“Watch what you say”: Radicalism in community development?

This guest blog is by: Dr Lynda Shevellar, (Lecturer in Community Development, The University of Queensland), Peter Westoby, (Associate Professor of Social Science and Community Development, Queensland University of Technology), and Dr Athena Lathouras, (Senior Lecturer in Social Work, University of Sunshine Coast).

“I said, watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical
Liberal, oh fanatical, criminal”

– Supertramp “The Logical Song”, 1979

“Watch what you say or they’ll be calling you a radical’” sang the English progressive rock band Supertramp in the late 1970s, echoing the way that the word “radical” is so often used to arouse ideas of extremism and instability. And given the recent tragic events in New Zealand – and in so many places around the globe – some might question the timing of this reflection. We could all be forgiven for shying away from a call for more radicalism and inviting a gentler framing for our activities. However, a closer interrogation of a radical agenda, and its place in community development, suggests that more rather than less radicalism may be just what social work in the Antipodes needs, and most particularly in these heartbreaking times.

The question of what it would take to radicalise community development (CD) within social work emerged as a conversation between three community academic-activists in Brisbane, Australia. We have all struggled with the painful political processes unfolding before us. The rise of nativist-populism (Finchelstein, 2017; Zizek, 2017), heightened intolerance and xenophobia (Vavrus, 2017), fear-fuelled nationalism, anti-intellectualism (Motta, 2017), misogyny (Banet-Weiser & Miltner, 2016), and the ever-increasing gaps between rich and poor (Dabla-Norris et al. 2015) have led us to have little faith in our political leadership – at least of that in Australia. As academic-activists committed to the pursuit of human rights and social justice  we have experienced such processes as personally distressing and intellectually confounding. Recognising that some elements of social work have been grappling with these kinds of issues (see for example, Williams and Briskman, 2015), we wanted to think through how community development could respond.

To do this, we needed to first understand the practices we were seeing. Within community development, we make the distinction between conservative and radical practice. Conservative practice means simply enabling people to survive the system. Conservative work tends to be individualist and reformist in nature, focusing upon individuals and personal problems and helping people to adjust to the world around them (Gilligan, 2007; Payne, 1996). Such work involves what organisational development theorists refer to as first order change. A simple example would be to help someone on a low income to budget more effectively.

Such conservative approaches sit in contrast to second order change, which moves the focus from the individual to the system (Argyris and Schön, 1978). This more radical response relocates the problem from the individual to the structures within which individuals are located. It identifies the way in which systems are not neutral but have been created by hyper-capitalism with its accompanying inequalities and social pain (Brown, 1995). Within community development the role of the worker is to assist participants to become literate about how power operates in their lives. Thus the analysis moves, for example, from why someone struggles to save, to a discussion about current welfare policy and the debate on universal basic income (Mays, Marston, & Tomlinson, 2016).

If we look to the lessons of history, we can see this is not the first time we have felt this tension. It was Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed that profoundly influenced community development in the 1970s, essentially ‘radicalising’ what had become a reformist project. This radicalising of practice flowered in diverse locations such as South Africa – with Steve Biko’s Black Community Programmes, and in the UK we saw a reorientation of CD programs towards place-based community capacity building (Craig, 2007).

However, in recent decades with the neo-liberal turn and defunding of much CD, there has been a demise of the radical tradition. Within social work education and practice in Australia there is a strong commitment to critical thinking and analysis, yet there is a lack of access to CD education and practice contexts in general, and more particularly, radical forms of community development. While working with communities is considered essential core curriculum content for universities who educate Australian social workers (Australian Association of Social Workers 2015), the depth of CD knowledge social workers graduate with is variable.

Against this background, in 2017, we engaged in an action learning project with 33 local CD workers, of which half also identified as social workers (see Westoby, Lathouras & Shevellar, 2019, for details). What we learned has provided us with hope – but also a need for further and deeper investment. First, we found that people hungered to know how to radicalise their practice. Many lacked a language and recognised that the dominant service delivery models they were located in had shaped their practice. Through reading and discussion they found spaces to rethink how they approached their role:

I’m so used to delivering content. To facilitate a process where participants developed the content was a much harder situation to be in.  But it led to the participants developing a project – they developed an action that they think they can do.

Second, workers embraced the idea of ‘radical’ as per the definition of Brookfield and Holst (2011, p.3) whereby radical is understood as ‘getting to the roots of something to discover the essence’. In this sense, CD’s historical roots involve citizens coming together to make sense of their experiences within the world for the purposes of collective action. Through our action research project community workers began rethinking how they approached analysis. For example, one group engaged in an assessment of people’s anger at rising electricity bills and helped the group connect this to recent decades of privatisation. The group started to talk about how to introduce ‘critical energy literacy’ into their practice – how to read and understand their energy bills was the first step to taking back power – in both senses of the word.

Third, and perhaps most profoundly, we were confronted by the barriers to radicalisation: that for many of us we are dependent – for our livelihoods – upon the very system we would seek to challenge. People’s oppression in workplaces (Beradi, 2009) creates a substantive barrier to radicalising the practice within those workplaces. Practitioners needed their jobs even if it meant being an ‘agent of the state’ in the welfare/service-oriented approach. This did not mean people felt powerless to act – there were discussions about what could be called ‘delicate activism’ or ‘acts of resistance’ (Westoby & Shevellar, 2019).

However it quickly became obvious that people were not yet willing to take collective action to challenge their managerial workplaces if it meant risking their own positions. What the project did do was invite people to think about the other activist spaces in their lives, and to reactivate their citizen role, beyond the workplace, as a place for experimentation and agency. This led, among other things, to the development of a Popular Education Network, which has sought to continue a radical agenda beyond the life of the project.

The outcomes of this experiment remind us of Incites’ (2017) observation that “The revolution will not be funded”. The question this project leaves us with is that for any of us paid to be social workers in the community space – what would it take for us to be less “Acceptable, Respectable, oh presentable” and to truly be more radical?

Image Credit |  Just Seeds


Australian Association of Social Workers (AASW) (2015) ‘Australian Social Work Education and Accreditation Standards (ASWEAS) 2012: Guideline 1.1: Guidance on essential core curriculum content’, Canberra, AASW.

Banet-Weiser, S. and Miltner, K. (2016) ‘#MasculinitySoFragile: culture, structure, and networked misogyny, Feminist Media Stuies, 16 (1), pp 171-174.

Brookfield, S. and Holst, J. (2011) Radicalizing Learning: Adult Education for a Just World, San Francisco, Jossey-Bass.

Brown, W. (1995) States of Injury: Power and Freedom in Late Modernity, New Jersey, Princeton University Press.

Dabla-Norris, E., Kochhar, K., Suphaphiphat, N., Ricka, F. and Tsounta, E. (2015) Causes and Consequences of Income Inequality: A Global Perspective, Washington, International Monetary Fund.

Davies. R and Hodgson, R. (1979). The Logical Song (Recorded by Supertramp). On Breakfast in America (CD). Santa Monica, CA: A&M Records.

Finchelstein, F. (2017) From fascism to populism in history, Orlando, University of California Press.

Freire, P. (1970) Pedagogy of the Oppressed, New York, Herder and Herder.

Gilligan, P. (2007) ‘Well motivated reformists or nascent radicals: how do applicants to the degree in social work see social problems, their origins and solutions?’, The British Journal of Social Work, 37(4), pp. 735–760.

Incite (2017). The revolution will not be funded: Beyond the non-profit industrial complex. Cambridge, MA: South End Press.

Mays, J., Marston, G. and Tomlinson, J. (2016). Neoliberal frontiers and economic insecurity: is basic income a solution?. In Jennifer Mays, Greg Marston and John Tomlinson (Ed.), Basic income in Australia and New Zealand: perspectives from the neoliberal frontier (pp. 1-29)  New York, NY, United States: Palgrave MacMillian.

Motta, M. (2018) ‘The Dynamics and Political Implications of Anti-Intellectualism in the United States’ American Politics Research, 46 (3), pp. 465-498.

Payne, M. (1996) What is Professional Social Work?,  Birmingham, Venture Press.

Vavrus, M. (2017) ‘A Just and Humane Civic Education in an Era of Rising Xenophobia’, Multicultural Perspectives, 19 (3), pp. 185-190.

Westoby, P. Lathouras. A. and Shevellar, L. (2019) ‘Radicalising Community Development within Social Work through Popular Education – A Participatory Action Research Project’ British Journal of Social Work. bcz022,

Westoby, P.  and Shevellar, L. (2019) ‘“Singing up the second story”: acts of community development scholar resistance within the neoliberal university’, in Bottrell, D & Manathunga, C. (eds.) Resisting neoliberalism in higher education Volume I: Seeing through the cracks, Palgrave Critical University Studies series.

Williams, C. and Briskman, L. (2015) ‘Reviving Social Work Through Moral Outrage’, Critical and Radical Social Work, 3 (1), pp. 3-17.

Zizek, S. (2017) The Courage of Hopelessness: Chronicles of a year of acting dangerously, London, Penguin Books Ltd.



One reply on ““Watch what you say”: Radicalism in community development?”

Thank you a lovely thoughtful piece and very timely.

I thought your addressing of the question of how to maintain activism and! an income for social workers was very useful. Its a conundrum for all of us with both a fire in the belly and a mortgage to pay.

Not enough attention is paid to the practical accomplishment of maintaining activism and an income in a managerial / Neo-lib environment and I really appreciated the ideas suggested in your piece.

I tend to think the radical CD strand of social work is what will keep us as a profession on an ethical even keel as the disintegration of welfare states accelerates in the face of climate change.

My own fear is that SW’rs will be increasingly called on to police the neo-lib status quo even as it is in the process of slow collapse and we will need every intellectual and moral resource we can find to resist being the new bully-boys of a rich elite.

Thanks again for this piece! – I look forward to reading more from you.

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