I believe, very strongly, that social workers (and even social work students–sometimes, especially social work students) can be change agents in their own organizations.
We know, usually better than those on the outside, the injustices that need righting, within our own shops, and we are often well-positioned to attract attention to the needed changes.
But, sometimes, we need to know when it’s time to walk away, because we can no longer be complicit in (fill in the blank, but my students usually grapple the most with angst around unethical supervisors who can’t be reined in, agency policies that unduly punish clients, and severe budget cuts that imperil well-being).
There is a story in A Problem from Hell about some foreign service officers who resigned during the genocide in Bosnia, in response to the lack of U.S. action, that has me thinking about the role of protest resignations in social work organizations, too.
Our Code of Ethics states clearly that there is no excuse for silence, and our first recourse has to be to summon our courage and speak up.
But, then, sometimes we recognize that we have become the ‘inhouse devil’s advocate’ (p. 312). We complain, people look grave and nod their heads, and then they move forward, unimpeded. It’s like a safety valve that inhibits fundamental reforms, and it can be dangerous. I mean, it can feel good for all involved, it keeps the system intact. It slows change. It lends legitimacy to decisions that, at times, cannot really be legitimized.
In those cases, we have to use our advocacy skills to recognize when our internal dissent has become just a coping strategy, instead of a change strategy. If we’re just playing to type (we let her complain, and that’s her role), you won’t have an impact. Instead, it becomes the way that you live with working within a system, or a context, contrary to your values.
Ultimately, in this anecdote, these insiders decided that there was nothing conscientious about objecting to a policy that would never change.
They had to make a more dramatic move.
And, no, the spates of resignations during the U.S. government’s failure to act in response to the Bosnian genocide didn’t immediately and dramatically change U.S. policy, despite the hope of one foreign service official, who wrote, “I am therefore resigning in order to help develop a stronger public consensus that the U.S. must act immediately to stop the genocide” (p. 286).
But it did attract attention, especially because of the recognition of the considerable cost of such an action, to those involved.
That means that, sometimes, walking away can be an act of great moral courage, and of advocacy.
And can even be a game-changer.
One of the officials said, “When you are in a bureaucracy, you can either put your head down and become cynical, tired, and inured, or you can stick your head up and try to do something” (p. 301).
Sometimes, deciding to stick your head up means deciding to turn around.
Have you ever walked away from an organization you just couldn’t justify working for? How did you come to that decision? And was it gratifying–or did you feel like they were just relieved to get rid of you?