by Lindsay LittrellSeptember 29, 2021
In my previous blog post, I discussed how social work experience and perspectives are a valuable resource to support communities engaged in civil resistance. I reasoned that a profession that brings skills and resources to address psychosocial, material, and relational well-being—and which claims an ethical accountability toward social justice—should work in partnership with those who put their own well-being on the line to advance a more just society through nonviolent action. If nonviolent movements can draw support from social work, couldn’t that positively impact the sustainability and perhaps even the success of their work?
When I first considered these possibilities after many years of having one foot in social work and the other in organizing, this seemed to me like a given—an obvious win/win. However, as I’ve spent more time studying, listening, reflecting, reading, observing (this has been at the heart of my PhD work), I’ve become more cautious about emphasizing the potential benefits without equal attention to the potential risks. After all, despite the profession’s considerable strengths and assets, social work is also, more often than not, quite embedded in, beholden to, and at times complicit with, the very systems that movements seek to transform or dismantle.
A question I ask constantly in my work, activism, and research is “How do we work with what is while we work toward what should be?” In my experience, movements have to navigate this tension on a daily basis. We know that if we wait for problematic-free, risk-free relationships, we’ll be waiting forever. But it’s an ongoing challenge to decide if and how to engage with institutional structures and groups. When do these structures and groups hold significant potential for change, and when are they greater impediments to it?
Sitting with these questions, I’ve come to believe that the only healthy point of entry for a relationship between civil resistance and social work communities is through solidarity, which is a term I use with a specific meaning. As we know, this word—solidarity—gets thrown around a lot with numerous different implications. I imagine that many engaged in the costly work of nonviolent action grow tired of the “solidarity” exclamations devoid of practical, material, useful investment.
Starting with the premise that solidarity necessitates action, but with the nuanced understanding that different contexts require different actions, I find it helpful to be rooted in a framework of transnational feminisms. This paradigm accounts for the necessity of locally rooted strategy and of working together across context to address what impacts us all. Solidarity, in that light, isn’t prescribed by or limited to a set of actions or strategies so much as it is an orientation toward a certain kind of relationship.
Transnational feminist scholar Chandra Mohanty, thus, offers an anchor that is useful for such relationship building in and across context in her framing of solidarity as “mutuality, accountability, and the recognition of common interests as the basis for relationships among diverse communities”. Consistent with this, exclamations of “solidarity” require not just further action, but also demonstrated commitments and orientations, including accountability to the group(s) to whom solidarity is proclaimed, to qualify as such.
From this basis, I would like to share a list of questions that social workers and social work groups and institutions can reflect on and discuss internally before engaging with movements in their community—and throughout any such engagement:
1. What interests and goals do we have in common with the movement? Do we understand how we are harmed by the systems of oppression that the movement is fighting, how we stand to benefit from the world that it’s working toward?
2. Flowing from the previous question, do we understand that offering our skills and resources for the sake of the movement actors’ well-being and for the sustainability of their work is a practice of mutuality, not an act of service? Do we frame our contribution as being for the people or with the people?
3. Are we open and committed to ongoing processes of accountability to the aims and values of the movement, and to the needs and direction of those within it? Are we aware of and proactive about mediating potential risks that our engagement could introduce within spaces of civil resistance and movement work, in light of our professional and power dynamics of our own position (for example: “Do I increase their risk of surveillance?”)? This third set of questions is as much a starting point as the first two.
Working from the premise that, with the right intention and commitments, it is possible to build accountable, mutually beneficial solidarity relationships between social workers and movements, the question remains: “where can you find social workers who are playing these roles of supporting activist well-being and sustaining movement work?”
Based on my own experience and research, I know that there are absolutely people with social work backgrounds already engaging in this kind of work. My previous blog post for Minds of the Movement may be useful in helping to conceptualize how they might be more strategically useful (and I’d love to hear activist and social worker experiences on this topic).
At the same time, I also find that the number of social workers in this kind of collaborative solidarity is far from standard. To this I say, movements are masters at identifying potential allies, and may want to consider social work institutions among them. For example, are you near a university or college with a social work program? What social work institutions and agencies are nearby? Starting local and putting yourself on social work groups’ radars are potential first steps on your end.
I am not alone in doing what I can to move the profession of social work toward activation from the inside and a different conscientization about their relationship to movements. But who’s to say movements should wait for social work to come to them? Social work claims an ethical principle of “promoting justice through building solidarity”. If accountability is foundational to this principle, then it might be exactly the right time for movements to make their own introductions.
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