THE CASE FOR A NEW APPROACH TO SOCIAL WORK EDUCATION
Several factors are converging at this particular time in history that necessitate concerted efforts toward the development of holistic engagement skills in social work practice and education. These factors are largely a function of neoliberal globalization, which prioritizes privatization, profits, and the rights of corporations, and the consequences and impacts it is having on individuals, families, organizations, communities, and larger social systems (Klein, 2002; Pyles, 2014). They are (1) the invisible suffering of globalization, (2) the commodification and compartmentalization of social work, (3) increased diversity and prevalence of non-Western cultural practices, and (4) lifestyle-oriented health risks.
The Invisible Suffering of Globalization
The first factor relates to the invisible suffering that lies behind the seemingly triumphant neoliberal global economy and how it is affecting society in complex and perhaps unknown ways. Many thinkers have noted how multinational corporations continue to displace large numbers of indigenous people and are virtually enslaving the developing world in a sweatshop system in the name of economic development (Coates, 2003; Klein, 2002; Pyles, 2014). Castells (1999) has referred to the globalizing world as a “network society,” whereby multinational corporations change relentlessly, move along, form and re-form, in endless variation. Societies that are inside these networks have enhanced technological opportunities, and those outside have diminished opportunities, which has a cumulative effect. And yet, many people in the developed world are completely ignorant of this reality.
Although access to these changing technologies can potentially leave us feeling more resourced, connected, productive, and efficient, one can see that they can certainly have the opposite effect as well. Thus, “technostress” can leave us feeling more depleted, scattered, and isolated (Koopsen & Young, 2009). Unfortunately, it is something that we are hesitant to identify, name, or discuss in professional social work settings and in schools and departments of social work. Thus, challenging ourselves and helping students to develop healthy relationships with technology can be a useful and powerful remedy to the overwhelming feelings that technology can create in our professional and personal lives. For example, a university course at a small college in upstate New York called “Stress Free Computing” is helping undergraduates to navigate these dangerous waters by incorporating mindfulness and other reflective activities into course content.
Besides the personal suffering that globalization is causing for people (for those both within and outside these networks), the negative impacts of globalization on the physical environment is something that social work educators are only beginning to recognize (Coates, 2003; Jones, 2010). This is certainly ironic given that the field professes to embrace a person-in-environment perspective. Given the current ecological crisis, transformative social work educators have criticized social work's failure to consider the full meaning of “the environment”—that is, the natural world—noting that it is not enough just to “add on” the natural world in our assessments and interventions; rather, a new paradigm and approach are perhaps required (Jones, 2010). However, this oversight is understandable because the environmental devastation that surrounds us and the looming climate change threats are profoundly painful to bear in our minds, hearts, and bodies. Contemplating the devastation can leave a person feeling overwhelmed with grief, despair, and anger (Greenspan, 2003; Macy & Brown, 1998).
Many social work educators perhaps feel ill-equipped to hold space for students to experience such emotions and express them in ways that are productive for the class. Nonetheless, as educators, it is critical that we prepare ourselves so that we can create opportunities in our classrooms for students to actually feel this despair in body and heart, to the extent that everyone is capable. Toward this end, in an advanced master's of social work course called “Policy and Practice of International Development,” I (Loretta Pyles) use activities in the classroom (meditation, journaling, conscious communication, and theater exercises) that help foster global consciousness in students. I facilitate several activities, including (1) guiding students through a somatic meditation that gives them permission to tune into feelings in their body about the plight of sweatshop workers in Bangladesh, as depicted in a film shown in class; (2) asking students to creatively embody a physical pose or gesture that reflects their feelings about global social change movements; and (3) writing about grief or other emotions they may have concerning the state of the planet and their physical environment.
Practices that facilitate student awareness of and connection with the context of their own and their clients' lives, and the global economic processes at work, can deepen their understanding of person-in-environment and help them develop a richer knowledge of the suffering caused by globalization. These awareness practices can help set the stage for an integrative and transformative social work practice that can facilitate social worker actualization of the ethical imperatives of the profession (International Federation ofSocial Workers, 2012). As clients present with problems of depression and loneliness and our communities become places where social capital is diminishing, the social work classroom can become a place where we overcome the sense of isolation from each other that many people in 21st-century society experience.