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Evolving Education: The Power of Organizing — Micro Meets Macro
By Kess L. Ballentine, MA, MSW; Gabriella Jones-Casey, MSW; Sara Goodkind, PhD, MSW; and Jeffrey Shook, PhD, JD, MSW
Social Work Today
Vol. 20 No. 4 P. 6

The interconnected crises of the COVID-19 pandemic and structural racism dominate the headlines and our consciousness as we write this. They highlight the need for social workers, at the same time, to reveal the weaknesses of many social work education programs. Too many social workers are trained to provide individual assistance, learning about policy and economic inequality as context without developing the skills needed to change them. As the calls for replacing police with social workers grow louder, social workers may be more in demand than ever.

What does this mean for social work education? We believe these crises call for social work education that provides all social workers training in organizing, so that we have skills to facilitate empowerment. And by empowerment we mean the process through which people of color, women, low-wage workers, and other marginalized groups develop critical consciousness and collaborate to shift power in society—not the co-opted definition that tells us that empowerment is pulling ourselves up by our bootstraps.

If we hope to prepare social workers to organize to dismantle the systems of oppression and inequality that have led to current suffering and marginalization, rather than acting as Band-Aids to these larger social problems, we must challenge our dichotomous thinking and frameworks. We need to recognize the interdependence, complexity, and intimate links between micro and macro practice, clients and social workers, and the personal and professional aspects of our lives. In this article, we briefly describe the importance of organizing and offer suggestions for social work education that prepares all social workers for engaging in organizing as a core part of their work with individuals, organizations, and communities.

The Importance of Organizing
Organizing, a process by which people build consensus and come together to work toward a common goal, is the only way by which oppressed and/or disenfranchised groups can leverage collective power to dismantle, reimagine, and rebuild societal structures. It is also the only way to enact policies that can challenge entrenched inequalities, improving the outcomes and well-being of individuals and their communities. When we say “the personal is political,” it is not an abstract idea but instead alludes to the fact that people’s lives are greatly impacted, both positively and negatively, by policy. Policies can dictate affordable housing access, wage standards (minimum wage), funding for public schools, air and water regulations in poor or working-class communities, funding for public transportation, workplace protections, and protections against various forms of discrimination.

Through the pandemic, we have seen the power of collective organizing. Unions across the country have advocated for personal protective equipment for frontline workers. They have amplified workers’ experiences and opened the phone lines to policymakers so workers can engage power. These unions didn’t just show up. These relationships among workers have been built slowly and gradually over time. One of the authors [Jones-Casey] is a labor organizer, while the rest have worked as volunteer organizers in political and unionizing efforts and researched the effects of unionization. We all know the power of listening to stories and organizing workers to build power and gain advances in their workplaces. These relationship-building skills may be considered “micro-practice” skills, while organizing and advocating policy changes, for example, may be considered “macro-practice” skills. Often these skills are separated within social work curricula. We believe that this separation within social work education prevents students from having the full set of skills needed to answer the call in situations such as the pandemic.

The second crisis front and center at the moment—anti-Black racism and state violence—also calls for organizing to address. In the weeks since George Floyd’s murder, we have seen a powerful reinvigoration of the Black Lives Matter movement and a broader effort to eliminate racism at all levels of our society. For social workers to effectively join these efforts, we need organizing skills. These movements are making meaningful changes in policy and practices, changes social workers have long advocated. Now social work education needs to more comprehensively respond to this call.

Implications for Social Work Education
To effectively organize for change, social workers must first understand power and empowerment. We must teach students to recognize power as potentially positive and negative—both a source of strength but also an element of control. With this knowledge, we can develop a nuanced understanding of empowerment—not as something we can do for others but rather a process through which we can collectively find power within ourselves and our communities to enact the changes we want to see.

Empowerment begins with critical consciousness. This requires critical reflection on one’s own experiences and awareness that many of the challenges faced by individuals and communities with which we work, which are too often viewed in our society as personal deficiencies, are in fact the result of ongoing oppression. In other words, as the feminist adage goes, the personal is political. Thus, social workers must develop our ability to identify problematic power structures and methods for dismantling them. Critical theories are one important tool. Black feminist theory, critical race theory, and other critical theories are examples that social work educators should study and use actively in the classroom. Feminism emphasizes the importance of reflexive praxis, a process of lifelong learning and self-reflection that links theory and practice. By modeling praxis in social work classrooms, educators can prepare social workers to interrogate their own complicity and the role of broader policies and practices in perpetuating white supremacy, racism, sexism, and other forms of oppression.

Additionally, we believe that the concept of social justice must be critically examined in social work classes. While the Council on Social Work Education’s Educational Policy and Accreditation Standards require that students be taught “theories of social justice,” this seems to be done inconsistently in social work education. Too often, we state that we are working toward social justice without specifying what social justice would actually look like. We advocate that theories of social justice be taught clearly in foundational social work classes and used throughout the curriculum in conjunction with critical theories. For example, one of the authors [Ballentine] teaches about the foundations of liberalism and Rawls’ concept of distributive justice as well as the critiques of these concepts by scholars such as Lorde and Marion Young. She then includes other approaches to justice, such as the recognition and relational approach, capabilities approach, and restorative justice. Finally, she has her students work in groups to examine a local social problem and suggest a practice strategy informed by one of the theories. In this way, social workers learn to articulate a social justice vision and gain the skills to collectively work toward it.

Such collective organizing requires that we challenge the heuristic distinction frequently made in social work education between micro and macro practice. Structural change will not happen without organizing, and organizing requires the interpersonal skills to meet people where they are. Likewise, what might seem like personal problems are often the result of structural inequities, and supporting people in understanding how the personal is political and in engaging in collective change efforts may ultimately be far more effective at promoting individual well-being than telling individuals to fix themselves. Thus, while we may continue to have educational tracks for micro and macro practice, we should not be teaching these as separate sets of skills. Ultimately, our individual well-being is dependent on improving our social institutions and structures, and we will not successfully engender social change without being able to skillfully engage with individuals in our collective change efforts.

Thus, all social workers must have some facility in organizing. People benefiting from the current social structure will likely not yield their power voluntarily, or at least not without organizing that makes them aware of ways that all of our fates are interconnected. No social problems are solved alone and, as we see in the protests against anti-Black racism and state violence and the hard work by unions to protect essential workers from COVID-19, change happens best when people work together and use their collective power. We are often referred to as the “helping profession,” but we must ask ourselves, how much do we help? How much of what we train social workers to do in actuality prepares them to become a Band-Aid to societal problems that perpetuate inequities? How much of our profession is related to empowerment if we are not preparing disenfranchised groups to understand, build, and take back community and political power?

As social workers, organizers, and educators at the University of Pittsburgh, the authors can attest to the importance of creating these bridges in the classroom. In our experience, students are eager to learn strategies to create long-lasting change. These skills are essential not only for “macro” students but also for “micro” students, as resources for social services and working-class families are constantly under attack. We have an opportunity to organize for change right now. A rising chorus of voices has described that the “normal” conditions we have left behind were inadequate and oppressive for far too many. What will the “new normal” look like? Social workers have the opportunity to play important roles in efforts to reshape society, and social work educators should be preparing them to do so.

— Kess L. Ballentine, MA, MSW, is a doctoral candidate in the School of Social Work at the University of Pittsburgh.

— Gabriella Jones-Casey, MSW, is an organizer training lead in Kentucky and Western Pennsylvania with SEIU Local 32BJ.

— Sara Goodkind, PhD, MSW, is an associate professor of social work, sociology, and gender, sexuality, and women’s studies at the University of Pittsburgh.

— Jeffrey Shook, PhD, JD, MSW, is an associate professor of social work, sociology, and law at the University of Pittsburgh.