ETHICAL STANCE AND ANTI-OPPRESSIVE PRACTICE

 

I believe that I, as a social worker, have an ethical obligation to be committed to justice-doing, not matter what my social work job might be at any given moment. My commitment to justice-doing is central to my social work ethics.​

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Grounding my social work practice in doing justice

AN ETHICAL STANCE FOR JUSTICE-DOING

The range of work contexts is one of the profession's amazing characteristics, but whether I work at the individual, community, or policy-level of social work, my commitment to justice is central to my social work values.

At the very start of my MSW program, I had the opportunity to attend presentations by Dr. Vikki Reynolds, who was a visiting scholar at the Faculty of Social Work in September 2016. One of the really important questions I had when choosing clinical specialization in social work was about how to put my commitment to social justice work to practice in a clinical context. Much thinking of anti-oppressive perspectives and practices in social work is directed at macro-level efforts (Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005). So, I was inspired to hear about and to bring Dr. Reynolds' ethical stance for justice-doing into my reflections on developing my own social justice stance in clinical social work. I read Dr. Reynolds work and reflected on the elements of her ethical stance for justice-doing throughout most of my papers.


Reynolds (2012) proposes a number of principles required to practice an ethic of justice doing. I list them here with questions I have come up with to ask myself in response to each principle:

  • Centering Ethics: "what am I aspiring to, and am I as righteous and ethical as I think I am in my work?"

  • Doing Solidarity: "Am I standing with or against - the client, the other workers, the system, the organization - or both, and how?"

  • Addressing Power: "where/with whom is the power right here/now? What is my location in relation to power?"

  • Fostering Collective Sustainability: "Do I have my peers' backs? Am I being an encourager? Am I helping co-construct hope? Am I making space for my peers to shine, loving them in all their efforts?"

  • Critically Engaging with Language: "Am I listening for resistance? Am I speaking to co-construct it?"

I find Dr. Reynolds (2012) framework to be a very thorough one in helping me engage in ongoing self-reflexivity about my ethical stance in the context of therapy as well as in my organization and community work. Elsewhere, Dr. Reynolds discusses how to do this within our communities of professionals as well (see my presentation on Self-Care as Social Justice)

Dr. Reynolds (2012) writes:

even an imperfect orientation towards justice-doing can open our work to transformation for ourselves, the people we work alongside, and our communities and society. (p. 18)

Such an orientation may seem like a very small action, a drop in an ocean of needed changes in our social world. Just as a single drop creates ripples that change the surface dramatically, this orientation impacts individual professionals, organizations, communities working together, and so on. Such an orientation ripples out into the world in ways I may not be able to envisage. A single act of active hope contributes and reverberates. 


Sakamoto and Pitner (2005) propose a practice of critical consciousness as a way of bringing anti-oppressive perspectives into micro-level social work practice:

Critical consciousness challenges social workers to be cognizant of power differentials and how these differentials may inadvertently make social-work practice an oppressive experience. (p. 435)

I am very interested in studying the intersection between crucial social work values of social justice, and the individual/micro focus of clinical work.  

 
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Adopting an ethical posture of empowerment

EMPOWERMENT AS AN ETHICAL POSTURE IN THERAPY

Dr. Karl Tomm presented his ideas on Ethical Postures in therapy in one of his lectures in the Family Therapy I class. Tomm (2016) discussed four possible ethical postures: manipulative, confrontational, succorant, and empowering (Tomm & Gosnell, 2016). Each of these possible ethical postures involves a particular understanding of the purpose of the therapeutic work, a particular understanding of the client, and of actions that the therapist must take in his or her work. 

In my previous social work education, I was trained to understand the concept of empowerment as central to social work practice and values. However, I had not conceptualized empowerment as an ethical posture. This proposition was very interesting to me - to see empowerment as a stance or perspective that informs  and guides my decision-making versus a set of empowering actions that I should "do". To test out this idea, I explored how an empowering ethical stance could support my own learning and my emerging social work stance.


I reflected on my own current positioning on the graph (see image above; source: Tomm & Gosnell, 2016) 

by becoming engaged in the questions Dr. Tomm (2016) suggested for our process of identifying ethical posture:

  • In your own professional decision-making, which ethical posture do you tend to work out of, most of the time?

  • Under what circumstances have you noticed a shift into a different ethical posture when working with a client?

  • If you were able to adopt a preferred ethical posture, to work out of most of the time, which would it be?

  • How could you guide your own professional development to enter into and hold your preferred decision-making stance more of the time?

  • What would you accept as evidence that you were being successful in developing and holding your preferred ethical posture? (Tomm & Gosnell, 2016)

In answering these questions, I found that I was often leaning more towards the confrontational posture when working with some families on my caseload, and also in my attitude towards my own progress and learning as a clinical social worker. This was a challenging but helpful discovery: I was able to see what I was doing, and to search for ways to change that posture. 

Dr. Tomm's (2016) lecture also offered guidelines for strengthening one's preferred ethical stance:

  • grounding - being sensitive

  • recursioning - being mindful

  • coherencing - being congruent

  • authenticating - being honest.

Each of these guidelines is further described in the lecture notes, and each is a useful process for reflection and can be a practice to use when I find myself leaning away from my preferred ethical stance.​

Adopting and becoming accustomed to these practices and using them on a regular basis - in my reflections following sessions, and in supervision - is a very practical and useful method to help me practice from my preferred ethical posture. I realize that most social work context do not permit the time or space for such reflective practice, but at the same time, I hope we can work towards a more reflexive culture as a profession.


 

 David Paré (2014)

"We are accustomed to thinking of social justice initiatives as 'action', but sometimes forget that conversation, and certainly therapeutic conversation, is itself consequential action (Paré, 2012; Strong & Paré, 2004) - it has very real consequences for the participants." (p. 210)