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Making a difference

Social work in the community offers practice guidance to students, practice assessors and practitioners within a political, theoretical, methodological and ethical framework. The book is written from an experiential learning perspective, encouraging the reader not only to understand the ideas and methods but to test them out in their own practice, which additionally provides an element of problem-based learning. The book is written within the framework of the practice curriculum for the social work degree, including the National Occupational Standards and an extended statement of values for practice. This will enable students to use the book to make sense of their practice in relation to the knowledge, skills and values of social work practice in its community context.

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There is a long and strong tradition of considering ‘community’ in social work (Midgley, 1995; Payne, 2005; Stepney and Popple, 2008), and it is a tradition that made a reappearance from the late 1990s (Stepney and Popple, 2008) after a period of about 20 years in the wilderness. From 1979 until 1997 a Conservative government in the UK (it was much the same with other right-wing governments elsewhere in the world at the time) demonstrated an ideological resistance to the notion of community. This is reflected in the famous quotation from Margaret Thatcher while Prime Minister in the UK, ‘There is no such thing as society. There are individual men and women, and there are families’ (Thatcher, 1987). Although the New Labour government that came to power in 1997 largely continued Thatcherite policies in a number of areas of social welfare policy (Baldwin, 2002, 2008), as a government they did harbour a greater interest in the concept of community. At the time of writing this book, the current Coalition government is enhancing the focus on community through their discussions and promotions of the ‘Big Society’ and ‘localism’ agendas, which aims to give more power and control to local communities. The increasing emergence of community, particularly through policy agendas, has had an influence in the academic and policy worlds by reintroducing an interest in an exploration of the importance of community as theory and practice. We believe community is a concept that has some purchase for people in their everyday lives and is, therefore, regardless of the views of government, likely to re-emerge as a viable way of understanding diverse worlds.

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In the previous chapter we looked briefly at the history and development of some of the key models and methods for working with communities. In this and the following two chapters we aim to look in more detail at three of these methods so that we can learn what might be useful, appropriate and effective as forms of practice for contemporary social work in a range of settings. We also want to see what might be more effective practice if we, as social workers, want to make a difference in people’s lives. There is evidence (Jones, 2005) that social workers are not happy with the kind of practice foisted on them by managerialist organisations, which are more concerned with managing resources than facilitating imaginative, creative professional practice. We look at the knowledge, skills and values of these approaches in specific relation to the above two practice examples. This chapter looks at community social work, as envisaged by the Barclay Report (Barclay, 1982) and built on in a number of pilot projects since.

We begin by looking in some detail at the definition and actual practice of community social work, focusing primarily on practice implications. We then revisit the two practice examples and address the consequences of using this model of practice for Jenny and Hasan as practitioners. Finally, we note the additional implications for professional social work practice in contemporary social work organisations.

The two illustrative examples of Jenny and Hasan are from a more individual or casework tradition in social work.

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We now turn to community development, a term that covers a range of different practices. In Chapter Three we looked at a partial history of community development and its links to social work, and this chapter focuses on the practice implications of this approach to social work in the community. Having established some of the areas of practice that are relevant to students or professional social workers, we return to Hasan and Jenny to see how the knowledge, skills and values of community development might assist them in working with service users in their settings.

Community development does, as we say, cover a range of practices, but we only focus on those areas that are of relevance to social workers working in community settings. There are different modes of community development we need to address, some of which reflect a top-down approach to policy implementation (Midgley and Livermore, 2005), as with The World Bank’s authoritarian and neoliberal version of community development or the New Labour Action Zone projects of the 1990s, while others are a bottom-up approach, as with the CDPs of the 1970s in the UK, when practitioners took control of the project agenda (Stepney and Popple, 2008).We can also look at community development as seeking consensus between stakeholders in community affairs (Roberts-DeGennaro and Mizrahi, 2005; Ohmer and DeMasi, 2009), or as conflictual, where the community, with professional support, takes on the powerful forces that maintain communities in their state of poverty or marginalisation (Alinsky, 1971; Gilchrist, 2004; Midgley and Livermore, 2005; Reisch, 2005; Mayo, 2009).

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The practice example from Chapter One (see pp 1-2) illustrates a complex situation for Irene as a social worker upholding the importance of diversity, inclusion and anti-oppressive practice yet acknowledging that the services provided to the community are not actually adhering to these values. Irene realises that the operations and delivery of services might actually only meet the needs of a particular subgroup of the community, which overshadows the needs of the community as a whole. She is faced with the task of soliciting the needs of the community as a whole, versus just a few, in order to maximise the services of the Sure Start centre and to truly make the centre a service that meets the needs of the community as defined by the community. A community profile is one approach to social work practice in the community that Irene could use to accomplish this task.

In a general sense, social workers are often employed to work with ‘communities of need’, or groups of individuals who share a similar situation or common experience (Twelvetrees, 2008). Communities of need could be comprised of people with disabilities, older people, LGBT individuals, individuals with alcohol or drug dependencies, mental health issues or people from minority ethnic backgrounds. Such communities are often defined as ‘in need’ as they may experience discrimination and/or oppression from the dominant society and may be excluded from access to resources, public or social services or power over themselves and within their communities (Twelvetrees, 2008). The challenge for social workers often lies in determining the actual need of the communities in which they work, particularly as their ‘needs’ are often defined by government officials, academics, service providers or others who have some sense of power and control over the communities.

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Many of the theories and methods that social workers use in practice require or encourage the consideration of the community in various ways. For example, systems approaches require an assessment of the interactions and interconnections between a service user and her or his interpersonal relationships, community and environment (Pincus and Minahan, 1973, 1977). A strengths perspective requires an assessment of strengths and resources on individual, interpersonal, community and environmental levels (Saleebey, 2009). Empowerment approaches require an assessment of a service user’s power and participation at the individual, interpersonal and societal levels with intervention strategies taking place in one or more of these systems to combat blocked resources and to enable service users to possess power and control in these areas that will contribute to positive growth and development (Greene et al, 2005). Finally, social constructionism holds that a service user’s reality and way of viewing the world is not formed in isolation but is shaped and influenced by her or his culture and the society in which she or he lives (Greene and Lee, 2002). As illustrated, the concept of community and the consideration of its influence on service users is not an aspect that is ignored or taken lightly in social work, but rather is something that is interwoven into several aspects of the profession. This chapter provides an overview of the core theories, values and critical concepts that serve as the foundation to social work in the community. We start with an exploration of systems approaches followed by the theories and approaches of social constructionism, the strengths perspective and empowerment.

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As discussed in previous chapters, the concept of community can be defined in several ways, such as, in regard to an administrative area or a group of individuals with a shared interest or characteristic. A community can be perceived as a geographical area, with visible and established boundaries, such as villages or large cities, or as functional communities, such as those that share a specific concern or identity (Weil, 2005). Both geographical and functional communities participate in communication, interaction and exchange information and resources through an exchange process. Often communities are visualised as our proximally close neighbours, our close networks of friends and colleagues, or the group of individuals that share a common interest or characteristics, all of which are relatively small in nature and easily accessible. What is missing from this perspective of community is the fact that communities can actually exist along a continuum, from local to global (Gamble and Weil, 2010). Individuals can identify with their local neighbours, such as those who reside on the same housing estate, with a national group that share a common interest, such as the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), and even with international groups that act as a community in order to address global issues, such as the Fair Trade Organization or human rights organisations.

This chapter explores the concept of global community by describing the social work theories and methods that support this way of working as well as the concepts of social justice and globalisation. It then turns to two related types of global community work practice that occur at the global level – sustainable development and progressive change – and concludes with the global role of civil society and non-governmental organisations.

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This book has attempted to demonstrate the importance of social work practice in the community and this has been illustrated through the use of three case examples of social work practice in both the statutory and voluntary sectors. The social work practice by Hasan, Anna, Irene and Jenny are indicative of social work practice in the community that truly seeks to see individuals in their environment and the necessity of identifying and addressing individual and collective needs. These practice examples should provide evidence for the relevance of communities to social work practice, and illustrate the way in which social workers can carry out practice that is purely aligned to the aims and values of social work and the international definition of social work practice.

Social work practice in the community takes the focus of social work prevention and intervention away from concentrating solely on the individual, and widens this perspective to include the individual in his or her environment as well as the collective needs of individuals. This approach sits firmly with the definition of social work produced by the IASSW and the IFSW (as discussed in Chapter Seven) and challenges an individualistic approach that seeks to reduce or eliminate difficulties faced by individuals by acknowledging that individuals are continually affected by their environment, which includes relationships, communities and society. We argue that social work is not just about working with individuals to alleviate problems or difficulties – it is about working with individuals, families, groups and communities to identify individual and collective needs and to alleviate individual and collective difficulties.

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The above two practice examples describe two very different types of problems, but both will be familiar to social workers and to students on placement. The first practice example is likely to be the most familiar to social workers working in the statutory services, and could easily be transferred from this mental health setting to work with children and families, or to social work with adults. Many social workers in these settings find planning their work difficult when they are buffeted by the acute problems that hit them and their colleagues every morning when they get in to work. This first practice example highlights a common social work practice where social workers are faced with responding to ‘emergency’ or ‘crisis’ situations versus a practice that attempts to meet the needs of individuals in order to prevent emergencies or crises from happening. As is common in emergency or crisis situations, it may well have been that the service user Hasan went to visit at the GP office was already known to social services, but may not have been eligible to receive services due to falling below the Fair Access to Care Services (FACS) eligibility threshold. When service users fall below this threshold, often called non-FACS, they are not considered to be service users ‘in most need’, and therefore they and the community around them go on experiencing increasing difficulties until they reach a point such that their problems and difficulties are so severe the local authorities must accept the individuals as recipients of their service.

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