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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