Social work is desperately in need of a mashup.
We need to force a collision between our two ‘worlds’, trusting that, out of the inevitable discomfort and even chaos will emerge a stronger, more dynamic, more capable profession.
I first learned about mashups in my forays into the use of emerging technologies in advocacy practice–tech geniuses who take iPhone applications and spreadsheet programs and come up with these tools that will do everything except change my kids’ diapers. (If only someone could come up with a mashup that tackles that!)
But it was Joshua Cooper Ramo’s book The Age of the Unthinkable that got me thinking about mashups outside of the technology realm. I read this book because Rosetta Thurman had a post (which I unfortunately can’t find, but I had fun browsing through her archives again!) about it being part of the assigned reading for a young nonprofit leaders conference. The crux of the book is basically how we need totally new thinking to confront the totally new challenges (with a special emphasis on terrorism and global security) that confront our world today. And he talks about the need for mashups–the collision between different tools, or ways of seeing the world–in order to build our capacity to engage and, ultimately, succeed, in this challenging environment. He convincingly makes the case that, not only are we a part of this ‘mashup world’ whether we like it or not, but that, in fact, others are using mashups effectively against our interests, so we’d better learn new thinking too.
And that’s what brought me to this clinical/macro mashup idea. I mean, if you think about it, the explosion of nonprofit management specializations within MBA programs is a kind of mashup: business school preparation+charitable/social justice ideals. And social work is seeing the impact of that adaptation in our professional schools and in the organizations where we practice.
We know that what makes social work awesome, as a profession, is our simultaneous commitment to social justice and pursuit of excellent skills in working with people. It’s what has set us apart for more than a century.
But this is a new age, and we need new tools. So, if, as Ramo details, a video game controller and air-bag technology can be mashed up into the Wii, revolutionizing an industry and making billions of dollars…then can’t we, as a profession, bring together all that we know how to do so well in an innovative and transformational way?
And, in fact, we must, not only for our own survival, but because our world demands everything that we have to offer: our interpersonal skills and our ability to change systems in pursuit of social justice.
So what would this mashup require? And what would it look like?
To begin, we need to rethink how we divide ourselves, reforming social work education to bring macro and clinical content into every course. We need to reshape social work licensure and continuing education to institutionalize this cohesion, and we need to advocate for ourselves as a profession, articulating what it is that we bring to organizations and changing job descriptions to encompass our full capacity. We need new scholarship to develop theories of social change that highlight the role of clinical interventions and provide resources for social work educators to integrate radical social work content into the classroom. We need practicum opportunities that meld macro experiences with clinical encounters, and we need support for all social work agencies to enhance their social change/macro practice endeavors.
The result, I truly believe, would be liberating for individual social work practitioners, freed to live their values and do what most social workers love most–working with people–in an environment that fully supports a vision of social justice to which all social workers aspire. For our profession, it would be reinvigorating, helping us to regain our sense of identity and addressing many of our insecurities about our niche in the world. And for those we serve, it could be transformational, as they work collaboratively with clinicians who are keenly attuned to social injustice and committed to structural change, and encounter social work policy analysts and administrators who remain rooted in the values and ethics of social work practice.
As Ramo emphasizes in his discussions of other kinds of mashups, we shouldn’t pretend that this will be painless. The idea of a mashup is to bring two admittedly different things together in a novel way to create something unique, larger and distinct from the sum of the two parts. And that doesn’t happen without a fairly dramatic clash, even a crash.
But that’s precisely wherein lies the revolutionary potential of a mashup. The kind that can change videogaming from a hobby primarily of adolescent males to a social activity that stretches across demographic strata (not into my living room, maybe, but, still…).
The kind that can change lives. The kind we need.