Promoting diversity in social work practice to combat oppression

In a multicultural society, social workers are expected to recognise diversity in their practice and actively tackle oppression. Vern Pitt reports on the challenges laid down by the Social Work Reform Board

In a multicultural society, social workers are expected to recognise diversity in their practice and actively tackle oppression. Vern Pitt reports on the challenges laid down by the Social Work Reform Board

Respect for diversity is a well-established tenet of social work practice, and its inclusion within the Social Work Reform Board’s framework of nine core standards for practitioners (see box) comes as no surprise.

The first principle of the General Social Care Council’s code of practice states that social workers must “respect diversity and different cultures and values”. In turn, the reform board expects practitioners to understand the multi-dimensional landscape of diversity – from race to religion and disability to age – and challenge oppression, alienation and marginalisation.

But putting this into practice can often prove difficult, because the subtle nuances of service users’ cultural journeys often get lost in the rush to complete assessments and care packages, says June Sadd, equality consultant and ex-service user. “It’s a mechanistic process,” she adds. “There are forms to be filled and there is no place for the narrative [of people’s experience].”

Gina Hardesty, a social work training consultant, says diversity is rarely on the agenda when it comes to allocating resources for service users. “Although social workers might understand how I have cultural needs, that isn’t going to get me to the top of the tree to gain services,” says Hardesty, a wheelchair user.

Responsibility for learning more about diversity issues starts with individuals. Texts such as Siobhan Laird’s Anti-Oppressive Social Work or Robert Mullaly’s Challenging Oppression are a good start but individual reflection is often considered the easiest way of achieving this on a day-to-day basis.

This should be accompanied by supervision incorporating diversity, says Nicki Ward, Social Work Action Network (Swan) member and social work lecturer at the University of Birmingham. But she warns: “Supervision emerged as a way of people engaging and developing and to give a forum for people to do that, but now when people talk about supervision it’s much more about making sure people are doing their job. People have lost those spaces.”

Peer learning

Managers can also play a role in facilitating peer learning. Joe Mairura, interim board member of the College of Social Work, says it is important to create a space where social workers can learn from each other. This is particularly useful for diversity issues because people bring personal experience as well as professional perspectives.

Social workers should apply anti-discriminatory practice where necessary, but as Ward explains, this can often involve challenging oppressive attitudes from service users – in simple terms, standing up for yourself.

“I had a social work student who was a young Asian woman who was a Muslim,” she recalls. “She went into someone’s house who said they didn’t mind working with an Asian woman but they didn’t want to work with a Muslim. I asked her what she did about that and she said she felt it was just a person’s choice.”

Ward says in scenarios like this, it is important for social workers to actively challenge discriminatory behaviour in a calm and diplomatic way. She highlights the importance of striking a better balance between service user choice and the principles of diversity, noting that social workers have a right to work in an environment without discrimination too.

Personalised approach

Some social work leaders see an opportunity to restore this balance through taking a personalised approach. In order to work alongside individuals rather than for them, says Sadd, practitioners have to listen to their needs and concerns and adapt their care packages to these needs – there may be a greater role for religious or cultural groups to provide these outside the usual care system. No one can ever hope to understand all aspects of diversity as they apply to every individual without doing this, she says.

Social workers must also challenge oppressive thinking among colleagues where necessary. Hardesty recommends asking: “Do you realise what you just said?” She says this assertive approach is less confrontational and gives people an opportunity to start a dialogue on diversity issues.

Sadd goes one step further, saying that social workers should involve themselves in mass action to challenge prejudice and injustice against marginalised groups – as some members of Swan are already doing.

With stringent budget restrictions in councils making their impact felt on marginalised communities, perhaps now is the time to embrace the reform board’s diversity standard in just such terms.

How a student social worker identified key diversity issues

Recognising diversity within communities, and even within families, is becoming an increasingly common challenge for social workers.

When Lucy Dobbs, community care worker and student social worker at Leicester Council, was assigned to Jamie Crawley*, a mixed race man with complex physical and learning disabilities, she quickly identified hurdles to overcome.

Firstly, as his mother, Jacinda*, recalls, he was not a happy 22-year-old.

“He was not living a life; lying on his bed with no friends and no socialising,” she says.

Next, Dobbs recognised the family’s mixed cultural heritage – Jacinda is Hindi and her husband is white British – needed to be addressed.

“The family actively pursued religious celebrations from both the Christian and Hindu culture; they felt exposing the children to both sides of the culture was important to them,” she says. “It was important that the support plan could be as flexible as possible, so that if Jamie wanted to do something along with this family that had cultural significance his hours with his personal assistant could be moved.”

It’s unlikely this level of flexibility would have been possible under traditional support arrangements, says Dobbs, who accredits the success to taking a personalised approach. Crawley’s personal assistant is also mixed race and Dobbs says it was illuminating to see how important this was to him, and how they both very naturally slipped into discussing it.

However, getting Crawley out of the house was not the only issue.

As a football fan, he wanted to attend matches but Dobbs was concerned this might expose him to racial abuse. Crawley was fairly blasé about the possibilities because he had been with his father, who is white British, but Dobbs worried he might elicit a different reaction with his personal assistant, as two mixed-race men.

To limit the chances of this he now has transport which takes him directly to his seat in the football ground, rather than the main gate to avoid the crowds. This also suits his mobility needs as his disability means he can only walk short distances.

“It was good for me to experience working with different strands of discrimination alongside each other and make sure I am looking at the situation holistically,” says Dobbs.

* Names have been changed

Standards Benchmark

The proposed professional capabilities framework, published by the Social Work Reform Board, is intended to provide a benchmark for the standards social workers should follow in their practice.

The framework is spread over nine core standards or capabilities, which includes diversity. It says knowledge and practice in this area should cover the following:

● Understanding differences in self and others.

● Respecting difference.

● Repertoire of personal presentation.

● Challenging discrimination and oppression.

● Be able to challenge cultural assumptions.

Source: Working paper on the professional capabilities framework, Social Work Reform Board, January 2011

Special report on social work and ethnic minorities

More coverage of what the Social Work Reform Board’s proposals mean for practitioners

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