Social workers and social movements

Now THAT’S a movement!

We have known for a while that launching a campaign wasn’t enough – its a good way to raise awareness and attention for an issue, but when the campaign ends, the momentum fades. Movements are designed to go further, do more to sustain people’s interest and participation, and of course drive greater impact.

Movements change lives, not just laws.

But in the vernacular of organizing, especially online, I’m increasingly concerned that the word ‘movement’ has simply replaced the word ‘campaign.’ Everybody wants to start a movement, and understand how to use technology, and social media, to make that happen. But few are willing to embrace the huge commitments necessary to create and sustain a movement. The term is being co-opted, the level of excitement and commitment towards creating movements is growing, but we are still running in place in terms of truly shifting how causes are addressed.

We’re in danger of forgetting that calling something a “movement” doesn’t make it so, and that movements are not measured by the number of Twitter followers you have.

In doing research on the whole idea of social movements in the digital age, I came across some really good resources that say a lot of what I was thinking (LOVE when that happens!)–about the need to connect offline and online interactions, so that relationships are real; the potential of new media to reduce the costs associated with bringing people together; the importance of empowering people to find their own place within a movement (rather than expecting everyone to “click here”); the flexibility to go not only from local to global, as social movements have traditionally evolved, but also from global to local, as people find ways to connect with known others around an issue first presented to them by unknowns–in essence, about the power of social media as a tool for social movement building, rather than as an inevitable movement in itself.

So, since I’ve got Duplo towers to build and dozens of stories about big trucks to read, I want to share some of the great resources about social movements and movement building 2.0 and instead focus my comments on wondering:

“What’s up with social workers and social movements, anyhow?”

If you think about it, it’s kind of odd. Here we are, this pretty big profession with hundreds of thousands of super-passionate, well-informed, dedicated people working on the kinds of core social justice issues around which movements are born. And yet, throughout history, social workers have, for the most part, played rather peripheral roles in the major social movements that have defined our times. Most scholars of social work history believe that, in fact, social work activism during ‘peak’ periods (the 1930s and 1960s, in particular) is inflated, and social work retrenchment during the 1980s, for example, is overstated as well. For the most part, social workers have been impacted by social movements far more than they have driven them.

Why is this? And what does it say about our profession? And its role in movement building?

I think that, in essence, the issue is the definition of social movements. I looked up a lot of different definitions, and they all look something like this: “Social movements are a type of group action. They are large informal groupings of individuals and/or organizations focused on specific political or social issues, in other words, on carrying out, resisting or undoing a social change” ( Large. Informal. Group action. NOT the kind of thing typically led by professionals who are, in most instances, arms of the same ‘system’ against which the movement is, in some way, arrayed. So, while perhaps disappointing to the most idealistic and radical among us (who? where?), it’s not surprising that there is little role for our profession, with its dual emphases on social control and social assistance, in movements that seek to fundamentally realign the distribution of power in our society.

But what about social workers as people? As in, not in our professional capacity but as individuals who, after all, went into this profession because we really, really care about people and really, really hate injustice–what role for us within social movements?

Certainly, here, it’s much harder to get a good sense of what history looks like; we have no way of knowing, definitely, how many social workers, in their personal capacity, were engaged, for example, in the struggle for civil rights, the women’s movement, and the peace movement. Probably many.

But I do think that there are some serious ways in which our profession discourages this full expression of social workers’ politics and, in so doing, deprives social movements of some of their potentially most valuable ‘foot soldiers’ while simultaneously denying social workers their right to full pursuit of human liberation. These are the points I want us to collectively consider:

  • Excessive workloads and social worker burnout fry people at work, use up their creativity and compassion, and push them to retreat in their personal lives.
  • The overly cautious divorce of politics from nonprofit organizational life sends social workers the message that they must sever their political from their professional selves. We know that this is damaging for both ‘halves’ of the social worker.
  • The emphasis, within social work education, on professionalization and skill development at the expense of political consciousness takes students away from activism at precisely the time of their lives when they may have the greatest exposure and opportunity for participation (which could plant the seeds for later involvement).
  • The segregation within nonprofit organizations, with underrepresentation, particularly of people of color, is echoed in residential segregation, combining to deprive many social workers of access to diverse peers with whom to build strong movements for change. When we only interact with people of different races, socioeconomic statuses, and sexual orientations in a client:worker relationship, we’re not only living stunted lives but are also locked out of opportunities for solidarity.
  • Declining unionization of social workers and a move away from collective bargaining and toward ‘professionalization’ (in quotes because it’s a false dichotomy between unionization and professionalization!) deprive social workers of our society’s best practice grounds for unified action and democratic movement building: the labor movement. Many movement leaders got their start within labor, and organized labor continues to be at the forefront of movements for justice for workers, immigrants, women, and people of color. Social work just doesn’t participate much.

    So what do you think? Have you been part of a social movement? Do you see yourself as part of a movement now? Does your social work identity reinforce your movement participation? Or is your consciousness within the movement separated from your professional orientation? What could social work do to be a part of movement building? Should we take this on as a profession? And what will movement building look like in this new decade?

    Beth’s Blog on Bridging Old and New Models

    And Beth’s Blog on Cause Fatigue and Movement Building”

    Finally, Beth’s Blog on Movement Building Resources

  • 3 responses to “Social workers and social movements

    1. Pingback: Four Years in Retrospect | Classroom to Capitol

    2. I’m having a hard time finding a place to feel passionate about policy. I know I want to do advocacy work in my lifetime, I’m not at all sure how to start. I’ve found s few things that I could join, but I’m not sure they are effective, or even willing to accept joiners. Any advice for a newbie?

      • Any social movement working for justice that can’t find ways to incorporate new and interested advocates is not destined to create transformative change, since it’s only by bringing new champions to our causes that we can advance them. If it’s hard to identify a particular issue that really compels you, what about identifying some particular skills you want to use or develop, or connections you want to make? Are you most interested in policy analysis, or community organizing, or media work? You might look specifically for campaigns or organizations with opportunities in those areas, knowing that you may hope to translate those experiences to other substantive areas as you get more exposure. If there are some specific organizations you’re interested in, feel free to email me and we can discuss options!

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