This is a guest post by Bex Amos, social worker.
My name is Bex and I am a social worker. I first noticed my addiction to social working when I started experiencing the common symptoms of irritability, low mood, intrusive thoughts and insomnia. My diagnosis was indisputable when I started using risk-analysis assessments to measure the ability of parents to care for their own tamariki. I now like to call myself a recovering social worker, but the road to sobriety is a long and painful journey.
You see, decolonisation is a real journey; it takes time, patience and commitment. There are growing pains as my mind, heart and body pushes its way out of the colonial jumpsuit I have been put into by my own profession; a profession that largely remains a puppet of the State. Social work, by its very nature, is a colonial project. Within that project I am an unwilling participant and I am very ashamed.
Most of the social workers that I know are fierce advocates, empathetic listeners, and dedicated practitioners. Yet we work within a system that is structurally unjust and unfair.
Both statutory and non-statutory social workers face the challenge of empowering families and individuals within a high-pressured and under-resourced environment. Even community social workers, like myself, constantly straddle the fine line of working within, and against, the State. It feels like I am walking a tightrope and I hate it.
An example of this contradiction lies within the funding agreements between MSD and NGO providers who aim to deliver holistic and prevention-based programmes but are accountable to Government-set KPIs which literally involve ticking boxes to measure outcomes. The funding requirements for NGO social workers do not permit us to focus on long-term relationship building, or the long-term safety for children. Rather, we are sucked into the crisis-mentality and response efforts that can jeopardise our effectiveness in the home and therefore our effectiveness in bringing about positive change.
As we know from our own lives and journeys, it takes time, patience and commitment to break habits and generational cycles. And that is without the added trauma imposed by poverty, cultural erosion and racism – the enduring legacy of colonisation.
So, do we obey the policies and procedures put in place by our funders, in order to maintain support and finance for important programmes, or do we risk that in the hope of being responsive and relevant to whanau needs as a small step towards transformation?
These contradictions are a frustrating reality of our job. You will hear people say that the system is broken. But we need to remind ourselves that the system isn’t broken. Yes, the system is racist, unjust and non-empathetic. But it is not broken. The real problem is that it is working so bloody well.
Our current neoliberal, capitalist and individualist society is producing the exact outcomes that we might expect from such an enterprise: rising inequality, gentrification, cultural erosion, and more indigenous babies in State care. So why should it come as a surprise that 70% of children in State care are Maori? It’s time to wake up and smell the shit.
However, in the interests of my own sanity, and perhaps yours too, I want to highlight how social work practitioners can be part of righting the wrongs in the system we are subject to:
1. One simple strategy is to make these issues visible in the social work arena so that other practitioners can reflect (individually and collectively) on their own practice and how they are either dignifying or colonising the whanau they work this.
2. Submitting short pieces to blogs such as this one, or lengthier pieces to journals can also help social workers organise, develop a sense of resistance and strategise to stay true to the mission and definition of social work, despite the many barriers.
3. Another way that I have personally tried to bring about change is through anonymous submissions to mainstream media, highlighting the inconsistencies and injustices within New Zealand society.
As social workers, we are often best placed to comment on the real issues that impact on the most marginalised individuals and communities in this country.
At the daily practice / organization level ongoing discussions within our teams and with supervisors and managers can potentially influence individual funding agreements and policies around reporting and outcome measurement. Sometimes funders and partnership advisors have little real awareness of the practical challenges and limitations that front-line social workers face. We need to have courageous conversations and be willing to stand up for the values that guide us as committed social workers.
My name is Bex and I am a recovering social worker. I will no longer be a puppet of the State. I will not walk that tightrope. Social work is social justice. I am prepared to risk losing the safety of sanitised professionalism for the outworking of my commitment to justice for all. Will you join me?
Image Credit: counterculturecoffee