Consequences Associated with Social Work Drifting Away from Social Justice
Without its multiple sails lifted high, the profession of social work will be at the mercy of the prevailing tides. During mid-twentieth century McCarthysim, social work moved away from social activism (Andrews & Reisch, 1997). It was during this time that a consumer-driven economy shifted its focus from assisting the impoverished, to catering to those with means (Andrews & Reisch, 1997). Precursors to twenty-first century financial austerity can be found here. Decades later the years of the Reagan Administration represented a governing shift to the political right that led to new policies and a changing public lexicon. During this time, social workers began to view the profession being associated with a ‘progressive’ moniker as an indignity (Murdach, 2010). It was during this time that the profession became hyper focused on self-preservation (Murdach, 2010). This has corresponded with the field’s increasing ties to the dogma of direct practice (D’Aprix et al., 2004; Gil, 1998; Weiss, 2006). The now decades-long lowering of social work’s macro sail comes at a cost – with fewer social workers engaged in social justice advocacy practice oppression that invades entire social systems can go unchecked by social workers.
Social work’s predilection towards direct clinical practice at the expense of macro/advocacy work is a significant departure from social justice practice (Specht & Courtney, 1994). In fact, Specht and Courtney (1994) argue “that social work has abandoned its mission to help the poor and oppressed and to build communality” (p. 4). While Specht and Courtney’s (1994) make a sweeping statement, it is true that a large portion of the profession has moved away from advocacy and social justice efforts. McLaughlin (2002) argues that this abandonment has been fueled by the wide-spread acceptance of psychotherapy as a favored form of practice.
Jani and Reisch (2011) identify that the dominant theoretical approaches which most influence social work are focused upon individual behaviors. These professional inclinations have displaced social worker activism, which influences societal change (Specht & Courtney, 1994). As a result, social activism has been moved to the periphery of social work’s priority continuum. Social justice oriented social work puts the spotlight on the needs of society’s disadvantaged and oppressed, and is practiced through the creation of supportive social environments (Specht & Courtney, 1994). This is different than psychotherapy, which has a much different value system.
The psychotherapeutic view maintains that individual’s ills begin within that individual, and so, too, do individual’s solutions (Specht & Courtney, 1994). Pointing to this stark contrast, Specht and Courtney (1994) argue that social workers who solely practice psychotherapy are not fulfilling the profession’s mission. Because a commitment to social justice, rather than to psychotherapy, affects social work’s future, it is essential that students who enter schools of social work have personal objectives that match social work’s core values.
Research has identified that antecedents to social work education may be key in the development of student values (Mizrahi & Dodd, 2013; Seipel et al., 2011). Schools of social work, however, can provide learning experiences that will reinforce social work values (DeRigne, Rosenwald, & Naranjo, 2014; Mizrahi & Dodd, 2013). Gilligan (2007) states that “social work cannot be value free and those engaged within it need to be clear what values and ethics underpin their practices” (p. 756). School of social work applicants’ personal attributes can determine their compatibility with the social work profession. This is in contrast to emphasizing applicant evaluation based on antiseptic psychometric testing and grade point averages (Gibbons, Bore, Munro, & Powis, 2007; Seipel, et al., 2011).
D’Aprix et al. (2004) cite NASW and CSWE in defining core values of social work as including empowering oppressed populations. They endeavored to examine the “goodness of fit” between the values of new MSW students and the values of the social work profession (D’Aprix et al., 2004, p. 267). Similar research by GlenMaye and Oakes (2002) reviewed the importance of social work applicants and their “suitability” with the profession (p. 68). Taken together, scholars concur that it is necessary, and potentially critical to the mission of the profession, to seek out prospective students who share social work’s core values prior to school enrollment (D’Aprix et al., 2004; GlenMaye & Oakes, 2002).
Keeping Social Justice in Social Work is a “Grand Challenge”
Based within the University of Maryland’s School of Social Work, the American Academy of Social Work and Social Welfare has established the Grand Challenges for Social Work (“AASWSW, Grand Challenges,” 2016). These challenges are designed to assist social work in tackling significant social issues (“AASWSW, Grand Challenges,” 2016). The Grand Challenges include micro, mezzo, and macro related issues. One of the twelve Grand Challenges is the social justice issue of economic inequality (“AASWSW, Reduce Extreme Economic Inequality,” 2016).
A working paper that is posted on the Grand Challenges web site delineates many ways that social workers can positively influence this topic (“AASWSW, Reduce Extreme Economic Inequality,” 2016; Lein, Romich, & Sherraden, 2015). Extreme economic inequality is identified as having structural causes, and an area that requires social justice advocacy (Lein et al., 2015). They point to social work’s long history of identifying injustice, recommending innovations, and laboring to support social progress (Lein et al., 2015). Lein et al. (2015) support the role of social justice practice within the field of social work. Their current work also supports research findings that social work itself has become detached from social justice practice (D’Aprix et al., 2004; Fogel & Ersing, 2016; Funge, 2011; Lane, 2011; Specht & Courtney, 1994; Weiss, 2006): among the three authors of this social justice oriented Grand Challenge for Social Work working paper, only one, Sherradan, is actually a social worker (“Washington University in St. Louis,” n.d.; “University of Michigan School of Social Work,” 2016; “University of Washington,” n.d.).
The Value of a Rebellious Framework: The Drive to Question Established Authority
Talo and Mannarini (2015) acknowledge that participation is a fluid concept. They describe that it is influenced by its environment (Talo & Mannarini, 2015). Since people often feel compelled to conform, it may take more than simply being aware of social justice for one to actually promote social change efforts (Prilleltensky & Gonick, 1996; Torres-Harding et al., 2012). Swank (2012) reviewed participation within the environment of social work students. He looked at how political participation among students of social work influences the emerging social worker’s world view. He identified the value of a rebellious framework. Swank (2012) stated that most people build their self-identity, and their world view, through networks that support the prevailing social superstructure. He wrote, however, that there are some people whose self-identity, and world view, is gleaned from nexuses that view it necessary to question authority (Swank, 2012). Practitioners of social justice derive from networks that question the status quo. Achieving increased social justice can be a generations-long process, where uncomfortable questions that challenge social assumptions must be asked, so that sometimes tenuous social progress can be made (Reisch & Andrews, 2001). Many social justice advocates are social workers, many are not. All social justice advocates challenge the status quo in an effort to further the cause of social justice.
Reisch and Andrews (2001) identify that an activist world view is essential to carrying out social work’s mission, while lamenting that few social workers participate in political action. They identify a branch of social work, known as radical social work, as holding true to the profession’s core values. Radical social workers view their work as being synonymous with ethical practice (Gilligan, 2007). Research by Reisch and Andrews (2001) explores catalyst events that led radical social workers to their form of practice. One visible theme was that the radical social workers who participated in this research were able to cite examples from their social surroundings which were key to their philosophical development (Reisch & Andrews, 2001). Many of their study’s participants referenced the personal meaning they found while living in America’s changing times of the 1960s, specifically involvement in the civil rights and anti-war movements; older generations of participants pointed to their experiences during the years of McCarthyism and the New Deal (Reisch & Andrews, 2001). In every case, the respondent’s social environment, and their awareness of its inequalities, influenced their world view. In defining radical social work, Reisch and Andrews (2001) clearly state that there is not one definition that encompasses all aspects of practice. This is partly because radicalism, social work, and contemporary standards are in a constant state of change. One theme that appears to thread through all definitions is the percipient notion of a sentiment for justice.
The Development of a Social Justice Advocate
In recognition of the value of organizing, this dissertation includes a review of possible precursors that could lead young people to a path of social justice advocacy. Quintelier (2008) found that a child’s voluntary involvement in organizations that have a goal of helping society lead to their increased engagement in politics. She explained that involvement in these organizations give youth opportunities to develop their views, participate in community organization, and practice leadership skills (Quintelier, 2008). She cautions that the scope of her study only included Belgians, and that her findings may not be generalizable to other nations (Quintelier, 2008). Taking this study’s limitations into account, the findings still appear cogent to support crossing international borders.
Gordon and Taft’s (2011) study of progressive teenage activists in the Americas has concurring findings. They determined that peer networks are a major contributing factor to these progressive teens’ political involvement (Gordon & Taft, 2011). Their qualitative study takes a close examination of teen activists’ rebellious framework, and an evident theme of their findings was that their study’s participants held a keen awareness of oppression (Gordon & Taft, 2011). They found that there was an aversion to adult sponsored-youth civic organizations, and determined this was due to the participant’s perception that these groups were designed to socialize youth to adult’s societal norms (Gordon & Taft, 2011). Bañales (2013) deduced that “anti-adultist” views can enhance youth relationships that challenge power alliances and positively affect society (p. 6).
While student governments might seem like a bastion for young activists, Gordon and Taft (2011) found that this was not the case. They explain that many participants were in opposition to student government programs (Gordon & Taft, 2011). They found that participants saw student government as another form of adult sanctioned youth-activist-obedience-training that served to add distance between the activist (youth) and power (adults) (Gordon & Taft, 2011). In other words, student government was seen as a proprietor of oppression. Other youth activist qualities identified by Gordon and Taft (2011) are humility and equality. Youth activists dismissed that their efforts made them special under the credence that all youth are capable of becoming activists.
Hays et al. (2010) identified that when viewing social issues through the lens of social justice, individual change is most effective when taking place as part of changes within society at large. This is supported by the youth activist research by Quintelier (2008) and van Wormer and Snyder (2007). On an individual level, Quintelier (2008) found that young peoples’ voluntary participation in civic minded organizations increased their self-efficacy and political involvement. On a societal level, the value of youth activists’ peer networks is supported by van Wormer and Synder’s (2007) assertion that oppression cannot be mollified exclusively on a micro level. Instead, oppression can be effectively counteracted through collective actions on a macro level (Hipolito-Delgado & Lee, 2007; Perkins & Zimmerman, 1995).
During formative years, peer networks can betoken a willingness to participate in organizing activities that has been identified by Fiorito et al. (2010) as key to successful activism. These findings regarding the characteristics of youth activists – both their self determination to join civic minded groups and their willingness to organize – coalesces with social work’s historical bifurcated mission. With a focus on the individual and the community, without abandoning either, the traits and features of youth activists may be an indicator that foreshadows their participation in social work’s progressive sextant for the future.
Events that influence the trajectory of one’s life are not the sole domain of adolescence. These key moments can occur at all stages of life. Good (2010) researched educators who maintain a focus on social justice through their teaching. In doing so, he reviewed secondary school teachers’ experiences through a broader range of their life spans to learn of events that led to their commitment to social justice education. While Good’s (2010) qualitative findings support a notion that youth experiences were critical in one’s social justice development, he also found that numerous adult experiences were, in their own ways, equally salient.
The vast majority of people interviewed by Good (2010) shared stories of how oppression, whether experienced or witnessed, impacted their personal development. Among many themes, Good (2010) found that being exposed to social justice oriented contemporaries through friend networks – not necessarily through shared activism – was an influential introduction to the development of future social justice advocates. Another theme Good (2010) identified was how the development of social justice advocates was also influenced by work experiences. He shared examples where his study’s participants recalled employment experiences which took place prior to becoming educators that were empowering, and also examples of when participants were able to recognize oppressive practices within their fields (Good, 2010). These opposite experiences both led to an increased awareness in social justice matters. The common thread of these experiences is that these are people who have been exposed to oppression and/or social justice. This identifies the paramount influence of one’s personal window to the world. But, as Torres-Harding et al. (2012) remind, more may be required than merely gaining awareness of these realities for the development of a social justice advocate to initiate.
Among historically notable social justice leaders
There are countless examples of events that may have influenced the development of notable social justice advocates. Saul Alinsky biographer Sanford D. Horwitt (1992) reported that Alinsky, while in his mid-twenties and working in a prison, was “swept up by the excitement” of the blue collar revolution represented by the Congress of Industrial Organization’s (CIO) successes (p. 45). The CIO’s successes were linked to their tactics. Perhaps CIO leader John L. Lewis’s capturing of a young Alinksy’s imagination was a seminal moment in Alinky’s development as a working class organizer.
Feminist Reformer Elizabeth Cady Stanton’s father was an attorney and judge who reportedly lamented Elizabeth not being a boy (Hymowitz & Weissman, 1978; McMillen, 2008). She recognized sexism as a child when she frequently witnessed her father explaining to female clients that there were no legal protections of female rights (Hymowitz & Weissman, 1978). Cady Stanton and her husband, abolitionist orator Henry Stanton, spent their honeymoon at the World Anti-Slavery Convention but while there Cady Stanton saw her husband give only partial protest to the exclusion of women from being delegates at the proceedings (Hymowitz & Weissman, 1978). Perhaps Cady Stanton’s keen awareness of sexism was enhanced by these series of events, and propelled her to taking action to challenge the predominant, male dominated, social structure.
Social worker Bertha Capen Reynolds’ field work brought her to South Boston tenement house neighborhoods, which she identified as “my introduction to the places where poor people had to live” (Reynolds, 1991, p. 41). Perhaps this experience, accompanied by social work educator Zilda Smith’s Socratic guidance, helped raise Reynolds’ awareness of the realities of American class structure (Reynolds, 1991). She later wrote that “the favored classes, learning to know their poor neighbors personally, could never thereafter be indifferent” (Reynolds, 1991, p. 44). For Capen Reynolds, this was an example of how action can be precipitated by increased awareness.
Albert Raboteau’s (2016) American Prophets is a review of seven American social justice leaders’ life histories. He identified a seminal experience for nine-year-old Dorothy Day that occurred long before she became a leader in the Catholic Worker Movement. Living in San Francisco, Day was affected by the 1906 earthquake’s devastation, and also the community-wide kindness that was bestowed by her neighbors to the earthquake’s victims (Raboteau, 2016). The headlines from the April 19, 1906, Los Angeles Times read that the “heart is torn from great city,” but what Day reported she experienced was much different: “she never forgot the feeling of community and shared sacrifice with those in need” (Los Angeles Times, 1906; Raboteau, 2016, p. 65).
Civil Rights leader Howard Therman was born three years after Plessy v. Ferguson. But it was a six month trip through India and Burma at age thirty-six that was a stimulus for his social justice growth. During this time in the then-British colony of Ceylon, he was challenged to reconcile his own Christian faith with the Christians that brought slaves, traded slaves, and owned slaves in America. Therman explained how the words of Jesus, who was “a member of an oppressed and rejected minority,” and the institution of the formal church have diverged (Raboteach, 2016, p. 105). “I make a careful distinction between Christianity and the religion of Jesus…I belong to a small minority of Christians who believe that society has to be completely reorganized in a very definite egalitarian sense” (Raboteach, 2016, p. 104). Raboteau (2016) points out that the question, however, haunted Therman for many years. This trip was influential in the coalescing of Therman’s world view of the intrinsic interconnectedness of people (Raboteach, 2016).
Theoretical Framework: Oppression
Oppression’s macro nature
A supposition of this research is that social justice advocates have an amplified awareness of what abolitionist John Brown referred to as the “odious yoke of oppression” (Reynolds, 2006, p. 302). Though oppression occurs in multidimensional forms, it is frequently structural. It is the recognition of this that drives people to practice social justice advocacy. Due to the macro nature of oppression, to be accurately examined it must be considered from multiple points of view. Therefore, research focused on a singular track, such as social psychology, is handicapped by its frequent distance from social realities (Zarate & Quezada, 2012). Prilleltensky and Gonick (1996) point out assiduous assessments of oppression occurring through interdisciplinary reviews.
In the Social Work Knowledge book series, Gil (1998) reviews the social realities of oppression in a Marxist framework. Marxist theory is the theoretical commencement of analyzing social phenomenon from the perspective of power and resistance (Renault, 2014). From a Marxist perspective, government is the supreme social authority – one that controls everything from money and taxation, to waging wars, to laws and imprisonment (Berberoglu, 2005). It is the dominating class that rules these social institutions through the use of government (Berberoglu, 2015). “Dominant classes of society establish and control political institutions to hold down the masses and assure their continued domination” (Berberoglu, 2015, p. 538).
Their social dominance is challenged by advocates for social justice who recognize these differences and question the righteousness of the dominant class’s authority. Gonçalves (2016) describes this process: “depriving one from power makes one aware that such power exists, and that it is worth fighting for – the ones who stab us are also giving us the knife in the process” (p. 242). Those who take the “knife” (sometimes represented by a pen, other times a demonstration) and use it as a tool to challenge dominant classes are advocates for social justice.
Gil (1998) notes that oppression occurs on different social levels and writes that oppression is a human relation that involves both domination and exploitation in social, psychological, and financial manners. He continues to describe oppressive societies as those where people fall into unequal groupings and where there is an uneven distribution of societal rights and responsibilities (Gil, 1998). To Gil, oppression is closely tied to the means by which people’s access to crucial social conventions is limited.
Iris Marion Young (1990) explains that oppression is a dynamic word, which has been used in different ways over many centuries. She explains that there is a traditional use of the word which commonly references conquest and slavery (Young, 1990). She differentiates the traditional usage from a modern social usage, whereby oppression does not result from domination and coercion, but from often well-intentioned, accepted daily practices of a society. Young (1990) emphasizes that when reviewing oppression, learning of its roots does not tell the whole story. She separates realities of oppression from conjecture of an oppressor’s possible motives. Oppression’s causes are fixed in social power, social institutions, and social praxes being unchallenged (Young, 1990). In this way, oppression occurs when oppressed populations accept, rather than question, society’s parameters.
Research by van Wormer and Snyder (2007) emphasize the macro nature of oppression by identifying that it cannot be mitigated one person at a time. Their research follows the Council on Social Work Education’s 2003 revision of its Handbook of Accreditation Standards and Procedures. Van Wormer and Snyder (2007) note this revision as a significant change in course for social work education. Formerly, schools of social work were required to offer schooling regarding distinct vulnerable populations; however, following the Handbook’s 2003 revision, emphasis was shifted to general systems of oppression (van Wormer & Snyder, 2007). Viewing oppression in light of this new educational paradigm, and from the perspective of social work educators, oppression can be seen through the lens of institutions with exploitative cultural norms that deprive some in order to favor others (van Wormer & Snyder, 2007).
Oppression’s structural inequalities
Dermer et al. (2010) emphasize social aspects in their definition of oppression. They state that oppression is the utilization of power to restrict individual or group rights and to unfairly alienate specific populations (Dermer et al., 2010). They further diagram oppression as being perpetuated by three distinct groups: primary oppression is executed by those with privilege; secondary oppression occurs when those who bear witness to the oppression of others remain silent; tertiary oppression ensues when a member of an oppressed group actively solicits the dominant group’s acceptance at the expense of oppressed peers (Dermer et al., 2010). Whether from a primary, secondary, or tertiary perspective, Dermer et al. (2010) emphasize the aspects of social suppression in defining oppression.
The work of Dermer et al. (2010) is supported by the earlier research of Speer and Hughey (1995). They state that power differentials can result from three different methods, each of which supports the overall maintenance of a social system (Speer & Hughey, 1995). One cause of power differentials results from a barter system, where desired outcomes are traded to achieve often mutually exclusive goals (Speer & Hughey, 1995). Frequently, those with greater resources maintain their position in the social hierarchy through this method. A second cause of power differentials results from the construction of societal blockades to resources (Speer & Hughey, 1995). In this case, those with greater control of resources can control the public dialogue; thereby, maintaining a sometimes subtle but always significant advantage. A third cause of power differentials is when the concept of power is viewed within existing paradigms because these paradigms will always favor the dominating class (Speer & Hughey, 1995).
Speer and Hughey (1995) view oppression as occurring on a trivariate social level. Their descriptions focus on various forms of transactions among social classes. Their work centers on the transmission of goods, information, and beliefs. They identify systematic safeguards that operate to keep the inequitable structural order intact. While similar in focus, Dermer et al. (2010) delineate oppression by recounting ways in which different social groups interact with other groups, and themselves. Both of these studies identify means in which the occurrence of oppression in built upon social inequalities. Building upon the framework described above, the following chapter identifies the research design and describes how the selected methodology is best suited to learn of the influential experiences of social justice advocates.