Recently I attended the AASW Social Work conference. An event attended by over three hundred Social Workers. As a lonely private practitioner I have always valued the opportunity to attend gatherings where there are other Social Workers. It has always been a time where I can gather with like-minded people and talk about practice in an environment where I feel safe and accepted. To have the space to discuss the unique problems associated with the practice of Social Work has always been liberating and caused me to feel accepted and given me a direction has regenerated me. After attending meetings where practice is discussed I have become buoyed by the commonality we have shared the fact that we may have differing approaches but in essence have the same goals and objectives. I love the idea that we can challenge each other and yet have a sense of professionalism which gives credit to the uniqueness which is an integral part of us all.
I attended the conference hoping that again I would find within this large body of professionals the same feeling I have when I attend my local branch CPD sessions or other activities where Social Workers have gathered. However on this occasion I left feeling something very different. This doesn’t mean that there wasn’t anything to be gained from attending because I did score an autographed copy of Hugh Mackay’s latest book.
What is disappointing is that the issues which confront us all are never discussed in detail. Even though we did have some discussion on registration there wasn’t a passionate plea for recognition because it appeared that the AASW were doing all they could to advocate for change. My guess is that there are many Social Workers who don’t care whether we are registered or not or believe that registration is going to add further cost to being a Social Worker. I also wonder if there are those who see registration as an imposition which would make them more accountable. If there were any dissenting voices they were silent. When I think of our ineptitude in fighting for what Social Work means I wonder if we are worthy of obtaining professional recognition through registration?
I attended a session where the topic was private practice. To hear two of the speakers massaging their egos was extremely painful and offered nothing to the debate about what it takes to be a Social Worker. One of the speakers was so obsessed with Mental Health diagnosis that one wonders if he was a Social Worker at all. He presented as a voice for the DSM V.
Perhaps I attended the wrong sessions but I rarely heard anyone talk about Social Justice or the struggle against social and organisational change. Where was the talk about clients and the inequities in our organisations and society which disempower the most vulnerable. At what point did we highlight the great work done by Social Workers or are we bereft of those Social Workers, or are we simply not doing anything worth celebrating?
At the end of the two days we were asked to make comments about the symposium or aspects of Social Work. One of the questions asked at the beginning of the Symposium focussed on what we could be doing as Social Workers that would make a difference. No one had the answer or at the end of the two days were too tired to make their way to the microphone at the front of the auditorium to make a comment. I know I didn’t. I feel somewhat guilty that I am criticising others for not presenting their voice when I didn’t present my own. I guess I didn’t believe that I would be heard or that anyone would care.
Basically we are a pathetic bunch who struggle to understand our professional identity. I was reminded of who we are professionally when some time ago I was counselling a Social Worker who was faced with a particular work conflict. I suggested that it may be helpful to read through the AASW Code of Ethics to help her understand where she stood professionally in relation to the conflict. She asked me if it was possible to download the Code of Ethics from the internet. She obviously didn’t have a copy of her own and therefore hadn’t read it for some time, if at all. It is a little like being a Christian Minister and never having read the Bible. Regretfully, the connection between who we are suppose to be professionally and who we actually are is a giant chasm. The exploration of that gap, at this conference, didn’t occur.
There is a need to challenge who we are. Why we do what we do and our efficacy. According the the AASW Code of Ethics “In all contexts, social workers maintain
a dual focus on both assisting human functioning and identifying the system issues that create inequity and injustice.” During the conference I didn’t hear a discussion on the way we are assisting human functioning nor the systemic issues which create inequity and injustice. We could have been offered the challenge to talk about our practice and how our practice produces the outcomes our profession demands. Where are our stories about the impact we have on clients or the challenges confronting us from a government or organisational perspective? Are we so unclear of what we represent that we are fearful of challenging others with what we believe for fear of being discovered a fraud?
When you are asked what you, as a social worker, do, what do you say? Do you hesitate because you haven’t worked it out yet or simply don’t you know? Look for a creative way to describe who you are as a Social Worker. This is not about what you do, this is about working out a definition of your version of a Social Worker given who you are. It is these basic understandings we need to discuss and articulate.