There is a lot of debate in social work classes and among social work practitioners about what we should call those with whom we work–clients, consumers, participants… I see the value in these conversations, because language is an important marker for the ways in which we see our world, but I am quickly frustrated by the fact that these debates seem to end with semantics, rather than serving to push ourselves to really reevaluate how we see those with whom we have the honor and privilege to accompany on their journey towards…wherever their life goals take them.
What we really need, I argue in these inevitable discussions (and, for the record, I favor participant because client seems too passive and consumer too contractual), is a new way of seeing those who come to our agencies for help and, therefore, also a new way of seeing ourselves. If we consider our ‘clients’ not passive recipients of service or even just active participants in only their own process of healing but rather as co-creators of the new social realities for which we all so desperately long, then they are more partners than anything, and such a relationship demands a rethinking of the interactions common to social work/social service organizations. You wouldn’t ask your partner to fill out unnecessarily long intake forms that ask overly invasive questions. You wouldn’t hesitate to share pertinent budget information about the program in which she is participating. You wouldn’t worry about conflicts of interest in asking a partner to take on another, parallel role, or about overburdening her in asking her to step up as a volunteer or leader. But these are precisely our concerns when we think of our clients as people to whom we owe the one-sided obligation to provide good service (which, of course, we do!) but not complex human beings with assets to offer as well as needs to meet.
I spend a lot of time thinking about this, and I’ve also learned a lot from students and organizations I have helped to make some of these transitions in their governance, practice, and messaging. It’s far more than just which labels we use–if we are to realize the social changes we so need, we cannot afford to ‘bench’ some of our most potent potential contributors towards that change. We’re going to need everyone, and so we need to start figuring out how to help our clients/consumers/participants/(hopefully we’re not still using this one)patients take on fuller roles too.
Making the Leap from Client to Co-creator of social change
• Language you use—‘leader’ or ‘participant’, rather than ‘client’ or ‘consumer’
• Will have to renegotiate professional boundaries (doesn’t mean dissolving them, but leaders need more access to budget information, more control over staff, more disclosure from you (but don’t overdo this) and more input into organizational mission and direction than clients)
• Expect that it will take time for individuals who have been treated as rather passive recipients of service to begin to see themselves as active leaders (we create this problem, so we can’t expect them to solve it immediately)
• Give people tangible roles to do: come to this lobby day to meet with these 2 representatives, be the timekeeper at this press conference, come to this meeting where we’ll draft an agenda for our meeting with the mayor, bring 2 of your friends to this public forum, register 5 people to vote (don’t just start telling people that ‘now they’re leaders’)
• Expect role confusion, as leaders will still need services too—it’s up to YOU and your organization to sort this out, not your clients (who have every right to be complex human beings, with both strengths and needs)
Staff Mental Shift
1. Expect that some of your colleagues (maybe most) will be threatened by the idea that your clients are going to take more active roles in the organization’s work and may even try to sabotage these efforts (telling those organizing that the clients are ‘very burdened’ or ‘have a lot of problems’; telling clients that the organizing efforts will be fruitless and a waste of their time, scheduling programming events to conflict with organizing activities)
2. Even those staff not actively thwarting organizing work may have a hard time adopting the new language and orientation and will likely fail to actively assist efforts (such as discussing organizing activities with their clients, referring potential leaders to you, registering clients to vote, etc…)
3. Using strengths perspective language begins to open the door towards leadership, and accompanying these efforts with leadership development for staff can prevent the feeling that professionals are ‘being passed up’.
Introducing social action into your practice
• Ask clients questions about what they see as the root causes of their presenting problems
• Provide information about the structural causes of social problems and about efforts underway to address them (as appropriate in the relationship process—you have to be skillful about this, or a client who needs empathy will feel that he/she is getting a lecture)
• Highlight qualities of leadership you see in your clients (strong relationship skills, empathy, outspokenness, initiative, honesty…)
• Invite clients to participate in social action activities (with specific ideas about the roles they could play)
• Introduce clients to others who are already engaged in leadership (or those who share similar concerns)
• Share success stories of other service recipients who engaged in successful social action
• Ask clients to prepare testimonies that tell their stories and highlight the need for specific community/legislative changes in advance, as a part of their service/treatment—these can be modified to fit specific advocacy needs later
Bringing clients together
• Mutual aid/support groups can include a social action component
• With permission, you can intentionally introduce some clients to each other for strategic relational purposes
• Include social time at most social action events, to build relationships
• Shared transportation, work, and other ‘together time’ provide opportunities for relationships to develop
Breaking down barriers to participation (tangible ways to make it happen—there is no excuse not to do this!)—how can you apply these ideas at your organization?
• Always, always, always provide transportation and childcare and food
• When possible, provide multiple times/locations for actions
• Have varying levels of commitment (write a letter, make a phone call, come to a meeting, lead the meeting)
• Integrate social action into service (voter registration at intake, letters to Congress as part of an ESL class, research on social action organizations in a computer class…)