A bunch of social workers sit around a table and ask themselves, what is radical social work? A general consensus is reached that radical is something that goes to the heart or root of a matter. The term radical concerns me because it can be used to disempower an entity from the outside as easily as it can be used to empower from within. I would like to illustrate why. From reference.com,
1. of or going to the root or origin; fundamental: a radical difference.
2.thoroughgoing or extreme, especially as regards change from accepted or traditional forms: a radical change in the policy of a company.
3.favoring drastic political, economic, or social reforms: radical ideas; radical and anarchistic ideologues.
The first definition affirms the way the term is understood in a social work context. Radical social work can be conceptualized as a return to the macro roots of the profession. Visions of Jane Adams and Hull House dance in our heads in these trying times. The second definition bears some weight to the meaning as well; the social work profession has become quite traditional, especially in its psycho-therapeutic agenda. Again, this can seen in the light of the recent movement away from the macro roots of the profession. It is the third definition that should give some pause, especially as “anarchistic” is snuck in toward the end.
The term radical has been thrown around a lot in the wake of 9-11 and other tragic events. As I listened to the group discuss a definition, it occurred to me that the public does not always understand a word in its intended fashion. For example, the media has used the term radical to describe infamous monsters such as Timothy McVeigh. It has also been used to discredit legitimate entities such as the Tea Party, or Occupy Wall Street. OWS was villianized by the media; they were called a bunch of lazy kids who do not want to work. They were called radicals and communists. Disempowering groups in this fashion is old hat in America i.e. The McCarthy communist witch hunt, or the Civil Rights movement.
That is why it scares me; it can be used to categorize a movement as extreme, dangerous, and contrary to the public good. The media can disregard the definition and give the term a negative spin, thus influencing the public collective consciousness. An attempt to figure out the definition of the term, as we were doing, disregards the cultural context which can be used to disempower social workers as they seek change. The current context of the term radical is negative indeed.
Social Work is not actually a movement, it is an established profession who has equity and equality as its goal. It is the credibility of the profession, the education of its members, and its code of ethics, that separates social work. Allowing itself to be defined, and perhaps even internally defined, as radical is to minimize the rich history and efforts of all professional social workers.
Actually, social work IS radical; not part of it, but the entire entity. The root to which the profession aims to return is the ancient Greco-Roman ideals of virtue and justice. Whether it is the empowerment of one client in the mental health sector, or a macro scheme to bring greater social equality, social work is radical in its totality because its goal is not the creation of wealth, as is the case with so many other professions. This is especially true in the modern materialistic society in which we are emerged.
Allowing one section of its membership to be deemed “radical”, at the exclusion of the other, is a black mark on the spirit of the entire profession. This sort of thinking leaves social work vulnerable for attack from external forces. If a group of “radical” social workers ever began organizing in ways similar to OWS, the media would frame them a anti-American and extreme There would be no discussion of the “root of the matter”; radical would become a scarlet letter by which the public understands social work. Although, internally social workers know the differences in the profession, the everyman probably does not. As one aspect of social work is labeled as radical, the entire profession will be painted with the same broads strokes. A lack of unity within the profession will be the mechanism by which it is made impotent.
I cannot count how many hours I was taught that we should avoid labeling our clients. “Your client is not Bi-Polar”, he or she is a “client with a Bi-Polar disorder”. The move against labeling is deeply engrained inside our profession and our teaching institutions. Yet, we allow social workers to be labeled as radical. It is called “Radical Social Work”, not “Social Work with radical ideas”. There is a large difference between the way that those two statements will be interpreted. The former separates social workers from each other, the latter acknowledges our common professional membership. It’s time to start practicing what we preach.
**Written by Matthew Cohen – SJS Staff Writer **