*I’m still on maternity leave and, so, revising and republishing some of my favorite posts from the past two years. I’ve tried to select some that were particularly popular at the time, as well as some of my own personal favorites. I appreciate your patience as I dedicate myself to full-time motherhood for a few more weeks!
Nobody wants to be called a radical anymore, right? I mean, there are whole organizations dedicated to the pursuit of ‘moderation’ in politics and in life itself, and, while you might see someone designated a ‘conservative’ or even a ‘liberal’ or ‘progressive’ in a media report, you almost never see the word radical except in a criminal context.
So what does all of this running from the word ‘radical’ mean for those of us who really feel that it best describes how we see our social work? That it, in fact, is kind of an aspiration, a difficult-to-attain but nonetheless highly desirable plane, where our social work practice would be truly transformational, revolutionary, even, in a way that would infuse hope and meaning and promise into our every interaction with clients, colleagues, and adversaries.
Social workers, it’s time we reclaimed ‘radical’. Here’s how Merriam-Webster defines ‘radical’ (note that the most commonly-understood meaning isn’t either of the first two given, and I have to laugh at the last one, because I can just imagine the ridiculous things I’ll say that will totally embarrass my kids, since I have a tendency to use the term ‘awesome’ at least fifty times a day):
“1: of, relating to, or proceeding from a root: as a (1): of or growing from the root of a plant (2): growing from the base of a stem, from a rootlike stem, or from a stem that does not rise above the ground b: of, relating to, or constituting a linguistic root c: of or relating to a mathematical root d: designed to remove the root of a disease or all diseased and potentially diseased tissue
2: of or relating to the origin : fundamental
3 a: marked by a considerable departure from the usual or traditional : extreme b: tending or disposed to make extreme changes in existing views, habits, conditions, or institutions c: of, relating to, or constituting a political group associated with views, practices, and policies of extreme change d: advocating extreme measures to retain or restore a political state of affairs
4slang: excellent, cool”
Armed with that definition, then, why do I call myself a radical social worker? Because I believe that social work is at its best when it is about addressing the root causes of the problems we encounter in our practice, and helping those afflicted by such problems to see, and attack, their origins as well. We are our most noble when we are willing to stand up and fight against the institutions and social norms and embedded injustices that perpetually harm human beings. We are our most successful when we use our collective energies to find new ways of linking people to overcome their oppressions and our most inspiring when we apply our considerable wits to thinking of new ways over, around, and through the systems that constrain us.
When I was getting my MSW at Washington University, I had the amazing opportunity to take a class from David Gil, a radical social worker, professor, author, and truly incredible person who challenged a lot of what I thought I knew about social policy and fairness and the limits of the possible. I wrote a paper for his class about liberation theology and applying my faith to a practice of radical social work, and the thinking that I did for that class continues to inform much of how I define my work today. If you haven’t read any of his books, do. (Or take one of my classes, because I almost always assign something of his!)
When we practice radical social work, we act a lot like my (almost) three-year-old. We ask ‘why’ ALL THE TIME. Why does it have to be that way? Why can’t we do it? Why do you get to set the rules? Why can’t she have it? Why do you say that? Why did we start doing it this way? Why don’t we change?
And, sometimes, like my son, fed up with insufficient and unsatisfactory answers, we create our own. And so, sometimes getting to the root of problems, as definitions #1 and #2 suggest, requires a little of #3–we have to move beyond what’s considered acceptable or ‘normal’ or ‘polite’ to create new systems that are more equitable and less structurally violent. And, in so doing, we build new kinds of relationships and create a vision of social work that moves far beyond any allegation of ‘band-aid placing’. We find that defying convention and thumbing our noses at the naysayers is quite freeing and, once you move past the fear, pretty fun. And, honestly, that’s pretty radical. As in definition #4. Claim it.