by Lindsay LittrellMarch 28, 2019
I went back to school this past Fall to pursue my Ph.D. in Social Work, after a combined 16 years of practicing macro social work and teaching in social work higher education, largely because of how many times I’ve felt the need to explain civil resistance to social workers, and explain social work in realms of civil resistance. Based on these experiences, I’ve come to believe that bridging this gap holds incredible possibility for both disciplines.
In the spirit of continuing these fruitful exchanges, I recently started teaching civil resistance to social work students, with the support of an ICNC Curriculum Fellowship. And now I turn to you, Minds of the Movement readers, to introduce you to social work—and hopefully spark further conversations about the potential synergies between these two complementary fields of study and practice.
First, conceptually, it is important to know how social work defines itself and the ethical principles that guide it. As this blog reaches people around the world, I’ve chosen to draw on the language of the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW). Most countries (where I am, the United States, included) use similar language.
The IFSW globally defines social work as a:
“practice-based profession and an academic discipline that promotes social change and development, social cohesion, and the empowerment and liberation of people. Principles of social justice, human rights, collective responsibility and respect for diversities are central to social work. Underpinned by theories of social work, social sciences, humanities and indigenous knowledge, social work engages people and structures to address life challenges and enhance wellbeing.”
If I haven’t caught your attention yet, IFSW ethical principles directly relevant to the work of civil resistance include:
Social work practitioners serve in diverse roles, including as case managers, community organizers, nonprofit administrators, therapists, and policy analysts. What unites them, in addition to the ethical principles outlined above, is the view that it is a necessity to work with both the individual and the environment to make change. Social workers take a strengths perspective—looking to build on sources of resilience in individuals, communities, and societies—with the aim of promoting human well-being and societal transformation.
All of this sounds deeply promising as a support to civil resistance communities, does it not? Yet, in my experience, much of the conversation among social workers regarding civil resistance is focused on the degree to which they should, themselves, initiate what is usually generalized as activism. And social workers certainly do this. But these conversations too often happen as if collectives are not out there on the front lines of the struggle already, right now.
This “voice for the voiceless” narrative is painfully present in so many of the halls of social work higher education. But what if, instead, practitioners were taught how to work with activists as a special population—to utilize their unique skillsets and resources to support and strengthen civil resistance communities toward well-being, sustainability, and increased capacity?
Vestergren, Drury, and Chiriac (2017) did a systematic review of 57 scholarly research articles examining the range of psychological and behavioral changes common to activists. While it is well-known that trauma is a real concern for communities on the frontlines of civil resistance, so many of the themes in these articles pointed to ways peoples’ lives have been strengthened and improved as a result of participating in collective action.
Imagine with me now that social workers become trained to understand these strengths and struggles in the midst of their social work education. Modules on why and how civil resistance works would be an excellent complement to social work coursework that explores diversity, social justice, and human rights; human development and growth in the social environment; social welfare policy analysis and practice; individual, small group, and organizational theory and practice; and community behavior and practice. Social workers could use knowledge of the dynamics of civil resistance, combined with their unique skill-bases, to co-struggle from their practice contexts with activists.
Building a two-way street between civil resistance and social work could have many benefits on individual, interpersonal, and societal levels. What could those benefits look like? Perhaps social workers could be helping clients connect with local groups doing work around issues impacting their lives. Likewise, perhaps social workers could support and resource those same activists through healing-centered engagement, connecting them to community resources, organizing skills- and rights-based trainings, and offering restorative justice supports. And perhaps social workers could use their policy skills to contribute to efforts to defeat increasingly common anti-activist/anti-civil resistance legislation.
Certainly, there are individual social workers doing this kind of work. If that’s you, thank you—I would love to hear your stories and work together toward this practical vision of living into our ethics at scale. And for the remaining comrades I have the pleasure of addressing right now, to you on the frontlines who know what your needs and your collective’s needs are: rather than speaking “for you,” the profession of social work needs to be listening to you and following your lead. What do we need to hear, to see, to know, to do?
There’s work to be done before we, social work and civil resistance, can truly be a match made in heaven. But today, may this vision help to fan the flame of our liberatory imagination and fuel the work that follows.
I’m so grateful to be on this journey with you.
lindsaylittrell *at* uky.edu
Lindsay Littrell, MSW, is a PhD student in the College of Social Work at the University of Kentucky with a graduate certificate in Gender and Women’s Studies. Ms. Littrell is a long-time social work educator with roots in the labor movement and macro practice. Driven by her passion for the building of beloved community, Lindsay keeps her feet on the pavement, connecting with struggles for justice and liberation across contexts and around the world.Read More