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Finding Our Way: Navigating Anti-Oppressive Practice in Child Welfare. Dr. Ann Curry-Stevens Associate Professor School of Social Work, Portland State University. Outline . Setting the context Defining AOP Principles of AOP That draw from other traditions

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Finding Our Way: Navigating Anti-Oppressive Practice in Child Welfare


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    1. Finding Our Way: Navigating Anti-Oppressive Practice in Child Welfare Dr. Ann Curry-Stevens Associate Professor School of Social Work, Portland State University

    2. Outline • Setting the context • Defining AOP • Principles of AOP • That draw from other traditions • Unique to this field of practice • Principles presentation (10) • Critique that underlies principle • Practices • Case examples • Helpful attitudes

    3. Foundations for this approach • Ann’s experience • PhD in “pedagogy for the privileged” • Social movements, activist education, popular education • Teaching in social work • Major advances coming from student portfolio assignments in “Advanced AOP” course • Focus on “positional privilege” as primary lens • Research • Partnership with Coalition of Communities of Color • Research reports on racial disparities • Policy, philanthropy and research reforms • Significant successes emerging

    4. Founders of this work • UK, Australia, Canada • Many Canadian scholars and activists • Far ahead of the USA in this field

    5. Setting the Context • Evocative stance of AOP • Challenges the ways we understand ourselves and our accomplishments • Challenges our institutions • Challenges our professions • In social work, we like to interpret ourselves as the “helping profession” • This implicates us in new ways • The path is ripe with discomfort, with being unsettled, with being troubled and, ultimately, with humility to letting go of all the ways we think we know • And embracing “not knowing”

    6. Defining Anti-Oppressive Practice • = Recognizing power imbalances and working to redress the balance of power (Dalrymple & Burke, 1995)and focuses on both process & outcome (Dominelli, 2002) • Reach of AOP • A philosophy of practice that centers on power, social justice, and equity • An analytic lens to explore experience and practice • And increasingly, a form of practice with conventions and applications across all sites of practice (micro, mezzo & macro)

    7. A quick note about power • The adage of power in this field • Limiting “power over” • Advancing “power with” • Most of us have ambivalent relationship with power and would prefer that we be seen as powerless • AOP, however, requires that we also see ourselves as powerful • And intention does not matter • Rather it is impact that is emphasized in this approach • “It is not a question of whether this discrimination is motivated by an intentional desire to obstruct someone’s potential, or whether it is the accidental byproduct of innocently motivated practices or systems. If the barrier is affecting certain groups in a disproportionately negative way, it is a signal that the practices that lead to this adverse impact may be discriminatory.” (Abella, 1984)

    8. An early note about reactions • Conventional responses • Denial, defensive, offensive • Reticence to affiliate with group identities • “Race to innocence” (Fellows & Razack, 1998) • “Rush to complexity” (Crosby) • Anticipate challenges in retaining focus on positional privilege • This work “troubles” our understanding of the world and ourselves within it • Need to be willing to “not know” • Toughest part for newly exposed • That we end our stance of “innocence” as helpers • And trouble our power, our roles and our interventions

    9. Principles as “directional” and “aspirational” • So many dimensions to this work • Principles • Are applicable across contexts • Set a direction for practice, rather than a specific form of practice • Akin to a compass that we can internalize

    10. AOP Principles connecting to other traditions • “Personal is political” • Feminism • “Nothing about us without us” • Disability movement • Solidarity • Labor movement • “Silence is complicity” (adapted from Einstein, 1954) • Holocaust resistance & international solidarity • “We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented” (Elie Wiesel, 1986).

    11. AOP principles in your documentation (Wong & Yee, 2010) • “Embedded” across the institution • Rather than “add on” approach • Individual transformation • Continued dialogues • Unlearning issues of privilege, power and oppression • Power sharing • Collaboration • “Ally with” and “advocate for” clients • Accountability • Engage with community • Service users provide feedback • Transparency • Progress needs to be visible instead of intuited • To reduce entry into child welfare • To retain greater diversity of workers

    12. AOP Practice Principles • End cultures and practices of exclusion and “othering” • Challenge dominant discourse & advance resistive discourses • Respectful recognition of the client and community • See fullness of client needs & strengths • Work in solidarity with clients and communities • Be informed by but go beyond the ally model • Challenge the canons & conventions of the profession • Build responsive, relevant and valued interventions • Organizations respond to the community most affected by services • Redistribute affluence and formal power

    13. #1: End exclusion & “othering” • History of society’s response to “difference” • Genocide • Segregation • Assimilation • Multiculturalism • Colourblindness • Cultural competency • Dominant discourse upholds exclusion & othering • “Othering” is process by which societies and groups exclude ‘others' whom they want to subordinate or who do not fit into their society • Emphasizes the perceived inadequacies of marginalized groups, and implicitly reinforces the superiority of those holding power • Function is to legitimate the status quo

    14. Solutions • Promote inclusion and minimize experiences of being an outsider • Spatial – location & environment • Cultural – welcoming & non-alienating • Relational – time, chit-chat, reciprocity, understanding experience • Service alternatives • Culturally-specific services • Community-validated services • Depends on our ability to “notice” discourse

    15. Our professional spaces • Location – what is the location of this space? Is it accessible by transit? Is it in a community or a professional environment? Is it wheelchair accessible? Is it kid-friendly? Is it safe for women? Is it safe in the nighttime? Is it open in the nighttime? • Architecture of the space – the nature of the entrance, the use of height, open spaces, light, comfort and personal encounters all communicate (often purposively) messages about the service • What is being communicated in this building? Consider such issues as approachability, welcoming, authority & control, and, subsequently, accessibility and accountability. • Atmosphere – who is welcomed in this space? Are clients welcomed? Are there supports for their presence, such as children’s books, food? • Signs of culture – what and who is on the walls? What tone does the artwork (or absence of artwork) communicate? What style does the setting communicate? How likely are clients to perceive inclusion? Who is given profile in the entrances of the building? Are donors recognized? What pictures are on the walls? What is their identity? • Continued in your handout package...

    16. #2: Challenge dominant discourse & advance alternative discourses Dominant Discourse: • Synonyms = ideology, socialization, myths • Definition = set of meanings, images and/or statements that work together to construct who people are, without saying much • Not usually intentional but so “commonsense” that it is not challenged • Impact? • Limits who we are and how others attribute characteristics to us • Prescribes what is “normal” via defining outsiders and insiders • Serves to reproduce dominance • Examples • Femininity constructed via “pink” • Masculinity constructed by “manly” • Let’s look at two images…

    17. Sidebar: Dominant discourse Source: Barndt, 1994

    18. Constructions in the image • Motherhood as • Classed • Raced • Sexually oriented • Gendered • How is parenting constructed? • What norms are reproduced here? • What impacts might exist if this were • Hung in a women’s shelter? • Hung in the lobby of child welfare settings?

    19. Changing dominant discourse • Notice language and frames for discussing clients and those in distress • Notice the lunchroom conversations • Identify dominant discourses, resistive discourses and alternative frames that build compassion and understanding of the macro context for client distress • Build alternative discourses in places such as our mission statements, organizational policies & policy briefs • Notice & celebrate resistance • Support clients, colleagues and community members who act to create change • Stretch yourself to increasingly “walk our talk” about power, oppression and privilege • Aim to live more congruently with our values

    20. Interrupting Oppression • Participate willingly (not AOP!) • Stay silent… and thus complicit (not AOP!) • Get it to stop • Sometimes just stopping is enough • Express your perspective • Educate • Invite dialogue • Invite action and participation

    21. On taking risks • Interrupting can come with risks • We don’t carry risks equally • Our identity informs our level of risks • Clients hold greatest risk in speaking for themselves as it may lose them services or respect which might involve workers not being willing to advocate for them • With more marginal identities, withstanding retribution is more precarious • But also know we tend to talk ourselves into silence • Find your wiggle room! • Gain efficacy (skills & confidence) in interrupting • Gain the backing of a union • Unionized settings are much more likely to ensure your protection for standing up for equity and human rights

    22. Case studies • How does one “decorate” the office? • Art • Government offices with stylized nude women • Idealized pastoral images that represent colonial presence • Degrees • Photos of one’s family • Starbucks’s coffee cups • Physical layout & the politics of space • Doing home visits with a Mercedes Benz Notice how nothing is innocent anymore?

    23. What happens with the assessment text? • Clients’ experiences are defined, legitimated • Through the workers’ lens, some issues are highlighted and others disappear • While we can explain some of this process, we will not be aware of much of it • Consider the impact of describing a home • “Cluttered” versus “comfortable” • “The smell of urine was in the hallway” • “The client was late for 3 sessions in a row” • “Amanda denies using cocaine” • “This is an at-risk client” • “Carlos comes from an intact family.” • Becomes an official record with a long life-span

    24. What is recommended? • Notice the dominant discourses you slip into in your text… and change them. • Advance as many resistive discourses as possible • That your client has survived a legacy of oppression, has resisted the negative portrayal of her community, continues to resist and this must be valued. • Frame experiences as dimensions of oppression • Notice the impact of oppression on behavior • Do not succumb to believing client compliance is a good thing • Anger at injustice and distrust of social work services are signatures of self-preservation • Don’t pathologize this as “internalized oppression” • Legitimate it

    25. Dimensions of the SW discourse • The professional (and profession), as subject, stays out of sight • Dimensions of its social construction stay out of sight • How social problems are constructed and how interventions are configured • We rarely implicate our organizations or the legitimacy of our roles and our requirements of our workers • The worker not only stays out of sight but stays “innocent” • Gets to be the observer, diagnostician • Gets to stay undefined, while we work very hard to define the client. As undefined, stays un-implicated in the experience of working with the client • Gets to be “innocent” • A simple helper who transcribes clients’ experience into a presumably factual record

    26. More about words • “Client” and “worker” • Mutually constructive, yet the worker stays “out of sight” and her influence on constructing the life of the client is invisible, yet should be a matter of examination • “Mother” and “father” • “School” and “student” • “Professional” and “layperson” • “Resistant” • “At risk” • “She is disabled” and “she has a disability” • “Broken family” => inherently deficient • “Intact family” => idealized

    27. #3: Respectful recognition of client and community • Trespass = harm brought to others by our participation in the governing ways of envisioning and making the world • In how problems are defined and solutions conceived • And in how identities are interpreted and ascribed • Such as those of “worker” and “client” • And too of identities such as white and person of colour = Failing to recognize, and instead “fill in the gaps” with our own bias, assumptions & stereotypes • An end to “trespass” • Ending the objective, distanced stance of the worker

    28. Solutions • Be an ally • Believe our clients • What have we been taught about disbelieving as a desirable stance? • Notice and affirm injustices they have suffered • Let yourself feel and be moved • “Risk another sleepless night” (Finn & Jacobsen, 2007) • Recognize our complicity • As imperialist • As agents of social control • As organizational “helpers” that require “helpees” • We need to “trouble the moment of gratification” that lets social workers ignore the trespass that has led to deeming themselves useful (Rossiter, 2001)

    29. Ally skills • Assume isms are everywhere, everyday • Don’t make it “their” responsibility to “prove” injustice exists • Remember it exists by impact, not intention • Recognize that holding privilege does not make you bad • It does make us responsible for change • Remember that being privileged means we can’t know what it is like to be oppressed. Assume that we don’t understand or don’t understand enough • Break the invisibility of privilege • Interrupt (speak up) when we see or hear oppression in action • Learn the “tweezers” approach as opposed to our “hammer” approach • Positive outcomes include keeping people at the table

    30. AOP in Group Work • Preferred way to work, particularly when workers don’t have lived experience of clients’ issues • Self-help • Mutual aid • Consciousness raising • Popular education • Social action

    31. Case Example: Ally with client of colour • White girl calls Latino resident a “wetback” and others chime in. Adults listen but do not intervene. Latino girl punches other and is restrained and removed from the treatment setting. • In 1:1, worker validates youth feelings... aims to listen and validate • Her own reflections: “It is hard not to take hatred of white people personally” • Her impulse is to defend herself and others, and turn the problem into one of “a few bad apples” and frame herself as outside this dynamic. And also to point out the irrationality of client’s globalized lens – and impulse to get client to localize dynamic • Pushes this aside, and she asks to take notes and creates a list of concerns. • Despite her fear, took list to staff who have ultimate authority in decisions • Care taken to be trustworthy (emphasis on following through) • Considered girls doing own advocacy but intimidation led her to do this • Here it is NOT better for girls to “learn to fish for themselves” • Notice importance of using power to access audience and voice • IMPACT – supervisors’ support for their responsiveness to client voice, while some angry that girls are being given voice, as well as “threat to the adult-child order” • Caution: What about when we cannot notice the injustice?

    32. #4: See fullness of client needs & strengths • Four dimensions particularly problematic • Human services have drifted towards emphasis on diagnostic-based assessments • Needs eclipse strengths • AOP-based approaches also do this • Damage – people become their problems & problem-based analysis legitimates social control • We are very good at compartmentalizing needs, and defining limited interventions • We “lock” our perspectives of clients rather than understanding influence of context

    33. Solutions • Return to social histories • Render a compassionate, client-validated understanding of distress • Implicate macro context for micro distress • Look for resistance, for practices that protect, for ways to make behaviours understandable (without pathologizing) • And to expand avenues to respond to needs • Communities value spaces that offer quality services and advocacy supports

    34. Case Study • A white school social worker in a low-income area of town • She has been building a relationship with a 12-year old African boy called Billy who is often angry and hostile with adults. He is frequently suspended from school. • Incident: One day he comes up to her and says… • “My mom says that you won’t ever help me. People like you can’t understand us. You’ll never be able to help me at school. “ • You say, in return, “I am sorry you feel that way” • Her inadequacy seemed insurmountable • She is trained to reflect emotions back to the client • A week later she sees the trespass, and is willing to centre micro-aggressions and reworks her perception of his behaviour as the problem, and returns with • “I’m sorry; you’re right. I’d like to try again. Will you let me try again? I commit to trying really hard to understand, and to hearing from you about how I can be helpful.”

    35. #5: Work in solidarity with clients & community • Socialization of Privilege (Hobgood, 2000) • Social distance • Isolation • Ignorance • Arrogance • Meaning we assume we understand “other” • Notice the problem then becomes ours as service providers • Task is to narrow social distance • And to reposition expertise in the client and community • Further troubles our expertise

    36. Primacy of participant/community experience & knowledge • Notice the multitude of ways we diminish these • Notice many conventions benefit the worker and/or organization • Stance of innocence as helper • Misses complicity, superiority & social control functions • Office-based practice as opposed to community practice • Individual practice • Problems stay localized & individualized, rather than socialized • Solutions also stay that way • Cultural competency • Says everyone can be effective in working outside of one’s context • Presumes that mainstream services can meet the needs of everyone • Problematic advocacy stance of “helping people help themselves”

    37. Centring positional privilege • High levels of social distance in the profession • Dangers of not having an embodied experience of oppression • Professionals decide • Which services are “helpful” for individual clients • Array of services that exist • Needs and directing how professionals provide them • Think of all the ways we minimize the distress clients experience • Teach life skills and budgeting when the problem is poverty • Teach prevention when families cannot escape distress or afford respite • Don’t want people to depend on us • And go quiet in the face of pronounced systemic injustices • Narrows options for solidarity • Emphasis on our role as allies with clients/community • Dangers, too, of the ally model that overly rely on the voluntary, goodwill efforts of allies

    38. Quote from Lila Watson, Aboriginal Elder “If you have come to help me, then please go away. But if you have come because your liberation is bound with mine, then let us work together.”

    39. Solidarity practices • Narrow social distance with clients & communities • Hire from the community • For educators, recruit & retain from the community • Provide pathways for service users to become providers • Systems navigators, peer counselors, mutual aid organizers, network & community building... And staff • Immerse oneself into the community • What will cause you to build durable commitments to these communities? • Become a part of the community (live, work, play, educate...) • Invest in the community • Financial, reputational, friendships, partnerships • Building a tied future with shared investments • Hold solidarity with your clients/families

    40. #6: Be informed by, but go beyond, the ally model • Notice the “ease” of wrapping ourselves in the “ally identity cloak” • Becomes a desire to be innocent • Blocks our attention to our “trespass” and complicity • Notice the inadequacy of relying on goodwill of others to enact ally practice

    41. Privileged people are “dangerous allies” (Lopes & Thomas, 2006) • Typically need/want recognition • We want to see ourselves as “exceptional” rather than implicated & complicit • Our stature traditionally depends on NOT rocking the boat • We cannot be trusted to have durable commitments to this work… might turn attention next year elsewhere • “If I don’t have an embodied experience whereby the fibers and neurons in my body resist and scream in the face of oppression and privilege, then I am an unreliable ally” (Curry-Stevens, 2010) • We can’t ever “know” the experience of oppression of service users • “Building expertise about the ‘other,’ is ripe with arrogance and error” (Curry-Stevens, 2010) • Who really wants to rely on change that is rooted in what might be a “passing fad” of a few privileged allies? • Responsibility, thus, for... • Structural reforms that don’t depend on goodwill (later in presentation)

    42. Case Study – Ann’s • “The end of the honeymoon” in research project • “Exceptional” activist-based scholar who understood social justice practice • Missed many things • Had not attained real licensing of the project from the community • Missed that data needed to be mainstream or it would be marginalized by policy makers • “Don’t you DARE put us into another focus group” • Community called process to halt and redirected project... To extremely fruitful ends • Urgency felt • Results beyond the conventions of policy research

    43. #7: Challenge the canons & conventions of the profession • Canons that increase the social divide include: • Not answering personal questions when asked (non-disclosure) • Professional distance from clients • Not responding to basic needs if programs don’t exist • Not sharing money • Not driving clients • No dual roles • Friendships prohibited • Spatial divides • Understand the functions of our conventions • Lets us feel we have done enough • We are “innocent” in our helping • We are invulnerable to their situation • Keep us separated... The ideal is to be able to “leave work at the office” • Sustain our privilege & superiority • Ethos of expertise • Our ability to diagnose/assess, treat & intervene • Not to be connected to our clients

    44. Example: Interviewing • We simultaneously emphasize an ethos of confidence and suspicion • Notice the contradictions • Give people confidence while we hold them under suspicion • We seem spontaneous and friendly while we treat each comment to further scrutiny (or at least a decision about more scrutiny) • We hold contradictory beliefs about clients • Primary one is believing and disbelieving at the same time, and we position this as the ideal stance • On the surface, we build their confidence in us… and this is an act of exploitation because it is a form of surveillance and investigation • INSTEAD – normalize the temptation to deceive and honor it as an appropriate act of survival • AND reject the unreasonable features of our surveillance

    45. Example: Writing client assessments • We describe clients in certain ways • And this forecloses all other ways of seeing the client • We establish a reality & necessarily block other ones • Mythically, we write their story • Omitted are the ways in which this story denies, deflects and silences certain story lines and realities • Notice that there is an opportunity to use the biographic notes to achieve two things • A counter-narrative that provides more compassion of the client’s experience • A subversive narrative that exposes how “helping” is actually an act of domination

    46. Solutions • Deconstruct positional privilege • End reliance on professional canons • Instead, context-specific response • Reciprocity within the relationship • Client-directed resources (funds) • Narrow spatial distance • Refuse our defaults of “I can’t afford it” or “I’m not allowed to” • Ensure we acknowledge our complicity instead of ducking it

    47. Case study • Holding a stance of “objective,” dispassionate and invisible authority in assessment practices falls prey to the “god trick” (Rossiter, 2007) • Where we remain unmarked and clients get marked by us • Instead...