When it’s time to walk away

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.

Sometimes, we get real results.

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?

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4 responses to “When it’s time to walk away

  1. Hello, I stumbled across your blog. I am a social work student myself- in my first year of my MSW program. When I was in high school I actually read Samantha Power’s book and she inspired me in many ways. From there, I read General Dallaire’s book (Shake Hands with the Devil) and his recount as the commander of the UN in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide and I was just really fascinated by the role of institutions in these large-scale human tragedies and the complicity and internal struggles that only get revealed years later. It is tragic how they still are so relevant, such as the current mass killings in Syria now.

    Anyways back to what you wrote, while I have never walked away from anything in protest, I can see how it can be admirable to a certain extent. For me, I am currently working in an organization in which I do not entirely agree with some policies and had, at the young age of 24, experienced my first case of being completely railroaded and thrown under a bus by a supervisor. In that instance, I was so disgusted with the underlying politics of this organization that was set up to help people. I wanted to quit and do so in a bold way, but then I realized that it wouldn’t really affect them at all. I was such a small piece. So I decided to stay and work within their guidelines, no matter how much I disagreed. It’s not the best decision, I think, but for me it is what seemed best. I don’t agree 100% of the time with the organization, but I am working within the parameters I am required to because I am a student and need the job AND I know my leaving won’t do anything.

    I think leaving an organization when you have more influence or power definitely creates a greater sense of advocacy than a little, mere minion like myself!

    Great blog, though – I can’t wait to read more!

    • Great to hear from you, Jessica! I haven’t read Shake Hands with the Devil, but I will check it out. Thank you so much for sharing your experience in your current employment. I am sorry to hear that it is unfolding as it is, but it’s unfortunately very true that organizations that provide social services are not always laboratories of social justice. I think your quandary raises the really important question in deciding how to handle situations like this–where and how can we have the greatest impact for change: staying or leaving? If we decide to stay, how can we be sure that that’s an ethically defensible choice, and not a way to preserve our privileges (or, just our survival) at the expense of our conscience? How much of an impact does our leaving have to make for it to be the clearly best choice? Where do we draw the line in the sand, how do we know when that line has been crossed, and what do we do when it has been? I believe those answers can only come from ethical discernment and will be different in every situation and for every person, but examples like those in this book make evident that if we’re not asking them–maybe frequently–we are denying one of the tools for social change at our disposal. Thank you again for your comment. I look forward to getting to know you!

  2. I just now saw this. My first practicum experience my foundation year was just really not a good fit. Hence my having two practicua my first year. I’ll tell you more about it either via email or in class next year. It really shook me up and made me wonder if I should even be in an MSW program in the first place. Then I thought that the organization I was with was far more clinical and that was probably part of why it wasn’t a good fit.

    Honestly, I was relieved when my practicum was disrupted, even though it wasn’t my choice (although I would have requested a new placement if I had thought I could get away with it).

    • So this is an example of when walking away was the right thing for you–educationally and, it sounds like, emotionally. It sounds like a traumatic experience. I think it can be even more difficult, though, to walk away when you stand to lose a lot, personally, but it feels like the only defensible solution, morally or politically. Hopefully you learned from that experience that moving on can be a blessing, and that will give you the strength to do so if it’s ever needed again.

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