Social Work with an Activist Heart

“Liberty by definition is not the magic of one person, it is much more like an ecosystem.”   –Ravyn Stanfield

I am a radical social worker. Through my years of practice, my professional identities (how I story my practice) have shifted, changed and evolved as identifies tend to do. The core of my practice though: radical, transformative, anti-oppressive, has always been the foundation of my work. As I’ve grown into myself as a social worker, healer, activist and change-weaver, I’ve learned to recognize and amplify the qualities of my practice whose essences nourish and strengthen my justice heart. Some of these are anti-racist, body-honoring, shame-dismantling, trans-welcoming, diversity-celebrating, trauma-informed, creative, earth-inspired, queer, holistic, open-hearted, intentional and connective.

We each have a universal human need for connection. We know this scientifically to be true, but perhaps more importantly, we know this to be true in our bodies and hearts. Brené Brown, shame researcher extraordinaire, (who I fondly refer to as a pop-star social worker!) reflects that we experience the energy of connection when we feel seen, heard and valued. When I feel into practicing from a truly justice-centered place, I envision co-creating a container in which all (and particularly our most vulnerable) people and communities have the felt experience of being truly seen, heard and valued.

As students of justice and co-conspirators of liberatory wellness, we understand that healing happens in a space of connection. When we feel connected, when our pain and grief, hopes and dreams, vulnerabilities and core human needs are compassionately witnessed, when we are invited in safer space to healthfully move through the body memory of our interpersonal and cultural traumas, when our most complex emotions are understood not as pathology but as our beautiful lived human experience, we are shown and reminded that radical healing is both possible and accessible.

As activist healers, we draw with intention on our radical practice-lineage of how to dismantle systems of inequity, colonization, racism and oppression. We cannot do this work without opening our hearts and we cannot do this work without community.  As social workers and radical change agents, we have a responsibility to do no harm. In the power-over system of institutionalized social work, what does it mean to be a radical social worker? How can we practice from an anti-oppressive space when the systems we are called to work in can be inherently traumatizing and oppressive? We can and must learn to find ways to work inside institutions without becoming institutionalized ourselves. We must learn to healthfully tend our grief and heartache while finding ways to sustainably practice and return again and again to our justice core. While numbing is a strategy (we all do it) this cannot be our primary means of addressing systems fatigue and the cumulative toll of exhaustion and secondary trauma.

Healing happens in a space of connection.  This is universally true and we all have a need for connection; we all need to be seen, heard and valued. And, too, I suspect as radical social workers we have a high need for shared reality: our jobs are freaking hard! Many days we witness tremendous pain. We may have to resolve standing on the front-line of witnessing tremendous unmet need while not being able to resolve the suffering (and at-times even contributing to the systems barriers that perpetuate unmet needs).  We cannot be truly present if we are under-resourced, and we cannot practice with an open heart if we do not have the tools and community and support us in naming, acknowledging and tending our fullest emotional  selves including those parts of us that are intimately affected by the intensity and cumulative, unending demand of our work. Finding ways to resiliently overcome the high impact of secondary trauma while being able to practice with intention and presence is a requirement for anti-oppressive social work that contributes to a culture of healing and radical transformation.

In you are a radical social worker in Portland seeking LCSW supervision (or simply a supportive practice community of allies and fellow change-agents!), I have 2-3 openings for group supervision. The group meets the 2nd Friday of each month at 5pm. Current group members are those in leadership positions with many years of collective practice experience. For more about my supervision/practice framework, and to read about the application process for supervision, please visit:  https://joyfulawakeningpractice.com/services/clinical-supervision/.

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