Social and Community Action
In this section you can see the blurring of the boundary between work and activism, how one crosses over into the other. Having shared some of my groupwork activities, it might seem fitting to go on to talk about community work. My choice of the word action is intended to be more inclusive. The idea of ‘work’ can create hierarchies and boundaries between professionals, community members and service users, which can be reinforced when some people are paid for doing what others do as volunteers. Here I report on action being taken by all of us, and by all of us together.
Activism - a manifesto of sorts
When I was creating my previous website, over eight years ago, I wrote a piece that I now see as paving the way for the Solution-Focused Collective and its associated developments. I am pleased to publish it again here.
"Let me define activist in a wide fashion. I went into social work originally because I wanted to change the world and because I wanted to help people (and because I hoped and thought that I might be good at it).
Like many others before me I came to realise that, by and large, social work is not about changing the world. And, except in indirect ways, solution-focused therapy, coaching and supervision are not about changing the world either. When I am working with a client then I am working to their agenda, and my job is to help them to achieve what they want from working with me, to the best of my ability, as long as this falls within my legitimate remit. Being an activist is about working to change the world. But changing the world can also include changing and developing the way one works to help people. Steve de Shazer and Insoo Kim Berg, by developing the solution-focused approach to therapy, helped to change the world.
And, just as there is a fit between solution focused practice and creativity, so I believe there is also a fit between solution-focused practice and activism. Here is what the pro- Palestinian Israeli journalist, Amira Hass, said, in November 2011:
“I am a very conservative journalist and prefer to write about what happened, and not what will happen. I think these questions about what will happen are questions for activists and about the agency of people in the course of events.”
Having a future focus is to take a radical position, as is to focus on the ‘agency of people’. I am a solution focused practitioner and I am an activist, and the two roles, while distinct, are related. The energy and focus on change of an activist enlivens my solution-focused work, though this always remains resolutely committed to my client’s agenda. And a solution-focused sensibility informs and aids my activism, where I take my own positions based on my moral beliefs and choices.
And so this website will see evidence of both my solution-focused work and my activism. It cannot not do, as they are, or should be, inextricably linked.”
Campaigning against austerity
During my time as Chair of the British Association of Social Workers (BASW), from 2014 to 2018, we began to campaign in earnest as a professional association, adding to my sense that work and activism can cross over. In particular, I helped develop Social Workers and Service Users Against Austerity, and instigated Boot Out Austerity, when we marched the 100 miles from the BASW Head Office in Birmingham to our AGM venue in Liverpool, in April 2017, to draw attention to the impact of austerity. The Liverpool Today TV Channel reported on the walk after we arrived in the city on the seventh day.
Solution-focused campaigning and action?
The following have bolstered my thinking about how a solution-focused approach could be brought to bear on campaigning:
For rather than against - one of the inspirations for Boot Out Austerity was the group Psychologists Against Austerity, who have since transformed into Psychologists for Social Change. Solution-focused practices encourage us to move towards what we are for, rather than away from what we are against.
The radical focus of hope - I have been asking my clients “What are your best hopes from our work together?” for 20 years, as the question and its focus on hope seemed intuitively right. Reading Terry Eagleton’s 2015 book, Hope Without Optimism, has deepened my understanding of hope, and shown me its connections with possibility, action and agency, and thus its importance for social and political change. I am increasingly presenting on this, such as at this event in Dublin in September 2019 - watch out for the writing to follow.
From ‘your’ to ‘our’ hopes - I had an epiphanic moment at the Solution-Focused World Conference in Frankfurt in 2017. Wolfgang Gaiswinkler, a solution-focused practitioner from Vienna, facilitated a discussion on SF & Politics, during which I realised that we could create truly common projects (see Harry Korman’s paper on ‘The common project’, his way of conceptualising a solution-focused piece of work and its beginning), when acting together with our service users, for example in campaigns for social change. And the truly common nature of these projects could be emphasised by changing just one word in the so-called ‘best hopes question’ - your becoming our - so that we are asking “What are our best hopes, from taking action together?”
In my article, Journeys to Liverpool, in the Spring 2018 edition of Solution News, I mark the end of my time as BASW Chair, and my hopes for bringing solution-focused practice to social change, and vice versa.