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Remembering Our Roots, Reimagining Our Work: Social Work Practice in the 21st Century

03/27/2014 03:50 pm ET | Updated May 27, 2014

This post is co-authored by Dr. Larry Gant, who is a Professor in the School of Social Work and the School of Art/Design at the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor.

This post is in honor of Social Work Month 2014.

According to the U.S. Department of Labor Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), social work is one of the fastest growing careers in the United States. Rooted in the concept of social justice, social work continues to be a relevant and meaningful profession for those interested in community building and social change. Social justice requires that micro and macro systems are transformed and work in concert with one another to examine and confront the political, economic, social, and cultural processes that underlie systems of oppression/privilege as well as provides resources and necessary services within communities. Social work has a rich history in micro and macro practice that addresses individual and community needs as well as confronts their root causes by challenging systems, institutions, and policies that keep oppression/privilege intact. In the words of Epple (2006), "systemic change requires both Gandhi and Mother Teresa." In addition to the micro and macro components of social work, there is a rich history of community-based practice in the field dating back to the late 19th century, when settlement houses were founded and the settlement house movement played an essential and prominent role in community building and organizing for social and political change.

The origins of Social Welfare, Glicken (2011) states, are found in the English Poor Laws first passed in 1601. Glicken (2011) continues to state that one of the biggest changes in the poor laws of 1834 was the distinction made between the "deserving" and "undeserving" poor -- a theme still prominent in contemporary political debate. This ideology was also prevalent in North America -- even before the American Revolution, services to the poor, children, and mentally ill had been established in North America using many of the poor laws established in England to define who deserved to receive services and the scope of those services. Glicken (2011) writes that following the Civil War, "scientific charity" was an attempt to use concepts common to business and industry to deal with larger, serious social problems that were gaining recognition and many clients receiving help from scientific charities preferred the more interpersonal approaches available via self-help groups. The distinction between large-scale efforts to resolve social problems versus a more individualized set the stage for the formation of macro and micro practice and the understanding that environment and policy impact individuals and that both policy change and direct service are essential in the Social Work profession.

The Settlement House movement, which began in Britain in 1884, took hold in North America in 1886 with the Neighborhood Guild in New York City and then the Hull House, made famous by Jane Adams and Ellen Gates Starr, in Chicago. Glicken (2011) writes that settlement houses focused on addressing the root causes of social problems such as poverty as well as building community, providing an interpersonal and relational approach, and expanding jobs to combat poverty. Tannenbaum and Reisch (2001) state that settlement houses also did things such as conduct research, help with the development of the juvenile court system, create pension programs for widows, promote legislation prohibiting child labor, and introduce public health reforms and the concept of social insurance. Settlement houses such as the Hull House were both a nexus for social service delivery (daycare centers, homeless shelters, public kitchens and baths) and political activism and political advocacy -- specifically advocating for social legislation to combat poverty. The settlement house movement continued to grow and by 1887, there were 74 settlements in the U.S. with 40 percent being in Boston, Chicago, and New York, the leading industrial cities, but with most small cities having at least one settlement house. In "From Charitable Volunteers to Architects of Social Welfare: A Brief History of Social Work," Tannenbaum and Reisch (2001) state,

By 1910, there were more than 400 settlements, including those founded by African Americans to provide services denied by segregated agencies. Settlement activities soon expanded beyond specific neighborhoods and led to the creation of national organizations like the Women's Trade Union League, the National Consumers' League, the Urban League, and the national Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Settlement leaders were instrumental in establishing the Federal Children's Bureau in 1912, headed by Julia Lathrop from Hull House. Settlement leaders also played key roles in the major social movements of the period, including women's suffrage, peace, labor, civil rights, and temperance.

Although settlement houses provided communities with structures that engendered community organizing, political activism, and social movement building, the movement, especially early on, replicated segregation and oppression concurrent in dominant culture, institutions, and systems by excluding people of color. It is important in the reimagining process of social work practice that community-based organizing facilitates processes that engender self-determination, participation, and power-holding among all communities and stakeholders without replicating the same power imbalances that underlie dominant systems, institutions, and culture.

Settlement houses are essential for community-based practice. Although currently they are not the most utilized structure for community building in the field, cities such as Detroit are seeing a resurgence of settlement house style-organizing and community-based work. Dr. Larry Gant and Community Scholars Program students in the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan - Ann Arbor implement a settlement house model approach for learning and practicing community work. Classes in social work and art/design meet weekly in Southwest Detroit at the Boulevard House. This center is provided in partnership between Peoples' Community Services of Metropolitan Detroit, El Museo Del Norte, and the UM School of Social Work.

Detroit is currently under Emergency Management. New forms of governance between residents, organizations and municipalities are underway. Decades-long social and fiscal structures and infrastructures supporting social and community programs have been all but eliminated. However, residents' needs for housing, education, health and basic services are greater than before. This context requires different ways of community work. Settlement houses and community centers historically have provided a viable alternative approach to formally structured systems of care. While not a complete response, settlement houses provide a third way forward between formal systems of community well-being requiring infrastructures that will not likely return in the foreseeable future and total absence and abrogation of programs that keep people, families and communities healthy, safe, and vibrant. As social work practice evolves and grows, it is important to remember its historical bedrock and re-imagine how to create community-based practices in the 21st century.

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