oo often, social services are designed as rotating doors. They focus on individuals in crisis who, when the symptoms of the emergency have eased, are sent directly back to the stressful situation that caused all the damage – a painful, costly and tragic cycle.
There is little focus in formal social services on helping people to transform their environments to provide ongoing support and love, let alone engaging people to become advocates for their rights. Yet outside these limitations, social workers are supporting connections in communities designed to last people’s whole lifetimes. In many countries we call it “working beyond services”. There are countless examples around the world.
At the age of nine, Nadine was found abandoned after a funeral in Lusaka, Zambia. Her last remaining family member had died of HIV. With the help of social workers, she was given the opportunity to establish a new family and community at the Empowerment Village. Eleven years later, she studied social sciences at university because she wanted to shape the world to become a better place.
Sujan from Dhaka, Bangladesh, picked out plastic bags from a rubbish dump for resale. At a young age he was run over by a bulldozer and lost his leg. Through the support of social workers who assisted 600 waste pickers to become a recognised rights-based collective, Sujan is now a tailor and actively supports the collective and its aims.
Susan from Glasgow joined a Scottish collective of 2,500 people who have experienced state care; they support one another and advocate for their rights. Last month, she and other collective members met Scotland’s first minister and successfully lobbied for a nationwide campaignto tackle the stigma faced by care leavers.
Jamshid from Tehran, Iran, was a heroin addict for 10 years but today he is a qualified psychologist and an active member of a 2,500-strong communitythat supports other addicts to find meaning, direction, community and pride in their drug-free lives.
All these young people’s stories share a common element: they belong to a community based on love, care and responsibility to others, with a strong focus on advocating for their position in society. In each case, members of the collective are treated with the same dignity and rights as all other people. They are encouraged to influence what happens in the collective and to perform leadership roles.
The people in these collectives speak confidentially, knowledgeably and with conviction on their aspirations for a world where everyone’s contributions are recognised, no matter where they were born and what hardships they have endured. Their members know they belong, they have people who love them, they have a place to proudly stand and a role in shaping a better world.
Behind the scenes are social workers working beyond their already demanding job obligations and the limitations of social services’ remits. They call meetings in communities to identify common concerns, assist with developing charters and link collectives with resources.
“This is the empowerment aspect of social work,” Hassan Mousavi Chelak, president of the Iran Association of Social Workers, explains. “To a social worker there is nothing more satisfying than seeing the person they assisted using the same social work principles to help others and the cycle continuing throughout a community. When we see this, we know our work has been successful.”
In many countries social workers’ support for the creation of loving and active collectives is far from easy, especially when the agencies they work for are often deprived of love and avoid discussion on social change. This leads to social workers feeling trapped and burnt-out by the bureaucratic limitations that compromise their professional ethics. But many also find ways around this, and when they do, the approach is social work at its best.
World Social Work Day on Tuesday has the theme of promoting the importance of human relationships. The International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) is highlighting the role of those who work beyond the scope of social services.
On World Social Work Day and every day, we want to see community development and collectives – where all members have an equal say and find lifelong supportive relationships and direction – on the agenda of every social service. Let social workers do their jobs promoting and realising human relationships that advance love, wellbeing and rights for all.
• Rory Truell is secretary-general of the International Federation of Social Workers