Oh, to spend an entire day pondering the question: What shifts in practice, organizational structure, relationships, and ways of thinking would need to occur for social change work to become a standard part of existing models of nonprofit service delivery?
That was the task of the attendees at the Building Movement Project convening, where partners engaged in the work of transforming social service organizations into successful engines for social change reflected on the past few years of work and discussed how to turn this nascent field into, well, a movement.
The reflection on that convening was shared in a recent Building Movement Project communication, and there are some key points that, to me, suggest some of the ways that those of us committed to this evolution might move forward.
One of the challenges here is to orient our social service organizations towards root causes of social problems, a focus on structural barriers that would, almost automatically, make even our direct service provision more “radical”. This, of course, isn’t easy, because it requires not only reaching some consensus on those roots of the problems, but also disentangling them, at least to some extent, or, more ideally, reaching beyond our organizational silos to work on multiple system levels simultaneously.
For the most part, these participants found relatively little resistance among constituents/clients and direct service practitioners to this idea of integrating social change work into services, which quite honestly runs contrary to some of my own experiences (and, so, gives me new hopes!); being close to the experienced problems motivated people to make this leap, but finding tangible ways to embed social change activities into organizational structure (especially given limited resources) is predictably more difficult.
Related to this, the convening found support for focusing resources on those nonprofit organizations ideologically committed to systems change and ready to take these steps, rather than trying to convince others to “come along.” There’s growing energy around these ideas, and some momentum happening, and so donors and intermediaries and others in a position to shepherd some of these entities can afford to prioritize investment in those already started down this road. My hope, of course, is that this provides more pressure for organizations that are still reluctant (“That’s not our job.” “We just focus on quality services.”) to figure out ways to play so that they’re not left behind.
One of the most poignant pieces in the reflection, for me, is the observation that, while the current economic recession has focused attention on the structural inequities in our economic and political systems, a focus that increases the opportunities for fundamental transformation of those same systems, it has also heightened demand for immediate relief, such that organizations (and, then, social workers!) find themselves having to simultaneously lay this long-term foundation AND address dire crises. That’s not totally new, of course, and I’d argue that social workers are particularly well-positioned to pull off such a balance, with a simultaneous focus on person-in-environment and our profession’s long history of attention to both individual needs and societal reform. Still, for a practitioner confronted with long lines of people in need and an inherent desire to organize for a better tomorrow, it’s hard to figure out how to tackle both.
I REALLY hope that someone(s) pick up the list of ways to advance the field, at the end of the report. Some of the items are fairly predictable, albeit still important, but some are super exciting:
What do you see as the next steps for introducing a social change orientation to your own social service work? To your organization? What resources would most help you to make this shift?