My Experience with Activism
Contributed by Brandon Haydon, LCSW
Before the decision to enter social work, I was an activist engaged in a number of social movements, such as LGBTQ rights, anti-racism, and radical economic justice. Throughout my MSW program and my first years as a professional, I have dealt a lot with an overarching conundrum elucidated by the following questions about social work activism: what of those moments when my activist prerogative seems to me to conflict with a social work imperative?
Could it be that the best way to challenge is to question, rather than argue? To wonder aloud and patiently explore the contours of conflict, or fight with informed fervor for justice defined by an obvious greater good?
Do activism and social work exist on some sort of continuum? Or are they parallel, yet separate, paths? Is there some distance imposed between them by their demeanors?
I had wondered if I should strongly compartmentalize the two agendas, or submit my more forward activist posture to the imperative of a social work poise?
Social Work Activism
“Be the change you wish to see in the world” goes the oft-quoted Ghandi adage. When I pledged myself as an activist, I did so with the conviction to carry that, as consciously as possible, into every thread of my life, so that after a while, I will have least woven a patch of hope and challenge into the greater social fabric around me. I hold my identity as a social worker in the same regard – it must be lived.
I think the greatest shift has been in my perspective from conflict-based (whereby the power of my conviction and heat of my argument served to defeat ideas and agendas deemed harmful and install in another, by righteous force, more progressive intrapersonal materials) to collaboration-based modes and approaches, articulated through feminist and relational theories.
I once viewed my helping or social justice role as a combatant; my separate self versus another, the outcome determined by who could overpower the other with weaponized logic, rigorous data-wielding, and ethical high-ground.
I have now come to realize that many times, this turned into feuds or jousts, with opponents and myself expending incredible amounts of energy working toward our next debate in hopes of emerging the victor by out-competing one another for the precious resource of oughtness about the world.
I suppose I am now more aware of my own narratives surrounding what it means to be an activist, and what it means to be a social worker. I understand that I have been telling myself very particular stories about these entities, informed by the relationships around and within which these concepts were formed for me.
It has simply been the case that the formation of my identity as an activist was forged by association with aggressive, subversive, and righteous personalities, and my identity as a social worker is the crystallized composite of careful, patient, systems-oriented associations. Oil and water? Sometimes it still feels like that.
For some time I’d imagined these archetypes as familiar with one another, yet mutually exclusive characters contained within my being and serving two distinct purposes; one to combat ignorance and social injustice, one to collaborate in maximizing human potential.
Challenges When Getting Involved in Social Work Activism
This challenge has come up in my work; a client will say something or act in such a way (racist, sexist, queerphobic, etc.) that my hackles are raised and the activist inside me rears to do battle, to argumentatively defeat the offense – to persuade and convince toward my position or goal. To attain victory over that which I view as harmful must be an empirical one – a mastery over. To win.
I realize now more than ever that such an impulse was baptized in the roiling waters of Western competitiveness and power-based dominance patterns.
But as a social worker, now with conscious relational and narrative perspectives, I am more apt to recognize the transactional and contextual nature of meaning-making and value-generation – the social constructionism, and the intersubjective nature of the space between myself and others – the relationship.
It is here that “victory” is measured in sharing, in non-hierarchical immersion that “shapes the openness to new experiences and the quality of revelations about inner experience that occur between people” (Jordan, 1997, p. 16). In that way, perhaps I can at least for a moment take the emphasis off the content of the client’s words, however troubling, and try and join with a client’s process, their underlying feelings about the subject, the dream they have of the world and the stories they have created or repeated about it in order to cope.
Perhaps, even I still feel friction with their words or expressions, I can connect to the core universal values or feelings states from which they emanate: belonging, safety, justice, confusion, fear, etc. Naming these core values, desires or conditions can create openings where there once seemed walls and defenses.
Reflections on Social Work Activism
My ego, left to its own devices in our culture, tends to lead me into interpersonal dynamics as though I were de-contextualized; a self-existing in space, possessed of unique attributes, interacting from a place of separation from the other, from the world.
Now cognizant of a connection focused model, growth, and movement is participatory and synergistic, as the “self, other, and the relationship -no longer clearly separated entities but mutually forming- are interconnected rather than in competition” (Jordan, 1997, p. 20)
I realize that I have been telling myself stories, -or believing stories of others- about what it means to identify as an activist and be involved in social work activism. As a social worker, what power looks like expressed through those identities, and that, as Jordan asserts, “a larger paradigm shift from the primacy of separate self to relational being must be considered to further our understanding of all human experience” (Jordan, 1997, p. 21)