Anti-oppressive practice is a concept, a theory, and an approach used in practice in the social work field. An anti-oppressive (AOP) framework encourages social workers to critically analyze systematic oppression, individual bias and beliefs, and oppression which occurs between service users and oppressors.
I started social work practice in 1998 to now in 2015, where the face of social work, the engagement between the service user and the social worker, the language used in discourse, and policies and procedures have changed drastically. I believe that AOP has been instrumental in the development of these changes. In my practice, such achievements include focus groups in multiple child welfare agencies who work together to ensure their practice follows AOP principles, that their policies and procedures are strength-based, and there are programs and services geared to meeting the needs of individuals who experience oppression. My brother-in- law who is a principal of an elementary school commented that administrators are educating teachers on AOP practice, including topics on white privilege, types of oppression, and cultural inclusion. In my opinion, this work on individual and micro levels are critical pieces of change inspired by AOP framework. On a greater scale, the changes in policies and practices such as the opening of an Afro-centric school in Toronto demonstrates a macro change. Recently, I attended a social work symposium, and the speaker, Cindy Blackstock discussed her recent suit against the federal government for crimes against Aboriginal children (Blackstock, 2015). In my understanding, AOP work centers around bringing attention to injustices and experiences of oppression by individuals and groups of people, such as Ms. Blackstock and developing strategies and policy change to address these injustices.
As a Black-Canadian female with roots from the Caribbean, my experience of oppression and discrimination has been multiple-layered and faceted. That is my lived experience and it was difficult, challenging, dis-empowering and unfair. It is uncomfortable for social workers to hear that their practices have contributed to greater experiences of oppression towards groups of people based solely on skin colour, cultural, sexual orientation, and more. As Sakamoto and Pitner (2005) explain, “the connotations of anti-oppressive social work can be so negative that, when imposed on practitioners, it could potentially alienate frontline social workers” (pg. 438). In reflection, it is critical we as social workers feel uncomfortable because they have to critically analyze themselves and their practices. This uncomfortable feeling will bring insight and lead to changes in practices, as we have observed in social work practice. As social workers it is our responsibility and duty to ensure our services are not biased, are strength-based, address inequities in the system, and acknowledge our role in oppressing others. We should not make anyone feel they are less than human, and this is contrary to the oath social workers symbolically take when they begin work in the field. As I move forward towards knowledge and wisdom as a social worker, this experience is supposed to feel liberating not discourage social workers from practice. Thus, if it discourages social workers, then they need to critically examine whether this is the best career for them.
The first step in anti-oppressive work is the critical analysis of self and practice. In reflection, developing a standard of personal reflection, ensuring I have proper self-care rituals, and constantly pursuing education and supervision are a few of the ways I can ensure my work fits into this framework. The next step, is ensuring I become involved either directly or indirectly in initiatives which focus upon creating equality. A few months ago, I sat on a panel for a lawyer’s association bringing awareness to the experience of Black youth in care and the justice system. This is one of the ways social workers can become involved on a greater level to influence policies and procedures which are oppressive to individuals and groups. And further, ensuring my daily interactions with service users, clients, families, youth and more are in keeping with my AOP principles is a critical piece of using consciousness to address power dynamics. As a counsellor, I consider myself not as the expert but the guest who walks with the service user towards their healing by providing suggestions, tips and strategies which may work in their lives.
Blackstock, C. (2015). Social work practices for Aboriginal Youth. Factor-Iwentash School of Social Work 100th Year Symposium. Toronto: University of Toronto.
Sakamoto, I. & Pitner, R.O. (2005). Use of critical consciousness in anti-oppressive social work practice: Disentangling power dynamics at personal and structural levels. British Journal of Social Work, 35, 435-452.