Because I like to make sure my students are paying attention, and because I’m not exactly afraid of controversy, I like to start my Advanced Advocacy and Community Practice course with that classic Specht and Courtney reading, guaranteed to inflame the passions of social workers on both ends of the macro-micro continuum (and, yes, I think it’s a continuum, not two distinct camps):
I mean, talk about astute titling. Could there be language more likely to spark debate?
After we read, I ask my students: Has social work abandoned its mission? More importantly, perhaps, and certainly more personally, have social workers?
There is a tendency, among my students and, I believe, among many social workers, to think that our career choice automatically implies altruism. We are social workers; ipso facto, we are in this for ‘the right reasons’.
It’s dangerous logic, I believe, both because it devalues the profession by implication, assuming that the only reason that someone would choose social work is out of a peculiar desire for martyrdom, but also because it can lull us into a sort of complacency, such that anything that we’re doing must be worthwhile…because we’re social workers.
Surrounded by worsening problems and abject need, complacency is one thing we do not need.
So I assign students to read Unfaithful Angels in part to peel away the gauze in which we sometimes place the profession, and to force us, collectively, to confront the evidence about what social workers do, and why, and the extent to which we’re living up to our own ideals.
I always wish that the debates that ensue happened in social work classes other than my own, since I tend to teach those students who have chosen macro practice rather than clinical work, which increases the risk that our conversations about Unfaithful Angels deteriorate into blaming ‘those’ social workers. And, of course, self-righteousness isn’t too becoming for anyone, nor the path I’m hoping to help my students navigate.
So what I try to do is ask, pointedly, why they care so much (because they inevitably do) about how social work is viewed, as a profession, and about how social workers devote their time. We talk about the policy structures that influence individual social worker’s career decisions, from third-party payments to the privatization of public services to the caseload increases that make adding advocacy so difficult. We talk about radical practice, and why that concept makes us so uncomfortable. We own our failings, as a profession, and then we imagine what it would look like if every social worker was committed to fundamental social change.
I make them choose a side: Has social work abandoned its mission? What was that mission, as they understand it? Is work with those who are economically poor the only ‘true’ social work? Is organizing and macro change?
They are usually at least somewhat distraught.
And then I try to use that upset as the platform for what, to me, is where we need to come down on these questions: Yes, social workers have drifted away from our core, but not because more social workers are in private practice. The profession’s mission, to me, isn’t as much about any practice venue, or even any population, as much as it is a stance of opposition to injustice, wherever and whenever it is found.
And we abandoned that mission–we actively abandon it, still today–every time we choose prestige over protest.
We’re not angels.
And the grassroots group that, even reluctantly, takes grant money from the same corporations that are funding attacks on the social safety net (in the guise of ‘more competitive tax rates’) are just as complicit as the social worker who crafts a practice providing counseling to the ‘worried well’.
That private practitioner could be actively using radical approaches to gender dynamics in her practice, taking on clients without ability to pay, and agitating her elected officials for universal access to mental health care. Or not.
Promoting social change doesn’t mean turning the social work profession into a police state.
It requires each of us committing ourselves to careers that are vehicles for justice. In all manifestations. Every day.