Implications, Limitations, Discussions
Development of a Social Justice Advocate
This phenomenological study sought to learn of the meaningful experiences which contribute to the development of social justice advocates. By learning of their development, schools of social work can effectively appeal to these individuals to enter social work education and practice. Research that is focused upon the search for meaning is an attribute of phenomenology (Grossoehme, 2014). I performed this research through the use of interviews, which is a prevalent data collection method (Butina, et al, 2015; Grossoehme, 2014). Through the interviewing process I endeavored to learn of the important meanings that participants identified from their own histories (De la Cuesta Benjumea, 2015). I recognized that the meaningful, personal stories shared by participants had been processed through the filter of their own interpretation (Dowling & Cooney, 2012; Patton, 2002). I made great efforts to share their stories, and meaning associated with them, in the pure form in which they were told, without their voice being altered through the filter of my own interpretation.
Each interview was transcribed and analyzing this data was performed with the use of NVivo, which assisted me in building an iterative, systematic multilayered coding process. This was an essential tool which helped me in examining the research data and finding underlying themes and meanings that were not always evident (Rabinovich & Kacen, 2010; Watts, 2014). This coding system began at the conclusion of my first interview. The data analysis process shed light on common themes shared by participants and became the themes identified in the previous chapter.
Through the use of this process I was able to cull through the data and identify what appears to be key ingredients in the personal development of the participants in this study that led them to the practice of social justice advocacy. A description of this developmental process is one of the important findings of this research. The process begins with the individual recognizing that injustice exists in the world, and that is closely tied to an eventual encountering of injustice on a personal, emotionally visceral level. While gaining awareness on this level is key it still requires action and the individual must be willing to participate in efforts to allay injustice.
It was interesting to find that many social justice advocates are open to the influence of others. These were not people who tried to live their lives in a vacuum. Instead, they were aware that their developmental journey was affected by many others. In some cases, they were influenced by like-minded peers. In other cases, they were influenced by those who were their philosophical opposites. These influences pushed them to stay true to their social justice beliefs.
Advancing social justice was more than an avocation for these participants. They felt a much stronger drive to advance these causes. They perceived this to be their duty. Frequently, pushing for social justice means pushing against established norms; and challenging established thoughts and customs requires a rebellious framework. The combination of a rebellious orientation, and feeling an obligation to follow its beliefs, propels the social justice advocate’s work.
The beliefs held by social justice advocates are rooted in Progressive thought. Many of the issues that this study’s participants have advanced can be directly tied to the early twentieth century Progressive Era. These progressive convictions point towards the social justice advocate’s fundamental desire to make the world a better place. Social justice advocates realize a sense of fulfillment from their work. There is often a spiritual element to this aspiration which can be best summarized by the principle of Tikkun Olam.
For social work education
It is evident that the participants in this study were sensitive to general populations effected by social injustice and specific people touched by injustice. Their work was wide-ranging and its ramifications were felt by many. Participants included local activists, state-wide leaders, and members of the national advocacy stage. In most every case, participants spoke of both systems and the individuals. In social work parlance, they were speaking of both person and environment. Though almost all participants were not social workers, they were practicing our profession’s most valued principle of social justice advocacy.
This is in contrast to the trends in current social work literature which showed that the profession of social work is progressing in a manner that leaves its Progressive roots to history. Social work student are increasingly interested in clinical knowledge (D’Aprix, et al., 2004; Fogel & Ersing, 2006; Weiss, 2006). Schools of social work, too, have supported this movement (Funge, 2011; Lane, 2011; Regehr et al., 2012). In other words, attention is being given to the person (diagnosis) at the expense of the environment (policy). While it is possible to gain mastery in both the clinical and macro domains – this has been social work’s historical mission – this is frequently not occurring in contemporary social work education.
While schools and students of social work have become increasingly clinically focused, the social justice advocates I interviewed had a broader sense of working with disenfranchised populations. They were able to see both the landscape and the people who dwelled within it. Harry shared about the role the legal system can play in protecting people’s rights and he also shared about a woman who was unfairly sentenced due the ineffective representation of a public defender. Coleman was able to identify the racial injustice in urban Detroit and also the people he saw taking action to change it. Abe spoke about the injustice of a totalitarian system and the people he befriended who fought against it. In a similar light, John spoke of the unjust realities that derive from the politics of clashing nations and how the nonobservance of this has resulted in lasting and meaningful relationships. Anthony shared how social security helps people fight economic injustice on a national policy level, and also how his own social security check aids him. These are all examples of how social justice advocates recognize realities of injustice on both the person and environmental levels.
These participants view their work on a larger, community-based scale, while maintaining a focus on how their work impacts individuals. They seem to understand that both individuals and communities face systemic injustices and their work is performed on this continuum, as it has implications for all. This is what seems to be the essence of social work education, particularly from a generalist perspective as the role of the social work educator is to create a sense of understanding towards the impact of ecosystemic factors that affect people and their environment. Chernus (1995) believed that social work education should address “social and psychological issues” (p. 382). But as social work education has lessened its emphasis on macro courses and programs, this work is increasingly left for non-social workers. Therefore, social work’s social justice mission is largely being carried out by those who have not benefited from a social work education.
James, who is not a social worker, summarized this deficit in collegiate training. “I can’t say it was the classes that prepared me but the experience of being in the…anti-war movement, organizing marches, going to Washington, being part of the SDS chapter…That was an incredibly good experience.” Chapter four is replete with examples of social justice reforms that Miles advanced without a social work education. I cannot help but wonder how much farther he may have advanced these causes had he received formal training in the knowledge, values, and skills of social work.
James reflected on the college courses that he did find helpful – “American foreign policy, the power elite, there were some student led courses” – there was a homogeneous, anti-septic environment, which left him yearning for more.
What [college] did not prepare me for was to relate to ordinary people. So when I left…I decided I didn’t want to just be among upper middle class Ivy League students. That if we were going to really make social change in this country we had to organize – call it the working class, call it communities, working class communities.
James found a difference between the “upper middle class Ivy League students” who filled his college environment and “working class communities.” This clearly reflects Jane Addams’ view that there were separate Americas: one consisting of the upper class, the other consisting of the working class (McGerr, 2003).
So I did two things at that point. One is I went to Chicago and went to an organizing training school which was called the Midwest Academy…And so it was sort of like Alinsky, Saul Alinsky training, although it wasn’t actually the Alinsky school. And then I did basically five years of community organizing…Basically, I went out and did this kind of organizing work that I thought it was necessary to do. And that gave me a whole ‘nother set of experiences that I thought was extremely useful.
James, in effect, put himself in the position to have a community organizing-based field experience. He organized in urban, working class neighborhoods of Chicago, Boston, and Lynn, Massachusetts. This was akin to Bertha Capen Reynolds’ field work which brought her from her suburban, elite college campus to working class neighborhoods in Greater Boston – perhaps the same Boston neighborhoods that James would work in many years later. James’ experience follows the historical path of social work. Again, I cannot help but to wonder the degree to which James could have even further advanced social justice progress if his community organizing training had included social work education. This further underscores the need for social work education to hold true to the macro portion of its continuum.
Clinicians of all fields would agree that people are multi-dimensional; to best train future social workers, social work education should reflect this. It is important for social work education to continue to train social workers with the knowledge, values and unique skill set of the social work profession. It is equally important that social work education not lose sight of macro practices. This research underscores the need to re-infuse the curricula of social work education with its social justice foundation – maintaining an equal focus on both the person and the environment. Doing this could play a pivotal part in attracting students who have macro educational interests. Implications from this research on social work education address the necessity of incorporating equal part person and environment in the classroom which would represent a change in current educational trends.
This current trend in social work education is counter to the increasing trend of people wanting to work for a more just society through the advancement of social justice. In these modern times, and historically, there is a strong national need to advance social work’s social justice mission. In the final address of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1944 re-election campaign, he spoke before a packed crowd in Boston’s Fenway Park (Smith, 2007). He asserted “religious intolerance, social intolerance, and political intolerance have no place in American life” (Smith, 2007, p. 627). He was giving equal deference to both the persons who have been victimized by religious, social, and political intolerance and the environments which breed these intolerances. Incorporating this notion – one that puts equal emphasis on person (micro) and environment (macro) – could represent a new trend whereby social work education emphasizes all aspects of social work practice.
With regard to social work curriculum there are additional implications. This research provides an opportunity for new ways that courses can be infused with social justice pursuits. Social Justice skills demonstrated by advocates can and must can be embedded into existing courses across the social work curriculum. In doing this, each course would become more connected to one another. Inculcating social justice into the social work all aspects of the social work curriculum supports this study’s finding that social work skills are not specific to any one dimension of practice, but instead, are universally practiced by social workers. In addition, social work faculty now have an opportunity to provide their students with experiences that match the developmental process of the social justice advocates in this study. This developmental process is summarized in the diagram below (Figure 3).
For social work research
There is a large body of research regarding a divide within the social work field that reviews the separation of clinical from macro practitioners. This was portrayed from different perspectives including that of social work education, research, and practice. This literature is most notably highlighted by Specht and Courtney’s (1994) Unfaithful Angels. This work seemed to catalyze an entire branch of research that focused on the clinical versus macro division within the field. My research has included many works regarding this divide (Bowen, 2015; D’Aprix et al. 2004; Fogel & Ersing, 2016; Funge, 2011; Lane, 2011; McLaughlin, 2002; Weiss, 2006).
While Specht and Courtney (1994) shed valuable light on social work’s drift from social justice, the subsequent research shows that it does not appear to have changed this trend. Perhaps this is due to emphasizing differences in practice, rather than similarities. Working with individuals is a skill that is closely associated with clinical practice. But why is that so? Much of Don and Amy’s union organizing took place on individual levels. To pass bills, such as Arthur’s work to support legislation for transgendered equality, much of the vote garnering done among legislative peers takes place on individual levels, too. John and Harry, both lawyers, use individual skills when working with clients, judges, and opposing counsel. William’s view of solidarity, which he called “acompañamiento” and defined as “being with people in their own spaces,” is a representation of both person and environment. These are all examples of how participants in my study used individual skills to advance social justice. Likewise, advancing social justice is not a practice that excludes clinical work. Frequently it is the injustice in a client’s environment that clinicians encourage them to change.
As previously stated, there are volumes of research that view different forms of social work practice as combatants. This approach may be an exhausted perspective of study. This dissertation found commonality among the skills employed in clinical and macro settings. This presents many implications for future study as further research could explore how social work skills are interchangeable, are not practice-level specific, and can be utilized universally by social workers. This is a new, possibly paradigm-shifting notion of skill and practice-level compatibility. If schools of social work pay equal deference to social work’s branches of practice, then those who do student recruitment can utilize the findings from this research to identify and appeal to social justice advocates who are looking for an educational home.
For social work practice
I came to this research based on my own recognition of these differences within our field. My research led to me a deeper understanding of where these differences came from – historically, educationally, and in practice. What I found is that many of these intra-field distinctions were incorrect, and their common perception unjust. As I described above, many social work skills can be utilized with equal effectiveness in different practice settings. Just as there is injustice in excluding social justice advocacy from social work education, there is injustice in propelling the perception that different avenues of social work practice are adversarial.
There is a body of research that has studied the divide between different areas of practice (Andrews & Reisch, 1997; D’Aprix et al., 2004; Gil, 1998; Weiss, 2006). Seiz and Schwab (1992) identified that this division is not a new development. Related research has identified that social work education treats direct practice as being significantly different than macro work (Funge, 2011; Lane, 2011; Regehr et al., 2012). Others have questioned whether social work student goals were divergent from the social work value of social justice (D’Aprix et al., 2004; GlenMaye & Oakes, 2002). Fogel and Ersing (2016) even strike a call of fear that maintaining this division could result in future social workers having underdeveloped or absent skills.
But the skills used in differing fields of practice should not be perceived as entirely different. In fact, as my findings have shown, it is quite the opposite. Bowen (2015) referenced how social work performed in clinical settings is bound to community and policy work. Chernus (1995) suggests that “comprehensive social work education addressing both social and psychological issues would reduce the polarization” (p. 382). This is a field of study – ways that social work skills can be applied across the spectrum of social work practice – that has received little attention. Future study should focus on this, as it would represent a paradigm shift: instead of promulgating the perception of a divided field where specialization pushes us apart, studies could focus on how the application of social work skills can be utilized throughout practice arenas.
For social work policy
A finding of this study is that social justice advocacy skills can be practiced with different populations – from one-to-one clinical settings to lobbying the Federal government. It became clear that these competencies can complement each other; therefore, social work’s micro versus macro chasm is an artificial divide. It is incumbent on schools of social work to incorporate social justice advocating interventions in all levels of practice. Extant literature shows that executing this may be difficult (Funge, 2011; Fogel & Ersing, 2016). But, as eminent
social work professor Ernest Greenwood (1957) remarked, professions must determine their policies of practice to their clients, not the other way around.
These four categories of implications are not simply theoretical. They are represented in the social justice advancement work that advocates participate in daily. James shared that “I feel like I’ve had three different careers, all revolving around social justice but with different roles.” In addition to his schooling, James’ career covers all four of these categories. In this summarizing sub-section, I use James’ experiences to show how this study is not a merely a hypothetical, or philosophical, pursuit. Instead, his experiences represent how social justice advocates work within all four of these arenas daily.
Education. James’ experience as a college student identified how even someone who wanted to learn about social justice was not given the opportunity. James is not a social worker, and while there were individual courses that he found helpful, overall this was not the case. This is an example of how social justice can be advanced through social work education.
I can’t say it was the classes that prepared me but the experience of being in the…anti-war movement, organizing marches, going to Washington, being part of the SDS chapter…That was an incredibly good experience.
Research. James spent many years working as a leader in policy research. He headed organizations that explored social justice ideals and researched related policy development. This is an example of how social justice can be advanced through effective research.
The next fifteen years were really as a policy advocate… And what I took from all that is that you also need ideas and policy development, and message development; people thinking about ways that the basic and fundamental values of social justice can be implemented.
Practice. As a young man, recently out of college, James worked as a grass-roots community organizer. He practiced his craft in working class circles. This is as example of how social justice can be advanced through effective, “Back of the Yards” style, community organizing (Horwitt, 1992, p. 68).
So the first fifteen years of my professional career, post-college career, were as a community organizer. From Chicago to Massachusetts to Connecticut…And what I learned from that is that organizing at the grass roots level and having pressure at the grass roots level is essential for making social change. Unless you have an active citizenry things are not going to change. You can’t expect the political system to change by itself.
Policy. As an elected official, James was instrumental in policy implementation. As explained in chapter 4, he played a crucial role in the advancement of progressive legislation. This is an example of how social justice can be advanced through changing government policies.
So then my second career was politics, so I did…fourteen years…and what I learned from that was that it was really really important to have people in public office who are willing to take the plunge, run for office, but while in office stay connected to the grass-roots movement outside. I always felt like I wasn’t in the legislature as an individual, I feel like I was in the legislature as a representative of the progressive community…But it’s very difficult for grass roots organizations to make the progress they need to make unless there are sympathetic people on the inside…So I learned that. That was also really really important.
James summarizes these four different arenas of practice, and how their policy implications interconnect:
I came away from all this, which adds up to all of forty five years, thinking that there are different roles within the idea of creating a socially just, economically just, democratically accountable society that different people have to play…Anyways, my point is it all matters. And having…grass-roots organizations, political leadership, and idea leadership really all fit together. And you need all of them.
This underscores the importance of social work education being the home for those wanting to hone effective social justice advocating skills. As I stated earlier, social justice can be advanced exponentially further if practitioners of social justice advocacy were armed with the knowledge and skills that accompany social work education.
Despite my efforts to have a diverse sample this did not come to complete fruition. The majority of participants in this study are white. Future studies with greater heterogeneity could tell a fuller story of social justice advocate development. In addition, the age group with the greatest representation among participants was senior citizens. With regard to participants’ lived experiences, and the meaning that they drew from them, age did not appear to be a differentiating factor among those interviewed; individuals shared commonality in their paths to becoming a social justice advocate regardless of age.
The majority of participants in this study are in an age group where they were raised prior to the advent of social media. In fact, many were well into their adult years before the internet was even invented. Social media’s dominant influence in modern society is without debate. It is possible – even likely – that the role of social media would be a factor in a predominantly younger cohort of research participants.
This study also had a geographic limitation. The sampling method began through the use of my professional contacts, from which snowball sampling ensued. One result of this is that the majority of participants had a direct or indirect connection to the same city. Many participants lived in this community for most of, or their entire, lives, while others only spent a scant few years working and/or volunteering there. A minority of participants had no connection to this community at all. It is unknown how time spent in this community influenced participants’ development as social justice advocates. But when looking at this research from a person-in-environment perspective, there is no doubt that the persons (each participant) were affected by the environment (this community). Replicating this study in different regions of the country, and internationally, could show consistent or differing results.
Participant interviews occurred by telephone. This method of communication limits interaction. Phone dialogue is not as robust as face-to-face communication colloquies, as body language cannot be conveyed. Online networking, such as Skype, was considered but determined unfeasible due to the senior age of many participants. This speaks to an aforementioned limitation.
Researcher as Student
There are many pieces of a dissertation that are being juggled all at once, and perhaps the most helpful aspect of the memoing process was how this helped me to work through ideas. I put effort into keeping my ideas separate from those of my participants. But I found that as I would conduct and analyze each interview, my personal reactions – in the form of new thoughts and ideas – would come quickly. One aspect of memoing that was particularly helpful was that it allowed me to write these things down for later review. Though sounding simple, the memos were able to work as an idea container. Separate from the interview and analysis process, I would reach into this container and be able to consider my own reactions. In addition to separating my voice from that of my participants, thus giving their experiences the proper respect, this was a helpful part of my own thought evolution.
Through the early memo process it was also interesting to see the foresight of my Dissertation Chairperson, Dr. Heidi LaPorte. Through the course of many (many) discussions, she consistently inferred that the two perceived sides of social work today – clinical and macro – were not as diametrically opposed as they are often presented. The bulk of the extant literature focuses on ways that direct practice and macro social work are different, frequently portraying these different forms of practice as adversarial. Despite this, my findings supported Dr. LaPorte’s suspicions. This will be a topic for further study for me personally.
After successfully completing the dissertation proposal process, I reviewed themes found in the literature. From this review I identified five themes: “the value of partnerships and alliances; the role of hope in advocacy and activism; the importance of the social environment, community; the meaning of shared experiences (shared between social worker and client/citizen); the influence of social connections among people.” This was a critical part of the research process for me. Identifying themes in the literature aided me to be better equipped to identify themes found in the data.
The data-driven themes changed and evolved from their first iteration to this final draft. This is the combined result of the memo and coding process and the open dialogue that Dr. LaPorte and I shared. Memos elaborated on my thoughts and this drove the many updates to my coding system – this two-part process is what led to over 1,000 coded statements. Viewing and reviewing the data, and then reviewing it again, is a time consuming but necessary process. Each code’s evolution represented my progression of thought.
Following my interview with John I wrote about how he described the fulfillment he gets form this work. I identified that he views ego and fulfillment as distinctly different. I wrote: “The motivation of the participant is not for personal gain (ego) but to help others (fulfillment). I think this is key.” His words, which I included in chapter four, were clear about this distinction. This was a sentiment which was shared by many other participants, and aided me in framing this work.
After interviewing Jill I realized that the term “social justice” is not universally familiar to people. I wrote: “The other interesting thing from my conversation with Jill was that she did not know what the term ‘social justice’ meant.” I have spent the last few years doing doctoral research which has immersed me in this topic, and its ramification for social work. Due to my familiarity with this term I lost sight of the reality that not everyone else is. Jill was an example of someone who advances social justice but is unfamiliar with that specific terminology. If I were to do this study again I would ask each participant what term they would use that best describes the work they do rather than give them a term – social justice advocate – which may not have personal meaning for them.
It was my interview with Don that first brought to my attention the importance of people in the eyes of participants. I smiled when I reviewed the memo I wrote following his interview. “In total he mentioned 38 different people by first and last name (that’s honestly just an estimate as I could have missed a few as I tried counting them all).” Following this interview, I created an ecomap of the people Don spoke about, and their relationship to him. I had a similar reaction for Jill’s interview: “The fact is the conversation always returned to people in Jill’s life.” It turned out that talking about other people was a common thread among all of my interviews. In fact, there was only one interview in which the participant did not mention others by name.
While many participants shared about many different people who have been part of their life’s experiences it was Anthony who helped me to put this in proper context. During our interview he explained how he is oriented to being influenced by others in ways that his brother is not (see chapter four). Reflecting upon his interview, I wrote, “Being open to the influence of others could be a key component in the development of social justice advocate.” Anthony’s words helped me make the connection between participants speaking in great detail about other people in their lives and their being open to their influences. This became a powerful theme.
As a social worker, I am interested in people. Whether a client or colleague, I engage with people, and make an effort to learn about their life experiences. I learned that social justice advocates, too, are interested in people. They engage with them in ways that can bring betterment to their lives. One more note from a memo about Jill. I wrote that “for Jill, it’s all about people.” This reality may be the transcending theme of this work: for social justice advocates, it is all about people.
I found many of the statements shared by each of my participants to be poignant. In many cases, they allowed themselves to be vulnerable in their sharing. I found that this had an effect on me. Perhaps the strongest of these reactions came to me from interviewing Natalie, when she shared about the way she perceives her influence on her daughter. After her interview I wrote the following.
One thing she said that struck me as very touching was that she is most proud that her daughter is becoming (or may have already become) a social justice advocate, also. I think that’s very sweet. If there is anything that anybody has said to me that would fit into the theme of fulfillment, it is that.
Words painting pictures
The first step I took following the transcribing of each interview was to thoroughly review each transcription. One experience that I had, without exception, was my own recognition of the beautiful language that participants used. During the interview itself this was frequently overlooked as I was more focused on determining the most effective, next probing question would be. Following each interview, and without the pressure of time restraints, I was able to immerse myself in this data by reading and rereading it over and over again. One result of this immersion which had the greatest influence on me was being drawn to participants’ language and how they painted pictures with their words. Additionally, my immersion into the data – the actual words spoken by each participant – was critical to my identification of the themes outlined in chapter four. In this way, it was more than simply participant words which guided me; it was the way their language gave meaning to their life experiences. The pictures they painted with their words added depth and color to the experiences they conveyed. This lent me a greater understanding of their story’s meaning and assisted me in finding the commonality of themes that were described in chapter four. I share several of these examples below.
Understanding participants’ world views. Amy is an avid gardener and her language flourishes much like her blossoming flowers. She does not complicate things, even when speaking about herself. She summarized her life by saying, “I came here with two dollars in my suitcase and I got my master’s degree.” But it was her description of the need for social justice advocacy that painted a picture for me. In doing so, she tied a historical perspective – dating from Marcus Garvey’s work – to the modern day. “If they could have an opinion about black people going for greatness, why is it now we cannot have an opinion and strive for greatness?” It is a compelling argument, and one that is a call to action. Her statement painted a picture in my mind that reminded me of the 1960s campaign slogan “Hands that picked cotton can now pick the mayor” which was used by Charles Evers’ during his Civil Rights Era mayoral races in rural Mississippi (“Mississippi Civil Rights Project,” n.d.). Amy’s language, as with Evers, is but one powerful sentence, which connects their hearts, beliefs, and history, and calls others to action. In reviewing the transcript of her interview, this was a statement that gave me a clear view of Amy’s world view. This added context to everything she said. Gaining understanding of participants’ world views gave much needed context to the stories they shared.
Learning what it means to be a Progressive. Jeff shared quite a bit about his views of government. His views were clearly tied to progressive beliefs. But one statement he made painted a picture for me. “Government stands in the middle, and looks both ways for people, and asks how do we clear the path so that the most people get the most good?” Jeff’s words painted a picture for me where I envisioned a road, anywhere in the country, and the government (represented by anyone from Uncle Sam to Atticus Finch) is standing by its side wondering if it is safe to cross or if there is danger. Are people hungry or fed? Are they represented or disenfranchised? Are they facing oppression or freedom? Throughout our interview Jeff shared about his political views – perhaps more than any other participant. In examining the transcription of our interview this sentence stood out because it gave a prism through which I could view all of his political statements. Also, I came to think of this statement as a working definition of progressive political beliefs that was more succinct, more direct, and more understandable than any of the scholarly definitions I came across in doing literature review part of this research.
Recognizing the value of community. It seemed that almost all of the data, in some capacity, included the notion of community. Many participants, including Jill and Jeff, shared about being in a political community. Abe, Don, Arthur, and James shared about being students in a collegiate community. Amy and Don shared about being within the labor movement community. Mitch and Anthony shared about growing up in a religious community. Throughout chapter four I described this. Many participant references of their various communities were only tangentially tied to social justice advocacy. However, there was one statement that highlighted the sometimes omniscient role of community for me. It was Sophia’s description of the rural town in which she grew up, one where the homes were spread out and the land was filled with endless fields of shade tobacco. She said, “there was a lot of tobacco but there wasn’t a lot of community.” I was not raised in the same town that she was; in truth, I grew up in a town that was much the opposite, but this description painted a picture for me that helped me to better understand the differing role of social and geographic communities in my participant’s lives.
Gaining my own awareness that gaining awareness of injustice is a process. Both Harry and John told stories that helped me to better understand the process of gaining awareness of social injustice. They shared early childhood experiences and in both cases they explained to me that they did not fully understand the meaning of these experiences until they were older. In reviewing their transcripts, these stories helped me to recognize that gaining awareness of social injustice was a process. This was important for me because prior to identifying that this process has three main components, I first had to recognize that this was, in fact, a process. Both of these stories painted a picture of an inquisitive child whose understanding of the world was expanding.
Harry shared in reference to the work his mother did for the March of Dimes – and its influence on him his childhood. This was when he was beginning to comprehend that though he and his friends were healthy children, there were other children who fought health afflictions. “I have memories of when they did the marches they would come in our house…with those cans full of dimes.” With his words he painted a picture of how a curious child found fascination with his home being filled with cans of dimes. As he grew he always remembered this.
John’s boyhood love was baseball, though he remembered being “around three or four” years old when his father began to broaden his horizons. This started with his father subtly challenging him with new topics. He said “very specifically, I have memories of sitting at my father’s knee and he was asking me about Watergate…He’d say, ‘so tell me about Watergate, boss.’ It was frustrating because I had no idea what that meant.” In reviewing the transcript of my interview with John this was something that I returned to several times. He painted a picture of a little boy sitting on his father’s knee – I imagined the staid strokes of Norman Rockwell – and beginning the process of expanding his young mind. However, what struck me was that in opposition to the comfortable picture his words painted, the topic was one of our nation’s most historically prominent examples of crime and injustice. John’s father had planted a seed of intellectual curiosity, just as Harry’s mother had done, and as the seed germinated so, too, did the process of gaining awareness of social injustice. Reviewing these transcripts played a valuable role in my own recognition that there is a process to gaining awareness of social injustice.
At the beginning of this dissertation process I, like many of the researchers I have referenced in the preceding pages, viewed social work as having two distinct sides: one side clinical, and the other side macro. After all, the majority of my own social work education presented social work skills, values, and knowledge in clinical contexts. With this influence, I came to this study with a belief that social work had two separate parts that made up the whole.
But this study has changed my view. I no longer see clinical practice skills and macro practice skills as adversaries. I no longer see them as disconnected. Through this process I have come to recognize that social work skills can be utilized in all practice settings. This was a two-part epiphany for me. First, of course, was the time and effort spent researching this topic. The data I gained through the participant interview and analysis process led me to this profound conclusion. In addition to this I participated in a life altering experience.
Like many of my study’s participants, I have a personal history of political organizing and progressive advocacy. During December, 2017, I felt compelled to take a week out of town to volunteer for a United States Senate campaign. While doing this I saw the workings of campaign mechanisms in a different light than I had previously. In witnessing how certain campaign leaders gave direction and took feedback I recognized that they lacked the skills a social worker would frequently refer to as “individual skills.” I found myself scanning a room of volunteer phone bankers, and rather than observing them alternate between making calls and socializing with their neighbors, I saw what a social worker would call “group dynamics.” When campaign leaders spoke, I did not hear their words as much as I saw their body language and presentation of self.
I have been involved in more campaigns than I can honestly remember – as volunteer, as paid staffer, and as candidate – but it was this campaign experience in which I saw things differently. Social workers would traditionally refer to those practicing their craft in campaign environments as performing macro work. But during this campaign, I was witnessing what social workers would traditionally refer to as individual and group skills in action. This experience reinforced this finding of my study: that social work skills are utilizable throughout different spectrums of practice. Unfaithful Angels identified a concerning social work trend, whereby the person-in-environment approach was emphasizing the person at the expense of the environment. This has led to more than two decades of study which frequently portrayed social workers as rivals within their different arenas of practice. Based on my research, and my own lived experiences, I believe it is now time to shift this paradigm. Social work education can teach how skills correspond. In this manner, social workers in different areas of practice are compatible rather than combatants.
Future Directions for Social Work
Social work’s progressive ties
This dissertation has enumerated many ways that social work, and progressive beliefs, have been historical partners. In addition, the social justice advocates who participated in this study have strong progressive convictions. Hrostowski (2013) states that social work must play an active role in heralding the start of a modern Progressive Movement. This task is not the invention of a new idea, but rather the continuation of a longstanding social work approach. A brief summary of the close relationship between longstanding progressive ideology and modern social work policy follows.
The 1912 Progressive Party Platform stated its support for a unified national health program, and that this service includes coverage of therapeutic methods (“PBS,” n.d.). Hitchcock (2016) identifies that the profession of social work has advocated for increased accessibility to health care since the early twentieth century. Reaffirming this commitment, in a 2011 letter to congressional leaders, the NASW stated their support for the Affordable Care Act, in part, because it codifies mental health as a mandatory section of insurance coverage (“NASW, Affordable Care Act,” 2011). The 1912 Progressive Party Platform endorses expanded suffrage (“PBS,” n.d.). In a 2013 policy statement, NASW stated its opposition to the Shelby County v. Holder decision because it repealed portions of the Voting Rights Act and, therefore, opens the door to new voter suppression laws (“NASW, DC,” 2013). Section six of the Social Work Code of Ethics, titled “Social Workers’ Ethical Responsibilities to the Broader Society,” states values of social welfare, public participation, and social and political action, that closely align with the Progressive Party’s 1912 Platform (“NASW, Ethics,” 2016; “PBS,” n.d.).
Social work’s sextant to the future
A sextant is a seaworthy navigational tool that operates by identifying two points – one in the sky and one on the horizon. Both points are needed for the traveler to gain proper direction. This equates to effective social work practice, which also requires two points – the person/people and their environment. Without an eye to both distant points, social work can lose its way (Specht & Courtney, 1994). Social work’s progressive sextant to the future, similar to the proposals espoused by Hrostowski (2013), requires two points: one focused on the person and one focused on the environment. This cannot happen in a clinical vacuum, or in a macro only arena.
Jeanne C. Marsh (2005) in her farewell editorial as Editor-in-Chief of the journal Social Work, proposes that social work’s future is related to social and economic justice. Social work practice does not need to choose micro or macro sides: a 1948 paper from the National Conference of Social Work convention connected political dynamics to mental health (Andrews & Reisch, 1997). Without a progressive sextant that advocates for social justice within society’s oppressive superstructures (the environment), and also investigates the individual’s personal challenges (the person/people), the field of social work can lose its unique rudder with which it navigates the world.
A Last Thought: You Never Know
I think the other thing that I find most interesting is that, it’s kind of like you never know…You never know exactly what will happen…You never know what could happen. And so you have to keep working toward it. I think that’s what I mean about being hopeful and about pursuing social justice is that you can’t stop just because it looks like it’s too big of a hill to climb, or it’s too difficult to achieve. You just have to keep working toward what is the right thing to do. Maria.