A Bloody Brilliant Idea

*Honestly, I had kind of forgotten about this until I went through the archives to find posts to use during this last week of my maternity leave. In the intervening years, I’ve seen more of my colleagues bringing clients into the classroom, so that students can gain their perspectives on agencies and social workers, and, almost without exception, students find that extremely valuable. It still falls short, though, of this idea that those who use our services should have some real authority over who and how we deliver them, not just have to volunteer their expertise to try to educate us out of our own worst tendencies. I haven’t done anything to move in this direction, either, but it’s on my list as I head back out into the world.

When I was pregnant with the twins, I was so exhausted that I really couldn’t move much, but I also couldn’t handle any of my normal, rather heavy reading, so I read a lot of British novels. And, much to my husband’s amusement, he soon had a very large wife who was sprinkling her speech with phrases like peevish and knackered and bollocks. They are just such appealing words!

Well, consider this Anglophile “mad keen” about what I’ve just discovered: England’s social work degree qualification, adopted in May 2002 and first implemented for the 2003-2004 academic year, requires involvement of what they call “service users” (we’d call them “clients” or “consumers”) in all aspects of social work education (which they call “training”–those crazy Brits!). Yes, ALL ASPECTS. As in, selecting candidates for social work schools, consulting on curriculum, participating in curriculum delivery, evaluating students in the classroom and the field, and design of the overall degree.

The Department of Health funds the Social Care Institute for Excellence in order to develop a national forum for service users involved in social work education, to promote best practices, and to identify barriers. SCIE’s reports are candid about the fact that there are gaps between the stated ideals and the practice. Service users and their organizations cite lack of training and support, condescending attitudes on the part of academic faculty (No!), questions of access, and concerns about stipends’ impact on benefit eligibility as some of the most vexing concerns, and SCIE and some grassroots groups in the country are working hard to try to overcome these.

Still, even acknowledging some of the limitations, this is pretty awesome.

Hey, Council on Social Work Education, we need a similar mandate for social work education in the United States. We need a strategy for how to fully integrate the perspectives of our clients into preparation of students. We need requirements that universities actively solicit clients’ involvement in deciding which students to admit, how to structure education, and who deserves to have the degree that will entitle them to so much authority over the lives of those we serve. We need resources to invest in the organizational capacity of client-driven organizations, both because of how that would prepare them to better participate in social work training, and because our profession should be doing more to invest in the capacity for self-help of those we aim to, well, help.

Individual programs around the country, are, undoubtedly, doing good work in terms of client involvement–starting community collaborations, building alliances with local social service organizations, sending dozens or even hundreds of great students out to work in practice placements–I don’t mean to discount these efforts. But we need a far greater infusion of energy and resources, and a more strategic and concerted collective effort, if we’re going to fill in the gaps, transcend tokenism, and build real partnerships with our most valuable asset–those who legitimize our profession by allowing us to work with them.

Ten years from now, I’d like to see us grappling with the problems outlined by SCIE and their service-user organization partner, Shaping Our Lives: how can we ensure that all clients have equitable access to decisionmaking authority within social work education? How can we quantify the types and magnitude of impacts that clients have on social work education? How can we build on the gains made so far in bringing clients into social work education as instructors, students, and ‘expert consultants’?

Let’s face it, the people who brought us the trifecta of the pub, gravity, and DNA have done it again–shown us the way to the people we are meant to become. I mean, what’s more “American” than the idea of empowering individuals, bringing in diverse perspectives, and highlighting the wisdom of hard-earned experience? We can do this. And we’ll be better for it, as teachers, and students, and as a profession. Thanks, Britain. We owe you one.

But we’re NOT sorry for that whole Boston tea party thing…

7 responses to “A Bloody Brilliant Idea

  1. Great post, Melinda. Most of my work is in consumer-run services and the majority of the people contacting me seem to come from the UK, especially Scotland. Further, the idea of shared decision making–we’re doing a project on this now–has been mandated widely across europe.

    • I’d love to talk with you more about this, Mark, and the project you’re working on. I was so excited to learn about it, especially in terms of how such integration of consumer leadership could invigorate professional education. It seems that exposing future professionals to what it means to authentically empower consumers while said professionals are in school is a better route than trying to bring them to the idea later and having to surmount some of the ‘professional’ perogative to which we too often become accustomed.

  2. I had no idea about the social work education part so I was blown away by the info you shared here. In this vein, Lori Davidson, who is on our staff, coordinated a panel of folks from the local consumer organization to speak in Amy Mendenhall’s psychopathology class. Not sure if it’s happened yet but that sort of thing is completely win-win for everyone and a powerful experience for students. Have I shared this with you:

  3. actually, this video–also by a.m. baggs–is a better one for the purpose of your post:

    • Very powerful–I like how the visuals are disorienting, which forced me to focus on the words and to deal with my discomfort about the reality presented. People treat kids like unpersons a lot, too, I’ve noticed. I actually avoid some people I used to spend time with because they’re just really disrespectful of my son–not letting him finish what he’s saying, talking about him in front of him–yes, he’s 3, but he’s very human. Thanks for sharing this; I’m going to send it out on Twitter, too.

  4. Melinda,
    Great post & great point.
    I just finished a program evaluation text, the last part of the book is devoted to consumers as evaluators. There was very little written about this, the most useful info for this was from the Federation of Families for Children’s Mental Health. Lots of work to be done in this area. Will ad a pdf of the mateial soon.

    • Thanks so much, Steve. I’m looking forward to your text, especially to the content on consumers. And I’ll check out the Federation, too. I was so excited to see where others are in the ongoing challenge of making our profession truly accountable to those from whom all our legitimacy stems, and I’m looking forward to this continuing conversation. Thanks for your thoughts!

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