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5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Rachel Yavnai & Ginette Lafrenière

COVID Activism: How the Pandemic has Revealed New Strategies for Social Media and Technology in Community Organizing and Social Activism

The word “unprecedented” is used frequently when discussing COVID-19. What is truly unprecedented, however, are the ways in which community organizers around the world have created innovative platforms in which compassion, care, and social justice are guiding principles. Community organizers know how to pivot. We have to, given the political contexts and precarious arenas in which we work and serve predominantly at-risk populations. When the pandemic beckoned us from our sleepy complacency earlier this year, community organizers began to slowly realize that something was happening. Something big. 

But what actions can be done when the dangers of organizing are exacerbated by a global pandemic? Malcolm Gladwell, a writer and columnist for the New York Times, argued in 2010 that “the revolution will not be tweeted.” He questioned the ability of online activism to create lasting change compared to traditional forms of activism, stating that online activism offers comparatively lower risk while still offering the ability to maintain one’s social capital. Much has changed in the ten years since Gladwell offered this critique: the online world has become inextricably intertwined with the physical, and the power to effect change has similarly expanded across both domains. It has been demonstrated that one’s social capital online can alter employment prospects, educational aspirations, and one’s financial reality if the right – or wrong – words are said on a social media platform. To disregard the online world is to willingly forfeit a valuable tool, which the oppressive systems are undoubtedly utilizing to achieve their own ends. In the cases we present, we refer to community organizing as individuals embarking upon various activities of support and nurturing at the climax of the pandemic, whereas we qualify activism as more of a politically-centred organized form of social justice. The blend of community organizing and activist spaces comprise what we affectionately refer to as “COVID activism.”


Community Organizing

Online groups have become an epicenter of community care and social connectedness in an unlikely time of social distance. “Caremongering” Facebook groups have populated in numerous cities across Canada, providing access to resources for individuals especially at risk during the pandemic and offering a virtual space to navigate the challenges of COVID-19 as a community. The Kitchener-Waterloo chapter has been a useful connection to others in the city, where members are able to check-in with one another and volunteer for trips to the grocers or pharmacy. People who sew offered to make masks, and ended up organizing to produce hundreds of masks for local hospital workers. 

 People are inherently social and will evidently congregate and seek out community as a way to feel connection. We have seen smaller groups establish with individuals who need support in addiction recovery, or those offering their specific skills as bakers, computer specialists, and teachers to folks at home seeking expert advice. Artistic expression can be seen through my four walls, where members submit photos and communicate their experiences of the pandemic creatively. Interestingly, this local foodie group pivoted from its usual focus to provide practical advice on sourcing essential sanitization products at nearby stores or navigating online delivery systems. Later, it became a source of fact-sharing, dispelling propaganda through research, and speaking out against price gouging in stores. 

 Online discussions surrounding a universal basic income (UBI) have also been prevalent following the release of the Canada Emergency Response Benefit (CERB), which currently provides eligible Canadians with financial relief during the pandemic. The caremongering groups have also compelled folks to organize against evictions and poor shelter conditions during the pandemic. The encouragement of “getting through this together” has felt consistently authentic and meaningful for local residents who typically would not identify themselves as community organizers or activists.

Systemic Injustice

            Social media has become a central tool in the organization of community efforts and has similarly proven useful in the realm of social activism. In the era of coronavirus, large gatherings pose a public health risk that not all people are able to make. Black Americans, for example, are experiencing a death toll 2.4 times greater than White Americans(Canada, notably, does not collect race-based COVID-19 data). Immunocompromised individuals are also at an increased risk for fatality, as are precariously housed individuals. Social issues persist, pandemic or not; inequity is insidiously woven into the fabric of our daily realities, and is further amplified during a global health crisis. This is evident in our numerous Indigenous communities across Canada, many of whom are not able to follow sanitation and handwashing guidelines offered by the Government of Canada due to their lack of access to potable water. The government has gone so far as to officially recommend using bottled water for handwashing if a community is on a water advisory, but remains silent on why, of the $1.1 billion allocated to coronavirus relief, no funds had been invested in clean water for these communities years prior. Systemic racism is an ongoing public health crisis that threatens the lives of countless racialized people across the country, and is a driving force of social determinants of health such as employment, housing, and education. 

            As such, social media has become a method to further propel social justice initiatives and demonstrations against systemic injustices. Protestors can share crucial information, offer emotional and practical support, and broadcast speedy updates on what is happening on-the-ground as events unfold. During the Black Lives Matter protests beginning across the United States and beyond in May 2020, updates were tweeted on what the armband colour plain-cloth NYPD officers were wearing on a given day to more easily identify them. There circulated advice on chemical attack safety, information guides confirming one’s civic right to protest, and how to disrupt street surveillance cameras with laser pens. Information was shared by Egyptologist Sarah Parcak via Twitter on how to pull down monuments, which likely would not have circulated if not for the far-reach and hashtag abilities of the social media platform. That night, demonstrators pulled down a confederate statue at Linn Park in Birmingham, Alabama, and the city’s mayor subsequently removed the park’s remaining confederate monument the following day

But as technology advances, so too are the capabilities of those upholding unethical systems. Where facial recognition technology has been developed to identify protestors, an unofficial dress code has been adopted and circulated online in response: black clothing, face masks, protective eyewear, and ensuring identifiable tattoos or markings are obscured. Law enforcement has similarly attempted to use online crowdsourcing platforms of its own to solicit information on the identities of demonstrators. The Dallas Police Department, for example, developed and released a phone application, iWatch, which encouraged people to submit videos of “illegal activity” happening in the city as the result of protesting. In response, the app was flooded with irrelevant videos of Korean pop artists and was temporarily shut down. Negative reviews also populated on the app store in order to deter others from downloading the application. 

Safety and Security

Modern-day activists must stay responsive to the ways that being perpetually plugged in to the online world can harm their ability to demonstrate effectively in-person. Law enforcement utilizes strategies such as plain-cloth officers, drones, and video surveillance, but have also stepped up their tactics to include digital surveillance. Cellphone data and information can now be accessed to determine the identity of protestors simply by having a cellphone located on your person while present at a demonstration. Concerns over privacy in a digital world have brought with it specific strategies to maintain civil liberties and security amidst civil unrest. Advice online has circulated on how to best combat this, such as turning off location-tracking and data-sharing capabilities on your phone, leaving your phone on in a remote location, or removing facial recognition and fingerprint identification capabilities so it cannot be unlocked by force. This information was especially relevant in March of 2019, when protests in Hong Kong first began. Activists were responding to the proposed extradition bill, which would allow citizens suspected of criminal activity to, in some cases, be extradited from semiautonomous Hong Kong to mainland China. Over the months that followed, it became evident that maintaining safety and security, both in the streets and online, was crucial in maintaining the wellbeing of participating individuals. WhatsApp, an online messaging application owned by Facebook, was a primary tool for which protestors could share resources and plan for upcoming demonstrations. Alternative forms of online communication through messaging platforms gained momentum as it became evident that WhatsApp was not secure enough with user data.

In addition to the typical preparations for a demonstration, such as establishing a route or appointing speakers, medics, crowd marshals, and other roles, organizing in a pandemic means adhering to further safety protocols. Specific information for protesting during a pandemic has circulated amongst attendants, encouraging others to follow COVID-19 health guidelines such as monitoring symptoms, wearing a mask, social distancing for fourteen days following, and getting tested if one suspects they exhibit symptoms. Notably, one does not need to disclose their participation in a demonstration when receiving the COVID-19 test.

Conclusion

Online activism has evolved to go far beyond what Gladwell and others have referred to as “slacktivism.” It is debated that knowledge-sharing and increased awareness online can in-and-of-itself challenge and dismantle oppressive systems. However, the coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the benefits of online activism as an accessible and multi-faceted tool for social movements. For social workers in often frontline positions, traditional forms of activism may pose harm to the clients you serve daily, and this needs to be weighed into your decision on how to best amplify support. It is crucial that whichever actions are taken are done so critically and with the drive to enact systemic change and community care. In light of the ongoing Black Lives Matter movement, Dorlee Michaeli (of Socialwork.Career) has compiled a comprehensive list of anti-racism resources for social workers and therapists

We believe that social work has been given an important opportunity to enhance the ways in which we value and honour micro and macro practice, and the synergy of both is what informs holistic models of healing and social justice work. As evidenced by the organizing that has taken place and continues to exist during the pandemic, paying lip service to the importance of macro practices in social work is simply insufficient. As stakeholders in the social work profession, we need to remain vigilant on how we are reproducing oppression and injustice in our own practice, work, partnerships, and organizations, and actively work to dismantle them. 

Rachel Yavnai and Ginette Lafrenière 

Rachel Yavnai is a Research and Community Project Coordinator at MCCHR and SIRG.

Ginette Lafrenière is an Associate Professor at the Lyle S. Hallman Faculty of Social Work at Wilfrid Laurier University in Kitchener, Ontario, Canada, and the Director of the MCCHR and SIRG.

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5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Sarah Dewar & Omobola Akingbulu

‘Proper social work’: Peer led digital group work with migrant families – solidarity during COVID-19

Overview

I am writing this as one of very few student social workers to choose a non-statutory setting for second placement. I am also the only member of my cohort who has been able to maintain placement during COVID-19 (C19). In light of statutory placement suspensions and resulting anxiety and uncertainty, I have been reflecting on explicit differences between voluntary and statutory providers of social work services and placements, in terms of the nature and meaning of support, and the impact on both families and students during C19. I believe these differences are intrinsically linked to the continuation of my placement throughout the current public health crisis. I am working with migrant families who experience subjugation due to oppressive state structures, which are now amplified by C19 related challenges. These families consistently identify voluntary organisations and community groups as their main source of meaningful help through these difficult times.

My commitment to practice which challenges unjust statutory mechanisms through principles of solidarity has been significant on placement at Together with Migrant Children. Congruence with agency identity, alongside innovative adaptations within our service delivery have deepened the level of knowledge and skills acquired throughout my social work placement.   My strengths and needs as a student have been woven into service delivery, shaping spaces to creatively reframe my learning objectives, and meet the requirements of the Professional Capability Framework. My ability as a student social worker to adapt to meet the current, changed needs of families reinforces my recognition that core social work values are not located in office spaces, home visits, or statutory processes, but in the adoption of new co constructed spaces, and `on the ground` initiatives, synonymous with community movements such as Akwaaba, based in Hackney, a non hierarchical, mutually supportive space for migrant families. Statutory social work, bureaucratized by New Public Management appears, as observed through my direct work with families, to have been paralysed by its own structures and processes during C19, impacting on families, workers and students alike.

My time on placement has led me to critically review my unease with narratives which perpetuate the concept of charity, and discourses which allude to a giver/taker dynamic within practice. Charity as a working model provides `just enough`, a cloaked generosity, placing migrant children and their families in externally defined spaces, with no true autonomy. I uphold models of social work practice which position themselves alongside families to challenge not only the passive neglect, but the active harm caused by oppressive state structures. Placement within a voluntary organisation during C19 has generated numerous unique opportunities to experience solidarity as a method of practice. It is captured here in two reflective accounts of peer led group work.

Amidst, and because of practical and emotional hardship associated with C19, we have created a small virtual union based on principles of solidarity, and mutual concern. Many families have talked of increased levels of hardship associated with food bank closures, and other community support, compounded by their limited access to technology, and wifi, upon which we have all heavily relied on during C19.  In collaboration with Omobola, who shares in the facilitation of the parent`s group, this writing brings to life our small digital community. Through conversation and discussion, the group decided what they value most is time and space to share thoughts, feelings, fears, and hopes. Identification of need was based on suspension of home visits, and community outreach, as mandated by C19 government policy. Evaluation assessed potential barriers such as accessibility, communication, ethics and consent, facilitation, group dynamics, use of time/space, funding, and potential for future development. I conducted an informal consultation with four families I work closely with, which provided the initial framework for the project. The group work has evolved according to ongoing collaborative review, bringing us to a point today when we are starting to plan group work as a permanent, peer led addition  to the services provided by Together with Migrant Children. We present two perspectives on the meaning of virtual group work, Omobola as a mother and user of the service, and me as a mother and social work student.

Reflection by Omobola Akingbulu

My name is Omobola Akingbulu.

I am a migrant from Nigeria and have been in the UK for 12 years and five months. I have two children age 5 and age 2.

I and my family joined the Zoom digital parents group organised by the migrant welfare organisation member Mrs Sarah Dewar. The group meeting runs weekly since the beginning of the lockdown. 

I have envisaged what impact the lockdown will create in my life negatively. As a single parent that cannot work or receive a state benefits due to my immigration status, I see myself as someone embarking on a tough, challenging holiday.   

But the reverse was the case; my worries were superseded ever since I joined the Zoom digital parents group chat. It`s been so helpful and motivating. My great joy is that I have been able to convince family, friends, and neighbours about the importance of not giving up their interest to join a Zoom digital group chat that they may have been approached to join. 

On the contrary, some migrant families are unable to access a digital group chat during this lockdown as they cannot afford a technology device or internet to access the group. It is sad that the families are limited in receiving some state benefits due to their immigration status.  

Although talking and seeing nice faces at times can contribute to healthy living, it is absurd to see that some of the migrant families’ social workers have not been practically supportive in discharging their duties of care during this difficult time. I consider the Covid 19 lockdown as a bizarre and cantankerous situation for some of the migrant families in the UK.

THE IMPORTANCE 

From my perspective I have been able to connect to other parents from different racial backgrounds and even benefit from some of the ideas brought into the group during this lockdown and especially the information passed between people.

The digital group chat has also helped my older child in knowing, and learning through educational activities, boosting her confidence in communication, and fine tuning her social relationships with people.

My conclusion is that the government should implement a constructive approach that will be practically supportive to the welfare of migrant families in the UK. Most migrant families are suffering, and their situation is just too pathetic and it is frustrating. 

Reflection by Sarah Dewar

Following each group meeting I write a narrative account, reflecting on challenges and good points, in parallel with direct and implicit feedback. Reflexivity helps me analyse the role my presence plays within the group. I define myself as a group member, I do not actively or indirectly lead the group work, I take a seat at the back in the context of knowledge construction. It is an uncomfortable truth, but I have to acknowledge we are not the same; I am a post graduate student doing a funded Master`s Degree, a homeowner, defined as visible and valuable by society, which I understand as privilege. These things are out of reach for the other mums because of their immigration status. I do not experience the same financial challenges associated with food bank closures on which my family rely, and no data to connect me with support. My housing situation does not involve neighbours crashing about in the upstairs flat, inducing panic and flashbacks of past trauma, or returning from the shop to find I am street homeless, my belongings in binbags on the street, thrown there by a rogue landlord mid lockdown.

The groups work best without my personal opinions and views, it`s not about me, none of this happens to me, the strength is in listening and learning, then acting together to challenge injustice. This is where resilience is located and developed, in communities and connections, not individuals. It would be good if we could lose narratives associated with the individualisation and pathologizing of life stories. Through compassionate human interaction, the group found common ground, from cooking to university experiences, music to growing your own food, home schooling to relationships, favourite books to parenting during school closures. According to Janet, a co facilitator, “The way we talk is very healthy, it is a release from loneliness. When I`m inside my own head it brings back bad memories I want to let go of……the virus is like a punishment, I have no friends, no school, no church……..the group lets me express myself”. Omobola discussed in group her own feeling of responsibility to cascade information and knowledge generated by the group to her wider community, “living hand to mouth is not sustainable…. people have nothing, no information, no communication……they are prisoners”. I feel this demonstrates empathic moral duty, which underlines the value of lived experience in co-produced forms of support.

 I`m glad expression of solidarity can be found in the ordinary, because after all, although campaigning for wider structural  change is a vital part of radical social work, it is the everyday dialectical construct of groups and communities which stands up and engages the rights of marginalized people. Virtual group work during C19 has given me a non-prescriptive dialogical space in which to observe and reflect on connections and relationships, and a way of doing which is consistent with my personal values.

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Sarah Dewar, social work student, and Omobola Akingbulu, expert by experience

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5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Simon Cardy

The corporate capture of ideas infecting social work

Is the use of ‘command and control’ by senior managers proliferating under Covid19? Is the deployment of micro-management being intensified? How can we encourage ‘excellence’ in social work practice during these ‘difficult times’ and are current structures ‘fit for purpose’?

These are some of the questions being promoted by the Centre for Public Impact who are currently leading a ‘revolutionary’ and ‘radical’ blueprint for a self-management structure in social work – a way of working based on the Buurtzorg model framed and controlled by corporate interests.

A recent blog ‘The impact of Covid 19 in children’s social care practice in England’ published by the Centre for Public Impact (CPI) took the opportunity to use Covid to further their case. They report, anecdotally, that some managers under Covid had reverted to a style of micro-management which increased stress for social workers and had left morale low. There were signs that a ‘shift backward’ was taking place to a stronger version of command and control with yet more primacy attached to child protection. Such reports are echoed elsewhere.  My own soundings across four  local authorities are  more mixed. Managers are placing a lot of emphasis on following the government’s guidelines, offices are closed and everyone is working from home without having to fill in a form to do so. Where there’s a will there’s a way: Covid has shown that social workers can be trusted to work more autonomously without the disruption of a massive re-organisation.

Space prevents me from doing justice to the Blueprint’s proposals but in a nutshell, existing social workers, team managers, IROs and managers – up to and including service managers – all become case holders in ‘enabler’ teams with no direct line managers. They are supported with coaches and consultants (experienced social workers) located in ‘insight’ teams. An arms-length senior management team is situated in the ‘strategy’ team. Crucially, model fidelity dictates that the strategy team have no rights to intervene or become involved in day-to-day decisions.

The Blueprint makes some remarkable claims, primarily that it can increase face-to-face time with children and families by 65% and reduces caseloads by 20%. It makes some all too familiar arguments that: (social) work is too bureaucratic; that layers of management hinder decision making; where one in three qualified social workers are not working directly with children but managing others; and that children’s social care is ‘gripped’ by a command-and-control culture, with rules and performance indicators.

The Blueprint is a serious proposal. Its backers have invested considerable resources and made good use of their political and corporate lobbying skills planting press releases, holding webinars and enlisting high profile names including the Chief Social Worker for Children & Families, Isabelle Trowler.

We have been here before of course with tales of ordinary magic – such as ill-fated quasi-market based ‘Social Work Practice’ pilots or the vaunted ‘Troubled Families’ initiative. Both made misleading and overstated claims about outcomes for children and beating bureaucracy.

Much could be said about the minutia of the Blueprint’s proposals. Chief amongst these are how do you sustain the model in the long term without poaching experienced social workers from neighbouring authorities? Who attends to the key performance indicators and responds to time consuming complaints? And, just how do you get round the trade union and employers national Single Status agreement without breaking it, if newly qualified social workers in their first year of employment and former service managers are working to the same job description?

Such questions need however to be put to one side. Instead we need to look initially at the bigger picture.

First, we have the audacious move by the Johnson government to de-regulate the Children Act with various measures in the emergency legislation, a bonanza of contracts being handed out to the private sector and the shocking spectacle of SI 445 as discussed by Carolyne Willow in the first edition.

Second, who and what is the Centre for Public Impact (CPI)? The CPI is – ostensibly – a not-for-profit ‘foundation’ set up by the multinational management consultancy Boston Consulting Group (BCG) in 2015.

BCG is a founding partner of Frontline who are also backing the Blueprint proposal. One of the Blueprint’s authors is Josh McAlister, the CEO of Frontline. Another of the joint authors is Ryan Wise, a former Frontline trainee and now a practice development manager at the Social Care Institute for Excellence (SCIE). BCG’s mantra is ‘doing well by doing good’ (see Kerr, this edition, for more detail on this). It prides itself as a company for social responsibility except that is where it has been linked to various corruption scandals with the Angolan and Saudi governments.

While CPI is an arm of the Boston Consulting Group (BCG) it is legally an independent organisation. A closer look at the CPI’s board of trustees shows that BCG executives have a majority vote. The CPI could be viewed rather as  a barely disguised front organisation for BCG, whose purpose is to sell its neo-liberal thinking and scout for new markets.

The CPI is awash with ideas to change the world and peppers its website with articles and discussion papers about its ‘shared power principle’, the ‘re-enablement paradigm’ and ‘Total Societal Impact’. In the battle of ideas the CPI invites us to ‘re-imagine’ public services arguing that, rather than resources to tackle inequality and deprivation, what social workers need  is new type of ‘mindset’.

Third, we need to interrogate the thinking at the heart of the Blueprint, most of which is stems from BCG and the CPI’s alchemy of contemporary Taylorism. The intellectual base behind the Blueprint is not drawn from social work or its academy but inspired from the field of corporate management literature and best-selling management gurus such as Frederic Laloux (Laloux, 2014) a former associate partner with McKinsey & Company and Aaron Dignan  author of ‘Brave New Work’ (Dignan, 2019).

Questioning ‘top down’ power is another of the CPI’s themes with the idea being that companies and governments can benefit from corporate capitalism’s latest elixir for driving efficiency. This argues that the target culture and management enforcement of Key Performance Indicators has become inefficient. A better way of doing this – they claim – is by doing away with managers and trusting staff. Out goes the idea of ‘customer focus’, in comes the notion of ‘citizen empowerment’. ‘Service driven silos’ are replaced with ‘Human Centred Design’ whilst a ‘Delivery mindset’ is replaced by an ‘Enablement Mindset’ ‘achieving more by letting go’. The narrative dovetails neatly with asset/strengths-based approaches.

Fourth, will they pull it off? There are a couple of signals.

One of these is de-regulation. Katie Rose from the CPI has said as much. The introduction of Statutory Instrument 445 has allowed the government to scrap regulation in children’s services as Article 39’s sterling campaign has highlighted. If statutory six – monthly reviews for children in care were discarded, why would we need Independent Reviewing Officers? If deregulation were to become more permanent, it would help the Blueprint’s case. 

The other is the current government has four years left in office. What the government’s handling of the corona crisis has shown is that Michael Gove remains a key figure in this government. Gove is significant for the purposes of this discussion for his early support for Frontline. In a candid interview with ACVEO, Josh MacAlister, CEO of Frontline, confessed that he kick-started Frontline by throwing a sickie from his teaching job on a day trip to see Michael Gove, the then Education Minister. If the CPI needs some political assistance to roll out a pilot for the blueprint, their networks are surely in place?

Finally, I am not saying that that social work should not seek a way out of its long-standing crisis or that command and control should not be questioned. There are, and have been, many debates within the labour and trade union movement about worker’s self management but the Blueprint is not what this is about. If this was a debate emerging out of a struggle between service user groups, trade unions, social work organisations, elected members and government, that would be one thing. But it’s not. No, this is a discussion framed by a private company who recently posted $8.5b in global revenues circling to influence the future of social work, and whose interests are focused on maximising profit margins rather than democratically controlled needs led children’s welfare services.

Simon Cardy is an Independent social worker and practice educator.

Twitter @simoncardy

References

Dignan, A., (2019). Brave New Work: Are You Ready to Reinvent Your Organization?. Penguin UK.

Laloux, F., (2014). Reinventing organizations: A guide to creating organizations inspired by the next stage in human consciousness. Nelson Parker.

MacAlister,J., Rose,R., Ruseler,M, Wise,R., Hiskins,R, Khagram,A., Baghera,E., Aslanidis,J., and Martin,B. (2019) ‘A Blueprint for Children’s Social Care: unlocking the potential for social work’ Frontline, Centre for Public Impact (CPI) UK, and Buurtzorg Britain and Ireland.

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5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Simon Hall

“Am I on mute?” Social work, technology and the pandemic

I’ve always wondered if (as JFK said) the Chinese really do have two brush strokes that make up the symbol for crisis- one for danger and one for opportunity. I’m fairly sure that it’s not true but it’s a nice idea. Somewhere within it is a message for all of us. Social work is embedded within the idea of relationship based practice and there has always been something about being in the room with people. This could have that as a profession it might not have embraced technology in the same way as others.

So this is a story of the tensions between the old and the new. George Monbiot talks of how stories define our political landscape. This is one where we might find that the old lines are redrawn. You might find that there are certain points where, well the story and your understanding depends upon your context. So as Max Bygraves (told you so) would say “I wanna tell you a story”. It’s also unashamedly my story.

As with all of the best stories it’s a bit of a cliff hanger and there are probably more questions than answers. In this context we were faced with a challenge. On March 23rd our skills assessments were due to start with our first year students. They had to complete a 20 minute role play simulation with an expert by experience. On March 23rd the UK went into lockdown.  So how do you assess students ability to carry out an assessment when you’re in lockdown??? Remember that point about maybe not embracing technology?

In fact a cursory Google search comes up with a host of issues around why this might be the case. Arguments of turning social work and social care into nothing more than algorithms or that the technological march has all been driven by austerity and the need to save money. All of which could and probably is true. However in June 2019 the Chief Executive of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW) Ruth Allen said that if social work did not embrace technology it risked being left behind. By May 2020 there was space in our vocabulary for “is my mic working?” and “I can’t get my camera to work”. Zoom became something other than an ice lolly (admittedly I’m not sure that means anything to people born after 1980) and Tteams more than well just being about teams. Suddenly a nation of social workers got used to wearing X-Box headsets and looking like they were guiding down planes.

In April we were still at that point where when someone’s face popped up in an online team meeting you’d shout “ooh hello”. The novelty was almost palpable. By May there was a Social Work England guide to ethics, risk assessments and virtual meetings. Maybe getting students to do the assessments online wouldn’t be the worst thing in the world? Even so there was still King Ludd within me questioning – you can’t see what’s going on 6 inches to the left of them? How do you know if a student is giving eye contact? Is this really been driven by the drive to get students through for next year and some neoliberal students as consumer’s ideology?

Truth is maybe that part of it was. But then there is always degrees of everything. But then what are the realities of practice? What is it really like out there to practice at the moment and how do we prepare students for it. Well maybe assessing them online isn’t just a pragmatic response (it is) but it also prepares them in a way that using a lab can’t? What’s more we found that the students just weren’t phased by fazed by any of this. In fact not one student contacted us to complain about the change.

Then something amazing happened. It’s June 29th 2020. We have completed one week of skills assessments. In fact as I write the next one is at 1pm. I have to confess this is very unscientific, but all of the students have been on time (it doesn’t always happen in person) and have seemed much less nervous.  The feedback from the experts by experience is much more positive. Not just that but the students have had an experience of using systems and technology that will really support them in practice. I can’t say what the students themselves thought. The assessments have finished yet but the next part of the story will feature that part.

What I can say is what I’ve learnt. We talk about students not reading books. But then if you’re working with a 13 year old child perhaps knowing how snap chat works is just as important as your understanding of the PCS model. How many social work lecturers know how to use Tick Tock (terrible stereotyping I know – but I don’t)? Perhaps what we construe as being valuable knowledge isn’t always right? Maybe the students were much more comfortable working in this way?

Whatever technology we use, essential social work skills remain the same.  Showing empathy, developing a rapport and any other number of skills will continue to be at the core of social work. The vehicle or format that we use them in might change. What matters is that social work keeps its core values and core skills at its heart. Maybe we do also need to embrace the new. It doesn’t have to be a matter of one or the other, technology is an asset to social work. How would we have managed the current situation 20 or 30 years ago?

Whichever way the Covid-19 crisis plays out the world will be different. It’s likely that we are all going to have to keep together whilst continuing to be apart for some time yet. There will always be times when social workers need to be there in person. There are going to be times when we can’t.  So there isn’t an end to this never ending story (another old one). In a world where KSI (???????) has 37m views while only 4m people watch Coronation Street you can be assured change is constant. What I’ve learnt is that sometimes we have to embrace that change in order to move on.

Simon Hall

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5th Edition July 14th, 2020 The Social Work Student Connect & Siobhan Maclean

A Covid-19 creation

When Covid-19 took hold of the country, the uncertainty and unease felt amongst students was evident across the various social media platforms. Student placement learning opportunities were suddenly at risk due to safety measures that left placements paused or cancelled. Universities were required to develop virtual learning methods in order to provide some continuity for their students, practice educators were bound by the relevant local authority health and safety protocols regarding the safety of students remaining in statutory or third sector placements. Students that had existing health conditions themselves had to shield and were now in the unchartered territory of not being able to leave their home at all, for learning or work purposes. It was clear that learning and practice opportunities were beginning to change.

When a crisis hits, it is perhaps easy to go into panic mode. It is unlikely that any individual, from student through to educator, has experienced the adjustments to everyday life that quickly became the ‘norm’. It has, therefore, been crucial for students to retain a sense of calm amongst the pressures of a new way of learning; using a creative approach to stay connected within a virtual world, the new reality surrounding them.    

Amongst the chaos and confusion, much respected social work academic, practice educator and accomplished writer Siobhan Maclean reached out to students virtually, starting a conversation on Twitter, creating a focus for students with a Covid-created restless energy.  Siobhan had identified a need to support students but in return needed their support to nurture her inner technophobe! From this, a new kind of group work was created. Eight students from across the UK came forward, all undertaking different courses or routes into the profession; and rather than referencing (Maclean, 2015) entered into a conversation with her instead! Ideas were discussed virtually; skill sets were identified based on a ‘willingness to try our best attitude’ and relationships were formed without ever being in the same physical presence of one another. Enthusiastic, determined zoom chats in gardens, bedrooms, kitchens, and dining rooms became the new norm! The variety of viewpoints helped to push the project forward, and in less than two weeks after the initial meeting, the trial for the first webinar titled ‘The Social Work Theory Fear Factor’ had been held, roles had been allocated and the first webinar received over 900 sign ups. How’s that for Forming, Storming, Norming and Performing? (The adjourning was to come later – don’t think we’ve forgotten!)

For those on the team that have been on placement or working in social care throughout the pandemic; it has been easier to identify the restrictions and impact  Covid-19 has had with regard to ability to practice in a way that matches our learning. The restrictions on assessing people face to face and supporting decisions in their lives has proved difficult. Covid-19 is changing the social work profession and the way in which people train and practice. It has been disconcerting at times to see the way in which learning opportunities and the delivery of social work has changed. However, the virus has also shown the resourcefulness of social workers and students due to their willingness to work together. Collaborating to create a change not just for the individuals we work with but also professionals we work alongside. It has shown that learning opportunities can come from where you least expect them (even Twitter) and that with a bit of momentum and a lot of enthusiasm, a simple idea can become a fantastic working project.

The first webinar was titled ‘The Social Work Theory Fear Factor’ and the second ‘Reflective Practice in Social Work: Stages, Spaces and Structures’. The first few weeks were extremely busy – and at times it seemed like our phones might explode! Yet there were still moments for reflection. We found that we could easily get caught up in the excitement of the project; therefore, missing the opportunity to reflect on what we had achieved so far or were striving to work towards. Some days it felt like we were driving a car at 100mph without taking any notice of the beautiful scenery along the way! Enthusiasm was in abundance, but the outcome required fine tuning until we could begin to enjoy the journey.Siobhan’s experience led her to ‘virtually’ identify each of our strengths and approaches, bringing a sense of calm to a somewhat excitable bunch of individuals!

Considering the way in which we initially connected with one another; we have used our social work skills to build relationships, providing strength and support for one another within the team but also to a new online community. Maintaining a positive approach within the team has come naturally, yet has been instrumental in the team’s development and the ‘feel’ of the webinars – perhaps a lesson for us all to take forward into practice?

An important part of our team’s journey was to identify our shortfalls – we have got much left to do to ensure that our performance echoes our social work practice. While it is certainly true that we are a diverse group of individuals when our background and skills are considered, our representation and mix of diversity with regard to ethnic and gender identity is not where we would like it to be yet. This is an area where we hope to improve and are hopeful that by welcoming guest speakers and regular followers to the webinars more students will want to join our team. Students from around the world have begun to attend and contact Siobhan personally, these newly formed connections born out of the webinars have led us to talking to social work students as far afield as Iraq – amazing opportunities born out of Covid constraints.

It certainly feels that this is just the beginning of the journey, both for the project as a whole and the individual members that make up the team. We have seen that the academics and professionals we look up to as students are as real as the people we support. They sometimes need extra pairs of eyes and ears to help them problem solve, and our student status can prove to be the refreshing viewpoint that is required to reach a shared destination on any given learning journey. We have learnt much from Siobhan, as we knew we would, and for that we will always be grateful. But this was never about us, it was about what we could collectively achieve if we could connect with others, and now the connection has been made – the outcomes are endless. Covid-19 may be restricting our physical ability to do so many things, but it is not restricting our ability to co-produce and communicate – we just had to learn how to stretch our learning and be a little bit more active, a little bit more creative, a little bit more like our mentors!

From Siobhan’s perspective

My eldest daughter lives in China and so Covid19 has been a part of my family’s life and discussions for the whole of this year. My daughter had been sending me regular messages about what social workers were doing in China in response to the pandemic and yet on World Social Work Day when I went into a shielded lockdown, I felt completely unprepared.

I must admit to having been a technophobe who felt that online learning was something to be avoided. I couldn’t see how online options could be anything other than instructional and I have prided myself on making my sessions more and more interactive and multi-sensory over the years. I had heard about webinars but just saw this as a made-up word and didn’t explore it any further. I have reflected extensively since on the dangers of surface learning.

Watching the students that I follow on Twitter talking about their experiences of suspended placements and lost learning opportunities I wanted to do something to help but felt effectively paralysed. What could I offer? I started by offering free access to some online resources but felt that this didn’t give me any connections beyond the initial emails from students about the resources. I reached out and asked if there were any students who might be able to help me with webinars. The story from that point from the student perspective is above. Whilst I agree with what they say, from my perspective I would like to add a couple of points.

Talking about co-production for many years and working from a user focused, student led perspective as a practice educator, this experience has reinforced for me why co-production is so important and reminded me about many aspects of adult learning. Effectively the tables have been turned. I have been reminded about the importance of patience and support in helping people to learn. As a group they have been amazingly patient when I have asked the same questions over and over and they keep on repeating things until I have got it. This week I have been struggling with what to include in the webinar presentation and how to structure it. I said so in the WhatsApp group we use and the advice I got back was brilliant. Their reflective questioning was helpful, and I said that it was just like I was the student and they were the practice educator, but really this absolutely is about a truly shared learning experience.

When I am training face to face, I always look to ‘the audience’ to give me an idea about how things are going. Talking only to a camera or to a screen for the last few months has really impacted on my confidence and my abilities. Being able to see the students on screen when I am delivering a presentation at the webinars has been so helpful to me. I don’t think I have said this to them, but I am sure they know and that they exaggerate their facial expressions to help!

I have been ‘home alone’ during the lockdown as my husband is working away. Initially I worried about becoming isolated, but this group have given me more than just professional support. Whilst I am a strong advocate of professional boundaries between students and practice educators, where there is no responsibility of assessment, those boundaries no longer matter. I consider this group who I have never formally ‘met’ new colleagues. Having worked independently for many years I often miss the feeling of being part of a team. Quite strangely while we are in lockdown and the potential for feeling isolated is exaggerated, I reflected over the weekend as I was struggling to develop the content for the next webinar that I feel more part of a team than I have for many years.  Indeed, I feel that I have a new group of friends.

We have heard and read recently a significant devaluation of students. For example, Helen Whately Care Minister stated that nursing students are ‘not deemed to be providing a service’. I know that some students have been given messages about placements being suspended because providers don’t have the time to support them, students have been told to consider themselves lucky to have a placement and advised not to ‘mither’ people who are busy.  All of this implies that students have little to offer us and that they are ‘hard work’. We must reflect, as a profession, on the messages we are giving to the next generation of practitioners.  

In my initial tweet I suggested that it might help students provide evidence of leadership skills for their practice educators. They have certainly led me effectively and based on the feedback we are getting from all over the world, I know that others agree. Students are the future of our profession and it is in good hands! 

The Social Work Student Connect Team with Siobhan Maclean are, in alphabetical order:

Becky Salter, Catherine Rundle, Christine Norman, Emma Grady, Kelly Bentley-Simon, Kerry Sildatke, Mary Carter, and Omar Mohamed.

Twitter handle: @SW_Student_con

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5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Tiegan Boyens

Wondering and Not Knowing: A Way of Life

Covid-19 is a time that most people are missing out on all kinds of experiences and opportunities, not spending time with important people in their lives and the uncertainty of not being in the know, wondering when they will next be able to see certain people or what could happen to someone in the time they are apart. As of course time doesn’t stop, and lives carry on in so many ways.  For the majority of people this is a new way of life and one they never could imagine happening. However, for me as an adoptee this is nothing new and has been part of my life as long as I can remember. So, people may now be able to  better see the world the way the majority of adoptees do. Yes, it’s been more amplified due to higher risk and not knowing when it will end; however it feels I have been trained for this and preparing.  

I have experienced years of being away from my birth family especially from two of my birth grandparents, my birth mum and my sisters. Often thinking about what they are like and having many questions about their life, sometimes just little things, that others know like hobbies or recent holidays. The thinking of what might happen before I get to know them properly and meet them in person. Nothing can compare to sitting with someone chatting to them and seeing their facial expressions; these can be so important. Wondering if I will ever see them again, as there has been an experience for me where I found out my grandad had gone. I hadn’t ever properly met him as I was too young when I was put in care, so I never got to tell him I loved him back or the fact I am doing alright.

This whole experience of being in the dark with only certain information and not getting to really know those I hold close can be worrying and scary, as it doesn’t always feel there is a simple way to shine some light on it. It can be saddening facing the reality you may miss this chance completely due to restrictions that are out of your control. It is a worry too as I can’t see into the future and can think of many things that may happen. For ages I wondered if all my grandparents were still alive as I know time is especially fragile for them. Even through this lockdown I don’t know what the situation is going to be like after, as they do have health issues. It’s saddening knowing the little time after so long of being apart for nearly twelve years left with them is being taken away even more, and I may never get all the memories or chances that could have been. It feels unfair as not everyone has to go through this. I have just got to wait and hope at the end of the day and try put that worry away. Thinking of what I would like to say or do when I see them. There is still a lot unknown about my story and my birth family. I was getting near to finding some of it out over the next few months with reading of my files and having more contact however this was mainly postponed due to everything going on, so I will have to wait even longer and think about what I may find out. It felt good that I was nearer to connecting the pieces of my life puzzle as it helped settle my mind and I could understand everything a bit clearer. It can be tough, however I remember at least I am in stronger contact then I was before and I have made some memories already with my birth family.

It is manageable though and can become easier in some ways over time, as you learn for it to become a way of life. I thankfully have always had some form of contact with two of my grandparents even if it’s very little. The yearly letter was so important to receive as it gave me basic updates on what they had been up to over the last year. The fact they were so key for me and any other important news on the rest of the family. It didn’t feel like I was so much in the dark about the rest of the family either. It helped with some of the worrying about them and I wondered less in some ways. Be thankful for any form of contact you have for example letters or phone calls and make the most out of them. Cherish them as they are things you can look back on as a kind of memory and moment experienced. It is better than having no contact at all and I always felt grateful that I had something. I knew eventually I would have more and looked forward to when that moment would come. It helps give a greater appreciation of being able to hug someone or see them face to face. The wondering over the years, not being able to see my birth family taught me a lot. It definitely was a good time to think and reflect looking back.  It really helped with getting to know what family means and the fact you can still have a relationship without even seeing them or having much contact. There probably will always be questions of things that don’t make sense or what ifs, but I feel so thankful for the way things have turned out.  As I said before it’s my way of life, so I don’t mind.

Tiegan Boyens – Young Adoptee

Twitter: @Ginger_Adoptee 

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5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Wayne Reid

The revolution (A nod to Gil Scott-Heron)

Dear brothers, sisters, allies & comrades

The revolution will not be televised, but it might be viewable on social media

With footage of wrecking balls demolishing their revered statues – causing mass hysteria

The revolution will not be televised, because it’s controlled by stealthy devils

Devils who are probably quite happy to keep the imagery on the KCMG medals

The revolution will not be televised, but if it is – the spin doctors will try to spin it

Distorting truths in biased ways and blinding us with ‘science’ to underpin it 

The revolution will not be televised and the oppressors won’t be feeling superior,

So carry yourself with pride my friend, because in your areas you’ll no longer be seen as inferior.

The revolution will not be televised, but it will enrich your cultural identity,

It will reveal a spectrum of racists and instantly deplete them of their energy

The revolution will not be televised, but watch those snakes wriggle as they rattle

Rattled to the core they will become unscrupulous in the moral battle

The revolution will not be televised, but the gammons and Karens will be visibly outraged

Perplexed by the surge of the uprising, their decibels will rise several octaves

The revolution will not be televised, but we’ll be free of the ‘white privilege’ abusers,

With bitter flavouring (and no seasoning), the goose will finally cook in its own juices.

The revolution will not be televised, when their false reign is in decline

A long-standing battle will have been fought and won in many hearts and many minds

The revolution will not be televised, but it will be omnipresent when it arrives

Society will be egalitarian and racial hatred won’t survive.

Wayne Reid, Professional Officer, BASW

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5th Edition July 14th, 2020 Wendy Chen & Ayelet Abramovich

Hospital Based Psychosocial Intervention with Covid 19 Patients in Israel

First Lessons Learnt at the Sheba Medical Center

Setting up a service

The Social Services Department is part of the Sheba Medical Center task force established to form the first medical response in Israel to Covid 19. The first arrivals exposed to the Corona virus were quarantined in a separate facility on the hospital campus. Thereafter as patient numbers grew and medical needs changed, additional varied facilities were added, with a total capacity of up to 300 beds, the highest in Israel.

Faced with the challenge of providing psychosocial care to patients with an unknown illness, social workers selected the concepts of appraisal and social support as determinants of emotion and coping as a conceptual framework (Brooks et al., 2020). Background information illuminates personal factors affecting patients’ subjective perception (appraisal) and consequently the emotional impact of imposed isolation (Lazarus, 2001). The effects of isolation and physical distance on the vital role of social support during adversity, (Sippel et al., 2015 ; Pengilly & Dowd, 2000; Pierce, Sarason, & Sarason, 1996), provided an additional premise for our intervention mode.

Psychosocial intervention

Psychosocial interventions focus on therapeutic support within the social context of the individual. Psychosocial care is offered to all Covid 19 patients, given the intensity of the experience for both patients and families dealing with the implications of separation and the unknown, with limited access to medical staff who treat patients with a “hands off” approach and technological devices. The vast majority of patients accept the service, some decline at first but engage later. The extent of family involvement in the psychosocial care is determined by the expressed will of the patient and his medical condition, so when the patient is non-communicative, the family becomes the main recipient. The social worker reaches out telephonically or digitally and continues in this mode throughout the intervention process, delineated into three stages, described below, varying according to the features of the facilities and patient illness characteristics.

Pre-admission:

In the interval between notification of testing positive and arrival at the hospital, objectives include alleviation of anxiety related to enforced evacuation to an isolation facility, formations of a beneficial perception of the situation and background information gathering. The intervention involves realistic expectation formation, practical information on the means of evacuation, facility and counseling in communicating change to children. This stage was implemented routinely during the initial stage of activity, when most patients’ arrivals were coordinated with community services. Since patients are now admitted mainly via, the E.R or other in -hospital departments, routine application of this intervention is no longer feasible.

During hospitalization:

The objective is to promote optimal adaptation of the patient and family members to the period of physical separation by optimizing social contact through alternative means. Each patient is designated a counselor, and continuation of care is provided in an intensive treatment setting of 2-3 sessions a week, with access to the counselor in between sessions, in the event of crises. The intervention is important in containing and mitigating feelings of stress and frustration, which might erupt into disruptive behavior difficult to manage in isolation.

Discharge planning:

Finally, the psychosocial intervention aims at facilitating the return to regular family life and former social roles, as a healthy person who no longer poses a health threat to others. In sessions leading up to discharge, the patient is counseled in the transition from social isolation to involvement and continuing care is arranged with community services.

Central themes

Common subjects brought up by patients in the sessions include the impact of isolation and anticipatory anxiety given the possibility of developing symptoms of an illness unknown to the medical community. Other themes include feelings of loss of control, helplessness, uncertainty, shame, guilt for contracting the virus, putting others at risk, inability to carry out responsibilities, loss of privacy and autonomy and yearning for close family contact. Family members speak of the difficulties related to the physical distance, concern for dependents, financial worries, the need for familial reorganization and assistance from other sources. These themes reflect those described during the SARS quarantine in 2003 (Cava, Fay, Beanlands, McCay, & Wignall, 2005).

Intervention practices

In order to modify the cognitive appraisal of the situation as a challenge rather than a threat, to reduce anxiety and improve coping and adaptation (So, 2013; Harvey, Nathens, Bandiera & LeBlanc, 2010), practical information on the facility is provided proactively when possible (Brooks et al., 2020), frequently through mediation between the patient and the medical team.  Other techniques used include breathing exercises, guided imagery and mindfulness meditation. Strength based therapy is applied to develop a sense of efficacy by drawing on internal strengths and resourcefulness (Scheel, Davis & Henderson, 2012) while cognitive behavioral techniques are employed to ease feelings of guilt (Hedman, StrÖm, StÜnkel & MÖrtberg, 2013; Hepburn McGregor, 2012). Continuation of involvement in family life and other social and occupational roles is encouraged with digital means, where possible, to enhance a sense of control and certainty. Patients are guided into a daily routine involving getting out of bed, dressing, doing physical activity and hobbies. Finally, the social worker accompanies the patient in search for meaning in the current situation to develop new insights and understandings (Park, 2011; Folkman & Greer ,2000) for personal growth.

Central professional challenges

Rapid organizational changes require continual review and modification of the psychosocial service to ensure efficacy and relevance. Staffing changes take place daily, with emphasis on organizational needs and low priority given to employee preferences and specialized skills, as opposed to routine management practice, which strives to balance these factors. 

Since social workers and patients are not physically together, tele-medicine practice by video and audio connection technologies has become the order of the day and social workers have developed skills to engage patients and conduct sessions often without a visual image, eye contact, mimicry and facial expressions. Despite these constraints, the level of intimacy and involvement achieved is noteworthy, possible due to intense patient emotional needs and timely interventions. Some patients however, have reported a sense of intrusion into their personal space during camera-conducted sessions, and social workers have described a feeling of intrusiveness.

Additional challenges include continuing containment of intense negative emotion, setting boundaries and problem selection for counseling, amongst a plethora of pre-morbid issues typically evoked by the isolation. The predominant challenge however, lies in the question of whether families should be present at the time of death, or allowed to visit before, given the danger of contamination. Alternative means of contact by technological means are implemented, whereby families can send audio or video messages to the patient. The Social Services Department has taken on a leading role in discussion and policy on this subject in light of its short and long -term psychosocial implications.

Lessons learnt so far

The psychosocial aspect in coping with Covid 19 isolation is clearly evident. Appropriate and timely psychosocial intervention is crucial for effective organizational and personal management of the isolation and in developing coping abilities. Recipients have openly expressed how they have benefited from our involvement.

On the job training was essential through the dissemination of professional literature, development of psychosocial intervention protocols and training.  We utilized the Israel Center for Medical Simulation (MSR), located on the Sheba Campus training. The social workers contributed to the skills and knowledge of other professionals in the behavioral and emotional aspects of isolation with particular focus on bereavement. The involvement of the Social Services Department in hospital policy decisions and rapid organizational changes facilitated a relevant psychosocial service, closely linked to the medical treatment.

Wendy Chen, Ph.D, MSW, Director of the Social Services Department

Ayelet Abramovich, MSW, Vice Director of the Social Services Department

References

Lazarus, R. S. (2001). Relational meaning and discrete emotions. In K.R. Scherer, A. Schorr, et al. (Eds.), Appraisal Processes in Emotion: Theory, Methods, Research (pp. 37-67). New York: Oxford University Press.

Park, C.L. (2011). Meaning, coping, and health and well-being. In S. Folkman (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Stress, Health, and Coping (pp. 227 – 241). Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Pierce, G. R., Sarason, I. G., & Sarason, B. R. (1996). Coping and social support. In M. Zeidner & N. S. Endler (Eds.), Handbook of coping: Theory, research, applications (p. 434–451). New York: John Wiley & Sons.