We face a host of intertwined issues of social justice today, most of which are not new but deeply embedded historically. Poverty is ubiquitous, and economic inequality has increased both nationally and globally. Children continue to bear the brunt of poverty, especially children of color. Struggles for women’s rights continue around the world in the face of persistent gender inequality, oppression, and violence. The reality of racism in the US context is revealed in what Ta-Nehisi Coates refers to as the “carceral” state, in which prison and jail populations have increased exponentially over the past forty years, and in which one in four black men born since the 1970s has spent time in prison. It is revealed in increasingly hostile anti-immigration policies, practices, and rhetoric. It is revealed in the continued disregard for the sovereignty, histories, lands, and rights of American Indian and First Nation peoples, as evidenced most recently in the approval process for the Dakota Access Pipeline. Discrimination against sexual and gender minorities, and the oppression of individuals and groups marked as “other” by virtue of ability, age, or citizenship status, persist in our societal structures, institutional policies and practices, and everyday social relations.
These issues of social justice are fundamentally linked to basic human rights. Even though the Universal Declaration of Human Rights is nearly sixty-nine years old, violations of human rights and struggles to recognize and realize basic human rights continue on many fronts. One of the pressing social justice issues within contemporary social work in the US is our profession’s overall lack of human rights literacy, or a critical understanding of rights, to inform both direct practice and advocacy with individuals, families, and communities. A directly related issue is the limited attention to critical historical consciousness within social work. Michael Reisch in 1988 warned that social work is becoming an ahistorical profession, disconnected from its roots. We lose our sense of historical consciousness at our own peril.
A critical grasp of history in and of the profession is imperative for effective social justice work. As we engage with histories of policies and practices that have denied basic human dignity and with the myriad struggles through which individuals and groups have made claims for voice, rights, and survival, we find insight and inspiration to transform our practice in the present. Through sustained critical engagement with the history of social work we come to appreciate the possibilities of social movements, collective resistance and action, and the human potential for healing, growth, and transformation. We also bear witness to the consequences of blinkered views of what is “good” and “true,” and wherein one group’s certainties about what is “best” for those less powerful have produced damaging and denigrating effects.
History reminds us that change is possible and that “ordinary” people, often in the face of tremendous adversity, can be powerful agents of change.
Eduardo Galeano writes, “History never really says goodbye. History says see you later.” Galeano reminds us of the many ways in which history continues to reverberate in the present. A critical understanding of history can also help us see where flawed assumptions about the nature of personal or social struggles and about human difference have led to ineffective and often harmful practices in the name of “helping.” A historical perspective helps us see patterns and threads of connection across time. History permeates the present. As we begin to trace the lineages of thought and practice we find history everywhere and always intruding in the present. Within our arenas of social work practice, we are continually building on and responding to the ideas and practices that came before us. At times we may do this intentionally with a critical and appreciative eye to what we are building on and what we are challenging. Oftentimes, however, history permeates the present stealthily. It does so through the implicit logic built into the operations of our organizations, the patterned ways of speaking about and relating to clients, and the everyday ways in which values and assumptions are translated into the action of social work. Jane Addams referred to this as “circles of habit,” and warned us in 1899 that “we are continually obliged to act in circles of habit based upon convictions we no longer hold.” History grooves our practice of the present with routines, with ways of being and doing through which we “naturalize” the arbitrary. When we take history seriously, we ask questions. How did we get here? What are we doing? Why are we doing it? Are there other possibilities?
History helps us understand how power works. A historical perspective provides us the opportunity to see who has the power to name and frame what counts as a problem and to develop strategies and mobilize resources for action. History inspires us to act. History reminds us that change is possible and that “ordinary” people, often in the face of tremendous adversity, can be powerful agents of change. It is through the stories of survivors and activists and the organizations and movements they have built and nurtured that we can not only find inspiration, but also concrete lessons for practice. It is through a critical embrace of history that we deepen understanding, identify patterns, and find courage to champion human dignity and rights in our everyday practice of social work.
Featured image credit: We are the people by Alyssa Kibiloski. Public domain via Unsplash.