4 Ways to Stay Mindful of Social Justice Issues in Group Work Practice
Social Workers and other social justice advocates can be found serving in a variety of areas, one of which can include doing group work. In my own work with groups, sometimes I encounter the sentiment that group work automatically eradicates experiences of power and privilege, because “everyone is treated the same”.
Along those same lines, I also occasionally encounter the belief that differences don’t matter in groups, with the notion being that if facilitators make efforts to surface social injustices, people will get uncomfortable and decide not to come back to the group. It usually ends with suggesting that as long as everyone gets along and works together, the group will be fine.
At their core, these concerns cover two things that I am also concerned with whenever I facilitate or co-facilitate groups: the safety of the group members, and their willingness to return to the group for later sessions.
When I hear that facilitating groups erases experiences of power and privilege because everyone is treated the same, I am always reminded to explore and question deeper. Is everyone in group settings really treated the same?
I believe that we have an obligation to tune into issues of social justice or injustice in group work practice when they present themselves overtly or covertly in the group.
Working towards building better relationships does involve finding areas in which people share things in common. To add to that, better relationships can also be gained from working through disagreement and conflict, allowing us opportunities to incorporate new information from the experience.
Both of these realities exist simultaneously and may need to be drawn upon again and again in group settings to cultivate change.
With many dynamics in play in group settings, and the many choices facilitators have to make second by second, it can be challenging at times even for the most experienced person. We all need a little help every once in a while.
Here are 4 ways to stay mindful of social justice issues in group work practice.
Think of Groups as Smaller Societies
One way we can increase our chances on being a positive influence in the lives of the people who are in groups that we might facilitate is to develop an awareness of ways that oppression influences the lives of the people with whom we work. Oppression can impact a person interpersonally and institutionally, and approaching the group as being a microcosm of the broader society can provide a helpful perspective.
Viewing the group as a smaller representation of the larger society involves coming in with an understanding that whatever social ills, isms, or issues that exist outside of that group space can manifest themselves within the group as well. It’s important to understand that when people come in to participate, they do not pass some invisible barrier that prevents them from being impacted by the oppression they face, or benefit from on a regular basis outside of that setting.
Acknowledge Social Privileges
We can also address issues of social injustice when they appear covertly or overtly in groups by honestly acknowledging social privileges such as white privilege, heterosexual privilege, male privilege, and others not only among group members, but among facilitators as well. Ignoring those elephants in the room through silence gives power to dominant narratives of superiority.
One thing about this though, is that although the silence may not even be felt by some, it can come through loud and clear to others, reinforcing experiences of oppression and signaling the insignificance of their identities or experiences. The degree to who hears or feels those messages and their impact largely depends on our social privileges and our awareness of them, or lack thereof.
Failing to address social privileges and the way they impact the dynamics of the group can promote covert oppression of some group members.
Although I understand that many well-intentioned people may find comfort in the use of “color-blindness“, that notion and other sentiments of escapism in which individuals would claim not to see or consider aspects of a person or group’s social identity, using them in a helper role, or any role for that matter serves to minimize and or silence the experiences and voices of people from marginalized identities.
Seek to Increase Consciousness
For example, as a male who identifies as being heterosexual, I have certain privileges in that context that another man who identifies as gay does not have. (Including the fact that I can publish that statement here without fear of any backlash for discussing this part of my identity.)
It is important to acknowledge the existence of privilege and oppression in our own lives as well as in relation to the life experiences of the members of the group. Being intentional about finding ways to do so can help facilitators to ensure that we do not play a role in re-creating an environment that reinforces the same oppression that members experience on the outside of the group. Which brings me to my next point.
Listen & Practice Humility
In addition to working to increase our awareness of ourselves and others, something that I am constantly reminding myself of before I enter into a conversation or interaction is that when I communicate with someone, be it a close friend, relative, or stranger, I come to them with everything I have. In turn, they come to me with everything they have.
By “everything”, I mean all of our experiences up to that point be they successes or perceived failures, sources of happiness or sources of pain.
We each have the right to our own experiences, and to be who we are just because we have lived the lives we’ve lived. Just as we are the experts on our own lives, group members are the experts in theirs. An amazing thing about practicing humility is that although we have had certain experiences, being open to having new ones which challenge what we thought we knew before can change our perspectives.
One way to help groups move forward is by letting members tell us how to help them. I think we are so often socialized to have to feel as if we are “experts” in our field, possessing all the answers; that we forget about our infallibility. We forget that we are not perfect.
Here’s a quote worth remembering and incorporating into practice when working with others.:
“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”
Sometimes, we can go into a group or situation with a level of certainty that can undermine the experiences of the people we would set out to help. Having the perspective that we are learners as well as teachers is important, and humility goes a long way towards building better relationships, as it can facilitate learning and understanding in a reciprocal way.
What are some other ways to stay mindful of social justice issues in groups?
From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins, MSW