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In pursuit of social justice - meet BASW England's new chair

Vava Tampa on what motivates him as he takes on his new role

Published by Professional Social Work magazine, 9 December, 2021

Before qualifying as a social worker in 2018, BASW’s new chair Vava Tampa was a peace worker focusing on the Democratic Republic of Congo.

His first post-qualifying social work role involved leading a team caring for survivors of modern-day slavery and human trafficking in London.

He is currently co-lead of a multi-disciplinary team supporting people with severe and enduring mental health issues in the community. Below he answers some questions put to him by PSW:

What inspired you to become a social worker?

I really do not know when I first decided to become a social worker. My family fled wars and dictatorship in Congo for London when I was a child so growing up I’d thought a lot about what human rights is. I’d also thought a lot about what social justice actually meant.

When I was a teen my uncle lost his wife. For that entire summer I spent with him we went to bed at 4am because by 4am, he told me, the spirits he was seeing, the spirits that were causing him so much distress, had to leave London for Congo where they came from to haunt him.

Now I know he was experiencing drug-induced psychosis. As an undergrad I became a real activist. Yet around me, trauma, inequality, stigma and stop and search had created a revolving door between substance use, mental health and the criminal justice system which consumed friends and families. So it’s perhaps no wonder I became a social worker.

What does being a social worker mean to you?

Legend has it that the thrill of being a social worker is ‘to help others’. BASW’s Code of Ethics puts it as “to support people to meet their needs and to protect them from harm”.

But in a society that remains oppressive, unequal and patriarchal, what does this look like? This is one of the brute facts that troubles me as a social worker. Does the climate crisis or patriarchy or, for that matter, racism count as harm?

If so, then, how should social workers respond to the climate crisis? How do we respond to male violence against women? How do we respond to the idea of black lives matter[ing]? So for me, the goal of being a social worker is to always be in pursuit of social justice and to defend human dignity.

Why did you go for the position of chair of BASW England and what do you hope to achieve? 

I applied to chair BASW England for three reasons. To make our society and our world better and kinder. To give social work an inspiring and enabling workplace; and to make BASW, which I joined in 2019, a more effective and relevant social movement at the heart of our society right now.

How? By placing the climate crisis, oppression of women and the idea of black lives matter[ing], which perpetuate and exacerbate poverty, unemployment, mental health, substance use and other inequalities, at the heart of all that social workers do. This is what I hope to prioritise as BASW England chair.

What do you hope to bring to the role?

Maya Angelou once said that whenever she embarked on a project, she brought everyone who had ever been kind to her with her, not physically, but spiritually.

In the same way, I hope to bring every social worker with me on this journey as well as everyone who believes in Black Lives Matter[ing], dismantling patriarchy and ending the climate crisis.

What do you believe are the key issues facing social work in England?

There is no polite way to say this. Lack of time and resources, created by year-on-year cuts to budgets, have made it dangerously hard for social workers in England to properly support and protect the people in need of our support and protection.

As a frontline social worker, I know personally how dangerously overstretched social work is. I know social workers carrying a caseload of up to 35 children and families at any one time. I also know of social workers care-coordinating for 30 patients with severe and enduring mental health needs. This, not individual practice, is the social psychological roots of issues facing social work practice in England.

What lies behind your interest in social justice?

My interest in social justice, or “wokeness” for Gen-Z, is personal and philosophical. In 1961, James Baldwin was asked by a radio host about being Black in America. He answered: “To be Black in America and to be relatively conscious is to be in a state of rage almost all of the time.”

In the same way, for me the essence of being not only a social worker but a human being and relatively conscious about what's happening all around you, is the pursuit of social justice. Or indifference.

If you had five minutes with the Prime Minister what would be your message to him?

Invest in both social workers and social care. End stop and search. Make Black Lives Matter[ing] a priority. Declare both the climate crisis and violence against women an emergency. Invest also in mental health.