Translating what we know into what they’ll trust

photo credit, victius, via Flickr, Plinth Telephone System

So this week I’ve been thinking a lot about social workers, and our particular skills, and how those can come into play in the advocacy that we know our clients deserve and our world desperately needs. I’ve argued that we know enough, already, to make a significant contribution.

I believe that. I’ve seen both effects at work, and I know that they make social workers a force with which to be reckoned, when we turn ourselves loose on the injustices that plague our communities.

And yet.

I also know, and have seen, how social workers can be so frustrated in policy, when they feel that their clients’ voices are not heard, that their practice wisdom is ignored, and that they are marginalized in the policy process.

I’ve heard on more than one occasion from social workers who lament, when policymakers are talking deficit reduction and cost containment and we’re talking kids having a chance to succeed and focus on families, that it’s as though we’re speaking a different language.

And, so, when I was reading in Blink about how “our world requires that decisions be sourced and footnoted, and if we say how we feel, we must also be prepared to elaborate on why we feel that way” (p. 52), when the reality is that sometimes we can’t articulate that very well, or at least not to the satisfaction of those who are hostile to or at least suspicious of our profession and our orientation to begin with, which is state of the relationship between social workers and some policymakers today, it kind of struck me:

we ARE.

Speaking different languages, that is.

And the consequences can be grave, because they (policymakers) need to hear what we (social workers and those with whom we work) have to say.

So, then, it strikes me that one of our core challenges, in thinking about social workers and advocacy, is how to share what we know in ways that will be viewed as legitimate and, ultimately, gain credence in the battle over how to define social problems and how to frame how we solve them.

This means learning how to give effective testimony, so that we fit the form enough for our substance to shine. It means weaving compelling stories into our policy arguments, and knowing how to reinforce those stories with the kinds of evidence (including, yes, statistics!) that people are more familiar with (all the while introducing the personal case as another type of valuable information). It means understanding what policymakers mean when they talk about deficits and bending the cost curve, not so that we acquiesce to their priorities, but so that we can integrate some of their language into our own rationales for change.

And it means, of course, building the kinds of relationships to power that will, eventually, mean that we can influence the language of policy deliberation, and, in the meantime, that people will care enough about what we’re saying to ask for an interpreter.

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