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Dr Paulette Henry, EdD
Department of Social Work, University of Guyana, South America


Coya Halley. MA
Department of Social Work, University of Guyana, South America

Decolonising Fieldwork Practice in Guyana: A Systemic Approach to Student Engagement

Guyana's emergence from British colonial rule in 1966 was a historical landmark as Guyana attained its independence and was finally "free" of colonial rule. While freedom proved to be a significant milestone, the impact of a colonial past is still evident in Guyana. The colonial experience has shaped and influenced the physical, spiritual, economic, social, and psychological well-being of Guyanese. Akinwale (2014) perceived those countries with similar colonial histories found the transfer from colonial to indigenous service had both positive and negative effects; for others, a transition process allowing for democratisation was perceived as analogous to decolonisation (Thum, 2019).

Amidst the transition challenges, social work emerged as one of the responses to influence policies and practices to bring about social change as the country adjusted to becoming an independent nation-state. Guyana is still challenged by the ethnic contentiousness inherited from its colonial history as freed Africans, and indentured East Indians who worked under colonial rule remained polarised. Bartels (1977) captured the essence of Guyana's ethnic contentiousness, a residue of colonial rule, by highlighting how the colonisers applied a policy of disproportionate allocation of economic benefits and burdens to different subordinated ethnic groups, which resulted in social and economic disparities between these groups. Colonialism flourished because of meritocracy, and it fostered an individualised approach to human functioning, which is still evident in Guyana's society.

The Historical Context of Social Work

Social work is still an emerging profession in Guyana even after introducing the Colonial Development and Welfare Act of 1940 to guide the distribution of Colonial and Welfare Fund to alleviate additional suffering wroth to the freed Africans due to the Great Depression of the 1930s. Guyana primarily uses the institutional and residual welfare models to deliver social services, which are residues of the Victorian Poor Law legislation that guided social welfare provision (Rock and Buchanan 2014). All these legislative approaches point to the influence of the colonial era on the delivery of social welfare in Guyana. Even the training of early academics in social world education was from the United Kingdom or the developed countries (Frank, 2019). The methodologies and literature used, which may have been generic, would not have understood the social welfare landscape in Guyana. Social welfare in post-colonial Guyana saw the emergence of self-help groups, communal activities and other entrepreneurial initiatives to negate poverty as policy directives of the then government. The approach to social work education had to account for local practices. Community organization and practice in many areas may arguably contradict western models but proved useful within the Guyana context. Social service delivery and social work education had to be conscious of this policy directive, which was one of the first steps in decolonizing social welfare in Guyana. As Danns (1990) concluded, a significant paradigm shift occurred as the government sought to coordinate and integrate social welfare services.

Decolonizing Social Work Practice in Guyana.

stop sucicide now
Seminar presentation on suicide prevention delivered by social work students to high school students. Photo credited to students

Decolonisation within this discourse refers to an approach that recognises the indigenous and organic approaches to practice within one's context. Creating an organic methodology for social work practice is grounded in educators adopting a pragmatic approach with context-relevant pedagogy that still meets best practices for social work education. A pragmatic approach caters to diversity and versatility in Guyana due to the historical differences that exist. Decolonising social work practice is conceptualised as a two-pronged approach. It included the formalised social work practice within the traditional agency settings and an indigenous approach where students actively participate in determining indigenous field placements.

Indigenized practice, therefore, emerged as a response to contextualisation, resource limitations, diverse service user groups, and the inability of social service agencies to accommodate the growing student population who are on placement and must complete varying hours of field practice. There are no external field practicum supervisors, so educators were tasked with becoming innovative in their pedagogy to support student learning. Student inclusion became imperative since they brought an understanding of the contextual environment based on the diversity of their lived experiences.

Social work education and practice are designed to foster strengths and empowerment of the society through a participatory approach (Rock and Buchanan 2014). This approach offers a three-dimensional advantage. It addresses power differentials between educators and students, students and service users, and educators, students, and servicers user. Participation promotes democracy, an effective tool for decolonisation and dismantling oppressive power structures. It moves away from a rudimentary approach and allows everyone's voice to be heard. In fieldwork practice, the voices of both students and service users are critical to impact change in all levels of service delivery. Chambers (2007) suggests that Participatory Learning and Action (PLA) approaches help to understand behaviours, establish relationships, and find local contexts relevant to vulnerable groups. Chambers' (2007) arguments essentially frame the context in which fieldwork practicum is decolonised in Guyana.

The social work framework universally takes a two-dimensional approach: theory and practice elements. The undergraduate and postgraduate programmes consist of courses that ensure students are afforded enough practical engagement to foster growth and empowerment in the transfer of theory to practice. Field practicums allow social workers to engage with service user groups and professionals within the micro, mezzo, and macro levels of society. Even though placements within local agencies are helpful, limitations exist because of neoliberalism and marketisation, which present barriers to the level of engagement social workers will have with clients. Also, social workers' caseload has always been an area of concern and often impacts how Social Work students bridge the gap between theory and practice. Moreover, the current approach exposes students to the realities of living in Guyana. So, if employed within state agencies after training, experience gained in practicum environments help social workers to become more conscientious and empathetic when working with service users.

Unconventional field placements are advantageous since the bureaucracy is less influential, and students get to engage directly with service user groups. However, despite this indigenous approach, students are still bound by social work's professional ethics and values. Every effort has been made to safeguard practice according to international best practices and contextual needs. Hence field practice manuals have been developed to guide students and field teachers in all settings.

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Establishment of youth-friendly space for students to access information and support

Progress Thus Far

Admittedly social work teaching in Guyana still uses western literature, but this is not applied indiscriminately. The negative influence of cultural misappropriation on service user groups is best understood when linked to our context, so educators must ensure the practice is relevant. Hence, the curriculum is periodically retooled to ensure that students make contextual distinctions by critically analysing and applying collaborative and contextual interventions.

Indigenized field practicum is primarily conducted with vulnerable groups, schools, grassroots organisations or communities where a particular need exists. These include persons with disabilities, children affected by domestic violence and poverty, hard to reach communities or rural communities that cannot access services efficiently, and communities with high suicide rates. The selection of practicum groups is often made with engagement from the students, noting that the student's voice is critical in promoting a positive learning environment. Further, it allows students to engage in micro-level and mezzo practices where they explore communities and conduct needs assessments to determine the type of services needed and the possible intervention programmes that can be implemented. Likewise, this approach has enabled service users to be viewed as experts in their own lives. It also promotes the empowerment of service users since it encompasses a strengths-based approach. Significantly, student feedback during class reflective sessions has indicated that grassroots service users engage better with professionals when they feel accepted. The Guyana reality is that resource limitation and political interference influence how social work is conducted. Therefore, the pragmatic approach has helped social work students to intervene in ways that cut across organisational barriers.

Conclusively, the adaptation of a participatory approach promotes a pedagogy that suppresses oppressive practices but provides opportunities for students to actively engage in determining their learning needs (Bozalek and Biersteker 2010). This experience allowed students to improve self-awareness, explore possible biases and engage in continuous critical reflection during the planning and implementation stages of field practicums. Practices of colonialism advance dehumanising practices where subjugation and division perpetuated human interactions. As such, re-education plays a critical role in what social workers aspire to do in Guyana.

Field practicums also have, over the years, been successful in penetrating racial ideologies. Students on fieldwork placement have strategically been placed in practice settings which helped to bridge this ethnic divide. Students have also enabled better practice with other marginalised groups. Notably, both students and service users gained practical skills and tools that have helped them become more self-sufficient after many of these experiences. It also allowed for the visibility of social work and enabled vulnerable groups to develop help-seeking behaviours.

Conjointly, empowerment using a bottom-up approach has also proven to be valuable as clients or community groups have mobilised themselves with support from students to meet specific needs. Students have engaged with rural communities and people who may not readily access help in mainstream offices or internal agencies. The inability to access support is linked to many factors such as fear of stigma, infrastructure and transportation barriers, misinformation, or lack of awareness that such services exist.

Moving Forward

Social Work Education in Guyana continues to make strides amidst the challenges to re-frame our practice and create an identity unique to our context. The work is ongoing, even though a long journey is ahead. Social work practice in Guyana is not at the place where it has started. Social work educators in Guyana commit to reimagining and reconstructing the curriculum to integrate scholarly work done by local academics and regional partners to account for the lived experiences of Guyanese. This does not negate the importance of international social work and global best practices but rather emphasises the importance of understanding context and creating theories and models of practice that fit our context as we contribute to the broader global experiences. Students in fieldwork practice have been impacting the lives of diverse service user groups. Formally documenting the methodologies will foster evidence-based practice. Social work educators should also engage in dialogues to examine colonialism's impact on existing vulnerabilities and formulate a plan to move forward. Students' reflections indicate the limitations of structural barriers. This provides an opportunity for social work educators to seek ways of incorporating the voice of the students in practice and diversifying their experiences in pursuit of a more socially just society.


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