By: Kavi Kaushik, YWCA Cambridge Advocacy and Outreach Coordinator
Committing to working towards racial justice means many things, including committing to reducing harm within existing systems and imagining new possibilities outside of them. In conversations around police and justice system reform, pushes for community-based safety outside of the police have echoed around the country and the world, from collectivist food justice programs to mutual aid to hotlines and crisis support. Some have suggested that replacing police with credentialed social workers in cases of crisis could be a solution. The discipline of social work has its American roots in addressing the consequences of urbanization, poverty, and immigration in the mid 19th century, but the ethos of caring for all and working to build an equitable society has existed outside of a formal discipline for ages and continues to grow today.
As part of National Social Worker Month, I wanted to highlight those within the social work discipline who are using their power and privilege to challenge the systems that cause harm. I want to acknowledge that there are many constraints and systemic barriers to all folks being able to engage in this type of work. That being said, it is important to ignite this conversation, and thus I wish to showcase what taking an abolitionist stance as a social worker can look like in our community.
This piece is the result of a conversation with a local abolitionist social worker, who requested being identified solely as ES to protect their employment, about their experience working within the systems that bind so many people. What does it mean to challenge the carceral systems (i.e. formal jails, prisons, immigrant detention centers, etc. as well as control, surveillance, and criminalization) that bind so many people, especially those belonging to marginalized groups? What does it mean to have a social work degree while being committed to dismantling systems of white supremacy, racism, sexism, ableism, homophobia, transphobia, and other systems of oppression?
Kavi Kaushik (KK): How does activism happen within the discipline of social work and/or in educational spaces? What have your experiences been with this?
ES: When I couldn’t get the care I needed as a white woman, I was so horrified by how many people can’t access care. Ever since it’s been about figuring out where the systemic issues are. … [I actually] wrote to the NASW [National Association of Social Workers] to tell them that I’m upset they don’t do enough advocacy work, [and I] ended up joining the legislative action committee. All the other social workers in the substance use and mental health committee agreed and asked why advocacy was not happening the way we all wanted it to.
KK: A lot of organizers and community activists have tried to call attention to the ways that mandated reporting laws can harm individuals seeking help and support, especially in low-income communities, where the struggles of poverty can be confused with neglect and abuse. How do you see mandated reporting as a tenet of the social work discipline?
ES: Honestly, mandated reporting is the antithesis of self-determination for clients, and [goes against] a dedication to social justice. Social workers calling systems on people, it’s just the antithesis of the work.
KK: What would you say are the core tenets of the ethics of social work? Is this commonplace?
ES: Believing in self-determination and a commitment to social justice. The criminal justice system is a barrier to so much of this work.
KK: Say more.
ES: Even with the flexibility to meet clients where they’re at and dedicating ourselves to harm reduction and housing first etc., we still have police that criminalize poverty – clients carrying criminal records that bar them from employment and housing, basic things people need to be able to survive in the system. A carceral approach to social work causes really deep meaningful harm to clients. And the coolest thing is that what I’ve been seeing (especially with clients with marginalized identities) is they do so well so quickly being connected to care and treated with respect. The community piece is the opposite of the carceral approach. Hurt people hurt people and healed people heal people.
KK: How do you incorporate this approach into working with clients?
ES: Social work should be advocating for peer mentors as a commonplace resource for our clients, because of the power imbalance. What I have found in myself as a person with lived experience and significant empathy is that the very nature of the work is so deeply impacted negatively if you’re not entering it with an abolitionist mindset. Clients know that they’ve been harmed by the systems and as soon as they see a provider not believe that, there’s a break in trust. One thing I try to name is that This Thing is Unfair and Unjust. You shouldn’t have to choose between this and this etc etc. I’m always strongly encouraging clients to form their own groups and take their lived experience and advocate to change systems. Every interaction I have with clients is trying to orient them away from the stigma they’ve been subjected to, and orient them towards changing the systems that have harmed them and often also everyone they care about.
On the nonprofit industrial complex, ES added: One of the things that has become so clear to me is the fact that because we don’t trust people to just provide them with the resources they need. And instead, we funnel to privileged white people running organizations. They’re so concerned about funding, auditors, keeping their own jobs, that caring for the client is secondary. The only people who are tasked with providing mental healthcare, wrap around services, in the system we are currently in, end up choosing to make their org function more easily at the cost of folks getting services that help them in any meaningful way.
KK: I’m not asking you to fix the system right now during this interview, but what do you think is the future of social work?
ES: I’m an attachment-focused social worker, looking at how early trauma comes into later behaviors. I keep thinking about how white men have historically been raised and the kinds of behavioral stuff that comes up from their unprocessed issues, and how they build carceral systems infused with their socialization. Infusing the aggression, the dishonesty that is rewarded as a white man. These are the systems that are harming our clients. There’s a way of interacting with the world that brings in punishment, isolation, judgment… and all of the research that social workers have access to shows us that shame and stigma neurobiologically CAUSE deep meaningful harm. They are the root of harm. For me, actually devoting myself to the ethics of social work means that I have to both be part of a bottom-up approach, infusing and teaching and modeling empathy and an appreciation for lived experience, asking compassionate questions… and also infusing it in systems from the top down. Part of the really important piece too is the lived experience piece… the bringing peers in. Connecting people to their own empowerment and empowerment within their own communities feels like the solution to all of it. How dare anyone harm someone else and punish someone else for a situation they’ve never experienced and cannot understand.
KK: Yes, so so so important! Is there anything else you’d like to add?
ES: We need to lower the barriers to enter the profession so people with lived experience and empathy are doing the work and it’s not about privilege. The origins of social work was white women deciding what was best for people and forcing it on them. I would like to see us in a future where there don’t need to be social workers at all, just peer networks. Trauma is the root of what’s wrong with much of the world, and breaking out of capitalism is breaking out of the idea that anyone needs to fight for their survival. Building and sustaining community is the opposite of carcerality.
Thank you to E.S. for their time and words. Identifying details have been masked to protect this individual’s employment.
Note: This interview focuses on an abolitionist stance from one particular social worker and how that may impact the social work field. YWCA Cambridge encourages dialogue and conversation as we collectively work toward a better future for all members of our community. We are committed to highlighting a diverse set of opinions.