Ian G. Williams & Robert Preti
This article examines the values and structure of social work education in relation to established hierarchical organizations offering ※professional help§ as well as emerging ones that are more radical and horizontal in nature and that hold strong ties to social movements, such as Occupy Wall Street. The authors reflect on their personal experiences volunteering with Hurricane Sandy relief efforts in order to highlight the need for a more ecologically-centered vision of social justice within social work theory and practice that seeks to improve its responses to disasters and take meaningful action to prevent continued climate change.
※Did you hear? It is the sound of your world collapsing. It is that of ours rising anew.§ (Subcomandante Insurgente Marcos, 2012)
The collective efforts and actions of the helping professions, from their everyday functions to their long-term strategies, are inherently political in that they play a vital role in reproducing social order. How aid is distributed, and how resources are allocated has a cumulative effect that determines who and what is deemed legitimate and therefore deserving of those resources. Social work methodology often eschews this fact through strict divisions between methods and focal points within our areas of expertise, but our experiences in the field have led us to believe that both clinical and macro practice have political functions, as well as the potential to change social systems. There are undoubtedly important aspects of the advances in specialization and technical expertise developed within social work practice, but it is folly to presume that these operate in some neutral field of highly skilled vocations removed from the wider discursive and political-economic contexts in which they operate. As the authors of this article embark upon the professional path of social work, we feel apprehensive about its contemporary politics and the future they foreshadow, as well as concerned by its long and complicated status within the history of professions, one we feel is all too often defined in deference to Flexner＊s (1915) interrogation of its status on terms more suited for the sociology of medicine. It is no big secret that social work education, like most other forms of professional education in the contemporary world, has shifted rightward and at times borders on a reactionary political indoctrination that is hostile to the very possibility, let alone desirability, of systemic social change (Garrett, 2009). The oppressive, hegemonic status of clinical and evidence-based forms of practice and knowledge within a hierarchy of dominant and variably subjugated knowledges have set such rigid conditions as the basis for defining social work knowledge that it is often difficult to utilize social work literature to argue for fundamental and systemic social change. What Holmes, et al. (2006) refer to as the microfascism of evidence-based research is fully established within social work education, although there are pockets of difference and resistance to this trend that create ※spaces of freedom (of thought)§ (p. 185). These spaces exist, but they are few and far between within the landscape of social work.
Arguably, our education at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College offers some spaces of freedom with its strong ties to the community organizing tradition within social work and its commitment to anti-oppressive practice. While we are students at one of the most progressive social work programs in the United States of America, we are nonetheless concerned that even in our program, a reliance on professional competencies and specialized, expert knowledge has at times eclipsed ethical reasoning and critical thinking skills. Within social work school, we have sensed a vacuum of critical, political analysis and action in a time when much of the world is seeing its political and economic foundation crumble amidst systemic crises of the very fabric of social order, some repeating moments in human history, some never before seen.
In the shadow of a fragmented, uneven global capitalist development over the past 40 years, which Springer (2010) refers to as neoliberalization, we are now seeing a different moment in world history emerging. This moment has brought about new modes of resistance and new visions of social change. Established models of community organizing that are taught in social work schools, largely deriving from the legacy of the 1960＊s and 70＊s through Alinsky-esque interest group politics, progressive Democratic voter base building, and mainstream labor unions, do not correspond to the aspirations and needs of the people whom we claim to serve. These established community organizing models fail to seriously consider the future consequences of human actions on the biosphere, and the primacy of a healthy environment 每 as unenclosed commons and the basic stuff for collective social reproduction 每 to any form of social justice. Likewise, the models of social movements that derive from the radical and structural social work legacy are failing in the same regard. As Reisch (2011) recently stated, new visions and models of social justice within social work are urgently needed.
Climate Change and Social Work
The need for new visions arises in part from a crisis of previously unimaginable proportions. Scientists are arguing with increased frequency that climate change threatens the very existence of human civilization. Addressing climate change must be at the forefront of any vision of what a just society 每 for humans as well as other life-forms 每 could be like. It is thus fundamental to include the climate change conversation in answering Reisch＊s call for reinvigorating a radical social work. Tischler (2011) asks, ※Do social workers care about climate change?§ (p. 2). Considering our professional training and literature, it does not appear so. Social workers must shift their relationships with the non-human world away from a dynamic in which resources exist solely for human consumption and as a backdrop for human action, such as conventional politics, toward a view that respects nature, recognizes its agency and autonomy from humanity, and considers the ramifications of human action on it, so that we may work toward reversing trends that are threatening the existence of our species and others (Besthorn, 2002).
The worldview espoused by dominant trends in social work education reinforces a speciesist ideology that assumes our role is only to mitigate inequality among the human race and that the world is by and large a ※standing reserve§ of resources to be consumed and managed according to the needs of an industrial society (Wolf, 2000; Heidegger, 1977). Social work, a profession with a long history of engaging in social justice struggles, must change its worldview, and inevitably, its basic orientation to practice. The urgency of the present situation calls into question the effectiveness of conventional reformist actions taught in social work schools, such as including clients＊ voices in the halls of power. It calls into question the wider assumption that the best way to improve society for all is through involving oppressed persons in the very system that produces their conditions of exploitation. In our neoliberal society, this system of hierarchical domination projects the illusion of equality and ignores the very real and everyday forms of structural violence that can only be mitigated through collective action and conflict (DeFillips, et al., 2010).
The Viability of Social Change
In order to retain any viable role in contemporary struggles for social justice, social work urgently needs to adapt its sense of what is desirable and what is possible. Recent events across the world, including the climate justice movement, the Arab Spring uprisings, Occupy Wall Street, and Idle No More, suggest that these struggles are very much alive. And so we ask, where are social workers in these fights? This world＊s oppressed, it seems, want more than jobs and housing; they want what the Zapatistas call otros mundos, or ※other worlds§ 每 meaning, they want to imagine and create alternative social orders based upon fundamentally different and egalitarian values, and they are indeed capable of securing major victories against all odds. Where are we, as the supposed experts and professionals sanctioned by society＊s authorities to help its poor and oppressed improve their lives, amidst these struggles, and what is our profession＊s vision of what is worth struggling for? The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) has released a number of statements and reports addressing climate change, neoliberalism, and other systemic problems faced by poor people around the world today; however, we question whether or not these statements constitute opposition to the basic forces and material conditions that produce such effects.
Opposition, we feel, means refusal of the status quo and refusal to accept the current world and its social order as the only inevitable or desirable possibility. A meme emerging from the global justice movement and more recent anti-austerity organizing groups across Europe, ※Our dreams will never fit in their ballot boxes,§ illustrates this concept, which Khasnabish (2007) refers to as ※insurgent imaginations§ 每 drawing upon radical hope toward creating a fundamentally different world. We think it is high time that social workers engage with insurgent imaginations in their work, refuse what Shragge (2003) calls the pessimistic pragmatism that saturates most contemporary community practice, and recognize that another world is highly desirable, possible, and necessary to realize any vision of social justice.
Social workers must learn to be aware of and choose to act upon moments that gesture in this direction by recognizing that despite our professional role as agents of what Kivel (2007) calls the ※buffer zone,§ which ※comprises all occupations that carry out the agenda of the ruling class without requiring ruling-class presence or visibility,§ we can resist 每 and choose not to reproduce 每 the status quo (p. 134). Instead of simply engaging in social service work, we can work toward social change and ally ourselves with groups and entities outside of the non-profit industrial complex. Many of these groups may posit themselves explicitly in opposition to the basic social order 每 including the status of professionals – and may face state repression toward which social workers will have to navigate their relationship. At the height of Occupy Wall Street, for instance, there were many calls in and around the social work profession for greater involvement in the movement (Ellis, 2013). Many social workers assisted in coordinating logistics within the encampments, helping to develop self-care groups as well as provide mediation and conflict resolution. We believe that social workers have an ethical obligation to utilize their professional selves to further emancipatory projects that seek to bring about a just society. Despite fitting within our code of ethics, this is a dangerous proposition as it runs directly against much of the institutional interests of our field in maintaining permanent social divides (even as we talk of ※working ourselves out of a job§). Though risky, it is something we can and must move toward in moments that crack the surface of capitalist life 每 moments that seem to increasingly occur amidst a continued global recession, unending wars, and growing signs of a systemic climate crisis (Holloway, 2010). There is a growing sense of urgency amid these multiple crises, one that calls for us to reexamine the foundations of the social life that social workers foster and reproduce in their everyday practice. Furthermore, this sense of urgency calls for us to further develop what Burghardt (2010) calls tactical self-awareness in our choices of when and how to intervene. It is here that we feel social work has the most to offer and we explore this idea further in our personal reflections.
The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy is an opportunity to examine a moment during which the surface of the ※seemingly closed§ world cracked (ibid, p. 9). In other words, it was a moment in which many of the everyday rhythms and patterns that produce a stable social life 每 particularly in NYC, a city located at the heart of global finance capitalism 每 ceased to function. In this openness, the possibility of prefigurative social orders emerged. The disaster that shut down the city also provided an opportunity to create a different kind of urban living. Through analyzing our experiences with volunteering in Hurricane Sandy relief efforts, we propose that it is necessary for social workers not only to transform the agencies and institutions in which we operate, but also to transcend them and utilize ours skills in new and uncomfortable ways. We must assist in 每 and ally ourselves with 每 these moments when new social orders could emerge, and help to defend them from onslaughts of co-optation, delegitimization, and infiltration by the dominant forces of society. Our experiences during our Hurricane Sandy relief efforts confirmed our long-held suspicions regarding the disconnect between the helping professions and the emerging forms of social organization that are filling the gaps of the ever-retrenching welfare state and, perhaps, indicating its obsolescence.
These forms of practice are not new. They often start not from expert opinion, but from poor and oppressed persons trying to meet their basic needs and asserting their desires for self-determination. These are acts of attempting to overcome oppression not through integrating themselves into a liberal, multiculturalist social order, but through autonomous actions aimed at directly changing material conditions of everyday life. Professionals or, rather, privileged individuals with skills and knowledge who are useful for the broader project of collective social emancipation, can certainly be of use in bringing about these new forms. However, we must reconsider our professional and personal senses of self, and what ethical and value assumptions they are grounded in. This was particularly so in Hurricane Sandy＊s aftermath when climate and economic crises converged and schools of social work ought to have suspended their classes and mobilized all of their available resources toward disaster relief and immediate mutual aid instead of returning to business as (no longer) usual. While this is a highly unrealistic proposition 每 particularly so given the conditions of neoliberal austerity that students are learning, practicing, and graduating into 每 it is nonetheless something we find ethically desirable. It is questionable how and why so many students did not seem to voice concerns regarding organizing in the aftermath 每 is it simply a sign that social work has shifted so far to the right that it is impossible to articulate something different? To continue onward, unwavering, risks social work＊s (silent) complicity in what Gluck (2013) calls ※disaster gentrification,§ or ※the use of disasters, such as Hurricane Sandy, to initiate or consolidate gentrification projects.§ While Gluck＊s article examines the specific case of Red Hook＊s recovery, particularly the favoring of community and local government agencies of the interests of (primarily) white small business owners over public housing residents, the majority of whom are people of color, many of its lessons can be drawn regarding structural oppressions based primarily along race and class lines. Left unexamined, social workers＊ involvement in Sandy recovery could play a crucial role in re-establishing social order and control through the implementation of the same forms of social hierarchies that produced widespread and systemic suffering prior to this moment of rupture.
Volunteering for Sandy Relief: Author Experiences
Robert Preti, Volunteer with the Red Cross, Occupy Sandy
After the storm came, my first experience volunteering was with the Red Cross. I was informed where to meet via e-mail, bussed to a location in Nassau County, and left with forty other people to distribute wrapped sandwiches to people who had heard via radio or word of mouth about the opportunity to get food. Soon after arriving, it became apparent that the area where we had been dropped off had not experienced any flooding and that there were either not many people who urgently needed food or no way for people who needed food to get to our site. Even though the volunteers available to hand out sandwiches outnumbered the total people who came to receive food, we were unable to shift locations because the Red Cross employee who was in control of the effort said that there was nowhere else that she could send us at that time. The volunteers stood in a parking lot for almost seven hours while people in other parts of Long Island were in dire need of assistance. We were unable to relocate because LIRR service was not yet back in operation and we were totally reliant on the Red Cross bus to get us back to Manhattan. Furthermore, we had been dropped off on the northern portion of Long Island, miles from the Atlantic Ocean and from most of the communities in need of assistance at that time.
The operation seemed to run smoothly enough to satisfy the site＊s purpose of supplying people with enough basic supplies to make it through their next several days. Volunteers were working hard to sort through donations so that there continued to be supplies available at the individual tables. Although the guides＊ roles were somewhat effective, the guides were also monitoring that people weren＊t ※taking too much.§ While I understood, in theory, that volunteers might be concerned with supplies running out, I was also perplexed because there were so many extra supplies in the gym and so many people who were bringing items back to multiple family members.Despite Occupy Sandy＊s devotion to a horizontal structure in which people choose their own positions and tasks, in the one week between my first and second experiences at the site, a site ※leader§ had arisen to take command of the site and a church employee had been stationed at the door of the site to make sure that only eight people got inside at a time. Just as I had initially been perplexed during my first trip to Occupy Sandy＊s hub because no one had told me what to do, some volunteers at St. Camillus had seen a lack of traditional organization and decided that a boss and a bouncer were necessary to keep the site organized and running smoothly.
Occupy Sandy is a grassroots disaster relief network that emerged in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. Founded by veteran activists and community organizers from Occupy Wall Street (OWS), 350.org, recovers.org, and interoccupy.net, OS has grown from an ad-hoc network of emergency response volunteers into a sustained, long-term community organizing effort that sought to build ※frontline§ leadership among communities that were most affected by the disaster (Lawrence & Moreno-Callabud, 2012; Moore & Russell, 2011). OS operates through a decentralized, open-sourced structure without formal hierarchies or paid employees, though there have been discussions about opening up funds for stipends, and tensions have formed among OS activists regarding resource allocation and distribution. (See Gluck (2013) for more on this issue.) OS＊s staffing is volunteer-based and organizers often find independent means of financing their efforts.
Like OWS, OS＊s formation was influenced by anarchist thought, with a strong commitment to mutual aid as well as an affinity toward ※direct action, direct democracy, a rejection of existing political institutions and attempts to create alternative ones§ (Graeber, 2011). It sees anthropogenic climate change as a crucial factor in Hurricane Sandy＊s emergence and political economic structures 每 in particular, industrial capitalism 每 as inextricably linked. As an offshoot of OWS, OS is one of many attempts of the ※collectivity to survive ＃ [and] keep its initial identity and goals intact§ (Andrews, 1991, p. 85). For the most part, OWS offshoots refuse dominant, contemporary organizational forms, which have formal hierarchies typically structured like a corporation, and are governed through bureaucracy and Taylorist managerialism. Instead, OWS offshoots utilize horizontal organizing and seek ※self-management, autonomy, and direct democracy§ (Hutchinson, 2011; Sitrin, 2012). With OS＊s loose and ever changing makeup, this structure often operates in coordination with hierarchical community organizations, such as CAAAV, the Red Hook Initiative, You Are Not Alone (YANA), Good Old Lower East Side (GOLES), and Make the Road NY as well as various government agencies at the local, state, and federal levels. Occasionally, this collaboration leads to tension and confusion on all sides. Likewise, there is inevitably some tension between OS activists, who are overwhelmingly white, middle class, and highly educated, and local community leadership in neighborhoods populated by poor and working class people, immigrants, and those whom Freire (2000) would call ※the oppressed.§ OS＊s emphasis on an anti-oppressive approach to practice, which builds upon a Freirian model of popular education, is crucial to maintaining both of the above-mentioned relationships. In OS, roles and structures shift and change according to need, capacity, and ability. This flexible, ever-changing series of collaborations sees itself as building an urban resistance to the various economic and social structures that produce conditions of oppression that have intensified in Hurricane Sandy＊s aftermath. These efforts often intersect with existing race and class lines and produce ambiguous effects that need further examination.
Although seemingly chaotic on the surface, OS relief efforts are quite organized and have a sophisticated system for tracking volunteer and resource intake and outtake through a network of social media technologies and personal contacts. Volunteers often call in or register online, and then attend an orientation and training at a central hub. Volunteers also arrive at disaster sites without going through these channels, but this tendency has decreased since the ongoing Hurricane Sandy relief efforts have become less of a visible issue. Orientations introduce OS＊s approach to volunteering, which emphasizes critical self-awareness about intervening in marginalized and oppressed communities. OS＊s approach is critical of dominant institutional discourses on volunteering, which are often situated within the culture of non-profit organizations and their origins in Christian charity, which often frame their interventions as ostensibly neutral service to a greater good, and which often erase the real differences that exist between social groups and render the relations of power that are inherent in these interactions invisible (Smith, 2007).
Western thought has traditionally involved an anthropocentric philosophy in which the universe is human-centered and humans are seen to have mastery over the natural world (Besthorn, 2002). Within this hierarchy of humanity, various social groups have been considered more or less human based on race, class, gender, and sexual identity typologies. The political response to Hurricane Sandy has confirmed this perception as politicians speak about ways to ※control the harbor§ and institute other methods of reigning in nature so that the next storm will not have the same effects that Hurricane Sandy did. After interacting with people affected by the storm in Chinatown, the Rockaways, and Staten Island, and seeing their homes flooded and destroyed, we are convinced that such an approach would not be helpful in protecting humanity from future disasters nor would it help bring about a truly just society. Reimagining our relationship with nature is a necessary step toward beginning to reverse the trends that have increased the odds that storms such as Hurricane Sandy will take place. This would involve implementing alternative ways of organizing society and working with new models of organizing for systemic social change. It would also involve building meaningful relationships with communities, such as those of indigenous peoples, whose ways of life already encompass an ethos of living in a mutually beneficial relationship with the natural world.
There is ample evidence that present climate trends will only worsen the living conditions for the vast majority of the earth＊s human population as we see the effects of an ever-encroaching systemic crisis that threatens to collapse global civilization itself (Ehlrich & Ehlrich, 2013). It has been predicted that events such as Hurricane Sandy will occur more often in the future, and social workers need to be more prepared to provide disaster relief services and respond rapidly to them and to the wider conditions of social collapse. Social workers need to focus on organizing around climate change issues because future climate disasters around the world will directly affect and be paid for by poor and oppressed people more than others. As evidenced by Hurricane Sandy, oppressed people lack the necessary political power that would enable them to receive aid as quickly as those who have better connections to wealth and power. This power differential is worsened by the historical concentration of pollution and human-made chemical wastes in areas that are populated by poor people. The failure to organize around climate change may perpetuate environmental injustice and cumulative health disparities (Hicken, et al., 2011). A commitment to more radical types of community organizing will require a fundamental consideration of our concept of ※person in environment§ as well as attention to how we relate to climate change policy issues (Dominelli, 2011; Besthorn, 2002; Strike Debt, 2012). In creating this commitment, we need to align our efforts with the wishes and mandates of front-line communities by intervening in a way that benefits those most impacted and by including the perspectives and worldviews of those who are often absent from our profession＊s literature and training (Moore & Russell, 2011).
The social orders that prevailing institutions seek to reinstate as part of Hurricane Sandy recovery efforts are deeply entrenched in dominant social structures. They are either obtuse bureaucracies that are too divorced from the everyday lived realities of the people whom they serve or they have entirely different interests that serve to act as a buffer between those in power and those who are not in power (Kivel, 2007). The aftermath of Hurricane Sandy hints at possible models of social action in response to disaster recovery 每 which can include social work 每 that do not arbitrarily separate micro and macro interventions or limit practitioners＊ choices of action to their job descriptions. These possibilities offer a different ethos that hints at actualizing the ※other worlds§ of the Zapatistas. As one exemplary, but also problematic example, OS seeks to work from case to cause while developing a critical consciousness of the various forms of knowledge and truth-claims it encounters as well as the factors that affect human capacity for self-determination. It thus incorporates all levels of intervention 每 micro, mezzo, macro 每 into its actions and analysis, seeing them as inextricably linked.
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About the Authors
Ian G. Williams is an activist, organizer, and educator with experience working in the migrant justice and Occupy Wall Street movements. He is an alumni of McGill University, where he majored in East Asian Studies and Cultural Studies, and the Centre for Refugee Studies at York University. Ian worked with Cambodian and Somali Bantu refugees in Chicago, IL and Burlington, VT, and organized with the Healthcare is a Human Right Campaign. While enrolled at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College, Ian has organized for economic justice with welfare recipients through Community Voices Heard and sought to conceptualize community organizing in terms of a critical, multidisciplinary genealogy of collective action and social struggle. Ian can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Robert Preti is a first year student at the Silberman School of Social Work at Hunter College where he studies community organizing, planning, and development. He grew up in Ridgefield, Connecticut and now resides in Astoria, Queens. He can be reached at email@example.com.