On Social Work in Society: For me, it all comes back to Ubuntu

Note: This post is also live on Social Work/Social Care Media. I submitted it as an opinion piece about the role of social work in society.

On the journey to find ways to share this planet with one another, many conflicts have arisen and continue to arise among human beings and their environments. We have divided ourselves into various groups, with each group being given a specific value that has been used to determine our worth, and for some, at times have made us question our humanity depending on how much value has or has not been placed on our identity and personhood.

What am I talking about? Here are some ways in which we stratify ourselves:

  • By Race/Skin Color: ex. White/European-Black

  • By Class/Caste/Educational/Social Standing: ex. Wealthy-Working Class-Working Poor-Impoverished

  • By Sex, Gender & Gender Expression: ex. Male-Female, Masculine-Feminine

  • By Sexual Orientation: ex. Heterosexuality-Homosexuality

  • By Religion & Spirituality: ex. Christianity-other world religions-Agnosticism & Atheism

  • By Ability Status: ex. “Able-Bodied”-“Others”

  • By Age: Young-Old-Old-Young

  • By National Origin

There are many more groups in addition to those I have listed here, and even within those groups exists other groups with varying levels of difference. The issue that has created so many social problems is that a reality has been constructed to assert the inherent superiority of some groups over others.

This reality, which serves to benefit some groups at the expense of others is reinforced through misinformation being widely disseminated and accepted by dominant and targeted groups, and can cause some of us to feel left out, undervalued, and even less than human depending on where we lie on the spectrum of privilege and oppression when this misinformation shows up in our experiences. Our experiences shape our own personal narratives in terms of how we see ourselves in relation to others in world. Within our personal narratives lie conscious and unconscious attitudes about people who we believe to be different from us. We act on the information that we believe to be true, and sometimes after experiencing some contradiction we might find that some of the things we once believed to be true were only part of the truth, or not true at all.

However, it is not misinformation alone that causes conflict and oppression, but it is also the power to be able to decide what information is accepted; the power to be able to decide the “standards” for which all others must try to aspire to, although they may never necessarily fully attain.  Although the “standards” I am writing about are in actuality a constructed illusion, they have been made real through our thoughts and actions. The standards that assert the superiority of Europeans or “Whites” over People of Color, that assert the superiority of men over women, wealthy over poor, heterosexuality over homosexuality, standards that assert the superiority of Christianity over other world religions, “able bodied” persons over people with different abilities, and standards that devalue people because of their age or national origin continue to serve as a challenge in our journey to live together peacefully.

I say that the standards have been made real though “our” thoughts and actions because I believe that we are all implicated somehow in this conflict. There are parts of ourselves that place us in positions of privilege, sometimes unearned privilege, and other parts of ourselves that can leave us vulnerable to discrimination and oppression. How do we move forward? How do we negotiate the conflicts that arise as a result of the differences between us?

Enter Social Justice Work

“All labor that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance and should be undertaken with painstaking excellence”.–Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Social Workers are humans too, and I think that we are just as much implicated in the web of privilege and oppression as anyone else. However, what attracted me to the profession was a desire to promote the humanity and personhood of all people; a desire to get beyond the misinformation and to find the connection that we all share: we are all human beings and in order for us to survive and thrive, we must work together.

I truly believe that Social Workers have played, and can continue to play a role in transforming the social landscape and in working to ensure a more just and equitable future for everyone. According to the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the primary mission of the profession is to “enhance human well-being and to meet the basic needs of all people, with particular attention to the needs and empowerment of people who are vulnerable, oppressed, and living in poverty”. Social workers have an obligation to advocate for the most marginalized in society, and to work for social justice & equity for all people. The core values of service, social justice, the dignity and worth of the person, the importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence highlight the fact that our work is person-centered.

Social workers can be found all over the world working in schools, hospitals, communities, government, and a variety of other areas to improve the human condition. Through their service and advocacy for others, social workers play a role in helping us all negotiate conflicts and in working against those social ills that prevent us from having a more just society.

Ubuntu and the Global Agenda for Social Work

For me, when I think of Social Work, improving the human condition, and negotiating the conflicts that arise as a result of working toward this goal, it all comes back to Ubuntu: an African philosophy which highlights the interconnectedness of our destinies and our real interdependence on one another to succeed. As I mentioned earlier, although we are all implicated somehow in the complicated network of privilege and oppression, I also believe that we all have a role to play working toward establishing a more equitable and just society for all people.

Social Justice Workers can be found all over the world and although our interests, talents, and the ways in which they choose to serve others are as varied and vast as the differing locations we inhabit, we have many shared values and ethics. I believe that there is room at the table for all of us as professionals, just as we believe that there is room at the table for all of us as human beings.

Here in the United States, March is Social Work month. I was so pleased to be invited by Claudia Megele to share my thoughts about the role of Social Work in society with colleagues in the UK as you prepare to celebrate Social Work week, and we all prepare to celebrate World Social Work Day this year on Tuesday, March 20th, 2012, The United Nations’ Social Work Day on Monday, March 20th, 2012, and to present the great work of collaboration that is the Global Agenda on Social Work and Social Development.  We all share somehow in the problems, and we all can share in crafting the solutions. Ubuntu.

Wishing you all Grace & Peace,

From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins, MSW



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Written by

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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5 Responses

  1. swgrrl78 says:

    Not to digress, but I have always struggled with the limited representation that the NASW seems to bring. It may be that location plays a role in who I am exposed to (I’m in Oregon), but I doubt it’s really that simplistic. I have often felt that the NASW is set up to be fairly exclusionary. Between the required fees to have a membership which makes it less accesible to certain folk and the people that I have seen come to speak via NASW makes me wonder how much pratice is in what they preach. I don’t want to make a blanket statement that discounts the work they are doing and the contributions made, but I would love to see equal representation of folks within the NASW that speaks to/for those who are affected daily by the policy and practice being created through the agency.

    • Hey swgrrl78! Thanks for stopping by, and also for your comment.

      You know, I don’t think you’re digressing at all. Actually, I think your concerns are right on target with the heart of the message in this post, the message I try to convey in much of my writing, and the underlying theme that I try to incorporate into my life and work. The message being that in the process of working for social justice outwardly, I think it is also important for us to continue to critically examine ourselves; shedding attitudes/behaviors that are oppressive, to make room for those that are more inclusive and humanitarian.

      I cited the NASW’S version of the mission of the social work profession because I truly believe in the principles of working for a more socially just society for all. However, I also think that in order for us to continue making progress in moving towards that goal, we must acknowledge that our institutions are microcosms of the broader society, and the ills which exist on the outside can exist within as well. If we’re able to acknowledge this and make conscious efforts to remain self-aware in our actions, we’ll be well on our way towards making sure we’re not re-creating the conditions we strive to work against.

      I truly appreciate your honesty, and share your concerns. Thanks for reading and sharing.

  2. njsmyth says:

    What a wonderful post! Thanks for reminding me about the extraordinary concept of Ubuntu. One of the things it brings to light is that we don’t have a like-concept in the culture of the United States. Our mainstream culture has such a strong focus on individualism–I think this is part of the root of our difficulty understanding the damage done to everyone by oppression.

    • Thanks for sharing your thoughts Nancy! In describing Ubuntu, Desmond Tutu said some things that I think address your comments about the heavy focus on individualism in the United states.

      “Ubuntu – the essence of being human. Ubuntu speaks particularly about the fact that you can’t exist as a human being in isolation. It speaks about our interconnectedness. You can’t be human all by yourself, and when you have this quality – Ubuntu – you are known for your generosity.”

      “We think of ourselves far too frequently as just individuals, separated from one another, whereas you are connected and what you do affects the whole world. When you do well, it spreads out; it is for the whole of humanity.”

      “A person with Ubuntu is open and available to others, affirming of others, does not feel threatened that others are able and good, for he or she has a proper self-assurance that comes from knowing that he or she belongs in a greater whole and is diminished when others are humiliated or diminished, when others are tortured or oppressed.”

      For me, Keeping these things in mind goes a long way toward understanding the damage done by oppression to others.

  1. December 13, 2015

    […] I contributed a blog post on the concept of Ubuntu as it relates to the field of Social Work. Read my post entitled “On Social Work in Society: For Me, It All Comes Back To Ubuntu” at Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian. […]

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