In my early days of teaching, working with Access and first year undergraduate social work students, I would try to encourage students to consider why context, politics and policy matters:
Me: (Tongue in cheek) So, let’s say the government decided to declare war on some random country in the Middle East (highly unlikely, I know) – what impact do you think this would have on social work?
This question was an exercise in an introductory social policy unit, where one of the objectives was to acknowledge the impact war has on social relations. Students would surprise themselves with the list they produced:
- Soldiers returning with disabilities
- Soldiers returning with PTSD or other mental illnesses
- Increased numbers of asylum seekers, including children in need
- Increased budget on defence, meaning less money spent on health and welfare
- Increased xenophobia and racism
- Loss and bereavement within families
- Potential terrorism
- Climate of increased fear and distrust
- Increased government surveillance
This exercise made it easier to discuss the roles of the First and Second World War in the development of the Welfare State. However, students who could make the astute suggestion that war in the Middle East might increase oil prices and reduce the ability of social workers to travel to clients, never made the following point:
“Men who kill women and children abroad are hardly likely to come back cured of the effects of this brutalization… Women are taught to support military aggressions, which is then presented as being in their ‘national’ interest.” (Thobani, 2001: online)
However, when Sunera Thobani attempted to show the gendered and racialised nature of war, she was insulted as: “inflammatory, excessive, inelegant, unacademic, angry” (ibid). This is why using literature can be useful. We are not judging real people.
“Nate, what are you doing? Stop!”
Nate has Lauren in a vice grip. His hand is squeezed so tightly around her wrist that I wait to hear the snap. His other hand is in her hair, pulling her head sideways. She is oddly silent, intent on getting free, or not antagonizing him further, or maybe even on not letting me know how much pain she is in.
Taken from Laura McBride’s debut novel – We are Called to Rise – this scene features: Avis, a mother; Nate, her son and Lauren, her daughter-in-law. It confirms Avis’ fears about her son who has he returned from his last tour of duty in Iraq and is now a police officer with the Las Vegas Police Department. Avis is scared because she knows Nate is dangerous. She said to her husband as he planned to leave her:
“There’s something wrong with Nate. He’s different. You know he’s different. Something has happened to him. And he’s not getting better. I know you’ve seen this”
The novel is told through a number of perspectives: Avis, a middle-aged woman whose marriage is crumbling; Bashkim a young son of an immigrant family struggling to get by; Luis a soldier recently returned injured from the Iraq war. The novel is violent and deeply human. There is a catalogue of broken lives. There is also an emphasis on resilience and courage. I found myself seeing the women in the novel acting like the hot, air-conditioned, windowless Las Vegas background. They gamble and provide neon light, against a cracked and dry desert.
The novel bought to life the list that my students produced about the impact of war, making it ideal for this blog, for making links between social policy and literature. For good measure there is even a welfare worker, Roberta, who volunteers as a CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates). Of all the narrators she is given the least space, but is handed the opportunity to make a great impact. However, for me (within a novel that made me cry and shake with fear) she is perhaps the least convincing character. It is great to have a good welfare worker, who can provide the context of welfare and strives to make a difference. At one point she muses:
And that’s how it is with Teddi-Ann Mapes, who had some of the toughest breaks I’ve ever know a kid to get. She’s barely old enough to drink a beer in a bar, but she makes me feel like the world’s going to work out; like everything anyone ever does – no matter how small, no matter how inept – is worth it. Because one of these days, the person you help is Teddi.
This is the reason most of us work in social care or work. We know we can make a difference to lives. We know that we are working in an unfair system that leaves some people contending with tough breaks, but through good practice we can help. Roberta is an exemplary worker. She is keen to interview everyone in Bashkim’s life to make sure her decision-making is properly evidenced. She is well-connected and uses her networks. However, that doesn’t stop this quote about Teddi-Ann sounding a little smug.
There is a reason I stopped using the pretended Middle East war in my teaching. First, there are other examples, perhaps more topical, I can use to make a similar point. But more importantly, it got me thinking about what the question and answers were suggesting. The dialogue was suggestive of welfare workers only being located as helpers, responding to or inconvenienced by war. For Roberta to be more meaningful, she should not just be helpful and good at her job, she should also be carrying around the shared war-related reality of the other characters. We are all a bit broken by living with fear and this includes social workers. Whilst it is important that social work education stresses the role of structures, wider politics and the law in determining who service-users will be and how “the poor” are constructed, it is also important that it can stress that “they” are, or could be, “us”.
McBride, L. (2014) We are Called to Rise London: Simon and Schuster
Thobani, S. (2001) “War Frenzy” http://www.kersplebedeb.com/mystuff/s11/warfrenz.html [accessed 18 July 2012]