I am certainly not known as one of the most “compassionate” social workers in the world, although I have an abundance of passion and commitment to social justice. I believe strongly in social work’s simultaneous commitment to helping individuals and addressing societal injustices; indeed, I think it holds unique potential for positively impacting people’s lives. At the same time, I struggled throughout school and even still today with the expectation that I will be particularly empathic; much of social work is a bit too ‘touchy-feely’ for me, and my practice classes were at times tortuous; you can only process things so much, you know? Still, I have learned a lot from my more clinically-minded colleagues, foremost among those lessons being the importance of attending to personal well-being in the midst of a social justice movement.
One of the subjects on which I spend a lot of time in my classes relates to this question of how to integrate advocacy into social work practice so that social work advocates don’t burn out before they have a chance to really make an impact. In some ways, this, too, is a slightly ironic topic for me; when I was at El Centro, Inc., I routinely worked 80-hour weeks, and I quit precisely because my work took me away from my son and my husband too much. Maybe that’s why this is an emerging interest of mine, then, or maybe it’s because I’m tired of seeing so many overwhelmed social workers, and so many others who use the obstacle of being too busy as an excuse to not do advocacy. The truth is that we social workers have no choice–it’s in our Code of Ethics–and also that I truly believe that incorporating advocacy into our practice can protect against burnout rather than bring it on. The key is in how we do it. Nancy Amidei, a superstar social work advocate, gave a tremendously inspiring talk recently where she challenged everyone to find just five minutes for advocacy. Breaking advocacy down into small pieces like this is important, I think, but it’s also critical to recognize that, at times, advocacy must consume much more of our time and energy than this. The task at those times is to find ways to both make all of our practice transformative and justice-seeking, so that advocacy isn’t just something that we tack on at the end of the day, and also to find ways in which advocacy can feed our souls. Some thoughts on the latter (with much more to come on the former):
You’ll be much happier, and your advocacy will be much easier, if there is a good fit between the organization and your orientation towards advocacy. If you’re looking for a job, or for a new job, consider the organization’s stance on your key issues, tolerance for risk (because advocacy always includes some), and track record in standing up for justice. If you’re already in a job, talk with your supervisor about how you might integrate advocacy into your work responsibilities in small ways, hopefully in exchange for some reduction in other tasks.
What do you need to take care of yourself as an advocate that you could gain here? What strategies have you found that help to sustain you? Who has been most inspiring or supportive to you in your advocacy work?