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How It Changes Lives

In the global emergencies our world faces, the strengths approach is needed now more than ever. Commonly misunderstood, its true power as a whole systems approach to release the potential of individuals, communities and their environments has been neglected. For those brave enough to embrace it, this book offers theoretical and practical encouragement.

The authors use a case study of their work with a unique non-governmental organisation in the United Kingdom that combines student placements with support for refugees. They illustrate what it really means to adopt a strengths approach in practice. Chapters include the strengths approach to funding, organisational development, management and governance as well as immigration law, student learning and research.

This book will give readers grounds for optimism as well as transferable practices for challenging social injustice.

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Innovative approaches for effective teaching and learning

Involved in educating social work professionals? Overwhelmed and demoralised by the current climate of cuts to services and over-regulation? This unique book written by practice educators, students and academics offers hope.

This collection of innovative approaches to social work placements addresses subjects including sustainability, student-led services, overseas placements, the value of the third-sector, supporting students from minority groups and the visual arts. The international and diverse contributions offer practical guidance and challenge conventional approaches to placement finding, teaching and assessment in field education.

Written from a global social work perspective this is essential reading for anyone responsible for ensuring quality placements for future professionals.

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In this chapter, we present a model grounded in the strengths approach which critiques the assumptions about how students learn in practice. We provide a framework for identifying and affirming organisations like START that offer a potentially transformative environment for learning. The framework is substantiated by previously unpublished research funded through a university teaching fellowship, undertaken with 14 pioneer students from the first two years of START’s life examining how students learned in that unconventional setting. Findings from this study are considered in the context of theorising about the strengths approach, extended by the experience of working with learners from diverse professional courses and international students. Fundamental to this approach are concepts of the learning organisation (Social Care Institute for Excellence, 2008) and communities of practice (Wenger, 1998).

We know beyond doubt that students are capable of achieving the impossible – simply because they do not know that it is. We have seen them apply their passion for social justice and their life experience successfully to situations that might have discouraged an experienced worker. In educating students for the challenges of the future we want them to bring everything they know from their lives so far. Similarly, refugees, or indeed anyone seeking help, need to be able to draw on everything they know to create the potential for transformation. It is essential for the continued health of the organisation that its two components – service to refugees, and student learning – are held in balance at all times. Emphasis on the interconnection of theory and practice safeguards a learning environment where no one is ‘the expert’ and everyone is ‘an expert’ whose contribution is essential.

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If you are coming to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you are coming because your liberation is bound with mine, then let us work together.

Refugees are people who have been forcibly displaced because of war or persecution and have arrived in a strange land. Imagine you have had to flee for your life. You have left everything you know – friends, family, familiar sounds, sights, smells, objects and everyday activities. You have undergone numerous challenges to reach a place of safety and have been met with suspicion, disbelief and hostility when you arrived (Halpern and Sloan, 2020). You do not need to be treated as a charity case, deprived of your dignity or shamed by the expectation that you should be grateful.

This chapter is about growing community and protecting conditions in which community as a practice can thrive. The concepts that inform this chapter are ‘community’, ‘the commons’ and ‘reciprocity’. Examples follow, from the experience at START and elsewhere, of activities that can facilitate community growth with a particular focus on the way they are informed by a strengths approach. We believe they have wider application. They are offered as a stimulus rather than a recipe!

The literature surrounding community work refers to different models of community relating to:

  • profession (Goode, 1957)

  • geographical location (Phillips and Pittman, 2014)

  • ethnic or cultural allegiance (Breton, 1964)

  • interest or practice (Wenger, 1998; Bradshaw, 2008)

  • wider society in general, including both human and non-human elements (Dorow and O’Shaughnessy, 2013)

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The strengths approach, explored and illustrated throughout these chapters, is one that looks to the future. It is concerned with lives being made rather than looking back on the past, when people became labelled as refugees. The immigration process requires people to tell an unchanging story of their persecution in order to be believed and granted leave to remain. In a media-drenched environment where every detail of people’s lives and experiences are shared, it can seem acceptable to ask for the stories of danger and escape. Through media bombardment we are desensitised to the intrusion of satisfying our curiosity. Local volunteers who are new to START have a tendency to ask ‘How did you get here?’ oblivious to the fact that asking someone to revisit the trauma in this way can be deeply disturbing.

For some people, the opportunity to tell their whole story in their own way can be cathartic and part of the process of building their future. A particularly powerful example is the play How Not To Drown, written and performed by Dritan Kastrati who came to England as an unaccompanied, asylum-seeking child aged 11 (Billington, 2019). Similarly, Dina Nayeri’s novel (2017) and journalism (2019b) invite the reader to glimpse the complex and nuanced experience of being a refugee. As she writes: ‘The refugee story doesn’t end at asylum and safety, the moment when many readers look away. It is an endless battle with pride, shame, identity and especially language’ (Nayeri, 2019b).

For the majority of people, however, their energy is directed at building their futures rather than examining their past.

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The strengths approach (Saleebey, 2009) is a way of thinking about social problems that harnesses the strength and potential of people, their communities and environment, even in conditions of the most depleted social capital. In times of austerity and the dismantling of the welfare state, it has much to offer anyone seeking to maintain hope and optimism.

People are conditioned to identify problems, target them and propose solutions in the belief that the answer always lies in taking more control. In contrast, the strengths approach requires a departure from positivist thinking and a stance more aligned to that of deep ecology (Naess, 1973):

  • acknowledgement of the depth and severity of the challenges;

  • respect for all parts of the system, from microbe to constellation; and

  • trust in the potential for true sustainability.

The strengths approach offers a way of thinking and acting that goes beyond mere mitigation. It is a holistic practice that, as illustrated in the chapters of this book, is indeed sustainable.

In our own practice as social workers we have found that the strengths approach has often been misrepresented and superficially applied in a manner that belies its value base. While it has been incorporated into the lexicon of theories taught on professional courses, the strengths approach has been significantly marginalised in favour of more empirical, positivist methods that focus on problems and pathology in order to find cause-and-effect responses.

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Intra-dependence, mutuality, and enriched co-existence are hallmarks of both natural and social systems deemed resilient and thriving.

This chapter examines the nature of the relationship between NGOs and the sources of their funding. We reflect on the fact that money can have both positive and negative impact and explore some of the possibilities for mitigating its risks. The ways in which NGOs are funded are highly contextual – manifestations of the time and place in which the NGO operates. There are, however, some enduring and transferable truths about how a strengths approach can influence the health and resilience of any organisation that does not rely on a capitalist model of income generation and profit.

Neoliberal societies revere money as the key resource for an organisation. Money though, however welcome, always has consequences, both intended and unintended. In a capitalist world there is no such thing as ‘clean money’ and all profit may be regarded as exploitation of the earth’s finite resources, of people’s labour or both. Money does not come without expectation – whether it is to show the donor in a good light or in some other transactional relationship. Inevitably, funding is accompanied by requirements for outputs and outcomes as if community action for social change is nothing more than a commercial transaction. But the resources of any organisation are much more than money. A strengths approach recognises the environmental potential and the capabilities of service users, communities, students and their labour, alongside unexpected alliances. We also know that, without adequate funding to maintain a supportive structure, access to those resources may be lost.

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Research and practice are inseparable in that each necessarily informs the other. This chapter begins with an exploration of the nature of research and its relationship to practice, illustrated with examples from START. It then focuses specifically on research with refugees, together with the debates and ethical challenges that working with this particular group brings into sharp relief. Undoubtedly these issues are transferable to other groups. Arguably, no one form of research is better than another – or indeed capable of ‘telling the truth’. In seeking to ‘tell a truth’ as well as we are able, we acknowledge that all research is itself an intervention. In respect of people who are refugees we have an urgent obligation to ensure that the research process is one that contributes positively to their situations.

A substantial part of this chapter will focus, therefore, on appreciative inquiry as a strengths approach to research. It will introduce the process for those unfamiliar with it and report on work supported by Avril and conducted at START by Kim Embra for her doctoral thesis while studying as a clinical psychology student at Plymouth University.

It concludes with reference to good practice guidance (Temple and Moran, 2011) and the value of a strengths approach lens for judging a research approach.

We cannot do justice to the wealth of scholarship about research that exposes the fallacy of objectivity, the inevitability of context and researcher perspective, and the illusion of binary simplicity (Butler et al, 2007). Traditionally research is judged according to its reliability and validity: features that can be tested by repeating the research in different circumstances and achieving a consistent result.

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Hope is not like a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky … hope is an axe you break down the door with in an emergency; because hope should shove you out the door, because it will take everything you have to steer the future away from endless war, from the annihilation of the earth’s treasures and the grinding down of the poor and marginal. Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action; action is impossible without hope … To hope is to give yourself to the future, and that commitment to the future makes the present inhabitable.

We have never needed a strengths approach more than we do now – when a climate emergency and the COVID-19 pandemic compete for public attention with global economic interests; when populism is fed by frustrated individual ambitions and the entitlement of the few triumphs over the common good. A strong incentive for writing this book stems from the resurgence of far-right populism, racism, homophobia, hate crime and division with the concomitant danger that ideas like the strengths approach are eroded and diffused. But it is in the power of such ideologies to change society for the better, not least because their consequences are so radical in shaping the way society functions. Just as the forces of greed and power are constantly re-made and repositioned, so, too, can practices that are mutually beneficial be re-made, reinstated and re-articulated.

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Some would say it would be better to challenge and break the law. Instead of advising on dispersal, mount pressure to stop NASS from dispersing! Instead of evicting from emergency accommodation, refuse to subcontract such accommodation and then resist all evictions attempted by … landlords! Instead of advising on the NASS scheme, advise on how to campaign for the restoration of full benefits not linked to immigration status! Instead of colluding, disrupt! Instead of becoming a slave-master, unite with the slaves!

The manipulation of law and policy by governments to perpetuate power and social injustice (seen in every totalitarian regime before, since and including the Third Reich) is one of the toughest challenges confronting the strengths approach. This chapter is unique in exploring what a strengths approach to mobilising law and policy will involve. It aims to show through the examples how maintaining a strengths approach to legal frameworks can, in itself, subvert a government’s aims to undermine human rights by such harmful means and promote social justice.

Law is a core component of practice for professions like social work and is a way to achieve social justice at the level of collective action as well as that of the individual. In the contract between the individual and the state, it plays a key part in the regulation of power. Students and practitioners alike approach it with more than a degree of ambivalence, however – it is complex and constantly changing, not ‘set in tablets of stone’; it is not neutral but subject to interpretation; it can be contradictory in some areas and outdated in others; it is heavily influenced by political ideology, interest groups, public inquiries, the European Union, the media and moral panics.

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