Social work needs to reconnect with its political roots and challenge the ‘politics of oppression’, writes social worker ermintrude2…
Social work is political, there is no escape from that. As we work, day to day, it may not always feel it but everything about the job and the role itself is political. The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) in their ‘definition of social work’ states: “Principles of human rights and social justice are fundamental to social work”.
Yet social work in the UK and particularly statutory social work may seem to have moved away from the political roots. It has become easy for the statutory work to become embroiled in bureaucracy and for those of us who work within local authorities to have little time and space to think more deeply about the role that our work plays in the lives of those whom we work with.
As social workers we have a duty and a responsibility to engage in the processes that have built inequalities into the systems that we work in. We need to ensure that those who need the services that we provide have stronger voices both within the organisational structures we work in and externally.
Fight the ‘us’ and ‘them’ mentality
There is a need for social workers to bridge the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ that all professional politicians of all parties like to play on to garner cheap votes. When we distance ourselves in conversations between those whom we serve and the people that we think we are we play into the games that politicians like to establish for us.
As social workers, we have considerable power in the lives of those whom we work with. Sometimes it needs to be used in coercive processes but we have an obligation to ensure that we remain mindful of the place and our own role in exerting and using this power.
Institutional use of power is politics. Social work is political but it goes beyond the party political.
The future for social work, if it is to retain a credibility, lies not as much in professionalisation through increased status or better ‘press exposure’. The future of social work and the credibility of social work is based in how we use our own professional voices not for ourselves alone but on behalf of those who use our services.
The heart of social work is being lost
There are many ways to be political (with a small p) without being Political (in the sense of party politics) but if we don’t both individually and collectively speak out about the injustices of the systems we work in and the failings of these systems we fail as social workers.
When we try to defend our organisations when they reach funding decisions that adversely affect people who need our services, we are losing the heart of social work.
There are many ways to be political ‘safely’ within a organisation and the one I would advise most strongly is through the trade union role.Trade unionism at its heart is about a communality of experience.
There is also an organisation called SWAN (Social Work Action Network) which pushes the political issues in social policy and social work to the heart of our agendas.
Challenge the politics of oppression
It is not possible to be an effective and engaged social worker without taking not only an interest in politics but an active role in challenging the politics of oppression. We learn about social policy when we study but we have a real opportunity to influence it when we qualify even within our own teams.
We can raise questions and issues, bring wider contexts of decisions to meetings and challenge safely and respectfully some of the decisions which are being made but this is best done collectively.
This is what will allow social work to gain credibility more than TV programmes which emphasise more of the ‘us versus them’ dichotomy.
Image: Nils Jorgensen/Rex Features