The politics of asking people what they want
My last two posts have concerned BASW’s partnerships with service users and this one will continue this theme. It will also touch on the issue of social work and politics.
It is very hard to avoid politics at the moment, in the wake of the Brexit vote, the subsequent changes at the top of the Conservative Party and the battles that are raging in the Labour Party. BASW took a position with regard to the EU referendum, with a motion being passed at the AGM in support of a remain vote, though some members were concerned about BASW intervening in this way.
While it is clear that BASW should not take positions in support of a particular party, or of a particular faction within a party, this does not mean that we should not campaign on issues which transcend party politics. For example, we would be derelict in our duty as social workers, it seems to me, if we did not speak out about the impact of austerity that we see in our day-to-day practice, and ally ourselves with people at the sharp end of welfare cuts.
Earlier this summer I attended the joint world social work conference in Seoul, where there was a fair amount of attention given to the relationship between social work and politics. In an article for the Guardian’s Social Care Network published just before the conference, Rory Truell, the Secretary-General of the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW), made the case for social work being about strengthening communities and not simply a remedial service targeted at individuals. Then on the third day of the conference, Silvana Martinez, President of the Latin American region of IFSW, gave a keynote address arguing that our professional practices always reflect a political position, and setting out the case for an emancipatory social work.
I missed Martinez’s address, as that morning I was visiting a group of disability activists at a Seoul metro station, where they had been staging a sit-in continuously for four years, to protest against certain of their government’s disability benefit policies. This campaign group, known as Solidarity Against Disability Discrimination (SADD), had been behind the electrifying protest during the opening ceremony of the world conference two days previously. A full account of the protest and the subsequent events that gave a voice to the protestors at the conference can be found on the SWAN website. This was written by Rea Maglajlic, a social work lecturer at Sussex University and a member of SWAN’s steering committee.
Please do read this account, as well as the article by Rory Truell which gives details of how IFSW responded to the protest and the treatment of the protestors. As well as giving full details of the background to SADD’s protest and their demands, Rea sets out a series of useful reflections on what happened, lessons that can be learned from it and actions we need to take now.
I want to highlight one lesson I learned from Rea’s humane and effective activism itself. Having witnessed the protest during the opening ceremony, and read one of the leaflets that members of the group passed into the audience, I decided that I would go to visit the protestors at the sit-in, at some point during the conference, to show my solidarity. Rea acted more decisively than that, immediately creating the opportunity for a collaborative relationship with the Korean disability activists, even though she hadn’t been in the audience during the ceremony (see her account).
She found the group’s website, and though it was in Korean, she was able to send a message straightaway, via email and Facebook, in which she stated that she was a delegate at the conference, who was horrified to have seen, via Twitter, how the protestors had been treated, and asked these simple, but crucial, questions: “What do you need from us, what do you want?” The effectiveness of these questions, the second in particular – which put the activists in the driving seat in terms of determining how we could assist them at the conference – is clear in what happened from that point on.
The main preoccupation in social work currently is with risk, closely followed by need. While it is important to pay attention to both, a truly radical social work practice, in my view, is only attainable when we also ask our service users what they want from us.