Mapping beliefs, values, and knowledge of social justice; my social work practice
Faculty of Social Work, University of Calgary
SOWK 600: Social Justice and Theory in Advanced Social Work Practice
Professor Mohammed Nurudeen Musah
October 14, 2021
Social Workers as People
Social work professionals are in the position of holding a great deal of power. This power can be exerted over the most vulnerable; children, people with disabilities, or mental health struggles, and individuals in the justice system or those who don’t follow societal norms. I personally have struggled with this concept of power and how it has been commonly defined. However, an alternative definition that was helpful for me was the concept that true power does not diminish another person. In this definition, the power a social worker has could be thought of giving voice, being representative of the most vulnerable. Certainly the concepts of advocacy, strength based or client centered work support this concept. So how do social workers become good agents of this kind of power?
Many have argued for social workers to be objective, blank slates. Mandell argues that we cannot successfully separate our personal identity from our professional self (2008, 244). She states that our histories, values, bias, attitudes, self concept, anxieties, protective instincts, cultural background, social identity and commitment to social justice directly impact our clients (Mandell, 2008, p. 244). It seems to me that every decision we make as social workers requires a personal interpretation of values and ethics. We cannot make decisions in isolation and I have yet to meet a social worker who makes the exact same decisions I do. There are guidelines, policies and ethical codes for social workers and yet we can see them being interrupted in very different ways.
When social workers privileges and bias are unchallenged there can be devastating effects. Mandell describes the importance of self reflection in social work, understanding identity as it is constructed by interlocking oppressions (2008, p.237). I grew up in a lower middle class family. I have had the privileges of loving parents, food security, clean water and a safe community. My privilege has at times made me feel as though I might be different from many of my clients. However, from a social justice lens I do not believe I am different from my clients. My experiences of being client centered help to challenge this feeling of privilege. I have found it can be scary to realize that we could all become homeless, abused, or dependent on substances. Of course it is normal to resist this fear and it is tempting to believe that one is somehow different.
When we don’t examine our privilege we start to other our clients. One devastating wide scale example of this was the sixties scoop. On an individual level social workers affect lives everyday. In the emergency room department I have made traumatic decisions for others by sending them to psychiatric facilities either medicated or in handcuffs. Fortunately, client centered practices which focus on respecting the inherent dignity and worth of the individual have become central to social work (CASW, 2005). When social workers utilize power they are expected to represent and involve the individual as much as possible while fostering autonomy. Although it is easy to look back on these situations with remorse I believe our work is to better care for and fully accept ourselves. Carl Rogers who first developed person centered therapy in the 1940’s articulates how “the more [we] can keep a relationship free of judgment and evaluation, the more this will permit the other person to reach the point where [they] recognize that the locus of evaluation, the center of responsibility, lies within [them]self ((2004) 2021).” If we apply this theory to ourselves we do not try to hide our mistakes, prejudices, or bias we focus on them.
Most (if not all) social workers seem to enter the profession motivated by painful pasts. It is still unclear if being a so-called wounded healer is a strength or an impairment (As cited in Mandell) Miller & Baldwin, 1999). However, greater attention in the profession is being paid to the benefit of having lived experience. Regardless, what seems to be universally important is self reflection and self care. As Carl Rogers goes on to tell us, “we cannot change, we cannot move away from what we are, until we thoroughly accept what we are. Then change seems to come about almost unnoticed.” So the better we can accept and understand our unconsciously held biases, stereotypes, and oppressive beliefs we can allow for change ((2004)2021). I personally have found that learning about myself has been integral to doing client centered work. In my very first social work course (15 years ago) we were asked to introduce ourselves and why we wanted to be in the profession. Many of the students had impressively sad answers, such as growing up in foster care, losses of family members to suicide and suffering from various abuses. At that time I didn’t fully understand my draw to social work, only that I was sensitive and deeply cared about people. An impactful moment for me was during a lecture on sexual abuse, our professior said that if we felt upset or triggered we could leave or wait in the hall. I felt that personal feelings, reactions and histories were not welcomed in that classroom. This was unfortunate as being with a group of my peers, aspiring social workers could have been a safe place to process our feelings, and experiences around sexual assault. Unfortunately the experience brought me further away from myself. The fear of being a wounded healer or appearing this way kept me from seeking out counselling for myself for another 10 years. To me it feels shocking that given the impact social work has on others that attending counselling is not yet a mandatory part of the education program.
As a child I felt and was described as being an empath. At times I was bullied by my peers and adults in my life. My two oldest uncles were victim survivors of child sexual abuse. Unfortunately, the cycle of sexual abuse rippled through our family. The relationship I often witnessed was between perpetrator and victim. I am still uncovering the different ways this violence has affected me and my family. My father was very different from my mothers family, always seeming to be calm and at peace. So I recalled making a conscious decision to be non-violent like him. Making this choice did seem to leave me vulnerable to abuse and victimization. However, I also see my choice as saying no to a cycle of violence. Social work has helped me understand my family and my relational experiences. I have seen my uncle’s faces in my clients and I recognize the love and fear I have for them. Learning how to recognize and accept this fear seems to be making me stronger. Carl Rogers talks about our willingness to be separate from our clients. The idea is that we can be strong enough in ourselves to truly see our clients and not be afraid ((2004)2021). This strength seems to allow us to better hear and see our clients, being truly client centered.
While I was in therapy I was shocked to discover my own judgements toward myself as a victim. I realized I did not want to be a victim, I associated this with weakness and mental disorder. I had never imagined myself as someone who might blame the victim and I have worked a lot with sexual abuse survivors. So what is the effect of these deeply held unconscious judgements? I work hard to support individuals who come to the emergency room after a sexual assault. My goal has been to provide a safe space and a boundary from the pressures of our systems. However, I am not sure I have been as successful at doing this as I want to be. I understood what the individuals in Kaleidoscopic Justice meant when they said they felt like a piece of evidence. RCMP commonly pressure my clients for statements stressing the concept of it being “pure” (as quickly as possible after the assault). As I try to empower my clients to make decisions for themself I feel the pressure of the system and the individuals working in it. Client centered therapy has felt challenging in this environment. I have experienced powerlessness when our system re-traumatizes these victims requesting statements, blood and body samples that often go unused. I have also felt powerless when doctors or RCMP officers make demands of my client. As a social worker I understand my job is to protect my client, give them back their power and voice. However, as a person with my own fears and history I am not always able to defend against these oppressive demands. It may always be difficult for me to stand up to authority figures, especially those who seem to trigger past memories. I am not sure that I can let go of my peaceful style so as Mandell encourages I am embracing myself and my history. I am continuing to work through counselling to find inner strength.
Kaleidoscopic Social Justice
Kaleidoscopic Justice and the research presented by McGlynn and Westmarland have provided me with a new way to challenge our system. The research shows how we can provide solutions for victim survivors (2018, p. 180-196). Impressively these researchers simply ask victim survivors of sexual assault about justice. Although the victim survivors have various perspectives and ideas in relation to justice, many practical solutions are offered (2018, p. 180-196). The solutions include real life possibilities and alternatives to our expensive, ineffective current justice system (McGlynn & Westmarland, 2018, p. 180-196). This research gives me hope for this difficult work, reminding me that I am not alone in this battle. The voices of these women also give me knowledge on how I might protect my clients. In particular I am reminded that justice can take many forms and it is always best when our clients define the terms. It seems that social justice might best be done with the help of our peers.
So what is the relationship between me as a social worker, my own lived experience, my healing and how I have integrated social justice? I have learned that being a blank slate is not possible. I have also learned that the more we try to be something we are not (objective) the further we actually get from it. I have also lived a much more privileged life than most of my clients. Examining this privilege brings me closer to my clients as I can allow myself to be imagined in their position. I also have to continue healing my own wounds. I can better do this with the support of my peers challenging the injustices in our systems.
Canadian College of Social Workers. (2005). Canadian Social Workers Code of Ethics (Revised ed.). Canadian College of Social Workers. https://www.casw-acts.ca/files/attachements/casw_code_of_ethics.pdf
Mandell, D. (2008). POWER, CARE AND VULNERABILITY: CONSIDERING USE OF SELF IN CHILD WELFARE WORK. Journal of Social Work Practice, 22(2), 235–248. https://doi.org/10.1080/02650530802099916
McGlynn, C., & Westmarland, N. (2018). Kaleidoscopic Justice: Sexual Violence and Victim-Survivors’ Perceptions of Justice. Social & Legal Studies, 28(2), 179–201. https://doi.org/10.1177/0964663918761200
Moser, M. M. (2016, June). Relational Somatic Therapy [Lecture]. Somatic Therapy, Nelson, BC, Canada. https://openingtograce.com/
On Becoming a Person by Carl Rogers (1-Mar-2004) Paperback. (2021). Constable; New Ed edition (1 Mar. 2004).