Friday, July 13, 2012

Rooting Our Practice in Justice: Language as a Tool of Transformation

Heather Horizon Greene
Portland, OR
Justice Centered Social Work

Though my name for this work has evolved over the years, I’ve been a practitioner of anti-oppressive social work for over 11 years.  These days, I most love the idea of justice centered social work, choosing justice as the core of my work, rooting and centering my work in justice.

Language was actually the entry point for me into this work. While working at my BSW internship, I listened uncomfortably as a co-intern, and then future social worker, made rude, offensive and homophobic jokes about a gay staff member in our agency.  Listening to the student’s cruel statements, I felt uncomfortable, offended, saddened, and yet struggled to say out loud, as I hope I would today, “that makes me uncomfortable; please stop.”  Though there were many lessons for me as I continued to process the experience, my takeaway was the beginning of a journey that has continually pushed me to look at how we use language in our healing practice and at the impact language can and does have in either supporting or hindering the practice of justice. 

Language is a tool of our craft.  How we talk (with our peers and colleagues) and
write (in our progress notes) about folks, in addition to how we talk with them,
can powerfully transform and strengthen the overall intention of our work. It is one tool, one way, to help us bring our practice into alignment with our values. Paying careful attending to our use of language is one of many ways we can, in fact, root our practice in an awareness of justice. 

While exchanging emails recently with a colleague, I had an opportunity to think a bit more about what my practice of justice centered language looks like today.  Reprinted here with permission, my colleague inquired:
What has been your experience of integrating anti-oppressive language into your clinical work? Particularly with paperwork and things that other people will read and see? I find myself daunted to put such things forward when I think about having to explain or being criticized by others. Which isn't to say I always back down about it, but I do tend to censor myself more than I like.

My response:  A few thoughts. There are certainly some therapy modalities that are, Some of those are narrative approach, strengths perspective, empowerment work, consciousness raising, feminist theory, client-centered practice, and even more evidence based practices like DBT.  Those practices have a more natural commitment to power sharing and each persyn (therapist and client) bringing their own unique offering and starting place, rather than a value-based hierarchy of some of the more traditional psychotherapy models. (And therefore a more natural professional discourse that is more aligned with anti-oppressive work). Even if we have a "radical" framework, I can think of a number of times when I have thought someone would understand or relate to the language of anti-oppression, though it turned out to be a barrier. I think we see that in a lot of empowerment work, where folks don't often think about their life experience in terms of oppression--though sometimes that is how we (have learned to) understand it. So I think of these justice-rooted theories and knowledge bases as informing how I practice and how I understand change--and acknowledge the important of that--but I also have a commitment to "meeting folks where they are" and honoring their self-wisdom and intuitive expertise in their own healing process.
With paperwork, I think there are very practical and natural ways to talk about folks in ways that are persyn-centered, acknowledge people's strengths and resilience (and identities), are narrative based which reflects a commitment to deep listening (which is also radical and anti-oppressive), and which validates and normalizes, rather than pathologizes, people's lived experiences. To me this can read as intentional and mindful, rather than radical, and I think when you're able to bring presence and intentionality to charting, folks who read that will often notice the positive. It’s more sparkly because it is more in alignment with treating people with integrity and often more in alignment with our values in general; it’s actually nice to model that for other practitioners.  I think too when we get to the assessment piece of our notes, that where we get to most use our voice naturally.

*I can understand that it might feel daunting, and would also be curious to know more about that for you. I think I would recommend starting with a small commitment. Like can you commit to using someone's name more, rather than the word patient or client.  Seeing how that feels.  And I also want to offer that it’s possible that your more intentional use of language would not be polarizing or criticized, though it’s possible that it would be. I would like to suggest, however, that you can develop and balance the skill of writing intentionally about people while capturing the situations in ways that meet insurance or diagnostic criteria, yet are healing and not pathologizing.

*I guess I would be curious to know where you feel you are censoring yourself. There's probably a lot of good information there about your own edges, the (rightly identified!) problems with the system, the environment you're working in and the folks (colleagues) you're working with.

So a quick summary:
*using persyn-centered language
*include/acknowledge people's strengths, resilience and identities
*listen deeply and try to capture some of that
*validate and normalize people experience
*try not to pathologize people (I have to really work on this, since I work in such a Pathologizing environment, and this is really the professional culture)
*be intentional and mindful in your writing
*use your voice and its honor your own boundaries and starting place.

This conversation feels quite relevant and timely for me, so I wanted to offer it here in the hopes of encouraging us to think about our language use and how we can use language as a tool of intention and justice. The (ecofeminist) part of me that recognizes the interconnection of all oppressions, also knows intuitively that all justices are interconnected.  Where oppression creates disconnection (or perhaps where disconnection reinforces oppression), justice creates connection. Or, stated differently, one way of practicing justice is simply to connect. We can, and should, use our words to humanize, to honor, and acknowledge people’s strengths, abilities and resiliencies.  We can, and should, do our best, as often as possible, to speak with and about folks in ways that are healing and just. We can, and should, do the continual work, as the call of liberatory humyn service practice requests, of attempting—to the best of our ability—to align our values of justice with the manifestation of all areas of our practice. Language is a tool of our craft and it is but one of many ways for us to create change, support transformation, and invite justice into our work.

Working in Balance

Sunya Folayan, ACSW, P-LCSW  
Charlotte, NC

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

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.


Art by Sunya Folayan, ACSW, P-LCSW  hand-dyed on cotton*
Charlotte, NC

 *All of Sunya's beautiful pictures are detailed shots from the same piece. 

“Let’s Talk About It” - Dialogue as an Avenue to Justice

Alexandra Dolce
Philadelphia, PA &
Riyadh, Saudi Arabia

When I think of conflict I automatically think of “having the upper hand”.  I want to win!  Winning   nonetheless is subjective. That is, what is considered victorious can and many times is different for every individual. However, there is an underlying current that can shift that perspective of “having to win”. It is based on fair mutual exchange which allows parties, the professed aggrieved and the perceived accused, to come together and seek a win/win situation based on the dynamics of individuality and humanism. That current is dialogue. “Dialogue clarifies shared values that serve as a basis of mutual understanding and cooperation. It is a basis on which differences between people can be successfully resolved or negotiated”. (Ikeda) Dialogues is a process, which means that it takes courage and time; however the end results are usually lasting and most important “just” to the parties involved.

Victory is a proactive concept. You must act in order to win.  That “act”, especially during conflict, can take many forms. Diligence, sacrifice, corruption, violence, hatred, and or using the judicial system are acts that may lead to triumph.   Dialogue which is defined by Webster’s dictionary as “ an exchange between two or more people” can be a basis of resolving conflict while establishing fairness and permanent change because parties have the opportunity to engage one another, and hopefully to clarify the intent behind the issue(s) that have brought them face to face.    It is through dialogue that parties have an opportunity to hear, see and evaluate a shared commonness that transcends race, gender, ethnicity, religion and sexual orientation and thus allows them reassess the value of having the upper hand.

Dialogue takes time.   The amount of time it may take to rectify problems arising out of a hostile roommate situation will take significantly less time than negotiating a peace treaty between two fighting factions in a civil war. However, I suggest parties meet at least three times and each time for no less than one hour. Thrice, because the first meeting is usually tense. The parties don’t know what to expect and they need to understand that they are here to forge some sort of commonality and not to argue or yell.  There should be an impartial third person present in order to keep things flowing.  The neutral should engage each party in conversation by asking questions about their jobs, their children, what they do in their free time, favorite television shows, etc.  If possible refreshments should be served. By no means is the neutral there to help them reach a decision. The neutral is there to break the ice and facilitate dialogue. The second meeting should address the conflict. At this point, the parties should feel comfortable and calm enough to explain why they feel aggrieved or why they acted in the manner in which they did.  Both should articulate what they want the outcome to be. They should at this point feel comfortable enough to listen with an open mind and in some cases an open heart.  Things may be resolved at the end of the second meeting, depending on the length of the meeting and the severity of the issue.   Again, there should be a neutral there to keep the conversation flowing. The third meeting should conclude the dialogue. At this point, a resolution that is satisfactory to all parties should have been reached or is very close on the horizon.  This resolution should not only be “acceptable” to all involved but all parties should leave believing that the outcome was fair.

The end result….the parties see each other as humans. They realize their interconnectedness. Although they may not like or agree with where the other parties are coming from, they understand the source of their actions and frustrations and in many circumstances can relate to them. The final outcome- lasting victory for all.  That is, the likelihood of these same parties coming together to resolve the same conflict or similar conflict is almost nil. Why? Because through dialogue they have acknowledged and reaffirmed their shared humanity. They understand the causes and effects of their conflict.

Did this essay just solve all of humanities problems? - Probably not! Nonetheless I do hope, that readers acknowledge the fact that a little dialogue can go a long way. It is one of many peaceful methods to resolve conflict. Parties come together and recognize one another as humans instead of foes or the offense. Through dialogue they get a clearer understanding of the cause of the conflict based on the mutual recognition of their shared values as human beings.  The effect- a lasting win/win outcome where all parties emerge victorious and more compassionate. 

Let me reiterate this process is not easy. It is an action based activity. It is time consuming.  It takes lots of courage and patience because parties have to be willing to listen, feel and look within themselves and allow others to do the same. However the end result is a lasting mutually acceptable agreement of what is just.

1. Ikeda, Daisaku.  2005. Peace Proposal-Toward a New Era of Dialogue: Humanism Explored, 2.  Retrieved May 18, 2012.

Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Dolce.  All rights reserved.