Sunya Folayan, MSW, ACSW, P-LCSW
Social Justice at the Center
Nearly 20 years ago, a colleague and I co-founded a grassroots non-profit organization to address disparities affecting women and families of color. We were capable thirty-something clinicians, committed to authenticity, eschewing traditional hierarchal structure and finding allies in our work. An effective social action strategy to prevent abuse of power is to actualize a professional code of ethics that reflects the values of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Wronka, 2008). The NASW Code of Ethics is itself a miniature Universal Declaration of Human Rights. We placed the values of social justice and the principles of human rights strategically at the heart of our organization.
We were intentional about making a difference in the world as domestic violence activists. Then, in 1989, one of our friends was brutally murdered by her estranged spouse while their four beautiful children played outside. We were compelled to step up our efforts to eradicate the domestic terrorism against women through battering, emotional, physical, economic and sexual abuse. We armed ourselves with training, immersed ourselves in the work of Paulo Freire (1970) and became national and international trainers with a cutting edge training and research organization. Armed with powerful justice-based information and training , we began to empower the clients in our practice. Challenging the inequalities we found in our own community was a natural progression, particularly within our county’s criminal justice system. Eventually we were ostracized and blacklisted because as Black women we broke an unwritten Southern rule: we decided our work was important and that we would be visible, verbal and unafraid.
10 years have now transpired. My colleague passed away from breast cancer 4 years ago, and I find myself once again returning to clinical practice after leaving the field due to personal and professional burnout, hurt, and the reality that allies were sometimes few and far between. I am thinking about how I have updated our mission, values and goals…and how much more complicated the work has become. As I return to direct clinical practice, developing and training social work activists is more important than ever. Inherent in empowering work is the assumption that we actively work to root out and resist oppression in all its forms. According to Pharr (1988), oppression is maintained by the normative group and exerts institutional and economic power through institutions and through individual acts of violence. Pharr goes on to state that the normative group need not exist as a numerical majority. In the United States, the normative group is also called the Center (hooks, 1984; Russell, 1993). Those not in the center are considered to be on the Margin.
As a professional who is also marginalized on occasion, I find working and teaching from a culturally relevant framework to be personally and professionally significant. The perspective of culturally relevant practice allows me to meaningfully connect with students and clinicians around ways to reach clients from our society’s margins in meaningful ways. This work allows me to: understand how oppression has shaped clients’ lives; enables the validation of their experiences; and allows engagement in a process that allows me to work in relationship with clients in order to challenge oppressive structures of power (Van Voorhis, 1998). The very act of listening to marginalized people can be revolutionary because their/our lives are often not considered significant by those at the center (Pharr, 1998). Part of my clinical assessment is ascertaining the psychosocial effects of oppression in the lives of those who trust me to work in relationship with them.
An important aspect of assessing the effects of oppression is discussing with clients the violations of their space, time, energy, bonding, or identity due to their membership in a marginalized population group…as well as the client’s strengths, resources, and sources of personal power in responding to oppression (Van Voorhis, 1998) p. 124.
We must be cognizant of the great effort that our clients often must expend in order to receive services. Mental illness, poverty, and feelings of futility often accompany our clients as they make the journey to our offices. In 2012, many are experiencing poverty for the first time. We must understand the power of language, and the authority that comes as we name within the boundaries of our profession. I have heard colleagues label clients as “resistant’ , merely because they exerted self-determination in identifying what was- and was not- important to them in the context of therapy. We must be ever mindful of the power that comes with our positions.
I encourage social work activists to more fully actualize the Universal Declaration of Human Rights principles in the therapeutic process. Every volunteer and staff member in our organization now gets a copy of the Declaration, and we actively engage artists in creative endeavors that bring the principles into daily conversation in our community. The United States has defined social problems as being individual and emotional in nature as opposed to addressing issues of inequality, structural deficits and material causes. The U.S. referenced as the wealthiest nation in world history but surgically cold, cruel and indifferent in its policies toward the citizens who are most in need ( Epstein, 2003). I suggest that a human rights culture is what we need:
· The creation of a human rights culture is in itself therapeutic, as it affirms our need to reach beyond ourselves to connect and create a just community.
· Human dignity is fundamental therapeutic process
· Develop cultural sensitivity, inclusiveness and non-hierarchical structures in anticipation of today’s immigration and the effects of globalization
· Cultivate systems orientation and work across disciplines
In 2012, my goal is to strategically engage with others from a social justice framework to expand my social change work. This is a time of tremendous change as well as tremendous opportunity. Now is the time for activists to reexamine our perspectives, ourselves and to fine tune our practice skills. Changes made from the inside out will enhance the lives of our clients and that of the social work profession.
Epstein, W., (2003). McSocial work: Professional decadence in the United States. (37)2. Pp. 139-156. The Hong kong journal of social work. Hong Kong: World Scientific Publishing Company.
Freire, P. (1970). The Pedagogy of the oppressed. New York: Seabury.
Hooks, b., (1984). Feminist theory: From margin to center. Boston: South End Press.
Pharr, S. (1988). Homophobia: A weapon of sexism. Inverness, CA: Chardon.
Russell, L., M. ( 1993). Church in the round: Feminist interpretation of the black church. Louisville, KY: Westminister/John Knox Press.
Van Voorhis, R. ( 1998). Framework for Culturally Relevant Practice. Journal of social work education. Vol. (34)1. Alexandria, VA: Council on Social Work Education.
Wronka, J. (2008). Human rights and social justice. Los Angeles, CA: Sage.