April 16

Why social work matters


This is the verbatim of the speech I gave on International Social Work Day, at the University of Chester in March 2019.

I was in Lancaster for a meeting a few days ago. 

People were there from all around the country, a little like today. Someone introduced me to a man who was working in Nottingham Trent University. 

‘So what do you study?’ He asked me. 

‘Social work. I study social work.’

After saying this, there was silence for a few seconds. I could see the panic in his eyes. He must have been thinking – oh no, what do I say now?  Fortunately, I saved him by telling him that it was very nice to have met him. 

Perhaps that’s you today. Whenever you meet someone and tell them that you study social work, the conversation ends just when it seemed to have started. 

Why do we study social work? In fact, why do we even exist? 

We exist because we share humanity. 

A few weeks ago, I was on a tram to the city centre. As I was gazing out of the window, I saw this man on the streets, with his sleeping bag laid in front of him. Beside him was a big black Labrador, sitting beside him. As I looked at him, something strange happened. 

The Labrador put his paw over the man’s arm. (Demonstrate it and pause.) The Labrador put his paw over the man’s arm. 

It wasn’t the other way. The man rubbed the dog’s head gratefully, seemingly appreciative of its presence. 

As I saw that that night, I was deeply moved. That moment of connection between man and dog, had reminded me of the many times I had disconnected with the need I had seen around me. To the social workers seated amongst us today, we exist because we share humanity with those around us in need. 

Instead of turning away from need, you have chosen to turn towards need. 

George Saunders, in his advice to graduates, once said, ‘What I regret most in my life are failures of kindness. Those moments when another human being was there, in front of me, suffering, and I responded . . . sensibly. Reservedly. Mildly.’ When someone in front of you is suffering, you’ve decided to take a stand against that. You’ve said ‘Enough!’ You’ve stood up. 

But perhaps today, after standing up so many times, you are tired from the constant exertions of social work. You wonder – is there ever going to be an end to this? I cannot understand the struggles each of you go through. But I know that each of you seated here is trying their best to take a stand against the injustices you face each day. 

I also want us to remember – we are humans, not heroes. We are humans, and therefore we fail. It is okay to fail. But it is not okay not to try. 

So, today, I want to say to the practitioners, social work students, and to the many others in the audience today who have reached out in love to those in need – thank you.

Secondly, we exist because we spread aspiration.

I remember teaching children in a class in Peru in July 2017. I was there to motivate them to pursue their dreams, regardless of the circumstances they faced. Prior to going there, I was terrified. All the Spanish I had studied had come in a book I had studied at home. I did not have any formal lessons. For six months, I would go home, sit at home, and force myself to read the book, no matter how tired I was. 2 weeks before going to Peru, I decided to test out my Spanish by going to Valencia, in Spain. I spent 5 days there. The only phrase I used – Donde esta el bano? Or where is the toilet? 

Well, when I went there, I became like a baby with the comprehension of a 22-year-old, but the speech of a 5-year-old. But it got better. I remember this boy constantly asking me how to say something in English. ‘teacher, teacher! How do you say: good morning? How about good night? How about handsome?’ 

‘Why do you want to say ‘handsome’?’ I ask, with a raised eyebrow.

‘Well, because I am handsome.’ He grins. 

I share this story because it reminds me that despite the environment he lived in, the lack of resources in his classroom, and the poverty that was around him, he still harboured hopes of a brighter future.

As social workers, we bring people hope that better is possible.

Better is possible. You might ask: How is better possible, in the hopeless situations I see every day? 

One night in Peru, as we were celebrating someone’s birthday, 2 girls approached us with chocolates in a little tray. ‘Do you want chocolates?’ They asked. ‘It’s only one sole.’ What were these girls doing on the streets at such a young age? They couldn’t have been more than 7! How was better possible for them?

But I learnt 2 lessons. Firstly, let us recognise that change doesn’t happen overnight. Secondly, let us start asking an unscripted question. Atul Gawande, an American doctor once wrote, ‘Ours is a job of talking to strangers. Why not find out something interesting about them?’

Perhaps today, we ask questions from the assessment forms in front of us. But why not put that aside, and ask something about them? Why not ask something about them, rather than asking something to them? What this does is that it reminds us that the people we talk to are people, and not answering machines.

But it reminds us that we are social workers. We are not simply cogs in a bureaucratic process. We are not interviewers, though we can be. We are not detectives, though we can be. We are social workers, who exist because we give people the hope that better is possible. We spread aspiration of a brighter tomorrow.

Lastly, we exist because we provide connection.

Last summer, I volunteered in Xi’an, China, at a home for children with learning disabilities. Many of these children had been abandoned by their parents, left on the street, dumped in a side alley, or abandoned near a rubbish dump. I always wondered what that felt like.

Somewhat insensitively, I asked a young man of 18 once. ‘Do you miss mummy?’ ‘No…I don’t.’ I thought I had heard wrongly. 

I asked again, more slowly this time. ‘Do you miss mummy?’ ‘No…I have friends here.’ To me that was incredible to hear. He once showed me the room he lived in. Under his bed, there was a little suitcase. On his bed were a few plush toys. In his room, he lived with other boys of his age, on double-decker beds. All he had was this little suitcase, toys, friends and … care staff who loved, cared, and walked with him through this journey of life. 

Each day, when you think…maybe the work I do isn’t that meaningful anymore, I hope you remember that you matter, simply because you provide that human connection to someone else. Yes, you might not solve all their problems. Yes, you might not be able to protect the child fully from all the harm that might happen to them. 

But you are with them. That’s all that matters. The people we work with don’t have to walk this journey alone because you are walking with them. We often think about all the things we need to do. Sometimes, the most important thing is to simply be. To be there in their distress. To be there in their pain. To be there in their sorrow. We don’t have to have all the answers to their problems. We exist because we provide that human touch. The human connection. 

I want to read Dylan Thomas’ poem ‘Do not go gentle into the good night’, a poem Dylan wrote for his dying father. 

Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Good men, the last wave by, crying how bright
Their frail deeds might have danced in a green bay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Wild men who caught and sang the sun in flight,
And learn, too late, they grieved it on its way,
Do not go gentle into that good night.

Grave men, near death, who see with blinding sight
Blind eyes could blaze like meteors and be gay,
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

And you, my father, there on the sad height,
Curse, bless, me now with your fierce tears, I pray.
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

Today, we face great pressures as a social worker. But, as social workers, we are little pockets of light in darkness. The pressures around social work threaten to extinguish the good work that many of you do. But hold on to that light within you. No one can take that away from you. 

Thank you for being a social worker. Not a hero, but a human – that exists to share humanity, spread aspiration, and provide connection. 

Why social workers are superheroes


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