Is social work, good work?

I entered into the field of social work in the 90s. My experiences were motivated by my internal need to do good, to truly help others, and to make a change. Aren’t we all? In social work, psychotherapy, and other helping fields, we are taught to remain objective, to focus on the theory and the intervention, and put our feelings and experiences to the side. When I started in the field, I practiced objectivity but through my lens. This reality is not new, and it is the basis of the concerns service users have raised in the field for decades. This also misaligns social work, and reinforces harmful practices. We are all influenced by our biases, Eurocentric values, and experiences which influence our objectivity.

When I started in the social work field, I practiced objectivity but through my lens.

Nicole Perryman

Knowing this, is social work, good work? How do we engage in meaningful work and impact lives, if we carry oppressive values and biases. In 2022, there are more spaces where we can have these conversations about race, equity, and diversity and how people access resources to live their lives. Social work plays a critical role in supporting people to achieve and understand the social determinants of health. Thus, equity is a critical part of social work, and our role is to advance equity in practice, in policy and in principle.

The power of relationships

In the early point of my career, I began to examine how I connected with children, youth and families. I learned that relationship helped to facilitate change, to build connection, and to support healing. Thus, I tried to connect with clients while being fully cognizant that I hold privilege, power and biases that can influence the nature of the connection.

When my daughter was six years old, I compared the six year old clients with her and engaged with them on a level that worked with my daughter. I tapped into my inner adolescent self and remembered the feelings I had, and used this to connect with young people. As a mom, I did the same by connecting with other mother’s and their experiences.

Case Study: I remember we had a case in the early 2000s where a mom was charged for hurting her child, and her children were apprehended and placed in care. My colleagues were shocked at the mom’s behaviour, but I knew that I had to build understanding and empathy around her, as a mom. In that situation, I took the time to understand the mom and her experiences, and what led to that day. I also remembered her regret in sending her child to school, but she felt justified in her actions because her child had misbehaved. I also connected with her sorrow, guilt, and sadness for what she had done, and the impact it had upon her children. She lost custody and I could only imagine the pain a parent may feel to lose their child to the child welfare system. It was this compassion and empathy that helped this mom feel validated, and work towards reunification.

Empathy is the ability to emotionally understand what other people feel, see things from their point of view, and imagine yourself in their place. Essentially, it is putting yourself in someone else’s position and feeling what they are feeling. Empathy means that when you see another person suffering, such as after they’ve lost a loved one, you are able to instantly envision yourself going through that same experience and feel what they are going through

(Cherry, 2022, webpage).

The thing about “empathy” is it is not “sympathy”, and it means that we have to connect with an individual’s experiences, their story, their journey and their emotions. This is hard work, because as social workers, we connect with the “role”. We hear the narratives:

“Well, as a mom, you should not hurt your child” narrative one.

“As a mom, I could never do what you do do”, narrative two.

However, being a mom and the role of mother, carries Eurocentric values, perceptions and biases that influences how we see ourselves as a mother, how we see other mothers, and we intervene and support other mothers. This is the same for fathers, for our team, for other community members, people who commit crimes, children, and youth. Thus, we build connection through fostering relationships of empathy, compassion, and other values that reinforce our mutual understanding. As social workers it is important to remember that we can not fully remain objective. However, if we can shift to building connection and relationships through empathy, we can begin to do “good work”.

Shifting towards an equity lens

Social work can be good work, if we are willing to do the work on ourselves, to unlearn unhelpful narratives, to examine our biases, and to assess the impact of Eurocentric values. It is not our clients, the service users, and the community’s role to unlearn, we need to do the work. And, we need to do the work on ourselves.

Steps towards shifting to an equity lens

There are multiple steps involved to shifting to an equity lens. In this article, I will highlight three important practices for examining our work with service users and shifting towards an equity lens.

Photo by kelvin octa on

First, examine our biases.

When we are faced with a situation where we need to make a decision or assess recommendations, it is important for us to examine our biases, our perspectives, and our values that will inform the decision.

For example, our mother who harmed her child, let’s examine our biases. What am I feeling? Where is this emotion stemming from? What are our values on mothering? What are our values on race, identity, and religion, which may influence the mom’s identity and her decision making?

It is also important that I examine Eurocentric values that create narratives about people that are reinforced through policies, practices, attitudes, stereotypes and beliefs.

For example, what are the values attached to parenting? What are the beliefs about mothers? What are attitudes about people involved in criminal activity and those who have been charged or arrested of crimes? What are stereotypes held on people who practice Muslim -faith, who are Black, who are queer? How do these Eurocentric values influence my perception, my decision-making, and beliefs?

Second, let’s examine the why?

I have become the therapist I am because I always seek to understand why. I want to know what motivated the partner to have an affair with another person. I want to understand why the child had a tantrum, and what influenced their behaviour. I want to understand the factors that led to the substance use or the anxiety attack that debilitated the person. We need to do the same when confronted with situations that we may not understand why they occurred.

As people, we have experiences and behaviours that are motivated by an underlying reason. Sometimes, the reason is immediate due to a significant event. Other reasons are intergenerational, and/or trauma-reactive. Sometimes, we respond to situations because we were triggered by the incident. Other times, we react to a situation because we did not feel safe. By understanding the “why”, I can put myself in the persons’ shoes and recreate the incident in their eyes. This practice helps to reduce shame, and reinforces to the individual that you see them, hear them, and understand them.

Third, consider the impact of oppression.

In previous articles, I highlighted the impact of anti-Black racism, sexism, and other forms of racism and oppression. I discussed and taught about how “shame”, the belief that we are unworthy of being loved or flawed (Brown, 2016), can influence how we perceive ourselves and our experiences. This impact is real. The impact is intergenerational. It is somatic, and within our bodies.

There is no victim mentality or “race card” as Western culture tries to profess. How we experience the world, will determine how we behave, think and feel can be impacted by oppression. Sometimes these experiences are adaptive, and they are based on survival. And people develop ways to cope with their experiences, they best they know how. Thus, I need to consider how anti-Black racism influenced the parents’ journey, which impacted the parent’s capacity and sense of self, and impacted their behaviour and actions as a parent.

When you truly give grace to others because you recognize the impact of oppression, you can understand and demonstrate empathy.

Nicole Perryman

By giving other’s grace, you recognize that in the pursuit of life, “we are all human”, and we make mistakes. And, I accept your mistakes. I validate your experiences. When we use an equity lens, we are truly able to see our clients and focus on what they require to achieve their goals. This has helped my practice soar. I believe in their capacity to heal, and I stand with them as they journey through life healing. I place goals that the client chooses for themselves, and as they hold themselves accountable I remind them that they need to give themselves grace. I forgive them to model the importance of forgiving oneself. I trust the process and know that the client will arrive when they are ready. And I ensure that I remove any barriers that I may hold that will keep them from their success.

Can social work become equitable?

I truly believe that social work can become equitable. I believe the profession can change, but it takes commitment to make the change. Are you committed to change?

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