Outrage at RMIT by Despina Filipakki

In mid-August practitioners, academics, staff and students gathered in RMIT’s Storey Hall to discuss responses to homelessness, disability, violence against women, the treatment of asylum seekers and racism. ‘Outrage! Critical Conversations on Social Issues in Australia’ marked 40 years of social work at RMIT. We collectively proposed strategies of future action that would ensure our profession’s core values: respect for human dignity, empowerment, and working to address and deconstruct inequity and injustice.

We discussed politics, economics, education, social work training and how these interact with each other and affect our daily practice. Human rights, disability, domestic violence and homelessness were all at the top of our agenda. Sexism, racism, ageism, youthism and ableism/disablism are just a few of the –isms many were outraged about. These matters of injustice are deeply embedded into the political and social realms and thus difficult to deconstruct.

Not only did we focus on the causes of these issues and how they dramatically impact people’s lives, we also explored the various ways that we can challenge the system even through our daily practice. Social work in the past few decades used to be a lot more about activism. What has changed? How have we changed? And what can be done about it? We discussed the differences between activists, service providers and academics, and stressed how important it is to remember that social workers are political agents; they are people who are able to bring about changes in their institutions and the political agenda.

It is important to reflect on the following passage from the Report of the Social Work Task Force (2009) and what it means to us as practitioners: “When social workers have confidence in their own skills, purpose and identity, and in the system in place to back them up, they have a huge amount to offer. They collaborate effectively with other professionals and adapt to new roles and expectations. Most importantly, they forge constructive partnerships with people who find themselves vulnerable or at risk and make a sustained difference in their lives.”

As our colleagues from the U.K. highlighted, and the title of the report itself implies, our role as social workers is to “build a safe, confident future”. Hall’s work (2003) demonstrated how the emergence of neo-liberal ideologies and globalisation have impacted on the way economics interfere with public policy. “The passing-off of market fundamentalism as the new common sense has helped to drive home the critical lesson which underpins the reform of the welfare state: the role of the state nowadays is not to support the less fortunate or powerful but to help individuals themselves to provide for all their social needs. Those who can, must. The rest must be targeted, means-tested and kept to a minimum of provision lest the burden threaten wealth creation.”

So, how do we go about it? And how do we empower people and local communities without pretending to be heroic agents? Academics might be too distanced from daily practice, practitioners do not always follow up research, and service providers tend to focus more on managerialism, protocols and funding. The service users themselves might feel too powerless and overwhelmed to share their experiences with us. We acknowledge the inspirational narratives that people bring into our daily practice and are committed to ensuring they are heard. Only with a critical and strengths-based approach – which has been embraced by RMIT staff for years – will we be able to fight social injustice.

The Social Work Alliance Project (SWAP) want to stress how important the role of social worker as an educator is, as it’s a role that has not been explored or used to its full potential. It is of paramount importance that we include this additional role in our next symposium by inviting people from the field of education to help us explore how language and education constructs ideologies of inequality, disempowers people while empowering the dominant discourses, and assists in the endless marginalisation of minorities.

It is vital that we remember how powerful our texts and dialogues can be for they have the power to challenge the dominant discourses and power relations and at the same time empower and educate people. We're still outraged about many things and look forward to next year's symposium to take it out of our systems, bodies and minds!

Despina Filipakki

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