A social worker for President? - review of A Promised Land

14 APRIL 2021

A social worker for President? - review of A Promised Land

In a review of former US President Barack Obama’s memoir, A Promised Land, a leading Charles Sturt University social work academic argues that the basic approaches of Obama’s community organising are similar to those of professional social work.

The review, A Promised Land: Lessons for community organising at multiple levels’ (April 2021) by Professor in Social Work and Human Services, Manohar Pawar, in the Charles Sturt University School of Humanities and Social Sciences, is published in the International Journal of Community and Social Development. Professor Pawar is also a member of the Charles Sturt Institute for Land, Water and Society (ILWS), and is President of the International Consortium for Social Development.

President Barack Obama’s experiences, knowledge and skills of community organising at multiple levels are well reflected in his memoir, A Promised Land (published by Crown, November 2020).

I wonder, if Obama was a professionally-trained social worker, whether his thoughts and actions would have been different.

I argue that in addition to his own virtues, character, knowledge, and skills, his basic premises and approaches to community organising and social change are similar to the values, knowledge and agenda of professional social work.

Further, I suggest the social work profession could draw lessons from Obama’s community organising experiences and explore the potential for social work to expand at multiple levels of macro practice (that is, working with communities, administration, research, institutions, policy, advocacy, lobbying, legislature).

As a community organiser, long before he became President, Obama worked with communities impacted by the closure of a steel plant. He engaged in advocacy, lobbying, and mobilising voters. Then he served three terms as an Illinois state Senator (1997-2005), then he served as a US Senator (2005-2008) and finally, became the 44th US President (2009-2017).

At every level he worked, he found the scope very narrow to bring any major change or make a major impact, and he was unsatisfied about the level of impact he was making, given the size of the problem and need.

However, he did make an impact at all the levels at which he worked.

So I wonder, what Obama did, was it social work or was it not social work? And further, can social work-trained community organisers follow a similar path to make a greater change and impact?

Where does professional social work stop and politics begin? Or simply, is it a fallacious conceptualisation and question?

There is an inextricable link between social work and politics. And it is up to professional social workers to explore and make use of this link for the betterment of society.

In many countries, a few social workers have become politicians and have worked in their respective parliaments, including Australia. It would be useful to explore to what extent and in what ways they used their social work knowledge and skills in political social work to bring change and serve people at greater levels.

In my earlier work I have argued that there are imperatives for social workers to positively engage in politics to bring about social change, which is the taproot and core agenda of the social work profession.

Has social work explored this potential in terms of social work education, practice and research?

Professional social workers often categorise practice at three levels: micro (working with individuals/case work/clinical practice), meso (small groups, neighbourhoods, small to medium organisations; advocacy/lobbying) and macro (communities, administration, research, institutions, policy, advocacy, lobbying, legislature). By using the systems theory, they link these levels of practice and engage as appropriate.

Social work practice is also viewed as binary in terms of direct and indirect practice. When Obama states that the essence of politics is more about building community connections/relationship/trust and less about power and position, I wonder whether or not this kind of binary approach of direct and indirect practice makes any sense?

Obama’s political social work may be conceived at multiple levels.

Developing his own identity and audaciousness, from community organiser to politician and politician to community organiser, Barack Obama placed people and communities in the centre of his work at local to international levels.

Speaking from his heart and head, he practised democratic values and principles, listened and empathised, mobilised people, groups and communities, critically reflected, fought against discrimination, facilitated to voice community concerns, tried to build trust and introduced major social and legal changes at every level he worked in.

The Obama model of community organising and political action offers significant insights for social work education, practice and research.

It is heartening that social workers can learn from this model and multiple levels of practice, and begin practice at any of these levels according to their interest, knowledge, skills and capacity.

What is clear is, to bring change, local community-level practice is not enough; it is just a beginning.

In my view, many social workers are struggling to begin at this local community-level practice.

Barack Obama’s memoir does offer some lessons for changing the clinical dominance of the profession and focusing on community organising and policy work in a balanced way in social work education and practice.

A Promised Land also offers significant insights for community organisers and development practitioners to change the world by working with the people and communities at various levels.

If we are really keen to address the social work profession’s agenda of social change, we need to make significant and radical additions to social work education and training.

There may be several challenges relating to reasserting or redefining the nature and scope of social work, including developing strong virtues and qualities in social workers, facing the politics and being part of it and linking and alliance building skills.

Towards this end, it may be in order to undertake further research about and discussion of similar memoirs and other relevant literature and encourage critical engagement of and with professional bodies and leaders.

This is not to suggest that every social worker should try to become a politician and be in the legislature.

But to bring change, social workers need to be proficient in working with communities, change makers and change making systems, with unwavering commitment.

Media Note:

To arrange interviews with Professor Manohar Pawar contact Bruce Andrews at Charles Sturt Media on mobile 0418 669 362 or news@csu.edu.au

Image (cropped from the original): 'Barack Obama' by Kehinde Wiley (2018) oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution, Washington DC, USA.

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