Where has my radicalism gone?

This is a guest blog post by Lauren Bartley: a recent graduate and practising social worker.

I’ve spent the last four years at university banging on about social justice while doing the BSW at the University of Auckland. This was the very reason I began a career in social work, because I had deep sense of the injustice in the world and wanted to do something about it. I prided myself on being an activist, a radical. It became my passion, my defining feature.  Early into the degree, I realised that there was a major incongruence between what I thought social work was, or should be, and what it actually seemed to be. By the end of my second year, most of my assignments had the same running theme: that as much as social workers espouse the value of social justice, social workers aren’t actually doing it. I deeply connected with Ferguson and Woodward’s (2009) criticism that social workers tend to “play down the structural factors and to focus on individual and personal issues.” (p.8).  I was constantly frustrated and dismayed by how little attention seemed to be paid to the wider factors of colonisation, capitalism and neoliberalism, both in the degree and in the profession, and how little those structural inequalities and oppressions seemed to matter to everyone else. I challenged visiting social workers who presented in class, and was intensely critical of them when they said they had “no time” to address structural issues. Putting plasters on people was all social workers seemed to be doing, and this made me angry. A placement at Auckland Action Against Poverty served to fuel this cynicism, and I came to the point of having a crisis of faith, seriously reconsidering social work as a career.

After taking a few months off to recover after finishing the degree, I began working as a community social worker in a child and family-based NGO. Now, after eleven weeks of calling myself a practising social worker, I am beginning to understand the barriers of high case-loads, limited time, and having no contractual mandate or objectives towards social justice goals. I have been surprised and disheartened by how easily I seem to have lost sight of my own values of social justice. I have become overwhelmed by the day-to-day firefighting of individual-based work, and I have had no time or extra energy to consider the structural and political factors at play in people’s lives. Though this acknowledgement is devastating for me, I am determined to redefine my vision for my professional identity.

Contemporary social work has been described as neoliberal social work, and under the current state-mandate, it conforms to and reproduces austerity and neoliberal politics through discourses of risk, vulnerability, eligibility and targeting (Duvnjak & Fraser, 2013). With the relentless focus on evidence-based practice, results-based accountability, outcomes and efficiency, it is no wonder that social work has neglected its social justice mandate (Pease, 2009). We have become numbed by the neoliberal managerialist agenda of those who sit in offices in Wellington and know nothing of what social work is. A pertinent example of this disengagement is the Social Services Select Committee’s inability to define the scope of social work practice because it is too broad, too ambiguous (Hyslop, 2018). I argue that if social justice and liberation are the global goals of social work practice (International Federation of Social Work, 2014), how can that sit within with the state’s neoliberal agenda that supports capitalism and austerity? I do not see how social work can profess a commitment to social justice, and also be practicing in a way that upholds neoliberal politics. In my mind, the two simply cannot co-exist.

It has been argued that evaluation models such as results-based accountability (RBA) are a direct compromise of social justice (Keevers, Treleaven, Sykes & Darcy, 2012). RBA is focused solely on measuring outcomes using empirical evidence, and neglects to acknowledge the structural factors that cause and maintain inequality and disadvantage. Arguably though, social work is not about outcomes; it is about relationships and processes that cannot be measured, “but which are the essence of what social work is.” (Ferguson, 2008, p.17).

I have become keenly aware of the obsession with outcomes and numbers while trying to make sense of the accountabilities demanded in my monthly reports: numbers of referrals received, numbers starting and completing programmes, numbers of Reports of Concern made. I can’t help but wonder why my work is being reduced to numbers, and feel that I am not being recognised for the processes of my practice: the hours I have spent agonising with families over the behavioural and emotional challenges of their child caused by years of intergenerational disadvantage and marginalisation; building relationships with children who have very little trust of adults due to the damaging and long-term effects of state intervention; getting buy-in from whānau who have very little trust of anyone because of the regular humiliation and dehumanisation they face from Work and Income. I have begun thinking about social justice not just as an outcome (the eradication of poverty, for example), but also as an organising principle and process. All of these activities, though they are not measurable and therefore not recognised by the Ministry of Social Development as relevant, are actually essential to increasing the sense of belonging and identity, empowerment to fight back against the neoliberal agenda, and emancipation from the multiple and intersecting oppressions that grip whānau and communities. These are not “outcomes or achievements but moment-by-moment practices that are situated, precarious and ongoing” (Keevers et al., 2012, p.107).

As an act of resistance against neoliberalism, social work must reassert its position towards social justice, and this is invariably a political endeavour, which understandably scares social workers. But as McKendrick and Webb put it, the decision for or against a political stance “becomes a little clearer when one understands that the decision is also a choice for or against social justice” (2014, p.358). Social workers should be at the forefront of social change, and this is my vision for my practice. In the midst of all the day-to-day demands, we must keep our focus on the immeasurable processes of social justice in our practice: the building of relationships, the bolstering of dignity and respect, and the increasing of self-determination. We must become radical activists in the fight against the structural issues that make life so difficult for so many, and seriously question why our contracts do not prioritise this. We must continue to assert our stance on the politics of inequality, and stand in solidarity with people who are marginalised. And we must continue to campaign for recognition of the social work profession, and not stand by while bureaucrats define (or not) what we do every day.

And if the whole definition fiasco goes unfavourably, maybe we should insist on changing our job title to Social Justice Worker to remind ourselves and others of exactly what we do. There can be no ambiguity in that.

Image credit | John Darroch


Duvnjak, A., & Fraser, H. (2013). Targeting the ‘hard to reach’: re/producing stigma? Critical and Radical Social Work, 1(2), 167-182. 10.1332/204986013×673245

Ferguson, H. (2008). The theory and practice of critical best practice in social work. In K. Jones, B. Cooper & H. Ferguson, (Eds.), Best practice in social work: Critical perspectives. (pp.15-37). Houndmills, Basingstoke, Hampshire, UK: Palgrave Macmillan

Ferguson, I., & Woodward, R. (2009). Radical social work in practice: Making a difference. Bristol, UK: The Policy Press.

Hyslop, I. (2018). Social work bill ‘nonsense’. Retreived from on 24/04/18.

International Federation of Social Workers. (2014). Global definition of social work. Retrieved from on 24/04/18.

Keevers, L., Treleaven, L., Sykes, C., & Darcy, M. (2012). Made to measure: Taming practices with results-based accountability. Organization Studies33(1), 97-120. doi: 10.1177/0170840611430597

McKendrick, D., & Webb, S. A. (2014). Taking a political stance in social work. Critical and Radical Social Work2(3), 357-369.

Pease, B. (2009). From evidence-based knowledge to critical knowledge on post-positivist social work. In J. Allen, L. Briskman & B. Pease (Eds.), Critical social work: Theories and practices for a socially just world. Second edition. (pp.45-69). Crows Nest, NSW: Allen & Unwin.

19 replies on “Where has my radicalism gone?”

Kia ora Lauren, stay strong and keep that fire burning. In contemporary times, thinking (and wanting to practice) like we do is not popular. You may even be frowned upon by your colleagues, workplace and some academics, but stay the course. Because without fighting the ‘structural’ injustices all we are doing is allowing the same conditions to continue. Take care, Luis

Hey Lauren, I loved reading your words and feel your frustration. Social work is a global profession and this is our strength. Connect with others across the world who are standing up, speaking out and refuse to be silenced. Take a look at BASW UK’s anti poverty’s activism.
Pob lwc/good luck
Allison Hulmes
BASW Cymru

Thank you Allison, it is a wonderful thing to know that we are not isolated in the battle against structural inequalities, that there is a whole community of social workers fighting the same fight. I feel so honoured to be a part of that.

Kia ora Luis, I really appreciate your encouragement and support. It makes it so much easier to keep going knowing that there are others out there who are on my team, fighting the same fight.

My lord… strike a chord, for an old social worker,. Never give up. Never surrender. Never lose the anger that drives us or the compassion that pulls us. Need to read this again.. Loves it, needs it

Thanks for your words Phil. I was unsure how “old social workers” as you say would take this from a young, naive and very idealistic social worker, but I am very encouraged by you!

You, Lauren, are clearly stating what we (not only social workers, but other “old” workers) have all noticed and endured. You can possibly say it well, precisely due to being fresh to the game, noticing all the different positions and frames being used, and yes, your turn of phrase is succinct. I can take what you have said and use it to back up my arguments and rationale…I ran around the house saying “see, this is what I’m trying to explain….to you all…” (so you are assisting some of us to remember our heads ARE screwed on in the right way.)

Amazing blog, I hear every word and 100% agree. I’ve battled the last 2 years as a practising SW (though still completing the MPSW) and a social justice activist.

I feel that there is real need within the program to not only teach about structural inequality, but to give us the skills and tools to know how to fight it through activism and protest.

Kia kaha

Thank you Bex! I completely agree with the need to include that in the progamme. Even now I feel really good at talking about structural inequalities and the need to do something about them, but actually knowing how to tackle them in practice is a different story. Definitely something to keep advocating for!

Go Lauren,
I still think the only way to chenge the structural problems is to get face to face with them in the political level (this way you can ge paid at the same time?)

No NGO is going to risk the 3 year contract cycle by allowing radical staff to do their thing. Problem Gambling Foundation is the example of what happens in subsequent funding rounds if you stick your head up out of the trenches too often, (God forbid that they kept practicing ACTUAL health promotion rather than the watered down version offered by the structure built into the Gambling Act – where the individual gambler is at fault for their behaviour, rather than the societal and community COLONISATION by gambling thought/activity/grants -[does this sound familiar in social work?]) The cost of getting some runs on the board and taking back some territory from those who have a vice grip on the STRUCTURES that have been built by powerful govt./business interests, is loss of income, loss of contracts for the employer agencies – and loss of jobs for staff.

The Government contractual model (Sarah A. Lovell, Robin A. Kearns & Russell Prince (2013) Neoliberalism and the contract state: exploring innovation and resistance among New Zealand Health Promoters, Critical Public Health, 24:3, 308-320, DOI: 10.1080/09581596.2013.808317) that professionals in the social environments fields find work in, sets us all free to be constrained.

The particular self-policing work of outcomes reporting (RBA), breeds compliance, subjectivity, and everyone being under everyone’s gaze (Foucault).

*So how might the generations of this era figure out what structures to change, or dismantle?
*How can these be dismantled and who has the freedom and power to do so?
*What materials will replacement structures be formed from?
*How will power be managed, by whom, for whom?

If “radical” means “at the core” and “from the ground level up”and “in essence”, then to quote a conversation with Sir Bob Harvey, “Instead of shooting arrows at the castle walls, those with the motivation and vision must take control of the castle!”

Nice article Lauren.You touch on so many key points and for a relatively new grad you no doubt will go a long way in this field- as long you can hold onto your energy. Keep it alive Lauren and your passion and drive will be an inspiration for us all.
Thank you

Lauren, you are going to be cited in the opening address of a conference on homelessness, in Aarhus in Denmark, tomorrow. Never underestimate the power of the word!

Kia kaha Lauren, we’re in this together. The power of the collective is one of our defences against relentless neoliberalism.
Kia ora
David McNabb

Well done Lauren from what I am called ‘an old Social Worker’ (36 years in practice both in South Africa and Aotearoa New Zealand ). I love your thinking. Such a breath of freshness .
We often see the practice of what we used to then call the ‘casework method’ in Aotearoa New Zealand . Social Workers get stuck on individual issues often with limited success and they either ignore or fail to address the larger structural issues(it is put in to too hard basket). When you do you get called a radical or a revolutionary. It is a lonely place at times but having a conviction is what get you through.
I too entered the profession of Social Work because I lived in a society where oppression was the order of the day and also at a young age I was determined that I was going to do something about it. Social Work is about addressing the social injustices that result in the other issues like poverty ,child abuse, poor housing ,unemployment etc.
We as Social Workers don’t always speak up let alone address the issues around the ongoing impact of colonization, inequalities ,racism etc. etc. We continue to put on plasters and keep the capitalist in business.
The big question Social Workers need to ask is: ARE WE AGENTS OF SOCIAL CHANGE OR DO WE MAINTAIN STATUS QUO?

Hi Lauren,

A brilliant article! You have very eloquently encapsulated one of the great challenges of working within the system. I have fought the same types of issues all of my life, in my case, through education. I would humbly say that I had some success at the individual level, through discourse with my students, but had little impact on the systemic nature of the education system, which of course, in the end, serves the needs of the dominant paradigm, and thus, further entrenches the neoliberal agenda.

I am working on an initiative that I thought you might be interested in. We are in the process creating a global communication platform that aspires to make visible and connect all resistance movements around the world with the goal to develop an action plan that would alter the current dominant narrative that diminishes all of our lives. I like to think of this as Humanity’s response to our crazy world that is currently dominated by forces outside of ourselves.

To date, I am working with groups in Africa seeking to go through the same process for their continent. As well, I am working with a group in Europe that seeks to do the same thing. I was recently doing research on New Zealand to get a sense of the situation there. Do you know of organizations or individuals that might be interested in such an initiative? I would be happy to contact all or any. If not, perhaps you would like to create your own group and join us.
Best wishes to you.

michael breton

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