By aspiring activist
The global definition of social work highlights the importance of social justice and social change. As social workers we are in a unique position to see the impacts of structural injustice, while remaining somewhat outside of it. In political domain of social work, our objective is to promote positive social change and address the structural inequalities impacting the lives poor and disadvantaged. Domanski, (1998) proposes that through political involvement social workers can make welfare issues a government priority and ensure that steps are being taken to improve social welfare.
Historically, social workers have been involved in processes of social change, speaking up for the victims of our unequal society (Bailey & Brake, 2013). In recent years, we have seemingly lost our voice, preferring to focus on individual maintenance solutions to avoid risk to ourselves and our profession.
Despite this, we maintain an idealistic view of ourselves as social change agents and social justice warriors. But can we really say that justice is still a central part of day-to-day practice? In response to the increasing management and surveillance of social work practice we are becoming not much more than bureaucratic drones. Perhaps, in this neoliberal, risk-obsessed society, social workers better fit the role of the social control agent. This new role is incompatible with aspirations of social change and poses many challenges to our commitment to social justice (Greenslade, McAuliffe, & Chenoweth, 2015).
It understandable that political practice gets put on the back-burner, as the increasing performance targets and caseloads mean practitioners hardly have the time. It seems the aspirations of new social workers get buried under piles of paperwork until they are forgotten altogether. With insufficient funding and resources, social workers are preoccupied and far too exhausted to be meddling with the status quo. I have to wonder, is this a deliberate strategy of the state to keep social workers ‘in their place’?
The predicament for social workers is that the government we need to be united against, is the very government we get most of our funding from. A resent study of social work students found that many social work students have anxieties surrounding the consequences of activism. As a social work student myself I have found similar apprehensions, feeling concerned about how political action could affect my future employment in statutory agencies. However, as reminded by John Darroch, it is unrealistic for us to believe we can stand with the oppressed while allying with those benefiting from oppressive systems
In discussing the place of social work in the political world, Vasilios Ioakimidis posted an article on May 24 2016 which the poses the question; is there space, willingness and scope within social work to engage with broader structural issues that affect the lives of the people we work with?
I would argue that, not only is there a place for this within social work, social work can not continue to exist without it. As profession we recognise the “personal is political” and in order to truly make changes for service users we must address structural issues. Social work has the potential to be transformative, and activism offers a means for social workers to challenge and change social systems in the hopes of a better future.
Bailey, R., & Brake, M. (2013). Contributions to a radical practice in social work. In V. E Cree (Ed.) Social Work: A Reader (pp. 221-227). New York, NY: Routledge.
Darroch, J. (2017). What would a profession which was committed to fighting injustice look like? Blogpost 30 march 2017. Retreived from http://www.reimaginingsocialwork.nz/2017/03/what-would-a-profession-which-was-committed-to-fighting-injustice-look-like/
Domanski, M. D. (1998). Prototypes of social work political participation: An empirical model. Social Work, 43(2), 156-167.
Greenslade, L., McAuliffe, D., & Chenoweth, L. (2015). Social workers’ experiences of covert workplace activism. Australian Social Work, 68(4), 422-437.
Ioakimidis , V. (2016). A guide to radical social work. Retrieved from Guardian Social Care Network. https://www.theguardian.com/social-care-network/2016/may/24/radical-social-work-quick-guide-change-poverty-inequality
Swank, E. W. (2012). Predictors of political activism among social work students. Journal of Social Work Education, 48(2), 245-266.