Social Work: Life, Learnings, and Lessons at 75
This year, the Faculty of Social Work celebrates its 75th anniversary. To get a sense of how the profession has evolved and the shared experiences of social workers across generations, UM Today sat down with three alumni, two of which are retired professors from the faculty.
Shirley Grosser [BA/58, BSW/62, MSW/66], is considered the first social work educator in Manitoba to address the HIV/AIDS crisis starting in the 80s. She collaborated with a local community clinic to deliver health education seminars at the U of M and developed a course specific to HIV/AIDS practice as part of the National HIV/AIDS curriculum development team. She was a classroom professor and field instructor in the faculty from 1969 to 1997.
Dr. Kathy Jones [PhD/03] received her BSW from Ryerson University, was executive director of the Legal Help Centre and a sessional instructor in the U of M’s Faculty of Social Work from 1994 to 2012. She began her career in child welfare, developing and running gatherings for women who struggled with addiction and had children in the care of a child welfare agency. Her research interests are in addictions, fetal alcohol syndrome and children with learning disabilities.
Megan Prydun [BSW/07], has worked in community development initiatives throughout Africa, including Swaziland, Malawi, and Kenya and served on the CCUNESCO Youth Advisory Group as Manitoba’s Provincial Coordinator. She is currently an operations analyst with Manitoba Housing.
UM TODAY: CAN EACH OF YOU ELABORATE A BIT ON WHY YOU WENT INTO SOCIAL WORK?
KATHY: I grew up with siblings with disabilities so from a very young age I was concerned about the lack of opportunities for kids who had disabilities. I was always going to be a social worker. I didn’t think there was something else I wanted to be.
SHIRLEY: I had never heard about a profession of Social Work back in the ‘60’s when I was in university. Although I grew up in Northern Manitoba, and we lived a somewhat precarious existence, social work intervention was not part of our lives or, as far as I knew, part of the lives of our Indigenous neighbours. I studied English literature in university, and realized that it was not going to help me make a living. A mentor of mine recognized my interest in creative drama (improvisation with children), and suggested “you could do that in social work”. I came into social work as a result of my naivety. I stayed because it was possible to work in creative and innovative ways in the field.
MEGAN: For me, the realization came in high school. That’s when I started to get involved in more human rights stuff but I’ve always felt a passion for social justice and felt like social work would be a practical way I could contribute in that area. Help people in a meaningful way.
ALL THREE OF YOU HAVE WORKED PRIMARILY IN MANITOBA AND CANADA. ALTHOUGH, MEGAN, THERE WAS A PERIOD WHEN YOU DID SOME INTERNATIONAL WORK, RIGHT?
MEGAN: I worked in Swaziland for about a year and half at New Hope Centre Children’s Home and it really changed me. I just saw some really significant suffering and the long-lasting impacts of poverty and the lack of basic necessities like clean drinking water, food, shelter, and just felt woefully inadequate to address some of those things. That really started a passion in me to change or influence systemic change. I wanted more education around how do you shore up people’s inner strengths and the environment around them while those systemic changes are taking place.
SHIRLEY: I really get excited hearing your comments about “how do you shore up peoples’ strengths and the environment around them”. To me this is the philosophical essence and social challenge of, and for, the profession always, anywhere, and for all time. Balancing information with opportunities for application is the challenge of a professional education. Because no matter what education, positive intentions, skills, etc., the profession assumes it has, or the professional may exercise, if people are starving, don’t have clean water – as you noted, Megan – or are caught in war, famine, oppression, we fail.
It’s important that this larger social context be recognized as having a huge defining role in what Social Work may expect of itself, realistically, and concomitantly what the context for effective practice should look like. We do not operate independently of our social contexts. We need those resources to be able to encourage individuals and communities to mobilize, to search for, discover, or create their potentials. Otherwise the broader social context fails them, as well as fails us as a profession.
KATHY: Shirley is very right, child protection workers often get so overwhelmed by the minutia of the job and forget to see the context in which they are doing their work. One of my favourite lines when I teach is to remind students to maintain a ‘healthy disrespect’ for what they do so as never to accept CFS as anything more than applying very small band aids on a very broken system. I have watched kids and families come out of the system with very few bruises but I have also buried kids. On those days I went home and watch my foster daughter sleep and know I didn’t save the world but I can make one child’s life that much better.
THAT’S DEFINITELY A LESSON THAT COMES WITH EXPERIENCE. WHAT OTHER THINGS DID YOU FEEL WERE IMPORTANT TO TEACH STUDENTS AFTER BEING IN THE FIELD?
KATHY: One of the struggles that undergrads have all the time is they get given tons and tons of research, they learn all kinds of theories but they don’t learn how to apply them, or why they’re important to apply. What I really enjoyed was being able to say “I know how to fill out those forms, but I’m going to tell you why you need to fill them out. Why they’re important.” To be able to bridge the academic theories and research and why we do the kind of things we do in the field. I think that might have been one of the problems you were having, Megan. You learned all this theory but what does it mean in the world, right?
MEGAN: Yes, absolutely. And I continued to struggle with that at times.
KATHY: I think everyone struggles with it. It takes a long time to figure it all out. Over the years, theories have changed quite dramatically around all kinds of different things and to be able to incorporate those is really important.
MEGAN: I think that application of research piece is really integral now. Working in government, there’s a really strong push for data and outcome driven work. I see a lot of risk associated with that, those numbers not being fully understood and then having huge policy decisions being made on them or even being weaponized to create narrative that’s not necessarily true. But having that application and analysis skill set to bring fullness to research is important.
SHIRLEY, WHAT ABOUT YOU? WHAT ARE SOME OF THE THINGS YOU TAUGHT YOUR STUDENTS?
SHIRLEY: Self-Care is a critical tool to effective and empathetic practice, and to know your biases. Know when to hold on to them, and when to fold them and park them.
KATHY: One of the problems in social work is we’re not really good at self-care. You just suck it up and you keep going. I think that is a big problem the field has to work through. I used to go home and hug my daughter. I would watch her grow up and be healthy and think, “it can happen”. That helped a lot.
MEGAN: In terms of something being super effective I haven’t found that for myself yet. But I have a very strong network of friends, many of whom I started the BSW program with, and I draw a lot of support from them. But that self-care piece is something I definitely struggle with.
KATHY: I think for some students they go into first year with this vision that they’re going to save the world. You might remember this, Megan.
KATHY: By second year, they’re discouraged because they’ve figured out they’re not going to change the world. And by fourth year, they’re beginning to figure out that they have a little piece in changing the world. They’re not going to change it all, but there’s a little piece that they think they can fix. I think it’s that process of coming in ready to go, then getting kicked around a bit while you work it all out, and then figuring out what’s realistic.
MEGAN: I feel like I’ve gone through that cycle a couple of times. Social work for me is so rooted in my identity that it’s gotten me in trouble at times when I give too much of myself. There is a health in being able to separate who I am from what I do.
IS THAT WHERE, AS SHIRLEY INDICATED, KNOWING YOUR BIASES COMES INTO PLAY?
MEGAN: I think self-awareness is the most important thing you can have. In doing my BSW, there was lots of focus on self-reflective work, journaling, assessing situations we’ve gone through in our past and how that might influence of affect how we see other people. When we’re invited into somebody else’s pain and experiences, we must be aware of those biases and know when we might need to pass something off to a colleague. There’s such a burden of responsibility that I feel when working with vulnerable people because you can influence people and I would never want to do that in a way that could insight harm or lead somebody down a path made them question themselves in an unhealthy way. Self-awareness and empathy paired together can help make a good social worker.
SHIRLEY: You’ve said it beautifully!
KATHY: I completely agree. Creativity is also key: How can I creatively look at something and find some good in a big bad. Education is also a huge piece. That’s one of the reasons why I take teaching and supporting students really seriously. I became a strong person from going to school and I see my students becoming stronger. Particularly non-traditional students who never thought they could do anything and are now leaders in the community. I like that because I was one of them! I think that’s kind of fun.