Social work: What does it mean to me?

Community-based participatory research training workshop in Sindh, Pakistan. All rights reserved.

Community mapping exercise during Community-Based Participatory Research Training Workshop in Sindh, Pakistan – June 2006. All rights reserved.

I completed my Masters in Social Work (MSW) degree at the University of Toronto almost eight years ago. Although since then I have had a range of academic, professional, and personal experiences that have affected me, I want to share a bit today about the influences of my training and background in social work on my perspective and career path. I have been reflecting on this lately due to an interview I recently participated in with the Faculty of Social Work (details below).

What brought me to social work?

Throughout my undergraduate studies in psychology (at Queen’s University), I was academically and professionally interested in early interventions with young children and their families. I studied developmental psychology and was involved in research in child development. I also volunteered and worked with various community organizations working with children, youth, and families. Through these experiences I developed a deeper understanding of the long-term effects of adversity in childhood, as well as the importance of working with young children and their families to improve well-being in both the short and long-term. I felt that training and experience in social work would help equip me with practical knowledge and skills needed to work directly with young children and families, and to make a difference in their lives.

How did social work training and experiences influence me?

First, I gained a deeper understanding of broader socio-political issues, and of the systemic effects of communities, institutions, and policies on populations of people. This led me to focus both my MSW coursework and practicum placements at community and system levels rather than direct practice with individuals and families. This also led to my post-MSW work at community and system levels – for example, working with community-based programmes, developing and evaluating education programmes, and conducting research with the aim of impacting social policy.

Second, I was deeply influenced by experiences, conversations, and reflections – with those with whom I was working, as well as with peers and professors – about power, marginalization, social justice, equity, and anti-oppression. I began to see how the mainstream discourses, knowledge bases, and systems that we take for granted reflect and perpetuate power differences in society, and continue to systematically marginalize certain groups and identities. This awareness has strongly shaped my approach towards knowledge, research, and practice.

Third, I gained a broader understanding of what it means to be a social worker. In Canada, we tend to think of social workers as those working with children in difficult circumstances (e.g., in the foster system), or perhaps in other settings where they provide counselling and support to individuals and families. However, social work is really about an approach and a set of skills in working with people and communities that can be applied to many different contexts and roles. People with training in social work pursue a very broad range of career paths. Some of my peers from the MSW programme are now working in policy analysis (often in government ministries), academic research, or non-profit organizational management, as well as in child welfare, hospital settings, addictions counselling, and more. I myself have pursued a mix of local and international research and programme work.

How does my social work background continue to influence my current approach and work?

I try to remain conscious of and sensitive to inequities persistent in systems (from the micro level to the macro global level), and how these inequities are reinforced and perpetuated by discourses and ideologies that are not questioned or critically examined. I believe ‘knowledge’ is socially constructed, and it often reflects dominant ideologies which perpetuated inequity. (See here for example: Learning and development in context.)

I aim to create spaces where diverse voices can be heard. This means trying to operate from as participatory an approach as possible in many of my research and professional activities. (See here for example: Community-based participatory research: a training manual for community-based researchers.) This also means highlighting and supporting alternate perspectives and discourses. (See here for example: Early childhood education: Questioning play and child-centred approaches.)

My social work background as well as my work in early childhood research and practice in various contexts around the world have deepened my understanding of the complexities of childhoods, families, and communities. I believe strongly that research, theory, and practice need to be contextually grounded and socially relevant. This is reflected, for example, in my doctoral research, where I am working to develop a contextually grounded evidence-based conceptualization of early school success in Pakistan – a conceptualization which includes the perspectives of teachers, parents, and young children at public schools in Pakistan. In addition, a contextually grounded understanding of what enables success in early schooling will help inform education programme/policy decisions in Pakistan.

I believe research and knowledge come with responsibility to act for change, towards social justice, equity, community, and sustainable living. I don’t think one can be ‘non-political’ – in fact, in trying to be ‘non-political’, one is endorsing the inequitable status quo. As academics and professionals, we have a social responsibility to construct/create and use knowledge and skills for the betterment of society. (See here for example: Knowledge and responsibility.)

Indeed, to me, being a social worker means working for the betterment of society – working to improve the social systems and environments in which people, families, and communities live and grow.

What makes a good social worker?

To be a good social worker, one needs to have humility, be sincere, be open-minded, and be respectful. This can be difficult and requires constant reflection and dialogue. (See here for example: Research ethics: Respecting cultural values while trying to ‘do no harm’ in Pakistan.)

It is also important to reflect critically and engage in ongoing and respectful dialogue with the people and the communities with whom we are working. (See here for example: Educational and other effects of giving children tablets for learning: Critical questions on the One Laptop Per Child approach.)

In addition, there are essential skills that can be learned and developed as social workers, such as establishing rapport, building community, facilitating discussion and participation, being sensitive and attentive, working through issues, and working towards solutions.

If you’re considering pursuing a degree in social work:

Talk to people who have graduated from various social work programmes and ask them their perspectives on the programme as well as on their post-degree careers. Social work programmes at different universities can be very different from each other, in terms of approach, scope, rigour, etc., so try to talk to people who have graduated from the specific programmes you are considering.

A degree in social work can provide you with opportunities to develop skills in working with people and communities, as well as to stretch and challenge your own thinking and perspective on the world. However, the programme will be only what you make of it. So, try putting yourself outside of your comfort zone by taking courses, practicum placements, and extra-curricular activities which you may not have otherwise taken. Talk to people with different perspectives, listen carefully and with an open mind and heart, and reflect critically on your experiences and learnings.

Profiles in Social Work – Podcast Series

As I mentioned earlier, the reason I’ve been reflecting lately on my background in social work is that the Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto recently interviewed me for their podcast series entitled, Profiles in Social Work. This series aims to highlight the range of careers led by MSW graduates.

In the podcast of my interview (Episode 36), you can hear me speak about my time at the Faculty of Social Work, as well as my later work with the Education Programme of the Aga Khan Foundation (Geneva) – specifically about the research study I led with the Releasing Confidence and Creativity early childhood development programme. Here’s a direct link to the mp3 file. And here’s a direct link to the transcript (pdf file). Although the interview was about an hour long, the edited podcast is just under 12 minutes. The editing makes me sound a bit more clear and articulate than I actually am! 🙂

Do you have a background in social work? What does being a social worker mean to you? Please share in the comments section.

Sadaf Shallwani

See related post:

4 thoughts on “Social work: What does it mean to me?

  1. Thank you for sharing your story with everyone! It is always lovely to hear what inspires and keeps people motivated to work in the field of social work. I work with USC School of Social Work and there is nothing better than hearing what inspires them to dedicate their lives to helping others.

    • Dear Gaby, thanks for visiting and commenting! I checked out your link and it seems like you’re doing an excellent job blogging for the MSW programme at USC! 🙂

      • Thanks so much Sadaf! I love social work, social justice, and community development, so I’m always looking for ways to help out. 🙂 One of my close colleagues also works for the USC Rossier School of Education, I bet she would LOVE this blog as she also focuses on early childhood development in education. Do you accept guest posts by any chance?

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