The Social Worker as Capacity Builder: A Proposal for Radical Professional Change (Draft of Ideas)

Sunset on the Prairie

Social work practice and research are divided, contested spaces. There are many divisions in social work, and in my education at both the masters and Ph.D. level, these divisions occupy an incredible amount of our time and energy. In the arena of practice, we construct arguments between micro and macro practice; between different models of case work, individual, and group therapy. In research, we argue about qualitative and quantitative research, about our values, and about Evidence-Based Practice. In fact, we are so wrapped up in these conversations that I think we often forget (or maybe even choose to forget) that all of these debates are based on a lot of assumptions. We argue about research based on social work values and practitioner’s wisdom versus evidence-based practice, but we forget in both of these frames, social work is still most often about working for people, rather than working with them. Working for is a synonym for “working on behalf of.” It can be seen structurally in the relationship between practitioner and client, where the practitioner is in a position of power over someone else, regardless the ways they attempt to mediate that power in their relationship. Working with is a way of struggling with other members of the human race to create a society that is more just, peaceful, and healthy. This is not simply a distinction between micro and macro level social work. Many community organizers work for people when they go to oppressed communities and try to mobilize them (this is common with union organizers). While some social workers might be comfortable with the idea of working for people, I see working for as another way of living out the hegemony of wealth and social class. I’m not the first to make this argument, in fact it is an argument deeply embedded within the history of the pre-profession and profession of social work (Reisch and Andrews, 2002).

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