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).

The purpose of the social work profession I’d like to be a part of is to create transformational social change toward the co-creation of a just and compassionate society. This view contrasts those that declare the profession and purpose of social work as the institution that enacts social welfare policy. If we are willing to accept my purpose for social work (which is commensurate with a great deal of our professional and pre-professional history — see Reisch and Andrews, 2002), I think a few things are necessary. In particular, a deep commitment to democracy is necessary. And I mean democracy in an everyday sense: self-determination, real choices and the right and ability to make those choices, and spaces that embody collective and co-creative decision-making practices, rather than authoritarian ones (Tuck, 2008). For the social workers nodding along as you read this, I ask you to think hard about the institutions and work you are involved in. I frequently hear stories of clients “in charge” of therapy or case management sessions. This is a great step, but we need to ask ourselves: who is framing the problems? The people that frame the problems are the people with power (Chambers and Wedel, 2008; Szasz, 1997). And in most cases, this is not our clients. We’ll really embody democracy when we are framing the problems with our clients. This means unpacking a lot of assumptions about what is mental health and mental illness, who is helpless and who has gifts and services to offer, and who and how people are capable of what. Most of the time I believe we frame the problems (or the organization we work for, or the policy or funder that drives the organization we work for). Most of the time, therefore, we are working on behalf of people, but we aren’t really working with them. This isn’t, fundamentally, democratic. Nor is it just, or about creating justice, which can only begin when we start to embody justice (Block, 2009).

There are models of people doing this work. In social work, we tend to look toward Jane Addams and the Settlement House movements. This is certainly a viable example (problematic in its own ways, but nevertheless relevant) (Addams, 2012). The Highlander Folk School is one such example. Now called the Highlander Research and Education Center, the school was founded by Myles Horton, a resident of Appalachian Tennessee. It was founded during the labor movements of the 1920s, but was most effective as a school for organizers in the south during the Civil Rights movement. Highlander, in partnership with Septima Clark, Bernice Robinson, and Esau Jenkins, founded and supported the first Citizenship School (Horton, Kohl, & Kohl, 1997). The Citizenship Schools were born out of the interest of the people of John’s Island in passing citizenship tests and learning to vote. To pass the tests, most poor, black folks needed first to learn to read–a skill that they were mostly denied by local governments. The Citizenship Schools taught reading and civic skills through untrained teachers like Bernice Robinson, who worked at the level of everyday people (Clark, 1986). The first Citizenship School was one of many experiments that Highlander funded. As it was successful, other communities began requesting Citizenship Schools of their own and Highlander began training lay, community teachers for the schools. The Citizenship Schools were in many ways the backbone of the Civil Rights movement, and were eventually handed off to the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) because the Highlander School wanted to continue to do local work and preferred not to run a large program (Horton, et al., 1997).

Highlander was incredible in many ways. It was one of the only places in the south where black people and white people worked together, ate together, and slept in common quarters. It used methods of popular education and focused on the knowledge people already possessed and could share with each other. In other words, it valued the everyday experiences and expertise of all the people who came, regardless of their level of education or socioeconomic class. It modeled and embodied new ways of coming together that were just and equal (and was significantly more progressive in terms of issues like gender equality than movements like the SCLC). Further, it developed practice models that were used by lay people to make significant social change. There were no professionals or experts, only everyday people in local communities committed to making a difference. Highlander lived the idea of working with people.

I believe we can build a new profession of social work, one focused on working with people, rather than for them. This will not be exclusive to macro practice social work, where participatory models of community organizing and participatory action research provide powerful examples of working with. One example in direct practice is lay therapy, where community members are trained in a brief period of time and with little resources to be community therapists (Neuner, Onyut, Ertl, Odenwald, Schauer, & Elbert, 2008). While licensed professionals may argue that this results in lower qualities of care, studies like those by Neuner, et al. indicate that lay therapists can reach outcomes with clients that are within statistically significant range of services provided by professionals. These lay therapists can be members of communities, trained by communities, and treating members of their community. Further, these therapists can be trained quickly and cheaply, and could even work part time. Training community members in this way means that therapists are working with members of their own community to create broad and deep changes within a community. This can began to address major issues, community violence being one example, where massive numbers of individuals living in urban communities face undiagnosed mental health issues like complex post-traumatic stress disorder that affect their ability to love, learn, work, and live physically and mentally healthy lives in dramatic ways (Garbarino, 1999; Geronimus, Hicken, Keene, & Bound, 2006).

I propose that the only way social work will be a radical profession, changing society to become more peaceful, just, and healthy, will be to empower everyone to be a “social worker.” We need many more therapists, case workers, community organizers, and educators. Furthermore, we need them to be part of our everyday lives, with each individual taking some responsibility for shaping the health of our communities and the individuals and families that live within them. We also need citizens who take ownership over creating social policies that involve communities in a process of self-determination over their futures (Boyte, 2008; Kretzmann & McKnight, 1993).

I think we have the tools, technology, and human capacity in a way we may never have had it before. One of the challenges with implementing a model of lay social work is in certifying practitioners in a diverse range of skills. The internet, online teaching and learning specifically, provides one solution to this problem. A new system of certification called “badges” is being used by a number of training firms, educational institutions (brick and mortar as well as e-learning), and corporations to certify people in single, often discrete skills. Individuals can collect and display badges as a way of proving certification. One example of this technology is being developed by open-source organization Mozilla: We could begin to certify people in a diverse range of skills from “relationship building” to narrative exposure therapy. Of course, there are many challenges that we will need to overcome, like insurance, liability, and social work’s commitment to licensure and professionalization.

If we choose to move forward with such a model, the major question for the profession of social work is: Where does this leave social workers? If we begin to certify community practitioners in the way I’ve envisioned here, will this destroy the profession of social work? In part, I believe it could. And maybe it should. The belief held by many radical social workers is that the profession serves to prevent radical social change by keeping the poor and excluded just enough above water to avoid rebellion and revolution (Cloward & Piven, 1966; Reisch & Andrews, 2002). This isn’t to say that on a day-to-day basis the work that social workers are doing is meaningless. Far from it. How could anyone argue that helping people in need–whether it be keeping a home, helping a family function in a healthier way, or learning to live with mental illness–is a bad thing? However, if we don’t see the need to change, to do something bigger and truer to our values, I think we’ll always be stuck reproducing the kinds of solutions to the same kinds of problems that we’ve always been searching for. In other words, these kinds of research and solutions will only take us where we already are. Maybe just doing what we’re already doing a little bit better. But they will always be limited by the resources and practitioners available, because in the current model, there will always be the belief that the kinds of services social workers provide are only needed by some members of society and can only be delivered by experts. The Highlander Folk School and models of lay therapy demonstrate that something different is possible.

I propose an alternative to this kind of work, a role for the profession of social worker in a world moving toward micro certifications in the form of badges. I believe there is a deep need for people that can serve as capacity builders. As Freire discovered in his work around literacy education, people need to be awakened to the realities of difference, exclusion and oppression as they play themselves out in their everyday realities. Myles Horton and Septima Clark saw that they could not create change themselves, but needed to be part of embodying what was possible, so that people could learn to creatively intervene in their own communities. In this new world, the social worker can be an educator and capacity builder, awakening communities to the possibilities and potentials available to them, then providing access to those possibilities. Professional social workers can be trained to bring about this new model of social work, and then to hold it in place and continue to grow it.

In this model, social workers serving as capacity builders will empower communities to take control of their own needs, with the skills and resources necessary to solve the problems that are important to them. This will more holistically address the issues we face. And social work will no longer be caught in most of the debilitating conundrums it currently faces. This way forward will require a great deal of courage. But we have a number of role models and access to new technology that can help us bring these dreams to reality. I invite you to join me in determining our future as a profession and the future of our communities together.


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