Building a Political Agenda for Social Work

The foundational values of human rights and social justice have always been compounded with socialism and social democracy as core ideals and “right principles” of social work. Social workers are committed to promote human rights, social justice and address the root causes of poverty, oppression and inequalities.

The “Global Agenda” launched in 2012 by the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), and the International Council on Social Welfare (ICSW) has reinforced this commitment. In that sense, social workers need to understand and analyze the impact of change on social welfare and the transformation of society towards values of equality, human well-being, social justice, and citizens’ participation.

The nature and operation of institutions and economic systems and the distribution of resources and power are also core commitments for social work. Thus, the pursuit of social justice in the twenty-first century requires that social workers acknowledge the political dimensions of all practices and the need to engage in multifaceted struggles to regain influence within the political and public arena.

Therefore, social work needs to strengthen its progressive values and influence the understanding of social problems and social relations through a materialist perspective. Social work also needs to focus its commitment on the impact of the wider social structures such as class, injustice, power, oppression, exploitation, domination and inequality promoted and reinforced by capitalism. Under the current neoliberal paradigm of austerity and market justice, social work needs to see society as a struggle between groups with competing interests.

Social work should focus upon economic and political institutions that influence and are influenced by institutions supported by the dominant neoliberal ideology. The central concern of social work should be, power – both personal and political – and how the powerful elites define and constrain the most vulnerable and working classes. Thus, social work needs to criticize the dominant institutions, advocate for their dismantling and suggest a vision of transformation. In other words, social work should seek to transform the conditions and social structures that cause these inequalities in order to contribute to the transformation of the current society to one that is more congruent with the principles of social justice.

Why Ideology Matters?

Ideologies are systems of beliefs that guide our choices and behaviors, and indeed justify our thoughts and actions. As Bailey and Gayle explain, structures, systems of power and advantage play a central role in maintaining the development of points of view. In this sense, it is important to see the world through an ideological lens. Why? Because ideology relates to power and the distribution of power in society. In questioning this relationship, social work has the opportunity to achieve a new moment for social and political action in accordance with its own values and commitments.

The Ideology in Social Work

Social work in Western countries has lost its political direction. It has failed to clarify its own ideology and to preserve its own values and ethical commitments. Social work emerged from working-class movements for social justice and became in time a mediator between the state and the people. Social work values are guided by the pursuit of socialism and social democracy. Thus, socialism and social democracy are embedded in social work values and commitments.

Both have a common understanding and sharing interests about the collective needs in relationship to the individual. They also believe that social justice is a goal for all in society. Those actions and policies to achieve social justice will emerge from a more equitable distribution of wealth and knowledge among classes. Social work needs to rebuild a new relation between the political and social movements, based on the recognition of the rights and claims of the citizens. Economic and material needs are a key priority for citizens and social work should advocate for them through political and social action.

The state has a fundamental obligation to play a major role in the maximization of social equality. The collective goals of the community must be respected. The distribution of resources should serve the public good, not the private needs. Another important element in achieving social justice is the recognition of class interests and the gendered and ethnic class locations within society. In that sense, “The Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development” needs to bring and reinforce the ideological dimension as the central focus of social work in order to social work pursue political and social action.

(Building) a Political Agenda for Social Work

According to McKendrick and Webb in Taking A Political Stance in Social Work, “taking a political stance in social work necessarily involves a close historical examination of the influence of social and economic structures as well as the constituting context of relations of domination”.  In that sense, social work needs to rebuild its own political strategy to confront structures that need transformation. Thus, to build a political strategy some key questions should be defined: should social work take a conflict perspective?

What can social work do to reinforce its own progressive values within society? How should social work position itself between citizens and competing neoliberal interests? What is the political agenda of social work? How can we promote social justice without pursuing a conflict perspective?

Social workers cannot be servants of financial capitalism and supervisors of expenditure of the most vulnerable. Neoliberalism brought managerialism, corporatisation and performance as key demands for social work. McKendrick and Webb also argues that “the ‘spirit of capitalism’ is the ideology that justifies people’s commitment to capitalism, and which renders this commitment attractive within the mainstream society”.

Social work needs to build a strategy rooted in ideology that will confront and transform the nature of capitalist exploitation that affects the most vulnerable citizens, and the working class. As McKendrick and Webb acknowledge, “social work, inevitably operates within a ‘grand tension’ of refusing the dominant order while at the same time being contaminated by this very order”.

However, social work should clearly advocate for a large public sector which is directly provided by state allocation. Education and health care should be provided as decommodified public goods. Economic and material needs should also be at the forefront of any social work political strategy, such as the debate and implementation of a basic income that will enhance people’s standard of living. Moreover, immigration and refugee policies should also be key priorities in which social work should advocate and lobby for them.

The “Global Agenda” is embedded in progressive social work values, so it should define and promote a political strategy to pursue and respect those values in order to contribute to the transformation of the root causes of social and economic inequalities.

Thank You for Including Me, Now Please Hear Me

Screenshot 2016-02-24 at 3.42.22 AM

How much input can those with lived experience genuinely have when the traditional “experts” have the balance of power in any decision making processes? Those with lived experience often don’t have the finances, the resources, the networks or the academic credentials to be truly “heard”.

Are they really being treated with the same respect as other experts or is it still “us vs them”? Stating that you will include the voice of lived experience is not enough. To genuinely include those with lived experience, you need to remove obstacles so that their voices can be heard.

This conversation is written from the perspective of lived experience input with emergency services mental health but it will resonate with many individuals trying to generate change from a lived experience perspective. We’ve deliberately used the term “my people” to represent a consumer group needing change.

Letter to Those Trying to Make Change

You say you want to help. So you organise a forum, or a conference, or a consultation. You say you’re doing this on my behalf.

I thank you for your concern.

You gather academics, helping professionals, organisational managers, sponsor representatives and senior leaders of organisations I have worked or volunteered for.

You will make decisions on my future, and the future of all those who stand beside me. In decision making land, you have deemed these people the “experts”. I and my people are the “consumers”.

You invite me to take part, to contribute my experiences. Thank you for your willingness to include me and take a part in decisions that will affect myself and my people. Where you are grateful to the experts, I get the distinct impression that I should be grateful for this opportunity to attend.

You get paid. I do not. I will have to take the day off my paid work. You offer to reimburse my travel expenses. You don’t see the irony that this will cost me money while all others present are being paid either by the organisers or by employer they’re representing.

I have listened to my people for years. I am their shoulder, I am their venting space. I listen. They have many suggestions for change so that their people stop this unnecessary suffering. Someone has to speak on their behalf. I do this in my own time, unpaid. Yet sharing my expertise with you comes at a cost to me.

I am one voice among many at your forum. Yet I am one voice FOR many in the real world. The gathered experts report in a language almost foreign to my people about the many projects they have completed with, or are planning for my people.

I speak about the issues and am met with your silent nods and a few looks of sympathy. I feel proud that I’ve spoken on behalf of my people, advocated for their suffering to stop, made suggestions for change. Then you ask the curly question: Where is the evidence of this suffering and where is the evidence that what my people suggest will actually work? Because the evidence before them ( from the experts) suggests other alternatives.

Evidence? I have letters from my people. I have recommendations from my people. I have survey results from my people. I spend every evening on the phone, email, and social media talking to my people. I have regular face to face meetings with individuals and groups of my people. Evidence?

Was my statement of 5 people taking their own lives in ONE week not enough evidence?

I am interrupted by the senior leaders presenting evidence that their new improved programs are working well. The academics mention they would like more money to study this a little more. Practitioners need more information so that their practices can be enhanced to include my people. Special grants are mentioned which would allow their practices to accommodate the special needs of my people. Sponsor representatives talk about their agendas and the kinds of directions they could fund. Those directions are irrelevant to my people, but not one of you seems to notice.

I become agitated but take a deep breath. Appearing emotional will allow you to dismiss my input as overemotional, irrational. I summon control by envisioning all the people who have asked me to speak on their behalf.

Hear Me

I am AN EXPERT when it comes to the problems of my people. I have lived it. I have overcome it. I know the obstacles. I know the resources. I listen to my people every day. They ask me to speak on their behalf. I have no alternative agenda. I merely seek to help others of my kind.

I sit amongst academic expectations, unwillingness of senior leaders to admit issues exist, directions conversations take due to biased sponsoring stakeholders and the financial burden of maintaining advocacy of my people.

You are not allowing my people a fair opportunity to provide input to their own destiny.

You may be convinced by experts that you’re doing the right thing, but until you LISTEN to those of us affected, until you help us to be on the SAME playing field as the historically perceived “experts”, you are only creating perceived solutions – not REAL solutions.

Invite me, or someone else who genuinely represents thousands of my people to EVERY consultation which involves our destiny. Give me the respect of financial remuneration and recognition as you do with other participants and speakers deemed to be ‘experts’.

Respect my knowledge and wisdom. I should not have to spend time and money gaining a PhD just so that you all trust what I say. I should not have to accept that your sponsors guide the direction of your work with their funding, or that the academic evidence isn’t quite ready yet and probably won’t be for many years.

I should be able to speak out loud about those who still work for the services but are threatened with disciplinary action or loss of job if they partake in public action or social media statements which criticize current systems. Or about those whose injury compensation payouts are all too often dependent on a clause which stifles their ability to speak out.

I have to be more politically correct, calm and collaborative than most of you because I run the risk of exposing that deep seated belief in many who are present that my mental illness must be playing up if I get agitated or express anger and frustration at some of your practices.

I ask you to do more than listen. Hear me. Because beside me are thousands of others, just like me. Experts. Shouting out for change.

Solutions come from those who you state you wish to help. They have lived it. They know the obstacles. They have worked their way through struggle. They know the resources. They know the solutions. They have the voice. They just need to be HEARD.

Thank you for stating that we- people with lived experience- have wisdom to share. To make sure we’re genuinely included in consultations which decide our own destiny – please remove the obstacles so that you and I, and all the people beside me – can truly collaborate and make meaningful changes. Changes in the REAL world.

Exit mobile version