Using our power to empower

Welcome to National Social Work Month! This year’s theme is the Power to Empower a celebration of the social justice professional.

This theme captures the complexity and challenges of being a social worker in 2017. It asks us reflects on the idea that we hold power embedded in our privileges and in our various agencies (which have often been oppressive structures), yet at the same time we have worked in solidarity with our communities to liberate each other from these same structures…towards empowerment.

Let me share one of my own experiences of this complex power relationship with you…

One of my first social work gigs was in Newfoundland working as child welfare worker. The day after I had completed my core training, I walked into the office and my manager said, “last night we removed a child from a family on the caseload we just assigned you.”

I felt overwhelmed by this process. I was a brand new social worker fresh from school, with no relationship with this family. This was amplified when I experienced the immense amount of power I had over this family. My actions directly impacted their journey.

I had to make a choice to either follow the direction and culture of the agency and to dictate what the family was to achieve in order to be unified, OR I could take the time and effort to understand the stories of this family, their values, history and together create meaning from this in solidarity, to determine and advocate together what the path forward should be.

I made the choice to work to create meaning with the family and co-create a plan. I had to challenge the number of visits the agency had allocated to this family to increase them and fight for the resources needed to be successful. Most importantly, I had to listen to the family and use my power to ensure that their story and experience was in forefront of the decision-making process.

In the end, the family felt empowered to move forward, together to a healthier place. In this moment, I was able to embrace the magnificence of the profession. There have been other times in my Career, where I did not embrace the best of profession, but followed the dominant voice and used my power to not empower, but oppress, (that’s a story for another day)

The profession is continually faced with this same challenge. Our social work foremothers and forefathers were visionaries who courageously challenged the dominant ideologies of their time. Many made the choice to act as the conscience of society. They were witnesses to suffering, often cared about those who nobody else seemed to care about and helped people find a voice. These are the “noble” parts of our professional identity.

Despite the magnificence of characters like Jane Addams, Jane Wisdom and Alexa McDonough, all brilliant social workers who worked in solidarity with their communities to bring change and challenge oppressive structures.

Social work is also been captured by the society and ideology that pays its bills. In a sense, we are “embedded,” like reporters who become part of military units in a war zone. At many points in our history—and even today– we have gone along with the dominant view. Perhaps we did not see the big picture or implications or choose not to. This led to the atrocities of the Sixties Scoop, and Eugenics movements in Canada, which are as much a part of our social work history as the brilliance we have demonstrated.

When we use our power to empower, we bear witness to the potential of what the human spirit can do. Social workers have been on the front line of fighting for same-sex marriage rights, challenging rape culture and dismantling the patriarchy and have embedded the framework of social determinants of health within the dominant discourse of the medical model.

On a daily basis, we face the challenge of how to use our power. Do we use it to perpetuate the oppressive structures embedded in the dominant or do we act to raise consciousness, work in solidarity and empower our communities?

We must support one another and use our power to empower!

The choice is not one you’ll take alone. The College is working hard to build a strong professional community that works together through our collective power to empower each other and our communities to use the best of social work practice to create real change.

When we make the choice to use our privileges and power to challenge the systems we truly become social justice professionals who have the power to empower.

Let’s celebrate the profession together. We invite you to explore our new Ethical Decision-Making Tool. This tool will best of social work practice to life. We hope it will inspire all members to use your power to empower.

We also want to connect face-to-face at one of our activities across the province.  Find all upcoming events here.

We want to know – how are YOU celebrating NSWM? Why did you choose social work as a profession?

Share your story on Facebook or Twitter or online here and hashtag #NationalSocialWorkMonth & #SocialWorkersNS.

Happy Social Work Month!

Alec Stratford
Registrar/Executive Director