Those who are considering whether to embark on a career in social work are likely to have a number of questions on their mind. They may be thinking about whether or not the profession is going to be too much of a challenge in terms of learning new skills, or they may be worried about the time commitment of training, whether the role is suited to their skills or if it pays enough.
The impact of the recent increased focus on diversity, equity and inclusion is also often on the minds of those entering this profession. Social workers are often at the forefront of the most intimate parts of many people’s lives, which means that they need to have an increased awareness – and sensitivity to – the different ways that people live their lives.
Whether that’s awareness of how their sexual orientation might interrelate with their family dynamics or sensitivity to the impact of cultural background on how current decisions are made, it’s important to know how to handle these topics with care.
This blog post will share some best practice around the issue and advise on how a social worker, whether trainee or otherwise, can ensure they do a good job helping people with their social situations and navigating the tricky worlds of relationships, money and much more.
The Skill Of Empathy
The word “empathy” is thrown around in the social work sector a lot, and it’s important for you as a trainee to get a strong understanding of this word and why it has come to be so important.
The dictionary definition of the term is the “ability or practice of imagining or trying to deeply understand what someone else is feeling or what it’s like to be in their situation.”
What does this mean in practice? It’s a way for you, as a social worker (with a portfolio of clients) to put yourself in another person’s shoes and understand what barriers they face. You are inevitably going to be different from some or all of your clients in terms of socioeconomic status, ethnicity, sexuality or something else.
Say, for example, that you’re from a middle-class background and your client is someone experiencing a low income, and they’re struggling to ensure they make ends meet to feed their children. The automatic response might be to think about how you’d solve this situation if it were you, using your own pre-conceived ideas: you may think it’s possible for them to cut back on a cost, for example, or to buy something cheaper.
But as a social worker developing the skill of empathy to help empower this person to get to where they want to be, you might find that they don’t have these options open to them. They may be unable to drive to a cheap food source, for example, or have any other costs to cut.
As a result, it’s important to use skills that show empathetic understanding, such as asking open-ended questions to build a full and clarified picture of what they feel their own options are. From there, you can appropriately slot in other sources of support that the person can access, rather than lecturing them on options that they don’t have.
At first glance, it may seem tricky to know how to do this in every scenario. However, those who are exploring how to become a social worker are likely to pick up this skill through their course of study, both in their training and during their placements.
A good program such as that offered by Keuka College is there to help promote these skills not just in theory in the classroom but also through the deployment of practical examples, which convert the knowledge in your mind to the way you work in real life and real communities.
Empowerment Is Essential
Social work is all about building relationships with people and helping them do the same with other people. For that reason, empowerment must be placed front and center in your practice.
Rather than always advocating for the client and presuming what they need, empowerment means giving the client the skills to be proactive in what they want.
But what does empowerment look like in practice? One way is to go through a list of skills with the client and help them develop them. Say a client needs to attend a family court hearing.
An unempowering way for them to go through this experience would be for them to say nothing throughout the hearing and to remain in silence. An empowering way for this to be done, however, would be for the person to speak for themselves and to share their side of the story.
The social worker could start there and look at what skills are necessary for this to take place. They could, for example, offer to do some public speaking coaching with the client and provide a test environment in which the client can practice their capacity to speak for themselves on their own behalf. They could also help the client prioritize the information they wish to share and show the client ways to go through briefing documents and pick out what is most important to them.
This must all be done in the context of the structural issues mentioned further on in this article. Clients from marginalized communities are not necessarily in a position to know how to navigate power structures like these. They may be less likely to have accessed educational resources over the course of their lifetimes, for example, or they may not be in a position to access information.
If income issues mean that they lack a decent internet connection or computer, for example, they may not be able to research courtroom or other formal environments online and therefore may not be able to discover what they need.
A strong social worker can signpost them to the right information and help them get comfortable with it so that they can then deploy this information when advocating for themselves.
Empowerment isn’t, of course, about abandoning the client altogether to their own devices. It’s no use to hide behind empowerment as an excuse for not putting in the work or for leaving the client on their own. Instead, empowering someone to act on their own behalf should be seen as an equivalent process to an external person acting on their behalf outright. It’s a way to give people the skills they need to act in their own best interests.
Working with marginalized communities is an inherently political activity in that it relates to the way that power is distributed within our society. For that reason, it’s important to look at your work in terms of power structures.
Certain groups within society have more power, perhaps because they look a certain way (such as a certain ethnicity) or because they behave in a way that adheres to a stated norm (such as those who have heterosexual relationships). Those who don’t do things that meet a norm are more likely to be relatively powerless.
This, of course, doesn’t mean that all people who are from a certain group are powerless, but it does mean that the likelihood is higher. In the US, for example, nearly 90% of incidents in New York City involving the police stopping people involved black or Latinx people. The figure for white people, meanwhile, was just a tenth.
The structural challenges can be compounded in situations where the person in question is a member of more than one marginalized group. For example, those who are both women and from an ethnic minority may face more prejudice or lack of access to resources than those who are men and from the same ethnic minority background.
In terms of applying this to your work as a social worker, it’s vital to make sure that you look out for these structural issues.
Sometimes, a client may indicate that they want to express their anger at the way the structure and system has treated them, and it’s important for you to give people space to voice and process this. Your skill will lie in converting this anger into something that helps them improve their situation.
Say someone considers that their life has been harmed by involvement from law enforcement, and they feel that they want to address this experience and take the view that the police are racist.
In this instance, you’re not there simply to listen to or encourage their opinions, but instead to help them use channels to have their grievances addressed. You may be able to let them know about the channels that exist or support them in making a formal representation about what has happened to them so that they can move on with their lives.
Not all people from marginalized communities who come to you will want to think in terms of politics. On the contrary, some might actively not take that perspective – and that’s fine as well. As a social worker, your job is not to raise political consciousness but instead to work from where the client is and to put yourself in their shoes to see how they see the world.
There is no need to ask a person who has expressed an objection to thinking in political terms to do so; in such a case, politics and structural issues may well best be something you can keep in the back of your mind.
It’s also worth making a distinction in your own mind between barriers to empowerment that are external and those that are internal. The above power blocks are mainly external because they exist in measurable ways in the real world beyond the person’s mind.
However, power blocks are sometimes internal. This is where what is known as “internalized oppression” can come into play. Say a person has been disempowered all their life by external power blocks; it’s possible that they will begin to think that they cannot possibly overcome them and hence may experience confidence issues or even begin to think that they deserve what they are experiencing.
As a social worker, it’s not your role to act as a therapist. However, you can certainly show people who are experiencing this where they can rethink some of their internalized thoughts.
For a younger person from a specific community, for example, there may be a mentoring or buddy scheme available where they are able to meet older people from a similar background. These mentors can model to them what is possible when they are older – the ability to be confident, happy and without negative internalized perceptions of themselves.
As a social worker, you are there to help people identify problems on their own journey and at their own speed – and then show them where to go to change things around once they are more empowered.
Safeguarding Is Key
However, it’s also important to sound a note of caution. If you’re serving as a social worker in any community (and especially in a diverse community), it’s important to work in a way that is suited to this level of diversity.
But it’s also important to be sure that you have safeguarding vulnerable people as your number one priority – and that can, in some limited situations, present you with a dilemma.
For example, you’re working with a family in a community that’s different from yours. This family happens to have a vulnerable young person in it. The first thing you’ll want to do is work with sensitivity to this diversity. There may be particular cultural practices in place which you need to be knowledgeable about, and building a relationship through the use of empathy is also ideal.
But your ultimate concern will always be the welfare of the vulnerable person, and if you feel that the above techniques have not managed to help you build a relationship and solve the problem together, you may be forced to go over the heads of those in the family and provide more direct and interventionist support to protect this individual.
The good news is that there is almost always support available from your managers and those further up the hierarchy than you. In this instance, best practice would always be to report your concerns either to your supervisor or, in some limited circumstances, a medical or law enforcement authority if you believe that the vulnerable person would otherwise be in harm’s way.
This can be a tricky choice to make, especially if you’re worried about the risks of behaving in a way that could cause arguments or bad feelings. In the end, however, safeguarding is always the right approach. It’s vital to be sure that nothing gets in the way of preventing harm, and if as a last resort you need to do this in a way that isn’t empowering, that may be needed.
Ultimately, there’s no one magic way to empower those in marginalized communities when you’re working as a social worker. Instead, it’s necessary to always act with empathy and focus on increasing your knowledge so that you can make informed decisions.
This certainly requires some time investment during your training, but it’s likely to pay off: by working in a way that empowers people from marginalized communities to advocate for themselves, your own workload will drop while the client enjoys a more self-led experience.
Provided that the right methods are used to carefully empower the client, it’s possible for it to transform their lives. In short, it’s a win-win.