Where do we stand? Social services and social change

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:

  • Conduct rigorous assessments of the outcomes of integrating social change work into direct services (If we could show, as I really believe, that they strengthen each other!!)
  • Provide ongoing support to organizations engaged in social services as social change (Because this work is hard enough without feeling alone)
  • Engage funders explicitly, so that they understand the synergy organizations are seeking here, and what the possibilities are (if foundations, at some point in the future, would see social change work as integral to direct service provision!)
  • Map the field, so that we have a better sense of who’s really doing this work, and what it looks like (I’ve found in working with nonprofit organizations on advocacy that, when we have an inclusive definition of what “advocacy” is, many more organizations are doing it than think they are!)

    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?

  • 5 responses to “Where do we stand? Social services and social change

    1. Hi Melinda,
      I have just stumbled upon you blog. My eye was initially captured by the image of John Steuart Curry’s painting of John Brown: top center on your page. And alas: another Kansan!
      Thank you for your posts: I am heartened to read that you are addressing here a valuable issue that I also seek to impress upon students. And one that sadly I fear, many faculty seem to miss. (I am director of field education and teach a Macro HBSE course: across the river at Park University in Parkville. Ours is a small BSW program: just entering our 9th year.)

      One of the things that occurs to me in reading your most recent post (although I’ve not yet read all the links) is that part of the challenge lies in the language contained in your first hyperlink: “transforming social service organizations.”

      “Social service” organizations are not necessarily “social work” organizations and often the staff, administration, and boards are approaching (and strongly rooted in) the work & service from radically different perspectives. But they are what we have to work with. Our students are constantly confirming to me that their field agencies are not remotely social work agencies as, and thus seem to have so much to learn. Which for one only beginning a professional journey must feel a paradoxical mush of opportunity and burden. And one for which I sometimes wonder, are we doing enough to prepare them?

      How many times I’ve reviewed student journals from field, in which students have been stymied, held back, and redirected from potentially valuable work by the organizations (party line) admonition, “That’s not our job.” Those administrators, entrenched in routine are quite right though. Our job is much bigger. Advancing the field indeed.

      I am looking forward to more thoroughly reading your blog and the associated links. And visiting more.

      Gary Bachman

      • Thanks so much for your comment! Yes, there’s a funny story actually about my oldest son, who was 3 at the time, calling out, “there’s John Brown!” as the elevator passed that floor in the Kansas Capitol. Several bystanders were amused. It’s a great point about how the organizations in which social work is practiced are so often contradictions of other perspectives and competing imperatives, and how those organizational contexts impinge upon the work that we can do, transformatively, in the realm of direct practice and on a more macro level. It’s why our advocacy so often needs to start close to home, so that we can build organizational cultures that support that more radical work. How do you support your students as they encounter these collisions? How do you counsel them to approach their practice in light of those realities?

      • PS. I look forward to your future comments, and, because you’re located in the metro area, maybe we can meet up sometime in person, too!

    2. You asked, How do you support your students as they encounter these collisions? How do you counsel them to approach their practice in light of those realities?”

      We prepare them for such collisions. We talk about this in class. We talk about this when I work with them on the match. We talk about this in field seminar. And I talk about this with the field instructors even. (OK, talk is cheap. But in a small program such as ours, we actually take the time and opportunity to meet with, to know, and to interact with and support our students and field instructors. Next year our program is growing from 17 to 23 seniors in field: and I dread how this growth may change some of the well established dynamic of our program. I do after all have a life outside of of the profession.)

      I have been pretty open about my own ulterior motives in working with field agencies. I’ve one particular agency (that will remain unidentified at this time) that I am intentionally focusing upon changing through the work of students and through our programmatic support of talented social workers already in the agency. To varying degrees this is true in all of our placements. ( Most of the field instructors: social workers themselves “get it.”)

      Our students get a very clear message that they are being educated as professionals, equipped with a foundation of knowledge to guide their practice. To build upon. We teach that effective practice is often much more than work performed directly with individuals, that it frequently depends upon the recognition of and work with others in a larger network: families, employers, churches, neighbors, and agencies all the way up to managers and legislators and the policies they interpret. This is important work: even at the BSW level. (This is the solid FOUNDATION of the profession: it’s not just an unfinished basement….)

      At Park, each senior student completes what some other schools might refer to as a “senior capstone project.” For us, that project developed & implemented throughout the year and then formally reviewed in a presentation either IN the field agencies or at our senior fall forum (before all field instructors and SW faculty) is known as the “Organizational Transformation Project.” Each student designs & conducts such a project. This is not merely an academic exercise: each student is expected to operationalize their “OTP” in their field agency. Work on these projects is conducted throughout the year long field experience with review and support in the “practice” class sequence and in field seminar. I believe it is notable how many of the student projects (conceptualized, developed, and implemented by just BSW students) have actually led to program changes or expansions in multiple field agencies.

      I guess the point is that we treat our students as young professional colleagues. We are not preparing them, even through our field internship, JUST to do a job. We are preparing them as new (not so often young) PROFESSIONALS. With a great vision of the work before them. And through direct and honest dialogue, attention, and support most of our field instructors get that.

      (This past year, our students attended the NASW legislative action days in Topeka & Jefferson City; we had more students at the Missouri NASW Symposium than there were from ALL other Missouri programs combined and we’ve had students present at the CSWE-APM and BPD national conferences. Strong & involved students make strong and involved social workers.)

      That’s how we support our students. and in turn, that’s how they support us.

      Gary Bachman MSSW, LSCSW

      • Thank you so much for this. I’d love to hear more about that Organizational Transformation Project. It sounds like a truly excellent way to combine student learning and organizational change, in a way that is at least more likely to bring about an improved practice environment as well as practitioners who understand that using social service organizations to build a better society is, indeed, part of our job descriptions. That piece about understanding what one’s professional responsibilities are, not just to the organization, but to social work and the larger society, is so critical, and I’m beyond impressed that it’s such a priority for your field/class emphasis.

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