Social work and city council

The poster for my first ever non-conference, non-teaching, non-panel talk.

The poster for my first ever non-conference, non-teaching, non-panel talk.

Earlier this month, in recognition of Social Work week and International Women’s Day I was asked to speak about my experience as a woman and social worker in politics (thanks to Marc Laferriere for recommending me for the talk). Today I’m here to share what I think social work can offer city council. First, though, I’d like to tell you a bit about the profession’s problematic roots.

It might seem strange to criticize a profession that started with a mission to provide charity and relief to people living in poverty. Yet, a key part of that early work involved imposing white and middle-class standards on those who were having a tough time meeting their basic needs. These worldviews were thought to be superior and fuelled beliefs that people living in poverty were second rate citizens, lazy, and incapable.

The profession’s roots, in many cases, continue to influence practice today with the gold standard to understanding and addressing disadvantage being the white and middle-class way. What too often remains hidden is how disadvantage is influenced by the unfair way society has been set up in the first place.

It might seem that I’m critical of the profession. I am. Still, social work experience is valuable in city-building. Here are a few reasons why.

  • The profession is value-guided. Social work’s national and provincial codes of ethics promote values like service to humanity, the pursuit of social justice, and putting the client (i.e., the city and the people living in it) first, especially those who are most vulnerable and experiencing the most disadvantage.

  • We work a lot in referrals. Similar to social workers, a key part of a city councillor’s job is to listen and connect people with information and people. It’s important to know when to bring in others in order to find appropriate solutions.

  • Social work practice happens in and across the micro, mezzo, and macro. These are the technical terms for saying that the profession sees the individual (micro), neighbourhood/groups (mezzo), and government and policy (macro) as connected, with each level influencing the other. From my experience so far, this framework applies well in municipalities, too.

My work as a city councillor and social worker share an important parallel: I approach both roles with a recognition of what is working well, as well as a critical eye and curiosity about the profession’s/city’s challenges in order to move forward in the pursuit of something even better.

Jen Vasic