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Home arrow Sociology arrow Holistic engagement : transformative social work education in the 21st century


The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) calls on professionals to “promote social justice and social change” (NASW, 2008). The Council on Social Work Education (CSWE, 2008) also states in its Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards that “social work's purpose is actualized through its quest for social and economic justice, the prevention of conditions that limit human rights, the elimination of poverty, and the enhancement of the quality of life for all persons” (p. 1). Therefore, social work higher learning institutions are mandated to educate social change agents who work to improve social conditions.

However, debate as to whether social work graduate programs challenge students to be instruments of transformation or educate students to maintain the current social conditions extends well beyond the university hallways into journal articles, book chapters, and scholarly debates (Mizrahi & Dodd, 2013; Pyles, 2013). In their analysis of MSW students' social activism and their perspectives on social work goals, Mizrahi and Dodd call on social work programs to “balance ‘consumer demands' with the outcomes (schools) want to achieve,” such as “producing social workers who value social justice and progressive social change” (p. 595).

Both NASW and CSWE assert that a social worker's vocation is to eradicate oppression, discrimination, poverty, and their root causes (CSWE, 2012; NASW, 2008). To be sure, there are progressive educators and students within social work education who have created innovative programs that pursue social activism using Freire and other radical social work scholars and practitioners (Hager, 2012; Jones, 2009; Sakamoto & Pitner, 2005). However, Rothman and Mizrahi (2014) note that the social work profession as a whole has drifted toward an imbalance between clinical and macro practice, and they call on the profession to “recalibrate,” stating that “social problems require complex and sustained intervention at all levels of social work practice” (p. 91). Hager asserts that social work has neglected Freire, although his ideas could support social work educators and practitioners struggling with how to work within the nonprofit industrial complex. This idea of the nonprofit industrial complex is explained by Samimi (2010, p. 17): The “system forces nonprofits to professionalize, wherein they must focus on maintaining their funding sources rather than fulfilling their mission” to develop best practices to reduce poverty and economic inequality (Reisch, 2013a, 2013b; Sims, 2014).

Social workers have been criticized by some who claim they are trained to deliver goods and services that unwittingly perpetuate discrimination and unequal power dynamics that oppress clients (Reisch & Andrews, 2002; Specht & Courtney, 1994). In the past, much of social work education focused primarily on fixing problems using a deficit model rather than building on their strengths. Alternatively, social workers including Saleebey (1992), Cohen (1999), and others have promoted a strengths-based approach to working with clients at micro and macro levels (Brun & Rapp, 2001; Cohen, 1999; Early & GlenMaye, 2000; Graybeal, 2001). Others promote more radical social work frameworks (Reisch, 2013b), which include critically assessing practice methods with oppressed populations and promoting the profession's integrity to its mission through its pedagogy of teaching (Jones, 2009).

As a popular educator and academic in the 1970s, Paulo Freire wrote extensively on pedagogy and teaching people to respond to oppression by societal institutions and policies. In his classic work, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1970/2000), he maintains that a person must first analyze the foundations of discrimination in order to unravel unjust systems. Freire radically proclaims that people such as social workers work “with,” not “for,” marginalized communities in order to restore their shared humanity from the dehumanizing forces of oppression. For social workers, entering into solidarity or standing alongside their clients to change their situation is required to address the social and political environments that are negatively impacting people (Freire, 1970/2000, pp. 47-49). In developing the C.O. course, while the originators agree with Freire that students cannot just learn in an ivory tower, it was challenging to build a course that embodied that idea. Early on, it was the students who felt empowered enough to insist on incorporating an assignment that connected them directly with communities so that learning could happen experientially.

According to Freire (1970/2000, p. 154), the “oppressors” control over “the oppressed” seeps into all aspects of a society, including education, social service provision, and government, where people are conditioned to perpetuate structures of inequality. Schooling is the first place where people typically encounter training in social norms. Freire terms traditional education “banking education” because teachers impart knowledge to students that is sanctioned through society and upholds social norms. In Freire's view of the “banking” system of education, students act like receptacles and internalize the information they are given without questioning the information's meaning and relevance. In this model, students and teachers do not recognize that they are also educating each other, and they also are not aware that they are the ones with the power in this situation. He believes that all the stakeholders—students, teachers, and the system itself—are impacted by banking education, and that it also taints our daily interactions with each other that reflect systemic inequalities. Sue et al. (2007) use the term “microaggressions” to describe the daily, mostly unintentional words or behaviors that communicate internalized racial stereotypes about a group (p. 273), to which we add a focus also on class and gender (Cannon, 1990).

Investigating these power dynamics, Freire established “popular education” as a method for teaching adult literacy to peasants in Latin America. Freire's (1970/2000) pedagogical theory today has been applied worldwide in social work, universities, primary and secondary schools, and in adult education (Miller, Brown, & Hopson, 2011; Sims, 2014). It redefines traditional teacher-student relationships that are dominant in Western culture (Freire, 1970/2000):

Through dialogue, the teacher-of-the-students and the students-of-the-teacher cease to exist and a new term emerges: teacher-student with students-teachers. The teacher is no longer merely the-one-who-teaches, but one who is himself taught in dialogue with the students, who in turn while being taught also teach. (p. 80)

He challenges the traditional notion of teachers possessing all knowledge and students needing teachers to give them information. Rather, his model reminds educators that everyone, even the students, come into the classroom with knowledge based on their lived experiences that is valuable in the learning process. Martell has applied Freire's model to her community organizing experiences, believing that community members are the experts on their own experiences and that their wisdom is central to informing organizing that will make a difference in their lives and their communities. Hence, she models learning from community members and applies that approach to learning from her students as a teacher ofthe C.O. course. In addition, while sharing her knowledge and experience with students, she is constantly learning new concepts that inform her teaching and community practice.

As progressive social work educators and practitioners, we ask ourselves constantly how can we best educate ourselves to be progressive agents of social change at all levels. What methods do we use and how do we implement them in our institutions ofhigher learning as well as in community organizations? How do we navigate the tension of working for institutions that historically have acted unjustly while working to create a reality where everyone's needs are met (NASW, 2008)? In the description ofthe C.O. course that follows, we attempt to demonstrate how we apply and adapt Freirian as well as feminist/womanist principles.

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