Statement of Problem and Its Significance
Social justice is a core, founding principle of social work (NASW, Advocacy, 2016; NASW, Social Justice, 2016). Social work has always maintained a focus on aiding marginalized and oppressed populations (Murdach, 2010). This makes social workers unique among helping professionals (NASW, Advocacy & Organizing, 2016). Social work’s inception coaligned with the height of the early twentieth century Progressive Era (Gil, 1998; Murdach, 2010; Talbot & McMillin, 2014). Indeed, one of social work’s founding mothers, Jane Addams, practiced progressive politics (Keyssar, 2000; McGerr, 2005). The principles identified in the 1912 Progressive Party Platform are vibrant and alive today in the National Association of Social Workers’ contemporary policy and advocating efforts (“NASW, Affordable Care Act,” 2011; “NASW, DC,” 2013; “NASW, Ethics,” 2016; “PBS,” n.d). Social justice reform efforts shared by social workers have taken place on a macro stage and have been designed to aid oppressed populations. The marriage of these two entities – social work and progressivism – has led to over a century of shared social justice endeavors and successes. These endeavors included government sponsored reforms in arenas of housing, economics, suffrage, and children’s labor laws (Gil, 1998; Murdach, 2010).
Social work’s belief in the strong influence of the social environment is rooted in the framework of association, which occurs when all people interact regardless of social differences (McGerr, 2003). Through the decades, social work has drifted from its roots of progressive social justice and association. During this time, the profession has moved towards direct clinical practice (Kam, 2014; Mizrahi & Dodd, 2013; Specht & Courtney, 1994). This shift emphasizes aristocratic individualism with its social isolation, which is the antithesis of the social solidarity of association (McGerr, 2003).
This dominant trend toward direct clinical practice has been identified in a host of research exploring social work student interests (D’Aprix, Dunlap, Abel, & Edwards, 2004; Fogel & Ersing, 2016; Weiss, 2006). Additional research has noted a corresponding trend toward direct practice among schools of social work (Funge, 2011; Lane, 2011; Regehr, Bogo, Donovan, Lim, & Regehr, 2012). The study of this trend has led to questioning the congruence of school of social work applicants and the profession itself (D’Aprix et al., 2004; GlenMaye & Oakes, 2002). If social work detaches from its longstanding history of advocating for the social justice of the oppressed, then social work will no longer be unique; the distinction between social work and professions purely of psychotherapy blurs. Social work’s abdication of social justice practice to non-social workers, therefore, leaves the work of advocating for the oppressed to those lacking a social work education and its valuable, corresponding skills.
If incoming social work students are not philosophically well suited to the values of social justice then new strategies to identify and recruit more appropriate applicants must be implemented. There is a gap in the literature with regards to learning of the pivotal development experiences of social justice advocates. This research void specifically includes learning of the life path that one takes which leads him/her to having an interest in social justice advocacy. This dissertation aims to address this gap in the literature. By filling this gap, innovative new strategies can be employed to successfully identify and recruit social justice advocates to the profession of social work.
Purpose of the Study
The purpose of this study is to learn of the seminal experiences in the development of social justice advocacy practitioners. This study endeavors to learn of the possible experiences, relationships, and life encounters that create a desire in people to feel compelled to engage in social justice activities. Through learning of the characteristics and features of social justice advocates, and specifically the influential experiences that led them to their social justice interests and beliefs, schools of social work will become better informed to target, recruit, and engage the next generation of social justice advocacy practitioners.
This study employs a qualitative phenomenological methodology and the findings of this study will ensure that oppression can be fought by people eminently qualified to take on the challenge – those with a social work education. This will also assist the profession of social work to stay connected to its social justice roots rather than continue on a potential path toward a psychotherapeutic vacuum that often abandons the principles of social justice. Schools of social work being able to better ensure student congruence with social work values secures the future of the profession. In the phenomenological tradition that dates to its founding, this dissertation is written in the first-person (Findlay, 2012).
My Own Journey to Social Justice Advocacy
When I was eight years old I first noticed political campaign lawn signs appearing in front yards as I navigated my neighborhood by bicycle. Undoubtedly this had happened in previous summers, but this year, the summer of 1984, they captured my imagination. It turned out there was an upcoming Democratic Primary election for the local state representative district. I knew none of those details at that time, but I was suddenly preoccupied with those intriguing signs planted along my bike route. Recognizing this, my family took this as an opportunity to expand my childhood horizons. The incumbent candidate was a distant acquaintance of my grandmother, and with the support of my parents I found myself holding one of those colorful signs, blue and white as I remember, in front of a nearby Election Day polling station. I was only a few blocks from my house, but I was entering a new world.
On that Election Day I was joined by someone from the opposing campaign. He was wearing a tie and gray tweed sport jacket, and engaged me in a conversation. He asked many friendly, kid-oriented questions: What is my favorite subject in school? What sports do I play? What is my favorite baseball team? I liked him. After about an hour together he shook my hand, told me it was nice to meet me, and said he had to go to a different voting location. I was sad to see my new friend leave and he never had even said his name – so I asked him. He told me, and then I watched him drive off to the more distant horizon of another polling place. I recognized his name because I had seen it on those colorful lawn signs all summer. He was the opponent of the candidate for whose sign I held. As I stood there I remember asking myself “why am I holding this lady’s sign? I like that guy.” My new friend was to win that election and go on to serve in the state legislature for five terms, then advance to holding state-wide office. Later he became a national leader in advancing progressive policy – such as increased voting accessibility for all people. He was an organizer at heart and a ferocious campaigner. The hour we spent together on that summer afternoon influenced the trajectory of my life.
Through my years I became a leading progressive organizer, and subsequently an elected leader, in that same hometown. Along this path, I was introduced to many activist contemporaries, and together we worked tirelessly on countless progressive endeavors. I was in the organizing trenches – stuffing envelopes in living rooms, phone banking from campaign offices, neighborhood canvassing coordinated out of garages – with people from all aspects of life. We worked with, and learned from, each other. There were veterans of World War II, Korea, Vietnam, and also conscientious objectors. There were civil servants, college professors, and health care professionals. There were union members and unions leaders. While some of these compatriots were social workers, most were not. Each had their own style and perspective, and each had arrived to the same place, as advocates for social justice, taking entirely different routes.
Eventually I was to become a social worker. It was at this time that I first began to see the clinical versus advocacy divide within the field. In my MSW cohort, many of my classmates were wholly uninterested in advocacy practice. They questioned the appropriateness of macro style advocacy work within the social work profession. My collegiate colleagues were interested in being clinicians and they viewed social work as a clinical field. When presented with advocacy education they were not necessarily opposed – they were simply uninterested. For a number of years I pondered this. Perhaps my colleagues had never been an eight-year-old child holding a colorful sign on an election day; perhaps they had never encountered progressive advocacy efforts; perhaps they had never been captivated by the intrinsic beauty of this work and its results. Instead, their world views were formed in a direct practice universe that was born from their own, unique, life experiences.
This is the genesis of my dissertation study. If others who advocate for social justice have had influential experiences like mine, then what are the commonalities among these experiences? This dissertation endeavors to learn of the personal and meaningful experiences that contribute to the development of social justice advocates. In gaining knowledge of these individual experiences, common themes were gleaned. My hope is that schools of social work will be able to utilize these themes in identifying prospective students whose world views are in harmony with the profession of social work. As a result, schools of social work will be better able to engage social justice advocates of the future, and arm these individuals with important social work skills that will enhance their social justice practices. Ultimately, underprivileged and underserved populations will gain from an increase in social justice practitioners who are equipped with social work competencies.
This study aims to uncover the answer to the following question: what are the key developmental experiences that lead people to engage specifically or exclusively in social justice advocacy? To discover this answer, this research ventures to learn of the seminal lived experiences which compelled social justice advocates to their practice. The answer to this question is particularly critical to the profession of social work due to its increasing trend away from its social justice tenets and history. By the identification of common themes, schools of social work can become further adept at identifying and recruiting burgeoning social justice advocates into the social work profession.
Precursors to social work education play a vital role in the development of student values (Mizrahi & Dodd, 2013; Seipel, Walton, & Johnson, 2011). Research has shown that many social work students have psychotherapeutic leanings (D’Aprix et al., 2004; Fogel & Ersing, 2016; Weiss, 2006). Commensurately, this is a view that is predominately shared by schools of social work (Funge, 2011; Lane, 2011; Regehr et al., 2012). This perspective is different than those predisposed towards social justice advocacy. An abundance of research points to this as a gulf within the field of social work.
Research has examined the growing divide between social workers with primarily clinical proclivities and those with a greater focus on social activism (Andrews & Reisch, 1997; D’Aprix et al., 2004; Gil, 1998; Weiss, 2006). This separation was famously depicted in Specht and Courtney’s (1994) review of social work as an increasingly Faustian profession, they termed as Unfaithful Angels. Social workers who are chiefly clinicians, and social workers who are principally advocates for social justice, both do the work of angels in that they are providing skilled assistance to people in need.
As the field is overwhelmed by students with homologous direct practice desires, however, the profession becomes increasingly detached from its progressive, social justice DNA. Research has shown that school of social work applicants’ personal attributes can determine their compatibility with the social work profession (D’Aprix, et al., 2004; GlenMaye & Oakes, 2002). Swank (2012) identified such an attribute as individuals who maintain an identity, and corresponding world view, that compels them to question authority. This dissertation aims to learn more about people who have social justice advocacy within their internal makeup. Through this research of social justice advocates’ development, common themes emerged and schools of social work will be able to utilize the findings of this research to better identify, and recruit, the next generation of social justice advocates to social work education.
Definitions of Important Terms
Social justice: Equity in society
Social justice remains a foundational value of all social work (NASW, Social Justice, 2016). In fact, the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) identifies social justice as a core value of social work education that is to be part of all accredited programs (CSWE, 2015). Their 2015 Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards maintain nine competencies. These competencies charge students of social work to participate in social justice advocacy practice (CSWE, 2015). Competency five compels social work students to advocate for public policies that advance social justice causes (CSWE, 2015). Social justice is the substratum which lies beneath the many fertile fields of social work practice. Though Humphries (2008) states that social justice is an imprecise concept, the National Association of Social Workers (NASW) offers a definitive definition. They state that “social justice is the view that everyone deserves equal economic, political and social rights and opportunities. Social workers aim to open the doors of access and opportunity for everyone, particularly those in greatest need” (“NASW, Social Justice,” 2016).
The social work profession was established on the premise of social change (“NASW, Advocacy,” 2016). Social change is in a constantly dynamic state. Progress within the arena of social justice occurs as people advocate for increasing access to equality, rights, and opportunities. This is not something that is achieved in absolute terms. Munger, MacLeod and Loomis (2016) report that social justice, itself, “remains largely undertheorized” (p. 172). Torres-Harding, Siers and Olson (2012) report that various definitions of social justice frequently include individual values, access to resources, and power. Reisch and Gavin (2016) state that the environmental forces which produce fairness or inequality are dynamic; therefore, it is important to view social justice as an ongoing process.
Fietzer and Ponterotto (2015) report that a commonality among the various definitions of social justice includes disadvantaged societal groups gaining increased equity. Respect, recognition and empathy influence the social justice process (Theoharis, 2007). Social justice definitions emphasize relationships among people, and the societal responsibilities they are assigned (Gasker & Fisher, 2014). Torres-Harding et al. (2012) identify that social justice can be advanced through the empowering of customarily disenfranchised groups of people. Progressive Era President Warren G. Harding’s 1921 appeal for social justice to the people of Birmingham, Alabama, is an example of this when he promoted “economic equality between the races…let the black man vote when he is fit to vote; prohibit the white man from voting when he is unfit to vote” (Dean, 2004, p.126). David Miller (1976) describes social justice as concerning the dissemination of social advantages and encumbrances within a society.
O’Brien (2011) points to a definition that includes equality of treatment, access, rights, and opportunities. Crethar, Torres Rivera, and Nash (2011) diagram social justice in four segments: equity, access, participation, and harmony. Equity regards the even-handed dispersal of resources, social accountability, and personal hegemony (Crethar et al., 2011). Access regards a belief in universal fairness in accessibility of resources that lead to self-actualization (Crethar et al., 2011). Participation regards all people having the right to influence societal decisions (Crethar et al., 2011). Harmony regards the rights of individuals within the environment of society as a whole (Crethar et al., 2011). For the purpose of this research, social justice will be defined as the equal sharing of society’s responsibilities – both boons and burdens – in individual and community contexts.
While acknowledging that advocacy has many facets, Spicuzza (2003) defines advocacy as stakeholder involved actions designed to address inequitable policies, and the unresponsive organizations which make them. Spicuzza (2003) stresses that advocacy occurs as a counterbalance to undue systems and/or close-ended organizations. He illuminates that advocating for change requires the advocate to question his/her social surroundings, and to focus on teamwork through alliance building (Spicuzza, 2003). Injustice is a chameleon; Reisch and Gavin (2016) state that it changes in appearance within the context it is found. Therefore, advocating for social justice is akin to aiming for a moving target. Also, Fietzer and Ponterotto (2015) include that advocacy is tied to taking proactive action. Spicuzza (2003) describes an advocate as someone who has leadership skills, rather than a follower or a zealot. This draws a distinct difference between advocacy and fanaticism.
Fietzer and Ponterotto (2015) defined advocacy as an undertaking that promotes changes in the manner in which disadvantaged groups are treated. As part of her dissertation in which she developed a social justice advocacy scale, Dean (2009) summarized advocacy as actions that target empowering individuals and promote social change. Hope is the engine that drives advocacy. Advocates are people who travail to alleviate suffering that is rooted in inequality. For the purpose of this research, advocacy will be defined as systematic truth-to-power actions designed to open access to unjust systems.
There is a much-identified divide within the social work profession, where clinicians and macro practitioners are perceived to be fighting different battles. In chapter two of this dissertation the historical aspects of an increasingly fragmented social work profession are examined. Within this fissuring, the lexicon can be used as a tool of division. The person-in-environment view has long been a hallmark of all aspects of social work practice. This view, with its emphasis on the individual person, can connote a direct practice perspective. For the social justice advocate, a more apt description of practice may be people-in-environment. Viewing social work practice in this manner invites a vision of plurality. A Freirian practitioner, for example, would move “beyond individual consciousness raising and empowerment to broader group transformation and action” (Carroll & Minkler, 2000, p. 27). Kam (2014) adopts a similar sentiment by stating that in addition to aiding people to live better within the confines of society, social workers must be committed to changing society to make it better for the people who live within it.
Lane (2011) studied social workers who have been elected to public office, and explains that these are practitioners in a position to make policies that advance social justice for entire populations. These are people-in-environment approaches, where the emphasis is on how the environment affects all people, rather than focusing only on the environment’s effect on individuals. Advocacy is needed to increase awareness of different forms of injustice and its extended social ramifications (Kam, 2014). Social justice is advanced through this advocacy lens.
Oppression: Scarcity of contemporary interest and knowledge
The United States of America was founded on the bedrock of social justice, dating to the fight against taxation without representation. The profession of social work was also founded on principles of social justice, dating to Jane Addams’ Settlement House Movement. The advocacy for social justice exists within the framework of oppression. If societies did not house oppressed populations there would not be the need to advocate for their social justice. When viewing oppression on this grand of a scale, it naturally does not occur in a one-size-fits-all form.
Reisch and Gavin’s (2016) description of oppression’s changing visage concurs with Dermer, Smith, and Barto’s (2010) description that oppression has many faces, which can make it difficult to recognize. Oppression is about power and challenges related to accessing resources. Often, those estranged from societal benefits are blamed for their own acquiescence. Dating at least to the 1920s, there has been concern for this sentiment pervading social work practice (Abramovitz, 1998). Allen (2008) cautions those who take such a condescending view. “The implication is that the oppressed are to blame for their own oppression and, what is worse, they are too stupid to realize what they are doing” (Allen, 2008, p. 51). In strong terms, Allen (2008) shares her perspective that many oppression theorists can actually fall in line with an establishment perspective; thereby, implicitly, and likely unintentionally, they are preserving a tenet of oppression. This exemplifies the many faces oppression has: the cycle of oppression can be perpetuated by the study of oppression.
Dermer et al. (2010) share a definition of oppression that is non-accusatory of either the oppressors or the oppressed. Oppression is the use of power to significantly restrict individual and group access to liberty (Dermer et al., 2010). Oppression can occur methodically through the systematic inclusion of discrimination and prejudice within major societal institutions (Dermer et al., 2010). It can then continue when these conventions go unquestioned (Windsor, Shorkey & Battle, 2015). Oppression also can include threats of the removal of liberty from the less enfranchised population (Dermer et al., 2010). For the purpose of this research, oppression will be defined as the exercising of power to limit individual or group access to social resources.
Mizrahi and Dodd (2013) identify, however, that there is a dearth of modern interest with regards to social workers practicing social justice today. They identify that there is scant research on social work student participation in social activism (Mizrahi & Dodd, 2013). Through their work they cite multiple examples of social work students more often seeking paths to direct practice than to macro practice. Their study aspired to learn of the characteristics of social work students through surveying a cohort at their entrance to social work study (n=255) and again at their conclusion (n=160) (Mizrahi & Dodd, 2013). Mizrahi and Dodd (2013) found that the sub-section of students with the strongest leaning towards social and political activism were those who identified as radical. Their study concluded that schools of social work must balance applicant economic interest – often seen as a desire to quickly gain a psychotherapeutic credential – with the social work profession’s value of social justice in order to ensure that an applicant is a good fit with the profession (Mizrahi & Dodd, 2013; D’Aprix et al., 2004).
Other research has identified a scarcity of knowledge regarding social work’s increasing leanings towards direct practice and the weakening of social work practice that targets progressing social justice (Kam, 2014). Kam (2014) describes this trend of clinical dominance as the “therapeutization of social work” (p. 727). This trend is supported by the high popularity of clinically focused courses at schools of social work (Kam, 2014). Kam (2014) identifies that social work students are attracted to the field based on their ambitions to be therapists, rather than desires to advance social justice. Kam (2014) posits that the social, or community, aspects of social work have been shelved for direct practice methods.
Government is needed to endorse many of the roles social workers play. A trickle-down effect of this marriage is that social workers can be co-opted by the economic and social establishment views (Kam, 2014). In the book Radical Social Work, contributing author Crescy Cannan explains that it is the responsibility of social workers to challenge existing power structures. Cannan (1975) states this is accomplished by diverting power from an existing establishment towards populations served by social workers. It is ironic that Cannan’s views were published under the title of radical in the 1970s, when considering that similar sentiment was expressed by an American President two decades earlier. Dwight D. Eisenhower gave a précis summary for the importance of advocating on behalf of the oppressed – in this case for the poor and hungry over what he would later coin as the military industrial complex. “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed” (Smith, 2012, p.550). When the notion of diverting resources to the underprivileged is promoted by a social worker the message is viewed as radical social work practice; however, when it is endorsed by a five-star war general and president, it is viewed very differently. This identifies how the fight against oppression has been radicalized – or marginalized – within society.
Advocating for social justice historically has been practiced by social workers who are perforce obligated through their commitment to the social work profession to work towards this goal (“NASW, Advocacy,” 2016; “NASW, Social Justice,” 2016). The trend, however, has been to move away from this social justice advocacy work as both students of social work, and schools of social work, have fixed their sight on direct clinical practice. Historically, social workers have been at the forefront of social justice progress. As more social workers choose the path of psychotherapy, advocating for social justice is increasingly practiced by people who do not have social work training.
Social justice activism: Challenging the status quo
Hays, Arredondo, Gladding, and Toporek (2010) link the short distance between social justice and activism. They state that when viewing social issues from the perspective of social justice, individual change is most effective when taking place as part of changes within society at large (Hays et al., 2010). Mizrahi and Dodd (2013) performed research designed to learn more of MSW student feelings towards activism. In doing so, they devised a measurement for social activism. They divided social activism into four distinct parts. First, political activism was defined as forms of lobbying before government officials (Mizrahi & Dodd, 2013). Second, electoral activism was elucidated as candidate and/or issue driven campaign involvement (Mizrahi & Dodd, 2013). Third, community focused activism was explained as organizing to influence civic affairs and/or playing an active role in such an organization (Mizrahi & Dodd, 2013). Fourth, social action was defined as participating in protest activities (Mizrahi & Dodd, 2013).
Fiorito, Gall and Martinez (2010) propose that an activist makeup is essential for one who challenges the status quo. They reference a major barrier to the intractable activist as the fact that activist efforts do not usually produce immediate financial gain (Fiorito et al., 2010). In the absence of financial gain, it can be difficult for activists of any kind – including social justice advocates – to dedicate the time necessary to see an endeavor through. They do state, however, that the fruits of their efforts can result in political rewards, and self-actualization, which can serve to counterbalance this work’s financial impediments (Fiorito et al., 2010). They identify that someone of this ilk – an activist who desires to challenge the status quo and is able to overcome society’s obstructions to do so – possesses a willingness to participate in organizing activities (Fiorito et al., 2010). For the purpose of this research, activism will be defined as an individual participating with others as an instrument of social change. An activist is internally compelled to endeavor in these pursuits throughout the course of their life. This activist motivation can counterpoise social impediments, which can include limited time, inconvenient hours, peer perceptions, and financial challenges.
Limitations and Delimitations
A distinguishing characteristic of qualitative research is that the researchers are simultaneously “judges and stakeholders” (De la Cuesta Benjumea, 2015, p. 886). This reality opens the door for countless opportunities of researcher bias. Allowing researcher bias to influence my research would limit the value of the findings, in addition to being a disservice to the research participants. The application of a qualitative memo system, also known as bracketing, will help identify, and limit, researcher bias (Birks, Chapman & Francis, 2008; Tuohy, Cooney, Dowling, Murphy & Sixsmith, 2013). I consistently used a memo system throughout the data collection and data analysis process. By doing so, it is my hope that I was able to successfully extricate my biases from the research and its analysis. As a way of adding rigor to the research there is an audit trail of all research work. This included a memo system to organize my thoughts, ideas, and reactions to research data, and provided me with an opportunity to have an ongoing dialogue with the transcribed data throughout the analysis process. In addition, memoing served as a means to identify and separate my own biases from the research findings.
De la Cuesta Benjumea (2015), Gentles, Charles, Ploeg and McKibbon (2015) and Nichols (2009) report that sampling should be based upon what the researcher desires to learn. I recruited the purposive sample from a pool of potential participants that I am familiar with in order to gain an understanding in which depth, rather than breadth, is achieved. This can play a pivotal role in assuring that participants have a high level of comfort while engaging in the question and answer process that makes up the research interview. As in all forms of social work practice – micro, mezzo, macro, research – there is a strong correlation between the participant’s level of comfort and level of honesty. Informal, unstructured interviews were be used, and I became a student of the experiences of the research participants. McIntosh and Morse (2009) report that this is the most frequently utilized form of qualitative data collection. The hope was that these purposeful conversations would yield rich and meaningful data around the events and relationships that led participants to social justice advocacy efforts.
One potential limitation of interviewing participants who I am familiar with is the potential for social desirability due to the researcher-participant social familiarity. This was addressed through the use of a multi-layered memoing system. In addition, I conveyed to the participants that their identities would remain confidential and that they are not being personally identified or judged based upon their responses. There is a true desire to understand the impact of life events on decisions to become interested in social justice to the extent that it becomes a focus of one’s life. This study followed Barry University’s Institutional Review Board’s procedures to protect participant confidentiality; thereby, all participants can have confidence that their participation in this study, and the corresponding information they share, will remain confidential, and that names and identifying information will be changed to protect their identities.
Social work has a longstanding progressive tradition. This dates to the inception of the profession which occurred in the midst of the American Progressive Era. In more recent decades the focal point of social work has shifted away from progressive efforts aimed at assisting the oppressed to a person-in-environment clinical creed. While there is much research regarding this professional predicament, a gap in the literature exists on how to effectively address it. I hope to fill this gap by examining the development of contemporary practitioners of social justice advocacy. By identifying the common themes which drew these respondents to social justice advocacy practice, schools of social work will be informed of how to best draw the next generation of likeminded change agents into the profession of social work. This study begins with a review of the extant literature.