By Deb Stanfield
This year I read Dr Hinemoa Elder’s new book Wawata: Moon Dreaming. I buy the book at my local bookstore, and learn what I can from her about mātauranga Māori and the beauty of te reo Māori. I learn that Whiro is the Māori name for the new moon – the lunar phase under which I start to reflect on what happened in 2022. I’m inspired by what she whispers to herself: “To persevere, no matter my ability to see in the dark.” She tells herself that Whiro is a “protective time for insights, a time to call on that deep core of resistance and fight for what is right” (p. 36). This voice speaks to me as a social worker.
Hilary Mantel, who is famous in Europe for her historical novels, died unexpectedly this year. I read some of her work too – what I enjoy most is the wisdom she shares about what it’s like to write about the past. She talks about the many gaps in history, the complexity of how we remember, our inconsistencies, falsities, and how as a society our memory is political – based on glory or grievance – rarely on hard, cold facts.
Dr Elder also writes about the past and the influence of tūpuna, those who have gone before us. “Our ancestors reach forward into our lives as a source of strength in our strange modern world, a source of ancient wisdom and technology” (Elder, 2022, p. 11). Mantel talks about how we make sense of the world based on who our ancestors are. “We carry the genes and the culture of our ancestors, and what we think about them shapes what we think of ourselves, and how we make sense of our time and place” (Mantel, 2017).
In the midst of all this wisdom, of wāhine and women, I reflect on 2022 and try to make sense of it. At the outset we are obsessed with ‘mandates.’ We reflect on notions of collectivism, individualism, personal freedoms. We look to what we know from the past to make sense of the present – we compare seat belts and helmets with masks and immunisation. We are concerned with truth and seek ways to tackle misinformation and disinformation in ways many of us never expected to. We watch the far right mobilise with and prey on the disenfranchised and the colonised and dig deep in our social work kete to understand this ‘strange modern world.’
At times in 2022, it felt as if time had stopped, or worse, that certain aspects of our history had simply never happened. The Roe v Wade ruling, when the constitutional right to an abortion in the USA disappeared, left many of us breathless, disoriented. Those long fought-for human rights we took for granted had suddenly disappeared. We wonder how this shift to the right might extend out and what it means for Aotearoa. As Margaret Atwood says: “Whoever says ‘it can’t happen here’ is wrong. Anything can happen anywhere, given the right conditions, as history has demonstrated time and time again” (2022, p. 251).
Social workers were subject to numerous investigations and reports in 2022; it was a sad year, with appalling outcomes for some children and whānau. Investigations which scrutinise our behaviour and recommend how not to repeat it are useful to an extent but inevitably leave us with difficult questions. What does whānau-centred practice mean? What do we mean by a devolution of power? How do we maintain child safety while figuring out who is responsible for that safety? Why does our child safety decision making process continue to let us down? How can we respond to this clear relationship between poverty and whānau well-being? Social workers are good at critically analysing the systemic issues at work, and from this come sound ways forward, for those who are listening.
In 2009 Hilary Mantel wrote On Being a Social Worker based on a brief role she had as a social work assistant in England. She writes so perfectly about real people, the poor who get the worst doctors, the abused who no one listens to. She gives them names and faces and houses them in places you can see, hear and smell. She held the middle-class profession of social work (me) to account for not seeing these people clearly and compassionately, for theorising their distress. She was furious, and ashamed of her country.
We have that same fury and shame in Aotearoa. The Abuse in Care Royal Commission left us baffled that human beings can behave in such ways towards each other. We are horrified by social work’s role in this, by such institutional blindness. Sadly this catastrophe still exists. We have continuing evidence of institutional abuse – for example, there are exceedingly high numbers of children and youth incarcerated in YJ facilities who live with neurodisabilities or disorders. Luckily we have social workers who do not “watch from the sidelines.”
I hope that before Hilary Mantel died she had an opportunity to learn more about social workers. What we do to come to terms with the history of our profession, its role in oppression, its function in a capitalist society. This is not a comfortable dilemma, it sits heavily in our hearts. I hope she learned that we try not to be disabled by it, that by understanding the mechanics of it, and remembering our purpose, we can make a difference: “To work in solidarity with those who are subject to structural disadvantage – to work with and for rather than on.”
We don’t always know what’s around the corner, but we can predict. Most of us were surprised by the pandemic, others however, (ie microbiologists) were just waiting for the inevitable. Social workers can also anticipate the future. We have the tools to understand, to predict, or expect outcomes based on certain realities and perfect storms. We can expect that with certain policies or legislation, whānau will either suffer or thrive. We know, or can reasonably argue, that certain agency practices will either contribute or not to whānau well-being. We should trust this insight, and be respected for it.
Hinemoa Elder introduces me to the phrase: Ngā Ika a Whiro – and translates it to mean Whiro’s Army. “The name for a group of experienced warriors” (p. 33). I imagine those tūpuna, those warriors, on the faces of tangata whenua featured on the front page of my local newspaper, which reported earlier this month on the formal Crown apology at Te Kūiti Pā. I hope we can learn from these people, these events, be humble and remember. There will always be a source of strength for resistance – so long as we look for it, then look after it.
Wishing you all an inspired 2023! The RSW Collective.
Image Credit: Colin Hansen
Atwood, M. (2022). Burning Questions: Essays and Occasional pieces 2004-21. Chatto & Windus.
Elder, H. (2022). Wawata: Moon dreaming. Penguin Random House New Zealand.
Mantel, H. (2017). Silence grips the town . BBC Reith Lectures. http://downloads.bbc.co.uk/radio4/reith2017/reith_2017_hilary_mantel_lecture%203.pdf