Decolonizing Social Work by Advancing Racial Justice
In 2004, the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) and the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) made a joint statement urging social workers to remain true to the profession’s commitment to social justice. Despite this call for action, Black, Indigenous and racialized social workers and social work educators continue to work in constrained environments where they experience marginalization and oppression (Duhaney & El-Lahib, 2021). The legacy of colonialism, decolonization and the effects of globalization and universalization of social work remain rampant. These processes create institutions and structures of power that sustain exploitation, domination, and repression across generations (Ndlovu-Gatsheni, 2018). Social work continues to be a site of Eurocentric values, heavily laden with Western ways of knowing and worldviews that are often far removed from the realities of the populations and settings that it serves. Universities globally support academic freedom in theory, yet academic spaces can be discriminatory, alienating, and risky to challenge power dynamics (Rassol & Harms-Smith, 2021). Eurocentric theories, approaches and practices dominate social work programs. Social work educators and social workers continue to be used as instruments of oppression by both colonial and postcolonial governments in different contexts.
We acknowledge that we are products of colonization and the structures of power and oppression that we yearn to transform. As three Black women social work academics, with differing upbringing, both geographically and culturally, we are uniquely positioned in a Faculty of Social Work located in the Global North. We do not take the space we occupy for granted, as it is uncommon to have this gendered and racialized representation in a Canadian faculty. Our position comes with challenges as we un-learn dominant ways of knowing. However, we work as a team, invested in anti-colonial work while intentionally engaging in acts of resistance to decolonize our curriculum, our pedagogies, and the policies and practices that govern our workplace and our profession. We also emphasize racial justice and equity in our teaching, research and service to the university and our communities.
In this paper, we highlight the importance of decentring Eurocentric ways of knowledge, learning and teaching and the centring of decolonizing pedagogical approaches and practices in social work. Decolonizing Social Work
Over the last two years, we grappled with the relevance of decolonization both locally and globally following the publicly televised murder of Mr. George Floyd and asked questions about the intersections between global injustices and the COVID-19 pandemic. We also are exceedingly aware of the emotional labour and burden for us as Black women fighting and working within an oppressive system (Duhaney, 2020) that may contribute to anger, demotivation, and frustration. These become everyday lived experiences of those who have made the decision to cease being unwitting instruments of oppression and social control in post-colonial regimes. These events coupled with our lived experiences created a window through which we advocate for change and decolonizing approaches in our own circles of influence, including our Faculty of Social Work. Decolonizing social work involves “a process of discerning, unpacking, analyzing, unlearning, and resisting dominant colonial/colonizing influences and worldviews. This process is both internal (healing oneself and unlearning internalized oppression) and external in relation to colonial systems (political, academic, social, economic, and most medical systems” (Gray, n.d., as cited in Lee & Carranza, 2022, p. 29). Promoting decolonizing knowledge, education, and practices void of colonial influences is riddled with complexities, contradictions, and ambivalences. This internal struggle calls us to unlearn dominant ways of knowing.
Within our institution and broader communities, we challenge and push boundaries to create spaces for productive dialogue rather than those based on the politics of polarity. Achieving the intended productive space for dialogue requires a system-wide interrogation of power relationships in practice. Razak (2009) states that in the context of the classroom, “critical attention is needed to understand how we teach global issues, how we introduce content on particular topics, how students interpret and integrate the knowledge, whose voices are silenced and, more importantly, what gets discussed and what is erased” (p. 1). This includes critical reflection, analysis and acknowledgement of power differences enacted at individual, professional, disciplinary and system levels – with inequalities being perpetuated by those with power, advantages, and privilege. We have pushed to obtain space to center Black perspectives and ways of knowing. In our faculty, we created an Anti-Black Racism Task Force (University of Calgary, Faculty of Social Work, n.d.) through which we have informed and influenced the faculty’s strategic plan and redesign of our Bachelor of Social Work program. We partner with like-minded educators to co-develop courses that advance decolonial teaching. As part of its mandate, members of the Anti-Black Racism Task Force developed three critical courses, Africentric perspectives in social work, anti-colonial and antiracist praxis and critical race theory and praxis. For instance, two of us co-developed and co-taught a new course focusing on Africentric perspectives in social work. The Africentric perspectives course exposes students to Africentric ways of knowing, strategies and interventions that are grounded in Africentric principles and values. It draws on historical and contemporary contexts to underscore the ways in which slavery, colonization, racism, and other inequities shape the histories, traditions and lived experiences of peoples of African descent. The course is experiential, relational, and critical of socio-political and economic histories of Black people in Canada and globally. The course encourages students to develop an understanding of the significance of this historical background and its relevance in decolonizing social work.
Our approaches are much more than teaching isolated courses. We effect change in admission, curriculum design, and course content for existing and new courses. In our quest for critical dialogue, we strive to ensure that our students feel included, valued, and heard – thus giving rise to new ideas, and ways of decolonized and transformative engagement. We recognize that colonialism is an impediment to transformative social work. However, it is possible to envision a transformative social work practice. Rassol and Harms-Smith (2021) argue that societal transformation calls for social workers to collectively focus on decolonization more intentionally and to engage with praxis that enables critical consciousness so that they themselves are liberated from these colonial dynamics, with the complex changes required beyond curriculum review, design, and transformation. We share a case study (See Warria & Chikadzi, 2020) of a hybrid model, Isolabantwana (eye of the child) that incorporates social work interventions and honours different ways of knowing.
In African settings, several underlying principles guide practice approaches with people of all ages; these include cooperation, social support networks of trust and agreed norms of obligation and reciprocity. African cultural values motivate the individual’s participation in informal practices to fulfil their cultural responsibilities. These arrangements are not merely an expression of African cultural values but are firmly embedded in customary law and social institutions. For instance, the protection of children is viewed as a community responsibility, augmented with the notion that “all of us” are accountable. However, processes of colonization and post-colonization disrupted and weakened these principles and practices; leaving people vulnerable, not cared for and dependent on government-driven formal social protection measures. Communal care and support processes became individualized and Westernized. To counter these global universalized forces of one size-fit-all models, Isolabantwana was developed in South Africa. It is a community-based child protection program based on the principle of Ubuntu (I am because you are). This model combines both Eurocentric and Africentric approaches. The social worker works with Eurocentric aspects of record-keeping and monitoring while integrating principles of Ubuntu such as humanness, personhood, sharing, dignity and solidarity. This program has different entry points and is linked to other initiatives, networks, and services in the community such as schools who can negotiate access for the social workers. It acknowledges the positive role of traditional African systems that are rarely measured or considered as knowledges. While this approach is implemented in South Africa, it clearly demonstrates that integration of different knowledges is possible. This example calls for social work educators to be intentional in decolonizing practices that govern current institutions.
The dynamics of coloniality are evident and ongoing in many academic and social work contexts. Social workers find themselves practising in heavily colonial-influenced contexts that are politically charged with dictated policies, procedures, and programs and activities. However, there is still much work to be done to (re-)awaken critical consciousness among social workers and remain committed to the social justice mission. Social workers must not assume positions of neutrality where they may inadvertently support or defend the status quo, as this is a betrayal of the social work’s plight for social justice (Chikadzi & Warria, 2022). Decolonization is an ongoing process, geared toward achieving independence, removing all remnants of colonialism, with ongoing questioning, reflective praxis, and analysis of power relationships in practice and policy and towards understanding the role played by the social work profession in colonization. When social workers remain silent and continue to be absent at the periphery of social change and social justice, the decolonization project stalls. In addition, to enact transformational change, we must acknowledge the rich insights gained from engaging with other ways of knowing and being and the ways in which these knowledges and practices can be incorporated into social work curriculum, practice advocacy and policies.
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