The world celebrated ‘World Social Work Day’ in March, and this day provides us with an opportunity to reflect on the incredible work that social workers do and have done over many decades throughout the world. This year’s theme, Respecting Diversity Through Joint Social Action, reminds us of the formidable force that social workers are in demanding respect and defending diversity through uniting and mobilizing into action. It is a call to action for all of us to work together to create a more just and inclusive society.
As a former social worker, I’d like to share my social work journey with you. My passion for people and desire for social justice was born out of my personal lived experiences during the apartheid era. I knew from an early age that I wanted to become a social worker, determined to “change the world.” With the financial support of my father and community bursaries and loans, I completed my social work degree at the then School of Social Work at the University of Cape Town (UCT).
I started my career at Cape Town Child Welfare, an NGO that allowed me to hone and sharpen my skills. As a social worker dedicated to the protection of children and specializing in statutory work, I experienced the very worst of society, but also the very best of humankind. I spent 14 years working with the most vulnerable, abused, and neglected children, progressing from social worker to supervisor to manager. In the latter part of my social work career, I discovered a love for mentoring and teaching, which led me to oversee the Work Integrated Learning (WIL) department at SACAP in 2008.
Throughout my journey, there were some lifelong lessons that I learned as a social worker that I’d like to share with you. Firstly, the importance of empathy: social work can be emotionally taxing, and as social workers, we must have the ability to understand and empathize with the children, families, and communities we work with. Secondly, the power of resilience: social workers are constantly faced with challenges and obstacles in their work. We work in complex systems with individuals, families, and communities, managing their emotions often in situations of crisis or distress. We must be resilient and develop coping strategies to help us overcome these challenges.
Thirdly, the value of collaboration: social work often involves working with multiple agencies and professionals, such as law enforcement, healthcare providers, and educators. We must be skilled at building relationships and working collaboratively with others to ensure that the people we serve receive the support and services they need. Fourthly, the need for self-care: given the emotionally demanding nature of our work, social workers must prioritize self-care to avoid burnout. This means being aware of our own needs and boundaries, seeking out support when we need it, and taking time for self-care and reflection.
Although I am no longer active in the field, I believe that once a social worker, always a social worker. All that I learned in those 14 years has shaped me into who I am today and has taught me to be the best servant leader I can be, continuing to be in service of others.
Social work is an incredibly important profession, but it is also one that is often misunderstood or undervalued. As social workers, we need to work to change this perception and educate others about the vital role we play in society. This means advocating for our profession and the people we serve and pushing back against stereotypes or misconceptions about social work. It also means recognizing that people’s experiences are shaped by multiple factors such as race, gender, sexuality, ability, and class, and that we need to take all these factors into account when working with clients.
Finally, it’s important to recognize that social work is not just about fixing problems or providing services to individuals. It’s also about working to create systemic change that addresses the root causes of social problems. We therefore need to advocate for systemic change to address these intersecting oppressions and strive to work collaboratively by advocating for policy changes, working with community groups to address social issues, or engaging in broader social justice activism.
As social workers, we must not forget that we have a unique perspective and skillset that can be incredibly valuable in these kinds of efforts. But despite the challenges mentioned, social work remains a vital and essential profession. We have the unique opportunity to make a positive impact on people’s lives, to empower them, and to advocate for their rights and interests. Our work is guided by a set of core values and principles that define who we are and what we stand for.
The intrinsic belief in human dignity and worth, protecting and promoting diversity, has always been integral to our values and principles. One of the core principles of social work is respect for diversity. This means recognizing and valuing the differences that exist between people and promoting social justice and equality for all. It means challenging discrimination and prejudice wherever we encounter it and working to create a more inclusive and just society. Remember, ascribing labels to individuals and communities may bring about structure, but more often, it serves to marginalize. We therefore need to strive to create conditions of equal opportunities.
In today’s world, where intolerance and hate seem to be on the rise, the need for social workers to promote respect for diversity is more important than ever. We must stand up against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, ableism, and all forms of discrimination and oppression. We must work to create a world where everyone is valued and respected, regardless of their race, gender, sexuality, ability, or any other characteristic.
But promoting respect for diversity is not just a matter of words. It requires action and collaboration. It requires us to work together with other professionals, organizations, and communities to create change. This is why the theme of this year’s World Social Work Day, “Respecting Diversity Through Joint Social Action,” is so important.
Joint social action means working together to achieve common goals, to share resources and knowledge, and to support each other in our work. It means recognizing that we are all part of a larger system, and that we have a collective responsibility to create a more just and equitable society.
As social workers, we have a critical role to play in promoting respect for diversity and joint social action. We have the skills, knowledge, and values to engage with people from diverse backgrounds and to work towards social change. We can listen to, and learn from the people we work with, to build relationships based on trust and mutual respect, and to work collaboratively towards shared goals.
We cannot do this work alone. We need the support and partnership of other professionals, organizations, and communities. We need to work together to create a world where diversity is celebrated, where everyone has equal opportunities and access to resources, and where social justice and human rights are upheld.
Let us renew our commitment to promoting respect for diversity through joint social action. to creating change that benefits all of humankind. As social workers, it is essential to recognize the connections between individuals, families, communities, and the broader social system. One of the lessons we have learned from the very recent pandemic is that people and systems can change.
Let us recognize the power of our collective voice, and the impact we can have when we work together towards common goals. Let us continue to be agents of positive change in our communities, and to advocate for the rights and interests of the people we serve. We had a standard line at the office when we had a very rough day out in the field. “There is indeed a special place for us social workers in heaven.” It takes a special kind of person who desires to be of service to humanity. We are that special kind of person. Let us continue to work together to create a world that is more just, equitable, and inclusive for all.
I appeal to each of you to renew our commitment today to supporting and advocating, to co-building and co-creating a better life that is inclusive and embraces diversity in all its beauty. Remember that human rights are rarely given it has to be demanded before it is recognized. Each of us has a role to play so let’s ready ourselves to be the voice of the people who need it and take collective action that the world so clearly and desperately needs.