Sunya Folayan, ACSW, P-LCSW
It is unfortunate that in the 21st century, many neighborhoods and communities often distrust the institutions and service providers who are charged with helping them. According to Toporek, (2009), racial, ethnic and other marginalized groups have historically been taken advantage of by university researchers and scientists often in the name of scoring scientific breakthroughs that seldom benefit the community. As social work activist researchers and interventionists we must continually gird ourselves with our Code of Ethics- the same one that has been replicated in part and parcel, by a growing number of newer human service professions. The current Code has evolved significantly from the first one-page document submitted by Mary Richmond in the 1920’s. Today our profession asks us to consider the balance between the social worker’s work and professional life, and to acknowledge that ethical principles can also cause ethical dilemmas (NASW Code of Ethics, revised, 1999).
The U.S. Surgeon General (2001) noted that African-Americans with mental health needs are less likely to receive adequate treatment than are people from the mainstream population. Moreover, consistent findings indicate that African-Americans and other populations of ethnic and racial diversity have skepticism toward mental health delivery systems, and tend to be suspicious of providers. The implications of this are significant. Health and mental health disparities in women, women’s groups of color have been widely documented in the last decade. Black women have twice the rates of depression than in the general population (National Institute of Health, 2010). Efforts to systemically manage and treat this disease will need to incorporate non-traditional types of services such as prevention programs and community outreach (Toporek, 2008). This might require a change in thinking and practice for some.
I sometimes wonder if we are losing the traditions established by the founders of professional social work, opting for traditional corporate looking and sounding practices that have lost the heart and soul of the work. Clearly, making an adequate living that reflects the investments we have made in our professional training is important. Certainly it is incumbent upon us to have the metrics of evidence based work supporting us, so we can measure our effectiveness. My concern, however, has to do with maintaining a balance. It seems we often continue to expect marginalized persons to adapt to what works for agencies: traditional office hours, in downtown offices that are beyond public transportation routes, for example. We still organize under hierarchal agency structures, and service training and delivery models that do not adequately emphasize the inherent strengths of those involved. As communities remain distrustful of our outreach efforts, problems related to access will continue and disparities will persist. We must be open to change.
Changing the social order to minimize the gaps between advantage and privilege requires leadership and advocacy on our part. Beyond the scope of this (macro) vision, changes at the micro and mezzo levels (both professionally and personally) need to occur. We must continue to exert leadership to change hearts and minds so that mental health can have parity with physical health. We must continue to champion for changes in the law. In spite of today’s toxic socio-political environment, we must advocate through the legal system for change. Social reform is our responsibility. I imagine the principles of human rights and social justice incorporated into government, educational and professional curricula. I envision the miraculous consequences of the populace beginning to speak the same language about the importance of those rights. Collaborative efforts to advocate on behalf of clients and staff would become second nature. There would be an expectation to provide social and emotional resources necessary for social work activists. To sustain the change effort involved (Wronka, 2008).
As social work activists, the principles of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights could take a more central role in our work. I believe the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, is underutilized. They are a powerful motivating tool of ideals and standards. Recently an informal survey of 33 first year social work graduate field placement students was conducted by a policy teacher at a local university. Only one student out of 33 had ever heard of the Declaration. The Code’s five core principles are aligned with our profession’s code of ethics. In fact, our Code of Ethics is a mini-declaration of human rights. The two documents would go a long way in assisting us in our work in communities as we operationalize a unified code of ethical conduct that would enable the establishment of trust and partnership building at all levels. As we continue to practice cultural sensitivity and help people to be self determined we assist not only our clients but ourselves.
With the increased complexity of societal problems facing practitioners, I think we need all the help we can get. Developing authentic relationships, working across disciplines, and fostering collaborations within marginalized communities could be tangible goals in dismantling barriers to treatment and resources in our work. There are obstacles to this work: professional helpers are often unwilling to take a stand (Erikson, 1997). Other factors include complacency, fear, lack of time, limited financial resources, and staff and turf wars.
Let’s align ourselves with one another, and be open to changes happening across the human services spectrum. Navigating change from a social justice, human rights and activist perspective means we are not doing this work in isolation. I consider our current Code of Ethics as a bridge from the past to the future of our work. We can have activist practice that will balance perspectives, seek access and inclusion, and press for reform, while simultaneously supporting one another as facilitators of change.
Toporek, R.L., Lewis, J.A., & Crethar, H.C. (2009). Handbook for Social Justice in Counseling Psychology. Sage. Thousand Oaks, Ca.
National Association of Social Workers (1999). Code of Ethics. Retrieved from http://www.socialworkers.org/pubs/code/defalt.asp
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2001). Mental health: culture, race and ethnicity-a supplement to mental health: A report of the U.S. Surgeon General. Rockville, MD. Author.
Wronka, J. (2008). Human rights and social justice: Social action and service for the helping and health professionals. Baltimore, MD. Author.