Tag Archives: clients

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…

On being a megaphone

*I’m still on maternity leave this month and, so, revising and republishing some of my favorite posts over the past two years. This whole idea of “advocacy on behalf of” instead of “alongside” is still one of my obsessions, and so I thought we could all use a chance to think anew about the kinds of megaphones we want to be.

People would often make comments about how my work was ‘giving voice to the voiceless’. This might sound romantic, of sorts, but I usually found it offensive. The people with whom I had the honor to work are not/were not voiceless. They may not have spoken much English, or always known exactly the ‘right’ words to say, and they may not have had the kind of power that ensured that they were always listened to, but they are far from voiceless. I would usually respond that my job was really to be a megaphone, to amplify the voices of those with whom I was working so that they would be heard, and really listened to.

You, too, can be a megaphone.

In advising social workers about how to do advocacy alongside those with whom we work (our ‘clients’), I almost inevitably hear at least a couple, “our clients can’t be expected to…” objections. Without trying to sound too outraged, I point out that most of my advocacy work was with limited English proficient, largely undocumented, Latino immigrants with very limited formal education, many of whom were also underage. Honestly, if they could be effective and articulate spokespeople on their own behalf in a political system overtly hostile to their interests, it’s hard to imagine a client population group that is completely incapable of participating in their own advocacy! Conversely, however, I react strongly when I see organizations shoving their participants out in the spotlight with little preparation.. What we need is an approach that is neither paternalistic nor exploitative, but that seeks to provide people with informed consent as we assist them to develop advocacy roles that meet their own goals for personal empowerment and, to the greatest extent possible, also fit within our campaigns. I’ve done a lot of thinking about this, from an ethical and a strategic standpoint, because I have had the horrible experience of having clients experience negative consequences of their advocacy, and I’ve also had clients push back because they didn’t feel that they were being given enough control over the advocacy that affected them.

If you are currently engaged in a strategy to amplify the voices of those with whom you work, what’s working for you? What resistance are you encountering from your colleagues and allies? What are you witnessing in terms of the impact on those you serve? What advice do you wish to share?

The following lessons learned apply to work involving service participants/affected populations in legislative advocacy, community organizing, and/or media work–anytime that you’re asking people to take on public roles that reveal something substantial about their own experience of a social problem. We cannot possibly (nor should we try to) sterilize this experience, stripping it of all vulnerability and risk, but neither should we blithely assume that our clients are as capable of absorbing these costs as we might be from a position of privilege. Advocacy can and should be transformative for all involved, but that transformation can be scary, and we have an ethical responsibility to walk with people on this journey.

  • Make no promises. You cannot possibly predict what the outcome of an individual’s courageous leap into advocacy will be, so don’t pretend to–people need to make the decisions associated with personal advocacy with a full understanding of the potential risks, and they can’t do that if the social worker they trust is busy glossing over them.
  • On the flip side, don’t try to protect people. We get into big trouble, ethically and in terms of promoting empowerment, when we make decisions ‘for (people’s) own good.’ You can’t know that your clients are too busy or too ill or too scared or too confused to participate in advocacy activities; your job is to raise their consciousness about how collective action could improve their lives, give them the tools they need to participate, and then let them make their own decisions about their involvement.
  • Model respect for your clients, and it’s more likely that others will respect them. The language that you use to describe people, the kinds of questions you’re willing to answer from reporters, the types of relationships you build with lawmakers will set a tone that can create a sort of ‘safe zone’, in which people know that you will not tolerate abuse of those with whom you’re working.
  • Remember that anonymity is never guaranteed, and comes with its own problems. I remember one reporter who wanted me to find an undocumented immigrant to put on the news, talking about his/her ‘decision to come to the U.S. illegally.’ He said that he knew that the immigrant would be afraid of being revealed, so he was ‘willing to use a voice distorter and to put the person in the shadows.’ I couldn’t really think of a worse way in which to portray undocumented immigrants–as shadowy, scary-sounding people who just willy-nilly ‘decide’ to come into the U.S. illegally. I told the reporter that I found that objectionable on many levels and that I couldn’t accommodate his request. Conversely, against my recommendation, I once had a client who wanted to use his full name and photo in a story about undocumented immigrants who can’t get driver’s licenses; he said that he wanted to show that undocumented people are ‘just like everyone else, except they don’t have papers,’ and he thought that hiding his name would suggest that he had ‘something to be ashamed of.’
  • Whenever possible, practice with people. It’s better if you ask the ugly/hard questions first, before the reporter or lawmaker. Give people a chance to experience a little bit of what it will feel like to be challenged. I worked with a young woman once who did several roleplays with me before her legislative testimony. The actual testimony experience was, in my eyes, horrible–she was accused of being a terrorist, interrupted several times, and told that she ‘wouldn’t be able to get a job anyway, so why bother (with college)?’ I hugged her afterwards and asked if she was okay. She smiled and said, ‘of course’ and pointed out that some of the committee members and one reporter were quite receptive to her testimony. And she was very proud of the fact that she had not cried!
  • Try to cultivate a habit of never speaking for people when they can speak for themselves. Sometimes media representatives and elected officials may prefer to talk to you, as a professional, than deal with people who can be emotional, hard to get a hold of, or (in my case) need an interpreter. If you consistently defer to those who are experts in their own lives, people will eventually get the message.
  • But, finally, don’t expect anyone to be a spokesperson for an entire group. It’s offensive and it can lead us down a very treacherous path of policymaking by anecdote; we all deserve better.

    One final story to bring this point home:
    I had been battling several members of one committee over our instate tuition bill; some were overtly hostile, and others were just very confused–they kept asking how students who don’t speak English would be able to go to college and whether these students would ever be able to fit in with U.S.-born peers. I was giving them facts and statistics and trying to answer all of their questions, but I was drowning. Then came the day of the first hearing. About 12 immigrant students, all of whom would be affected by this legislation, were there, some to give testimony and some just to watch. As the committee members filed in, the students were being teenagers–texting on their phones, talking with their friends, (in one case) doing their hair. The committee vice-chair turned to me and said, “so none of the students who would actually be affected by this legislation were able to be here today?” Confused, I answered, “No, they’re here–they’re sitting right there.” Her mouth dropped open. “But, Melinda,” she stammered, “they seem just like American kids.” Um, yeah, that’s the point. Those kids are far from voiceless, but they didn’t even have to really open their mouths to make a far greater impact that day than I had over the past several weeks. They just had to be themselves, and my job was just to give them a platform on which to do that–a megaphone, so to speak.

  • This is how you do it: Building Movement Case Studies

    One of the things that I appreciate the most about the work of the Building Movement Project is that they don’t just give nonprofit social service organizations advice (and exhortation) about integrating direct services and advocacy. They also provide true inspiration, in the form of case studies of organizations, all of them imperfect and just as stretched as any other, that are finding ways to make this dual mission work and, in the process, are transforming their engagement with clients and attacking injustices in their communities.

    The case studies that accompany the Catalysts for Change report are particularly instructive, I think, because they include a wide range of nonprofit organizations (from relatively large health care centers to indigenous community centers to very grassroots groups working on domestic violence, for example), have strong representation from the poorest communities in California (where the studies are located), directly discuss barriers encountered by organizations and how to overcome them, and highlight the individual leaders that personalize and personify this commitment to advocacy through services.

    Each case study highlights lessons learned: don’t panic if staff leave because they’re not comfortable with the activist direction (you’ll attract new staff who are!); break down silos between advocacy and direct services (they have to be integrated to be sustainable and effective); make sure your funding strategy and your Board selection align with your emphasis on advocacy (otherwise, you’ll be fighting those who should be your allies!); be prepared for backlash (center on your mission and stay true to your values); give your clients real power within the organizational structure; partner with organizations that can enhance your work without trying to co-op your community; and invest in client and staff capacity for advocacy leadership.

    My favorite case studies draw out how radical direct service provision is, in itself, a powerful force for social change, which captures what I believe about working with clients for transformation and points the way to integration of clinical and macro practice.

    Imagine selecting one of these case studies for a Board retreat where you’re discussing a new strategic vision and how you can involve clients more fully in your work. Or sitting down with your direct service providers to brainstorm how you could transform your programming so that it’s more integrated with your advocacy priorities. Or just curling up on those days when it seems like everything you want to see in the world is elusive, to be reminded that there are good and courageous people, and that they’re sharing their own experiences to be a light unto your path. And then imagine that the next Building Movement Project case studies feature…you!

    This is how you do it: Building Movement survey

    My obsession with Building Movement has been well-documented.

    They’re nice about it and keep sending me emails about their efforts, which mostly revolve around encouraging and then documenting the really phenomenal activities of nonprofit social service organizations to integrate direct practice and advocacy, in a way that empowers their clients and energizes their staff.

    It’s really good stuff.

    The last piece of theirs that I’ve been combing through is called Catalysts for Change (I even love the title), and it presents the major findings from a survey of more than 450 nonprofits in California, about their efforts to transcend mere service provision to become a real force for social change around the issues presented by their clients, along with case studies of the organizations doing this best, to provide inspiration to the rest of us.

    They frame this work as helping clients become change agents and, indeed, recognize their inherent capacity to transform the systems that trap them, and I just kept nodding my head as I read. But not all of the report is good news–Building Movement discovered, not surprisingly, that nonprofits are, for the most part, missing opportunities to engage their clients in these revolutionary ways, for all kinds of predictable reasons about limited resources and limiting philosophies.

    Some of the lessons I took from these nonprofits’ experiences, and the efforts of Building Movement to catalog them:

  • Many more organizations are engaged in externally-focused advocacy (more than 80%) than in grassroots organizing and capacity-building within their own client base (fewer than 50%). Board members are likely to participate in advocacy, but quite unlikely to interface with clients on this work. This strikes me, in many ways, as odd: why are we more willing to stick our necks out and expend our own energies than get our own houses in order, so to speak, by fully equipping and utilizing the considerable power our clients represent? How can we expect institutions of power to include our clients’ perspectives if our own organizations haven’t fully embraced this? It makes me wonder about how we’re shaping social workers’ views of the world, and of those we serve, and how we can work from the inside out to turn our organizations into forces for change.
  • Smaller organizations are, perhaps predictably, less likely to incorporate advocacy into their work, but, given the number of nonprofit service providers with fewer than 25 staff, it quickly becomes clear that we cannot afford to relegate social change work to only the big players.
  • The challenging (to use their rather euphemistic term) economic context seems to be encouraging, not discouraging, advocacy activity: desperation breeds courage sometimes, apparently, and, here, organizations are reaching out beyond direct service work as an extension of their survival mechanism. Here, too, though, there are some real missed opportunities: only 25% provide clients with the opportunity to register to vote, and only 10% connect clients to elected officials’ forums, when making the case to these power brokers is clearly in organizations’ own direct financial interest, in addition to critical for advancing the issues on which they work.
  • The organizations highlighted in the case studies all have that rather indefinable organizational culture that supports advocacy, and the leaders of those institutions point to that as a core feature that supports their work. About two-thirds have explicit structures (strategic plans, mission statements) that call for and provide accountability for these social change activities, and these organizations out-perform their peers on engagement, including on the more elusive client-empowerment measures (at a level of statistical significance, even!). That makes it obvious that cultivating organizational support for both an internal and external social change orientation needs to be a focus of leadership efforts.
  • Unlike several years ago, direct service providers reflected a familiarity with the terms “civic engagement” and “social change”, even if we as a field still lack common definitions or a universal commitment to these ideals. Building Movement suggests, and I agree, that this points to a real opening to institutionalize these ideas in nonprofit management. This advocacy is perhaps best viewed as a continuum, too; while very few organizations are engaged in collective activism, relatively many are comfortable with direct contact with elected officials. There are certainly roles for organizations along this spectrum, and finding these niches starts with conversations.

    I’m going to highlight some of the case studies later this week, but I’m interested in your reactions to these findings, too. Does anything surprise you? How does knowing what this really looks like, rather than what we might guess, matter? What questions need to be answered as part of this project of “field transformation”? How do these findings dovetail, or contradict, what you experience in your own organization?

  • Hey! You! It’s Election Day!

    I’ll be working the polls this Election Day (6AM-8PM, for the whopping sum of $120!), so I’m writing this up the week before.

    I had a lot of ideas about what I wanted to write about on Election Day, from a preview of the races most critical to social justice causes to a discussion about voter protection to ideas for addressing the critical shortage of poll workers in much of the country.

    But, then, what I really want to say is:

    via Flickr Creative Commons

    If you had a really great (or really bad) Election Day experience, please leave a comment. I’d also be interested in any predictions about the outcomes, and their impact.

    Happy Election Day!

    Guest post: A Case for Advocating from Within

    **Note from Melinda: This guest post is from a blog reader who has generously agreed to share her story of advocating from within her employing organization. For obvious reasons, she remains anonymous in this forum, but she is willing to engage in conversation if other readers have questions or comments about her work.

    Working within a movement to create social change is something I have wanted to be a part of since childhood. Always rooting for the underdog, cheering for the kid in fourth place or sitting at the table with the classmate by themselves seem to have been a theme in my life. I also love to challenge authority. It has left me with multiple time-outs, probably a good year lost to groundings and supervisors waiting in their office with a stack of write-ups titled “Insubordination’.

    It was not a huge surprise when I wound up working for a women’s organization straight out of college. It felt comforting to look around and see other people dedicated to improving the lives of women and children. The realization came that the violence women are enduring are not random or isolated acts, but rather sustained by a framework developed by systems that maintain power and control over her life. It is easy to see the abuse women survive from their partner, sometimes, but not so easy to see the abuse they endure due to sexism, racism and classism. Diagnoses such as PTSD, depression and anxiety are commonly used in my world. The effect of these seems to remove “providers” further from the “consumers”. Diagnostics don’t seem to accurately reflect the experience of millions of women nor prevent the larger issues of violence against women. In my line of work we talk about how it is our responsibility to help her craft, draft and tell her story for her healing. Why not help her craft her story to connect and correct the larger injustices?

    Working for a self-touted client-centered organization it seemed natural for this type of a program to be created, shaped and implemented. My organization is part of a state-wide coalition that claims to be part of a social change movement. Implementing a survivor-designed and led advocacy group seemed like an easy fit, right? That’s what I thought. What I have found are the people, organizations or systems that are “supposed” to be on our side can actually provide more challenges than who we think our natural opponents to be.

    Internally, administrators balked at legislative advocacy because they believe that it’s our coalition’s responsibility (not our organization’s), they’re misinformed about the parameters of how nonprofits can lobby, and they’re concerned about the time/energy for adding another project to the organization. The project was not allowed to be added into my new job description as my supervisor did not feel “the project was developed enough.” Concern for burnout and shifting priorities from my primary responsibilities are other stated reasons from my supervisor to pull me off the project. The current barrier is her concern that the grants that pay my salary all specifically state ‘no lobbying’. Contacting the grantors is in the plans; however I have been barred from participating in the conversations.

    Participating in our Coalition’s Legislative Advocacy Day has been an activity that our organization traditionally does. Bringing survivors to this day is something that I thought seemed logical. The welcome was lukewarm and ill-prepared, as they had never invited survivors to this event. After women told their stories to State Legislators and a representative responded empathetically, the Coalition reacted and I was told they strategically build relationships and plan out legislation. They were alarmed at the survivor’s “uncontrolled message” and told me that they never want a “story like that ever getting back to the capital”. The effect of this statement is unfortunate in several dimensions. Violence against women can involve substance abuse, mental health, poverty and sometimes suicide and homicide. Instead of seizing the opportunity to educate people in power about the complexities of the lives of their constituents, the Coalition sent a message to my organization and the survivor that shamed her (what had happened was her fault) and attempted to take her power away by controlling her story.

    Why do I keep pushing for a survivor-led advocacy group? Because what I hear time and time again is that system action or inaction has a direct impact on people’s lives. Survivors look to systems for basic needs, protection and justice. When systems fail, women feel violated, and sometimes the “beat down from the system is worse than a man’s.” Women have been affected by the problem of violence and have a stake in the issue. They are the experts in how systems fail and re-victimize. They have a strong desire to end the re-victimization by changing the way people think about violence against women, responses to survivors and holding these systems accountable for their actions. They want a social change group that is a combination of education, policy change and legislation. If we want true change, then the people who are most affected by the problem must be at the center of righting the wrongs.

    What does civic engagement look like, really?

    photo credit, Library of Congress, via Flickr Commons


    Social workers, especially us “macro” types, use a lot of pretty fuzzy language sometimes. What does “empowerment” really mean after all? How do we know effective advocacy when we see it?

    And what, really, is “civic engagement”, and how in the world do we measure that?

    Answering this question is important not just because it’s never a good idea to spend energy talking about something without really having any idea what we’re actually talking about, but also because defining and measuring and evaluating our civic engagement work is about accountability and integrity, which, after all, are some of the goals towards which our civic engagement work is focused in the first place.

    We know that civic engagement is far more than getting people registered to vote, or even than getting them to the polls. I remember a course that I took from Ernesto Cortes, of the Industrial Areas Foundation, in graduate school, and how he talked about how reducing civic engagement, and the exercise of our citizenship, to voting alone, really makes it essentially another aspect of consumerism–choosing between this or that preformulated option, which, of course, isn’t very engaging at all.

    But the other stuff, beyond voting, is even harder to measure and truly conceptualize: what does it look like to be authentically involved in the governance of one’s own community, or one’s own life, and how do we begin to track and evaluate that engagement on a broad scale?

    The folks at the Building Movement Project (I know, I knowI’m a bit obsessed) have a new paper, Evidence of Change, which discusses evaluating civic engagement efforts and, I believe, offers, if not a roadmap, at least some sparks of guidance for organizations trying to be clear about their goals in this client empowerment work and, ultimately, demonstrate its tangible value.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about this, because I really believe that there are particular opportunities for advancement of advocacy and civic engagement as legitimate activities, and, really, core strategies, of social service nonprofit organizations, but we’ll never solidify a place for them if we can’t figure out how to assess and communicate about what we’re doing, and why it matters.

    Some of the new insights for me from this, most recent, discussion:

  • We can’t measure civic engagement by looking only at the individuals (for example, our clients) involved; truly meaningful civic engagement should be transformative not just for those people, but also for the “host” organization’s capacity for social change, and for the society and institutional structures their engagement is aimed at changing.
  • Rigorously evaluating civic engagement work requires, for many nonprofit social service organizations, TWO significant culture shifts–first towards this kind of empowerment work as a core part of the agency’s operations, and second towards seeing formal evaluation as integral to the organization’s mission. No wonder it’s so hard, and so rare.
  • Just as we’re still in the process of developing new models of social service organizations that integrate advocacy and civic engagement in their direct service work, so, too, do we need to develop new models of evaluation, able to meet the demands of these kinds of nonlinear change processes. And we need the space, within academia and especially philanthropy, for these new evaluation methods to gain legitimacy.

    So getting out the vote among our clients and allies is obviously important. And being able to quantify the electoral impact of our work, and how it changes conversations about the issues we care about, is important in garnering the resources we’ll need to support its continuation. Absolutely.

    But we want more for those we have the honor to serve than a choice between candidate A and candidate B. We want them to be more than consumers–we see them and know them as stakeholders, capable of helping to build the kind of society we want for all of us.

    And that takes the kind of civic engagement that moves mountains.

    So we’d better be ready to measure how far they’ve come.

  • They’re on our team–Nonprofit(s) Vote!

    I love it when I find awesome like-minded people doing great things that I think will be super-helpful and interesting to you all. This definitely falls into that category: Nonprofit Vote.

    It’s a blog with information for people in the nonprofit sector interested in nonpartisan voter engagement. Right now, they have a lot of information about the Census and why it matters for future elections, upcoming primaries, and continuing fallout from the Supreme Court decision on money and politics.

    They also just launched their 2010 election cycle resources, with state-by-state resources, an awesome voter engagement toolkit, and a FREE webinar series on how to do civic engagement through your nonprofit (can you tell why I love these people?)! They’re very broad-based, in terms of their view of the nonprofit sector–the issues that scroll in the background include hunger, arts, immigration, environment, housing, literacy, disabilities, human services, youth, families, job training…I think we can all find something there that speaks to our work.

    In addition to this commentary and encouragement (friend them on Facebook; I did!), they have some concrete tools for nonprofits to do voter registration, Get-Out-the-Vote, and electoral reform work as a part of their overall operations. All of their information is very relevant for social work advocates committed to civic engagement with those we serve.

    Check it out; I’d love to hear what you think, and please, if you know of other resources to help nonprofits this election year, share them in the comments. And someone, please, send a thank-you note to the Nonprofit Vote folks–this has to be my record shortest post ever!