This isn't, fundamentally, democratic. Nor is it just, or aboutcreating justice, which can only begin when we start to
embody 
justice (Block, 2009).There
are
models of people doing this work. In social work, we tend to look toward Jane Addams and the Settlement House movements. This is certainly a viable example (problematicin its own ways, but nevertheless relevant) (Addams, 2012). The Highlander Folk School is onesuch example. Now called the Highlander Research and Education Center, the school wasfounded by Myles Horton, a resident of Appalachian Tennessee. It was founded during the labor movements of the 1920s, but was most effective as a school for organizers in the south duringthe Civil Rights movement. Highlander, in partnership with Septima Clark, Bernice Robinson,and Esau Jenkins, founded and supported the first Citizenship School (Horton, Kohl, & Kohl,1997). The Citizenship Schools were born out of the interest of the people of John's Island inpassing citizenship tests and learning to vote. To pass the tests, most poor, black folks neededfirst to learn to read--a skill that they were mostly denied by local governments. The CitizenshipSchools taught reading and civic skills through untrained teachers like Bernice Robinson, whoworked at the level of everyday people (Clark, 1986). The first Citizenship School was one of many experiments that Highlander funded. As it was successful, other communities beganrequesting Citizenship Schools of their own and Highlander began training lay, communityteachers for the schools. The Citizenship Schools were in many ways the backbone of theCivil Rights movement, and were eventually handed off to the Southern Christian LeadershipConference (SCLC) because the Highlander School wanted to continue to do local work andpreferred not to run a large program (Horton, et al., 1997).Highlander was incredible in many ways. It was one of the only places in the southwhere black people and white people worked together, ate together, and slept in commonquarters. It used methods of popular education and focused on the knowledge peoplealready possessed and could share with each other. In other words, it valued the everydayexperiences and expertise of all the people who came, regardless of their level of educationor socioeconomic class. It modeled and embodied new ways of coming together that were justand equal (and was significantly more progressive in terms of issues like gender equality thanmovements like the SCLC). Further, it developed practice models that were used by lay peopleto make significant social change. There were no professionals or experts, only everydaypeople in local communities committed to making a difference. Highlander lived the idea of working
with
people.I believe we can build a new profession of social work, one focused on working
with
 people, rather than
for 
them. This will not be exclusive to macro practice social work, whereparticipatory models of community organizing and participatory action research providepowerful examples of working
with
. One example in direct practice is lay therapy, wherecommunity members are trained in a brief period of time and with little resources to becommunity therapists (Neuner, Onyut, Ertl, Odenwald, Schauer, & Elbert, 2008). While licensedprofessionals may argue that this results in lower qualities of care, studies like those by Neuner,et al. indicate that lay therapists can reach outcomes with clients that are within statisticallysignificant range of services provided by professionals. These lay therapists can be membersof communities, trained by communities, and treating members of their community. Further,these therapists can be trained quickly and cheaply, and could even work part time. Training
 
community members in this way means that therapists are working with members of their owncommunity to create broad and deep changes within a community. This can began to addressmajor issues, community violence being one example, where massive numbers of individualsliving in urban communities face undiagnosed mental health issues like complex post-traumaticstress disorder that affect their ability to love, learn, work, and live physically and mentallyhealthy lives in dramatic ways (Garbarino, 1999; Geronimus, Hicken, Keene, & Bound, 2006).I propose that the only way social work will be a radical profession, changing societyto become more peaceful, just, and healthy, will be to empower everyone to be a “socialworker.” We need many more therapists, case workers, community organizers, and educators.Furthermore, we need them to be part of our everyday lives, with each individual taking someresponsibility for shaping the health of our communities and the individuals and families that livewithin them. We also need citizens who take ownership over creating social policies that involvecommunities in a process of self-determination over their futures (Boyte, 2008; Kretzmann &McKnight, 1993).I think we have the tools, technology, and human capacity in a way we may never havehad it before. One of the challenges with implementing a model of lay social work is in certifyingpractitioners in a diverse range of skills. The internet, online teaching and learning specifically,provides one solution to this problem. A new system of certification called “badges” is beingused by a number of training firms, educational institutions (brick and mortar as well as e-learning), and corporations to certify people in single, often discrete skills. Individuals can collectand display badges as a way of proving certification. One example of this technology is beingdeveloped by open-source organization Mozilla:http://www.openbadges.org. We could beginto certify people in a diverse range of skills from “relationship building” to narrative exposuretherapy. Of course, there are many challenges that we will need to overcome, like insurance,liability, and social work’s commitment to licensure and professionalization.If we choose to move forward with such a model, the major question for theprofession of social work is: Where does this leave social workers? If we begin to certifycommunity practitioners in the way I've envisioned here, will this destroy the profession of socialwork? In part, I believe it could. And maybe it should. The belief held by many radical socialworkers is that the profession serves to prevent radical social change by keeping the poor andexcluded just enough above water to avoid rebellion and revolution (Cloward & Piven, 1966;Reisch & Andrews, 2002). This isn't to say that on a day-to-day basis the work that socialworkers are doing is meaningless. Far from it. How could anyone argue that helping people inneed--whether it be keeping a home, helping a family function in a healthier way, or learning tolive with mental illness--is a bad thing? However, if we
don't 
see the need to change, to dosomething bigger and truer to our values, I think we'll always be stuck reproducing the kinds of solutions to the same kinds of problems that we've always been searching for. In other words,these kinds of research and solutions will
only take us where we already are
. Maybe just doingwhat we're already doing a little bit better. But they will always be limited by the resources andpractitioners available, because in the current model, there will always be the belief that thekinds of services social workers provide are only needed by some members of society and canonly be delivered by experts. The Highlander Folk School and models of lay therapydemonstrate that something different is possible.

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Jane Gilgun added this note
Hi, Alex. Nice job. You put it out there. Important for people to understand that social work is based on values of justice and care--dignity and worth and autonomy, too. Compassion is a value that is basic to all the world's religions, and by that standard is a value that may be foundational to social well-being. Evolutionary biology states that altruism & cooperation are necessary for survival
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