Tag Archives: ethics

Starting in the Classroom: Safe Spaces

One of the parts of my teaching that I take most seriously is my obligation to create a ‘safe space’ in which my students can grapple with their professional ethics and the conflicts between these ethical standards and students’ own personal values and beliefs.

This is true in most social work classes, I think, and there’s certainly a strong practice component of these concerns; students want to talk, for example, about what they’ll do if a client wants advice about getting an abortion, if they are opposed personally.

But there is an undeniable policy element here, too, as students grapple not just with how they feel about these ‘hot button’ issues, but how that needs to translate to their support or opposition for specific social policies, and, then, even for candidates.

As a professor, I struggle with the balance between making sure that students feel that they can authentically question the different venues through which to achieve given policy aims…and my desire to see the social work profession articulate a compelling, and even a commanding, commitment to policy ‘goods’, because that’s precisely what I believe our profession, and our social policy, needs.

And this means that, even within our classroom, different ethical principles can collide, particularly our desire to support the individual self-determination of all human beings (yes, including social work professionals) and our need to be a more effective voice for policies capable of delivering greater social justice, which demands a more unified front.

I don’t have the answers for this, but I hope that it’s a case of where being transparent and wrestling with these questions alongside my students gets us at least focused on the issue in a constructive way.

We have to come to terms, after all, with the messiness of trying to bring a diverse group of professionals to consensus on a variety of policy issues (and, surely, questions about taxation and criminal justice and foreign policy and public assistance are no less thorny than marriage equality or reproductive rights), but also with the real risk of our irrelevance if we conclude that we can’t deal with these divides and, so we must stay largely out of the political arena.

And that’s where I think my classroom comes in. I hope it can be a laboratory for democracy, a safe place to prepare ourselves for advocacy, which is inherently risky.

I hope that it can help my students to construct a mutual aid group, of sorts, as we navigate the policy arena together.

Because we can’t hide, within the four walls of our classrooms.

But hopefully we can sharpen our skills and focus on our values and gird ourselves for debate, here.

And then feel ready to engage. Where we need to be.


Whose story is this, anyway?

This is the last of the pieces inspired by A Problem from Hell, and it’s a theme that I’ve touched on here before–how we respectfully tread into others’ lives, in our advocacy and our direct practice, and how we must honor the stories we are allowed to know.

I think there’s some intentional appropriation of others’ narratives, which came up in And Their Children After Them, too. Agee, the original author in whose footsteps the book follows, was described by the subjects of the book as though he “didn’t talk with them. He didn’t even talk down to them. He talked at them, as if they were objects” (p. 39). He never sent them a copy of the book, and it was a long time before they were even aware of its existence.

To protect themselves in an inherently exploitative relationship, the families hid much of themselves from the author and photographer. That way, they retained some ownership rights to their own stories. As the now-grown children explained, “There was a lot that they didn’t show and he never learned”. Largely derided by the author as simple-minded, their careful deceptions prove that they were considerably smarter than he assumed (p. 56). Still, as people in positions of relatively little power, in society, they had little recourse when a stranger wanted to tell their story.

And, of course, the terms of the telling were far from equitable. The author, while he didn’t get paid much for the work, got other rewards–prestige, attention…and those who laid out their lives and their hardship got nothing. As one family member recognized, “She went home to a job in a textile factory that does not pay in one month what the picture of her would sell for in that Birmingham gallery” (p. 175).

But it’s not always about such opportunistic exploitation.

Sometimes, I think, it’s a neglect (not benign), born of paternalism, that, while perhaps more understandable, is no less harmful. Like the anecdote that the UN Press Office did not initially translate its press releases into Serbo-Croatian during The Hague proceedings following the Bosnian genocide (p. 497). So, in other words, that people were unable to understand the process that was supposed to bring restorative justice, for themselves and their people. Because it wasn’t a priority to make sure that they could.

I encountered this quite a bit in some work I did last summer, exploring the advocacy capacity of the ‘healthy eating/active living’ network in the Kansas City area. Some of the grassroots groups–neighborhood organizations working in communities of color, faith-based groups organizing African Americans, coalitions representing Latino immigrants–stated that they perceived that others wanted to claim that they were working with them, to be able to take credit for any advances made, or even just to give themselves additional credibility for trying to engage these priority populations. But, often, that doesn’t include really sharing power, or building structures that put affected individuals at the center. One neighborhood group told me that ‘on the grant applications, everyone’s our friend’, even if that doesn’t always yield fruitful partnerships.

Of course, our sincere hesitation about taking over others’ stories cannot mean that we cease to tell them. One organization I was working with was reluctant to use clients’ stories in their advocacy because they said it would feel like ‘using’ them…but, then, their advocacy freely incorporated composite stories (because all advocacy needs narrative), which can have the tendency to aggregate and distort individuals’ stories, in ways that are no less alienating.

The answer, instead of hiding behind a veil of anonymity, is to change our processes.

We need to make it clear that people continue to own their stories–and to receive proper credit flowing from them. People should be encouraged, and facilitated, to do their own tellingwe don’t need nearly as many ‘spokespeople’ as we think we do, on others’ behalf. And we need to respect, and acknowledge, people’s needs to be selective about which stories are told, and how, and why.

We need to treat stories as carefully as though they were our own.

While always–ALWAYS–remembering that they are not.

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?

We have very special interests.

I know.

“Special interest” is a bad word. Like lobbyist.

But the truth is, we have very special interests.

Interests that, most of the time, if we (nonprofit organizations, social work advocates, forces of good) are not defending and advancing, no one else will.

And, of course, power abhors a vacuum.

Where there is silence–on a given issue, or event, or piece of legislation, someone will likely be quite ready to step into the breach.

Just maybe not on our terms, from our perspective, or in our interests.

This dynamic was illustrated clearly in the incidences of genocide, which cried out for U.S. involvement, described in A Problem from Hell. For example, when Saddam Hussein was using chemical weapons against Kurdish people, and there were chemical companies and other interests speaking loudly against action, that was only part of the problem. The other half of the equation was that, apart from these lobbies that were especially interested, there were no competing voices making phone calls on behalf of the Kurds. There was, effectively, no ‘human rights lobby’ and, even today, there are relatively few voices oriented in that direction.

Similarly, in the struggle to ratify the UN genocide convention, senators complained that they only heard about the treaty from John Birch Society types, not from ‘reasonable’ people who urged U.S. participation in the convention’s tenets. The pro-ratification folks didn’t call, or email, or show up at forums. The interests, then, of basic human dignity and protection–while just about as ‘special’ as they get–didn’t have a lobby.

Our failure to claim our identity as a special interest, and to coalesce around the concerns that unite us, is particularly alarming given historical evidence that, in the arena of congressional policymaking, these one-sided interest group politics are an especially serious liability. Many members of Congress fear acting against the special interests to which they respond even occasionally, even when a rational actor could presume that a history of supporting a given organization’s cause could allow some independence on another issue.

To a large extent, this is because of the distorting influence of money in politics.

But it’s also because those powerful interests are moving in to fill the vacuum. As they will.

We are special. We engage in politics, and in policy advocacy, not primarily to enhance our own market standing, but to improve the conditions of those we have the honor to serve. And they–and we–deserve to be represented, as interests, within a policymaking structure that works that way, even as we seek to change the terms of engagement.

We can’t hold ourselves out as above the fray, when we, and our issues, are very much on the battlefield.

No excuses

This isn’t really a fully-formed post.

And it’s certainly not an indictment of anyone other than myself.

It’s just that, as I was looking back through my notes from A Problem from Hell, I was thinking about how, in retrospect, it looks so very clear. And no possible excuse is adequate.

And, I know, the problems that we confront in our daily work aren’t often (thankfully) as stark as the genocide of hundreds of thousands of Cambodians, or Rwandans.

But that doesn’t mean that my excuses–commitments with my kids, or the general demands of work, or just thinking how nice it would be to go to bed early and read a novel (okay, or, if I’m being realistic, a book about the growing economic divide in higher education, but, still…)–are any less pitiful.

In interviews, and in historical documents, the excuses people gave for not doing more generally fell into three categories (p. 429 and elsewhere):

  • Futility–nothing that I could do could possibly make any difference
  • Perversity–somehow, what I might do could be worse than doing nothing at all
  • Jeopardy–there’s too much risk, for me and for those who would be involved

And, really, without exception, those excuses are pretty weak–then, in the context of genocide, certainly–but also now, in my advocacy, and maybe in yours.

Because there’s always something we can do. And it just might help. And, really, when we’re talking about injustices being perpetrated, it’s usually hard to imagine how our involvement, especially if we’re smart about it, could make the situation worse. And, of course, there’s always risk, but is it as risky as the moral hazard of failing to live up to our own ideals?

We can always find excuses. The author summarizes, “Those who did not want to know, or act…were always able to find the lack of proof at the right moment” (p. 219).

I don’t want that to describe me.

As I was thinking about occasions when I should have shown up, or spoken out, or put in some extra effort, I remembered by Grandpa Pete, who used to shake his head when hearing particularly flimsy explanations, and say, “That just doesn’t hold water.” For someone from the farm, that’s a condemnation.

And, if I’m honest, it’s often deserved.

So, here’s to more. And to being on the right side of history, at least, as best I can.

Can a ‘good’ social worker vote for [fill in the blank]?

As you know, I don’t see any possibly defensible argument for social workers to not vote.

We signed a Code of Ethics that includes a requirement to “engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice.”

Voting seems like a pretty low threshold for living up to that obligation.

There’s no excuse for not showing up.

But what about FOR WHOM to vote?

Our Code of Ethics also includes mandates to:

  • “act to expand choice and opportunity for all people, with special regard for vulnerable, disadvantaged, oppressed, and exploited people and groups” AND
  • “promote conditions that encourage respect for cultural and social diversity within the United States and globally. Social workers should promote policies and practices that demonstrate respect for difference, support the expansion of cultural knowledge and resources, advocate for programs and institutions that demonstrate cultural competence, and promote policies that safeguard the rights of and confirm equity and social justice for all people” AND
  • “act to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group, or class on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical disability.”

Do those strictures tell us for whom to vote?

Are certain candidates unacceptable, across the board, to social workers, because of the statements they make or the stances they espouse?

Or is our only obligation to engage in the process, using our own ethical lens to determine which party(ies), or which candidate, best lives up to our ethical ideals?

Can you be a “good” (read: ethical, embodying social work values) social worker and vote for a candidate who supports strict voter ID laws that many civil rights leaders believe will erode these constitutional rights? Or one who opposes equal marriage rights for GLBT couples? Or one who opposes equal pay policies for women?

I don’t believe that our Code of Ethics tells us precisely how to respond to all of the dilemmas that can come up in practice, or in policy.

We are professionals, bound to a Code, but we are not robots.

I believe that ethical social workers can have legitimate disagreements about the policies to best support families living in poverty, or end child hunger, or help people who are unemployed, or protect our natural environment.

But my question, as we approach this critical election, is whether there are some candidates, and some issues, that really should be beyond the pale for social workers, even if, in some instances, the Code of Ethics runs contrary to our own personal beliefs, or what would benefit us as private individuals.

I know what the answer is for me, and for how I interpret our Code and live as a social worker.

But, for you, as you look at our profession, what do you think? Can ‘good’ social workers vote for anyone on Tuesday, as long as they’re voting?

Or does our Code point the way?

Showing up: TANF and the social work profession

Chart from the National Conference of State Legislatures--the states in blue have proposed or adopted drug-testing requirements

In the past 2 years, more than 80 bills–in more than 30 states, plus Congress–have been proposed to require drug-testing for recipients of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF, or ‘welfare’).

There are, of course, several pretty objective problems with these proposals, including the fact that most studies find that TANF recipients are only slightly more likely to be using substances than the general population, drug-testing is quite expensive (and would, then, likely result in reductions in benefits for needy families), and drug-testing requirements (especially when, as proposed in some states, the low-income recipients themselves would be responsible for paying for the drug test–the proposals often stipulate that they could be reimbursed if they pass!) serve as deterrents to TANF participation even for families living in dire poverty (which, of course, is probably not an unintended consequence of these proposals).

But this post is really about the moral objection that we all, especially as social workers, should have to the idea that it’s permissible to cast such widespread suspicion on a group of people, simply because they are in need. And, further, that we might stand by while such suspicions are used to justify highly intrusive, demeaning, discriminatory practices.

Because stand by we often do.

In Kansas, a bill requiring drug testing for TANF recipients was opposed by just one conferee, an intern with the ACLU who has been enrolled in a social work program.

The bill flew out of committee, and the rest of our profession (including me) were, indefensibly, silent.

I have a question on my midterm for the foundation policy course about why TANF features so prominently in social work students’ study of social policy, and why, especially because relatively few of our clients actually receive TANF anymore (since, let’s be honest, ‘welfare’ as we understood it did really end in 1996), it should still matter so much.

It’s a question that I admit asking myself, especially early in my career, when my policy advocacy focused almost entirely on the rights of immigrants, almost none of whom are eligible for any cash assistance.

If it doesn’t really affect that many people, and if the benefits are so meager as to be not that valuable anyway, then why would we pack the hearing room for debate about forcing (mostly) single moms to take a urinalysis before they can get some money to feed and clothe their children?

Because this isn’t about who the clients are, or how many of them there are.

It’s about us, about who we are, and about what we’re going to stand for.

It’s about saying that we won’t accept policy that imposes punishment when sustenance is needed, or that wastes precious resources on ‘gotcha’ games when children are hungry.

It’s about saying that we know that a policy that rationalizes intrusions into our most basic liberties in the name of ‘fiscal responsibility’ and ‘personal accountability’ won’t stop with TANF recipients and their supposed drug use, and that we’re not going to abide a slippery slope.

It’s about being there to make sure that our clients–those on TANF, those who wish they were, and those who refuse to accept it even when eligible–know that social workers speak out when people are attacked, so that they’ll know that we’ll do the same for them.

The answer to that midterm, if students want full credit, is that working with people in poverty has always been a critical part of who we are as a profession and that our Code of Ethics requires that we work for social justice, especially on behalf of vulnerable populations.

I, obviously, deserve a point deduction.