Towards Safe(R) Social Work Practice

Understanding the Role of the Unconscious 

Ambiguous images such as the one above effectively demonstrate that two people can look at the same item and see two different things. It can take work to be able to discern both images simultaneously (spoiler alert: the illustration is both a duck and a rabbit!). Some research suggests that the ability to see both may indicate greater creative thinking. This may offer a pathway to healing.

Mi’kmaq Elder Albert Marshall’s concept of Etuaptmumk or two-eyed seeing illuminates how holding space within oneself for multiple perspectives simultaneously can be deeply rewarding. This decolonizing principle encourages learners to embrace and integrate Western and Indigenous ways of knowing.

The ability to discern multiple co-existing narratives is invaluable. For those of us who can see multiple perspectives readily, the skill may have developed because of our own social position and lived experience. If we belong to a marginalized group or identity, code-switching is an adaptive strategy that allows us to perceive and communicate from the dominant perspective as well as that of our own. While code-switching may be learned by anyone who grows up in a multi-lingual or multi-cultural context, the skill is commonly developed as a survival tactic by people who have experienced traumatic pressure to assimilate.

The African American feminist theorist and civil rights advocate Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality to describe how racism and sexism interacted to amplify and alter how each were expressed towards Black women; the discrimination they experienced was not only intensified but transformed in its nature, and this divergence from the experiences of both Black men and white women made it challenging for others to recognize.

Intersectional bias and oppression affects each of us differently depending upon which aspect of our identity is involved in any given situation or interaction. The 2019 apology and the 2024 National Code of Ethics published by the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) reflect this growing awareness of the ways in which our collective and individual biases affect the way we practice social work.

Each of us, depending upon our social location and positionality, has a unique perspective. What we see will often determine how we assess and interact with those around us. But what we see is generally influenced by the experiences that we have had and the associations that come from it. Because we live in a colonial world where racism and intersectional oppression are embedded within the systems in which we live and work, many of these beliefs are internalized in ways we may not recognize. A sponge immersed in water will get wet; we should not be surprised that each of us have absorbed some of the beliefs that surround us or the misinformation that makes them possible.

Fundamentally, we must begin to become aware of the role of unconscious bias in shaping our beliefs, and the ways our intersectional positionality affects how we communicate with one another. Being aware of the factors that shape our understanding of the world around us is crucial to ensuring safe(R) social work practice. This is why our professional development must be trauma-informed and focused on both learning and unlearning. We must learn about those approaches and perspectives that can help us to expand our understanding, and we must unlearn those that perpetuate bias.

Safety is a process, not a destination

Central to safe(R) social work practice is recognizing that true safety is impossible, because we are all human and fallible. Many recent public reports highlight the ways in which social workers, alongside all other health and social care professions, have been complicit in systemic injustices. While true safety is not possible, that should not deter us from continuing to advocate, as well as reflect upon our own internalization of assumptions and values.

Safe(R) social work requires the creation of safe(R) spaces for us to examine how we have absorbed some of these messages. We must also direct our advocacy toward the systems that have shaped us. A trauma-informed lens recognizes the intersectional traumas that contribute to the maintenance of the status quo. An anti-oppressive framework includes a structural approach to social work, because of this understanding of the complex relationship between individuals and the colonial systems within which we exist.

Our profession’s new national Code of Ethics demands that we shift from the illusion of neutrality to actively working to dismantle systemic racism and intersectional bias, both externally and internally. The adaptation of the national code for the Nova Scotian context is expected to be completed this year. In the meantime, we are already striving towards fulfilling its intent.

The NSCSW’s next strategic plan seeks to find ways to operationalize this shift in our approach and practice, as we work toward the decolonization of ourselves and the world we live and work within.

The courage to learn

Amongst our many projects, our professional development committee is working to develop new resources to support our members in their process of learning and unlearning. Our upcoming events offer multiple opportunities for social workers to begin to reflect upon the ways in which each of us is affected by our own intersectional positionality.

Our lunch & learn on April 30, “Navigating our way to safe(R) social work practice,” invites you to begin examining how your own social location and experiences have shaped you. “First voices” on May 10 invites you to learn how to learn from people with experiences radically different from your own. These build a foundation for our other activities this spring, so we encourage all members unable to attend these sessions to find time for reviewing the recordings soon.

On May 16 we begin a new series of panel discussions, “Safe(R) care while our hearts are breaking,” which seeks to explore this issue from a new perspective. Personal heartbreak, vicarious trauma and burnout are all powerful forces that can affect our ability to function, diminishing our awareness and influencing our reactions. Sometimes we think we are coping “fine” and then we might find ourselves lacking compassion or snapping at someone: in such situations, we are reminded of our humanity and limitations.

Finally, our 2024 conference, Celebrating Courage, seeks to create real and virtual spaces where we can gather to co-create a new approach to social work that can reflect our shared values and ethical commitments.

Looking ahead

Individually and collectively, working towards safety involves recognizing our strengths and limitations and working to create protections for those we serve.

Creating safe(R) social work practice looks different for each of us and it is fluid. It may mean that we need to take a day off for restorative rest and self-care when we find ourselves running on empty. It may mean that we need to seek supervision or therapy or extra training. It may mean that we need to make a referral. There are multiple ways that we can ensure safer social work practice, but the first step involves an honest self-assessment. This, in turn, requires courage: to stare at ourselves unflinchingly, and to share and receive difficult feedback nondefensively.

This year marks the start of a new chapter for our profession and our organization, as we prepare to launch a new Code of Ethics and Standards of Practice in Nova Scotia, and as we prepare to embark upon a new strategic plan that can help us to transform ourselves and our communities for a safe(R) and brave(R) future.

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