On Being a Radical Social Worker

*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.

13 responses to “On Being a Radical Social Worker

  1. The root cause of all the trouble they send us out to wrestle with is out of control extreme capitalism. They call me a radical, but in Europe that statement is so taken for granted that I would be considered middle of the road. All economies are a mix of capitalism and socialism. The trick is how to mix them rationally. I like socialism for necessities and capitalism for everything else. That is really a centrist position, but not in the US. People in Europe would never fall for this cheap right wing media propaganda. We need to teach real politics in the schools and get a real history channel that isn’t spun by the wing nuts.

    • I’m actually working on a post about how we need to advance a truly radical agenda so that “middle ground” is really moderate, not the quite reactionary positions that pass for “middle” now, since the terms of debate have shifted so much. Your comment really makes that case persuasively, using the international context. Thank you for your commitment to justice, and for sharing it here!

  2. great article, now i know i am not alone!!! I am a practicing structural social worker aka: radical sw. When ever i bump into child welfare management they always say: so, what kind of trouble have you been up too lately (with a little laugh). Because I believe in peace and love, i stand guilty as charged. Actually the policies they inforce for the state has caused citizens to die in their good streets. But i’m considered radical because i advocate for the oppressed. Needless to say, it becomes difficult to practice from this position by other dobmerman’s of the state (no offence intended to these dogs) who will try and undermind you at every point of advocacy. I work mostly with first nations people in their struggles for self-determination. I am an ally and not an agent of the state. It is through a radical approach that we will find the way to that dream of a just and civil planet for all!! So, rock on radicalism, all else has failed, just look at the state of Mother Earth and her children; featherd, finned and furred. Peace and Love. Poet 911

    • Great to hear from you! Great point about how our understanding of “radical” has shifted so much, so that asking about structural problems and advocating whole solutions has become a radical stance, instead of the “natural” starting point for good social work. I agree that, if standing with those who have been marginalized labels me “radical”, it’s a label I’ll assume with great pride!

  3. yes, yes, yes! thank you for this! I just started my MSW and it’s very easy to feel alone in a crowd full of people who just want to “help people.” I do too, but I think we have different definitions of what that means. I’m always thinking about the bigger picture. changing the world, or at least making it less awful. empowering people and communities, organizing, demanding our rights. trying to move beyond capitalism, because it clearly isn’t working.

    • It’s great to hear from you, and I’m so glad that you find this an affirming place–and glad that you are going to be part of our profession! I feel very strongly that we need to build a unified vision of social justice within the profession–with room for all paths to healing and wholeness–if we are to leverage our greatest potential as forces of social change. I’ll look forward to journeying with you!

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