Nothing quite magnifies powerlessness like ‘lockdown’ in the midst of widespread protests around deep structural inequality and discrimination.
Having grown up in South Africa, I am familiar with oppression, violence and trauma. Inspired by some the most powerful social workers in South Africa, Ellen Kuzwayo and Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, I search deep for my resilience – a concept that all social workers today are taught and is widely applied, both to family support and social care practice and to the experiences of the people we work with.
Resilience is about stability, what enables better-than-expected outcomes in the face of adversity and how we as individuals, families, communities and organisations can build conditions to support resilience. So how do we operationalise and weaponise our resilience at this critical time, so that we can support the most vulnerable in society and fight injustice from our homes, where the tools we have are Skype and Zoom?
Self-determination, social justice and social responsibility, the values of social work, we strive to change the world one small step at a time. Already one of the most stressful professions to work in. A survey of 1,000 social workers undertaken by Unison in 2018 described ‘social work at breaking point’. With a variety of factors influencing this. According to Unison ‘Eight in ten social workers are doing unpaid overtime in order to keep the service going, and over half are thinking of leaving for something less stressful. This is despite taking pride in their roles as social workers, working with vulnerable people to try to improve their lives for the better’ (Unison, 2019).
Since the start of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, NHS and social care workers in the UK have been working tirelessly for the last three months so that people receive the support that they need despite restrictions placed by the lockdown and the threat of the virus itself. So how are we all coping with the added pressures? How can we support and give leadership to an already stressed workforce whilst we face isolation, the threat of a virus and deeply traumatic events such as the death of George Floyd in the USA? This is what is emerging.
I was introduced to the concept of the ‘wounded healer’ early in my social work career. Originally coined by Carl Jung, he refers specifically to professionals who experience personal challenges. Jung’s interpretations relied on the belief that all people experience trauma and those that enter helping professions bring that to their professional development (Christie and Jones, 2014, cited in Newcomb et al, 2015).
With this metaphor in mind, continuously reflecting on our experiences, and the development of our resilience through the social work journey, we harness our woundedness both lived and witnessed through our social work encounters.
What this has meant for my leadership role during COVID 19 thus far, is being vulnerable. Acknowledging the pain of isolation and harnessing inner strength. I have been present almost every day listening carefully with empathy. Addressing the power dynamics of management through anti-discriminatory practice and acknowledging what I do not know. Through this, I have come to know the people I work with more profoundly despite the isolation. It has been painful and real. I have learnt that we can feel connected despite the separation and that we can draw resilience from being vulnerable and being present. Our shared values as social workers, bind us together, and serve as our shared armour.
Facing new challenges every day we rely on the support of colleagues. Sometimes that means having courageous and brave conversations, surfacing what is uncomfortable or unknown and acknowledging that we all need support. Three months of COVID-19 lockdown and reaching out has been more important than ever. The pain of witnessing brutal oppression and discrimination alongside the reports of the pandemic itself disproportionately affecting Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic (BAME) communities is deeply distressing.
Learning to be an ally, as Dr Muna Abdi puts in it her article on BAMEed “pushing past the point of comfort to take effective and impactful action to change things...even if that action is messy or risks the loss of your own privileged/powerful status”. This is where I am pushing to be. To be a strong ally and to stand with my colleagues in the fight against injustice and oppression, and for social justice. Once again, our shared social work values, our shared armour.
So the challenges and learning has been deep. The present feeling almost post Foucauldian, post ‘panopticon’, the virus an invisible threat, and the responsibility for our restricted liberty passed to us as individuals, the trauma of discrimination and oppression continues. My deepest priorities have been to reach out and be there for the people in my teams. I will keep coming back to core values and ethics, the backbone of my practice. We don’t always get it right, but if we keep being present with our vulnerability and woundedness, we find our resilience. #Resilience