This is a guest post from Lauren Bartley
Over the last few years, I have contributed a couple of blogs to Reimagining Social Work, reflecting on the grief I felt at losing my sense of radicalism once I started working as a social worker. You can read those blogs here and here, but a quick rehash: throughout my degree, I became pretty disillusioned by how little focus contemporary social work placed on social justice. It seemed that social work was more about putting plasters on people, and adjusting people to their circumstances, rather than trying to change those circumstances. I had created a name for myself as a bit of a radical and got pretty fired up in my classes and assignments about what social workers should really be doing. And then I got my first social work job, and reality hit. Workload, time constraints, and organisational suppression of anything remotely political meant that I was really restrained in what I could do, and I quickly felt my sense of radicalism slipping away.
Fast forward to a few months ago when I was asked to give a guest lecture at university about advocacy in social work. At first I felt pretty under-qualified to present such an important topic, but I agreed to do it, and I’m so glad I did. It gave me the opportunity to think back over how my thoughts on advocacy and social justice have changed and developed over time, and to acknowledge for myself that actually I have been “doing” social justice all along, just in ways that were different to what I had anticipated.
I am now a social worker at E Tipu E Rea Whānau Services, a very small kaupapa Māori organisation providing wrap-around tautoko to mātua taiohi / young parents, and hapū māmā across the Auckland region. I am in a really privileged position in that the CEO of the organisation (Zoe Hawk – Ngāti Hako, Ngāti Paoa) has a public health background and is deeply committed to improving equity, addressing racism, stigma and discrimination, and removing barriers faced by young parents. There is a very strong acknowledgement that these issues can only be addressed at a structural, political level, and that we can only do so much by working with individual whānau.
To that end, she added to my job the role of Policy and Advocacy Lead. Now I actually get paid to write submissions, letters to MPs, press releases and speak to media – I don’t have to do it undercover anymore! I’m really proud of this new role, though I don’t always do it very well! I’m learning that policy and advocacy work, particularly with the media, is very strategic and oftentimes baffling. I have made a lot of mistakes and am still trying to figure out how to do it.
For example, avoid sending out a press release on the opening day of the Olympics, and when you do, make sure not to turn your work phone off at your usual clock-off time: reporters have weird schedules and will call you after-hours for an interview. Don’t make public digs at other community organisations (it was unintentional, I swear!) and definitely don’t make a comment to a reporter, and then ask them not to publish that comment.
One of our major focuses at E Tipu E Rea is on housing and homelessness of mātua taiohi. Over the last year, more than half of the young māmā we work with have spent some time in emergency motels. Motels are obviously not appropriate housing for young people, let alone young people with children. The rooms are tiny, not child friendly, there’s no space to play, and they’re not allowed visitors, which is really hard as a new young parent. On top of that, motels are not safe or secure, with many of our māmā reporting intimidation, harassment, and violence.
While we can do individual advocacy for each of those young whānau to their case managers and housing providers, we just see the same pattern repeating itself: young māmā can’t continue living at home for various reasons (family breakdown, overcrowding, safety); we refer to housing providers who say this māmā is too young, too old, they can’t take children, they can only take children and this māmā is hapū, they can’t take couples, they’re full … often the only option we’re left with is emergency housing (despite its unsuitability), and even that is getting harder to access. What this requires is hard-out high-level advocacy to decision-makers and funders that the current model of community and emergency housing is broken, and that the unique needs of young hapū māmā, mātua taiohi and their tamariki are being constantly overlooked.
Enter Manaaki Rangatahi, the first multi-organisation collective speaking into the issue of youth homelessness in Auckland and Aotearoa more broadly. E Tipu E Rea is a member of Manaaki Rangatahi, and we’ve found huge solidarity and power in the collective action of the group, rather than struggling on as individuals. As a large collective, Manaaki Rangatahi garners a lot of media attention, and is able to distribute that around the members of the collective to give public insight into the unique housing needs of their community (eg. queer young people through Rainbow Youth, young people leaving care through VOYCE, and hapū māmā/mātua taiohi through us at E Tipu E Rea). This has allowed us to begin to develop our own relationships with journalists, which means stories and statements get picked up more quickly and we are able to extend and broaden our advocacy work.
It has been both deeply refreshing and saddening to realise that political advocacy in social work is possible. The fact that my CEO chooses to prioritise this (in ways that are safe for our contract and funding), means that so many others choose not to. Imagine if all social workers had a Policy and Advocacy component to their role, if we were all able to use the individual experiences of the whānau we work with to directly challenge Government and decision-makers, if we were not all so worried about our contracts and gag-clauses and remaining politically neutral. Imagine the social justice we could manifest then.
Instead though, most social workers have to keep their advocacy on an individual level, ensuring the whānau they work with are having their needs met and their rights and entitlements fulfilled. And while it can often feel like we’re not doing enough, and we feel the overwhelming impacts of being up against the machine of bureaucracy and oppression, we have to remember that every piece of advocacy is a step towards social justice, and that deserves to be celebrated.
Every time we do these things, amidst all the complexities and contradictions of our profession, we are doing social justice, and that in itself is pretty radical.
I titled the talk I gave at Uni, “Advocacy in Social Work: Reflections from a wannabe radical social worker”. I am in no way an advocacy expert, and I still often feel riddled with inadequacy and guilt that I haven’t been able to do enough, but being able to call myself a radical social worker is my greatest ambition, and I hope that every little piece of advocacy I do is a step towards that goal.
Image credit: Mark Klotz