A little knowledge that acts is worth infinitely more than much knowledge that is idle. - Kahil Gibran
Social work has offered me the tools to work with communities and individuals through the process of change. By standing with (beside and behind) those with whom I work, I can offer insight, support and advocacy to communities who hope to build the frameworks for change.
Social Work has taught me about the systems that inform and structure peoples lives. It has allowed me to delve deeper into feminist and anti-oppressive practice. It has asked me to develop a deeper practice of self-reflection, and has required me to become a life-long learner, dedicated to understanding the complexities and dynamics of interconnected relationships.
Social Work has taught me that social justice and sustainability can be pillars of my every day life. By bringing this awareness into how I live, I become a more active, engaged and passionate community member. Social work has offered a lens with which to see the world. I now have a deeper understanding of the connections that hold us together and the factors that drive us apart.
Social work is a collection of theories and practices that deal with individual and social change. While I have long been engaged in these processes of growth and change, I have become emboldened with new tools through my M.S.W. In particular, I have learned new ways of working with groups, how to navigate and shift social systems, and a broader understanding of how power structures impact society, groups and individuals.
Working with groups As part of my introductory practicum,I worked at a women’s shelter in the Upper Bow Valley, Alberta. During this time, I facilitated a healthy relationships group for women who had experienced violence at the hands of their male partners. The group collectively explored the effects of gendered violence, and the impacts of the patriarchal system on women in their own communities and around the world.Through this local and international connection, the women began to understand that it was not ‘their’ personal behavior that had instigated violence. Instead, they recognized that violence is rooted in sexist gender roles and expectations that are placed onto women from childhood through a system of oppression. While their experiences of violence were very real, an international approach to social work helped to provide them with a larger picture and therefore to reduce the personal guilt that many of them felt. This experience taught me that an international approach to social work can serve people in a variety of situations and contexts by offering connection and a broader platform for understanding. Working with the groups also taught me how much I love being a witness of change, watching connections being made between people and facilitating insights that will ultimately shift individual lives and collective systems.
Working with social systems In setting out to understand how to better support people through change both in Canada and abroad, I realized that knowledge of local systems can be one of the most beneficial tools that social work can provide. For this to occur however, requires an understanding of culture and society, as well as governance and process. In this way, my capacity to support change in communities was fundamentally different during my introductory practicum (in Canada) and my advanced practicum (in India). My introductory practicum, based one hour’s drive away from the house that I grew up in, had me situated in a position to provide acute social service support to individuals in crisis. I could use my knowledge of provincial and municipal services to help navigate people through the complexities of systems they may not understand but nonetheless required the services of. On the other hand, my advanced placement was based twenty hour’s away by plane, and had me situated in a cultural and governance context that was unfamiliar to me.In no way could I enter into this placement with the same pretense of assisting in the provision of concrete services. Instead, I found myself working at the level of systems change, facilitating support, asking questions and doing background work to support the community members in enacting their own system change.
Understanding power structures How power is used in relationships is an essential factor in peoples experience of their world. I see social work as the opportunity to work with communities and individuals to understand their own inherent power. Using a strengths-based approach, social work can highlight the assets of a community, offering building blocks which can then lay the foundation of social change. I understand change to be a mutual process, one in which I am engaged in along with those who I am working with. As Lilla Watson said it best, "if you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together."
At Navdanya, staff travel around India to facilitate organic farmers trainings to help farmers transition from industrial to organic agricultural practices. During my internship, I was fortunate to travel to several farmers trainings and was able to speak to a diverse group of farmers working around the country. At one farmers training in the North of India, a man asked me why I was at the training. "Don't Canadian farmers have troubles too?" he asked. I stopped for a long while before answering him. I told him that the reason that I had traveled around the world to work with Navdanya was to learn from the people in India, so that I could take the knowledge back to the people in Canada who struggle with similar issues. I was also there to help in the facilitation of change, by asking questions that sometimes can't be asked by people who are directly inside of a situation. I could also bring my knowledge of power, how systems work, organization and my belief in community assets to the discussion. Ultimately, I told him, I am in India to bring attention and the force of change to an issue that gravely affects people from all around the world in numerous catastrophic ways. The farmer looked at me, and smiled. "I am glad you are here" he said. "I am glad too" I replied.
Growth My approach to Social Work is informed by the body, mind and spirit. I have learned that people bring all of themselves to an interaction with another, and that the whole individual (as that person is within their environment) influences how they understand the world and their place in it. Social work has taught me that in our relationships with others we are seeking respect, empathy, compassion and a deep meeting of who we truly are.
The last two years have offered me a magnificent scope for personal and professional growth. From my first day in the Masters of Social Work program in September of 2008 to the moment that I write this paragraph, opportunities of growth and development have been presented to me. What have I learned?
From the process of writing I have learned perseverance and patience (27 versions of a manuscript will do that to a person!) From the sweet and profound lessons of India, I learned about not-for-profit management, the wisdom of the earth, the power of community and the importance of finding support systems for myself. From my experience as a Teaching Assistant, I learned about sharing knowledge, lighting fires of excitement and remembered how much I love working with groups. From my classes I learned about questioning, rethinking and reconsidering. From my teachers and mentors, I learned about commitment, empathy, and how to be a force of positive change in the world.
Perhaps the most painful, but profound lesson of all (a back injury from a bus accident in the North of India during my practicum) I learned about valuing the incredible preciousness of my body, that physical 'ability' is temporary and that I have the strength to meet a variety of challenges with a smile on my face (at least most of the time!) As I process my experiences over the past few months (and indeed over the last two years) I am already turning toward the future, the expanse of the fall where I will have the opportunity to reflect, renew and apply my skill set in new and exciting ways. I am also looking forward to the journey back to Kenya where I will have the chance to apply international social work into practice.
While I feel some sadness about my departure from the role of 'student', I look forward to embracing my next roles. I know I will continue to be a life-long learner, but I can acknowledge now that I have skills that I have developed that I can bring into my personal and professional life. I hope to offer my skill set fully to communities, and to continue developing opportunities for growth.
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Don't do nothing because you can't do everything. Do something. Anything. - Colleen Patrick - Goudreau