Rooting Our Practice in Justice: Language as Transformation


By:  Heather Horizon Greene

Though my name for this work has evolved over the years, I’ve been a practitioner of anti-oppressive social work for over 11 years.  These days, I most love the idea of justice centered social work, choosing justice as the core of my work, rooting and centering my work in justice.

Language was actually the entry point for me into this work. While working at my BSW internship, I listened uncomfortably as a co-intern, and then future social worker, made rude, offensive and homophobic jokes about a gay staff member in our agency.  Listening to the student’s cruel statements, I felt uncomfortable, offended, saddened, and yet struggled to say out loud, as I hope I would today, “that makes me uncomfortable; please stop.”  Though there were many lessons for me as I continued to process the experience, my takeaway was the beginning of a journey that has continually pushed me to look at how we use language in our healing practice and at the impact language can and does have in either supporting or hindering the practice of justice. 

Language is a tool of our craft.  How we talk (with our peers and colleagues) and write (in our progress notes) about folks, in addition to how we talk with them,can powerfully transform and strengthen the overall intention of our work. It is one tool, one way, to help us bring our practice into alignment with our values. Paying careful attending to our use of language is one of many ways we can, in fact, root our practice in an awareness of justice.

While exchanging emails recently with a colleague, I had an opportunity to think a bit more about what my practice of justice centered language looks like today.  Reprinted here with permission, my colleague inquired:

What has been your experience of integrating anti-oppressive language into your clinical work? Particularly with paperwork and things that other people will read and see? I find myself daunted to put such things forward when I think about having to explain or being criticized by others. Which isn’t to say I always back down about it, but I do tend to censor myself more than I like. 

My response:  A few thoughts. There are certainly some therapy modalities that are, as I think of them, more rooted in justice. Some of those are narrative approach, strengths perspective, empowerment work, consciousness raising, feminist theory, client-centered practice, and even more evidence based practices like DBT.  Those practices have a more natural commitment to power sharing and each person (therapist and client) bringing their own unique offering and starting place, rather than a value-based hierarchy of some of the more traditional psychotherapy models. (And therefore a more natural professional discourse that is more aligned with anti-oppressive work). Even if we have a “radical” framework, I can think of a number of times when I have thought someone would understand or relate to the language of anti-oppression, though it turned out to be a barrier. I think we see that in a lot of empowerment work, where folks don’t often think about their life experience in terms of oppression–though sometimes that is how we (have learned to) understand it. So I think of these justice-rooted theories and knowledge bases as informing how I practice and how I understand change–and acknowledge the important of that–but I also have a commitment to “meeting folks where they are” and honoring their self-wisdom and intuitive expertise in their own healing process.

With paperwork, I think there are very practical and natural ways to talk about folks in ways that are person-centered, acknowledge people’s strengths and resilience (and identities), are narrative based which reflects a commitment to deep listening (which is also radical and anti-oppressive), and which validates and normalizes, rather than pathologizes, people’s lived experiences. To me this can read as intentional and mindful, rather than radical, and I think when you’re able to bring presence and intentionality to charting, folks who read that will often notice the positive. It’s more sparkly because it is more in alignment with treating people with integrity and often more in alignment with our values in general; it’s actually nice to model that for other practitioners.  I think too when we get to the assessment piece of our notes, that where we get to most use our voice naturally. 

I can understand that it might feel daunting, and would also be curious to know more about that for you. I think I would recommend starting with a small commitment. Like can you commit to using someone’s name more, rather than the word patient or client.  Seeing how that feels.  And I also want to offer that it’s possible that your more intentional use of language would not be polarizing or criticized, though it’s possible that it would be. I would like to suggest, however, that you can develop and balance the skill of writing intentionally about people while capturing the situations in ways that meet insurance or diagnostic criteria, yet are healing and not pathologizing.

I guess I would be curious to know where you feel you are censoring yourself. There’s probably a lot of good information there about your own edges, the (rightly identified!) problems with the system, the environment you’re working in and the folks (colleagues) you’re working with. 

So a quick summary:
*using person-centered language
*include/acknowledge people’s strengths, resilience and identities
*listen deeply and try to capture some of that
*validate and normalize people experience
*try not to pathologize people
*be intentional and mindful in your writing
*use your voice and honor your own boundaries and starting place.

This conversation feels quite relevant and timely for me, so I wanted to offer it here in the hopes of encouraging us to think about our language use and how we can use language as a tool of intention and justice. The (ecofeminist) part of me that recognizes the interconnection of all oppressions, also knows intuitively that all justices are interconnected.  Where oppression creates disconnection (or perhaps where disconnection reinforces oppression), justice creates connection. Or, stated differently, one way of practicing justice is simply to connect. We can, and should, use our words to humanize, to honor, and acknowledge people’s strengths, abilities and resiliencies.  We can, and should, do our best, as often as possible, to speak with and about folks in ways that are healing and just. We can, and should, do the continual work, as the call of liberatory human service practice requests, of attempting—to the best of our ability—to align our values of justice with the manifestation of all areas of our practice. Language is a tool of our craft and it is but one of many ways for us to create change, support transformation, and invite justice into our work.

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