An Aspiring Humanitarian’s Advice to Future Students Pursuing Studies for Social Justice Work

“One of the things I learned when I was negotiating was that until I changed myself, I could not change others.” — Nelson Mandela.

In my mind, this is truly biggest thing that I have taken from my experiences in my own social work programs, and is the most important piece of advice I would give to an incoming student. To me, “personal work” is the hardest work one can undertake, but it is a noble and worthy task.

I would tell new students to always be in a process of examining their worldviews, things that upset them,  and beliefs about people who they believe to be different from them: to keep in mind some simple but complicated questions such as “Why do I think the way I do about “x” “y” or “z?” “Where did I learn about x?”

Continually asking questions can be useful in sorting things out, particularly when coming into contact with people or situations that may contradict what you previously may have thought before. Understand that we are taught misinformation about ourselves and others.

For example, in one of my experiences engaging in a discussion in class on social identities,  someone made a comment about people on welfare that asserted that all people who receive services through welfare are exploiting the system, that they just want to “get a free ride” with no effort.

Holding negative and sweeping views about any population can be particularly problematic because as future social workers, we could potentially be in positions to decide whether or not people can have access to, and receive services of some kind.

I happen to believe that what we hold to be true in our hearts and minds can dictate our actions in our personal lives and in the field, so it is important that we take great care and invest consistent time and effort into critically examining ourselves to ensure that we will not be doing more of the hurting in our “helping” positions.

While focusing on the eliminating the systemic injustices perpetrated by “others” in society, it is also equally important (possibly even more important) to continue to change oppressive thoughts and behaviors that may be present in ourselves. We are all implicated somehow in the web of privilege and oppression. Through continuous self-reflection, strive to find ways to use the parts of yourself that are privileged, so that you can use those parts of yourself to be an ally to those who are oppressed.

Try your best to increase your understanding the nature of the work you are undertaking. The incentives to remain stagnant are high, and the costs of action can be great. The perks that come with privilege can be seductive, while the consequences that lie in allyhood can be overwhelming. They can come in the form of lost relationships, promotions, and income. In some instances, consequences can also come in the loss of reputation, and safety.

The effects that come with holding on to privilege can be like a drug, and as with many drugs, there are relapses on the path to recovery. Don’t forget to allow yourself some room to make mistakes. However, finding your purpose, taking time to appreciate your victories whenever you can, and understanding that by using yourself as an ally you are contributing to creating a more just society for everyone can produce its own rewards in some of the strangest, but most wonderful and fulfilling ways.

Keep your eyes open for these, because they can sustain you if you let them. Hang in there. The personal work is hard, but extremely necessary if you want to make any real change. If you work to commit to it fully, you may even surprise yourself.  In thinking about my experiences in my own programs, this is the greatest lesson I can give.


From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins, MSW



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I'm a Social Justice Educator and Aspiring Humanitarian who is interested in conflict resolution, improving intergroup relations, and building more equitable and inclusive communities. "Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian" is my blog, where I write about issues of diversity, inclusion, equity, and social justice. By exploring social identities through written word, film & video, and other forms of media, I hope to continue to expand and enrich conversations about social issues that face our society, and to find ways to take social action while encouraging others to do so as well in their own ways.

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11 Responses

  1. Mary Kiernan-Stern says:

    Relando, I hope everyone in the NASW LinkedIn Group reads your postings. You have created a critically thoughtful, important and needed vehicle in our profession, and I wish you much success as a new graduate, and professional colleague.

    The issues you are concerned with are issues we should all be concerned with and they are the reason I became a social worker in the first place. Martin Luther King was my inspiration at the age of 13 “back in the day.”

    Personally, I believe all social work practice should be reflective of social justice issues and that it is an artificial distinction to separate social policy and advocacy from clinical practice.

    Thank you for sharing your thoughts with this group today.
    All the best,

    • Thanks again for your reply Mary,

      Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. continues to be one of my inspirations as well.

      I just think that we should continue to challenge ourselves and our thought processes, because what we hold to be true internally really can impact the way we act in service to our others.

  2. Katharine P. Smith says:

    • Relando — thank you for your blog post about giving advice to new social workers. Recognizing, pulling out and examining my own baggage has been one of the most difficult and rewarding elements of my social work education and practice. It alternately wearies and energizes me to realize that it will NEVER END. I will always be discovering my own biases, weaknesses, assumptions, misperceptions … I will always have to face them head on. Just when I think I’ve learned the the worst about myself, I dig out something else. Thankfully, this is the first step toward my own evolution. As one of my wisest professors pointed out, to be strenghths-based practitioners, we need to find the strengths in OURSELVES as well as our clients.

    Further reflecting on my social work experience and personal growth, another one of my most important tasks as a person and practitioner is to HAVE COURAGE about MY OWN LIFE. That has meant challenging conventional wisdom, forging my own path in the face of criticism and skepticism, being brave, taking risks, and at least attempting to build my life (including my career) in a way that I feel is most fulfilling and genuine. For me, there also is a spiritual aspect. I was put on this earth for a reason, and it’s my responsibility to use my gifts to the fullest.

    So many people give up before they even start. They settle for mediocrity. They do not make changes because it is so hard.

    As social workers, however, we ask our clients to be courageous, to meet and overcome challenges, to work toward what is truly important to them, regardless of how difficult, painful or risky these goals are to achieve.

    As social role models and leaders, I believe we have a responsibility to be just as courageous about our own lives. This includes our careers, our self-reflection and internal growth, the makeup of our personal lives … the whole shebang.

    • There is so much in what you’ve written Katherine. I like how you mentioned the importance of having courage in your own life as well in challenging conventional wisdom, forging your own path in the face of criticism, and skepticism, bravery and risk taking, and keeping a focus on doing work that is genuine and fulfilling for you. I think having that outlook can keep you grounded in challenging times.

      That personal piece is really important in my opinion, and if we cannot examine our own lives, how can we expect to be able to inspire others?. Its an ongoing process and a lifelong journey, but I think it is one worth taking.

  3. Rosemary Esperanza says:

    I love your blog!!! I speak on these very issues often to other students. Being one of the oldest in the classrooms, it amazes me how many SW students cannot see their own biases, prejudices, and even hatred towards certain populations. Quite frankly, many are in need of therapy themselves. I really wish that they would make therapy mandatory in the Master’s level. Seeing many of the future social workers is scary on so many levels. We speak about self-reflection, knowing thyself, and therapy, but most people are blind to their own issues. I love this journey of discovering my real self. Grant it, it’s not always pretty because we all have preconceived ideas of who we are, but along with my own therapy sessions, my learning, and faith, peeling back the layers and allowing myself to heal and grow has been a very rewarding journey.

    As I read your blog, I continue to pass it along to the other students. Thank you again for your contribution in this lacking area of our profession.

    • Rosemary Esperanza says:

      I didn’t mean to be anonymous. I don’t often reply to blogs. I’m still learning. Lol

    • Thank you so much for reading and sharing your thoughts Rosemary,

      You’re right, it might not always “look pretty”. It can be difficult confronting our own biases and our own privileges, but to me, the doing the “personal work” is often the most important. For me, it will be a lifelong process. It is one of my hopes to one day be able to return to the classroom and help engage future social workers or other helping professionals in spaces where we can examine our biases, learn about our privileges, and work for social change from within ourselves while working to improve the world around us.

      • Rosemary says:

        That is a wonderful idea and something that is very much needed! Please keep up updated on this.

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