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Healing Our Most Dangerous Communities: Putting the ‘Social’ back in to Social Work

Last week, a British Court heard how Police Officer Keith Blakelock died in an estate in North London which was identified by Scotland Yard as being “impossible to police.” The Broadwater Farm estate was described by the Chief Superintendent Colin Couch, as a “working-class, multi-ethnic area” with a notoriety for the sale and use of drugs, and PC Blakelock died in October 1985 after riots broke out across Tottenham.

Keith Blakelock
Officer Keith Blakelock

Thirty years later, the problem of “impossible to police neighbourhoods” is still as prevalent as ever. In almost every country in the world, there are inner-city neighbourhoods where crime, drugs and prostitution plague the community. Cities across Jamaica, Brazil, Mexico, and the United States are all well-known for their troubled areas. And yet, there are hundreds more cities across the world, whilst they may have lower murder rates, which still suffer from the effects of poverty, drug addiction and unemployment. We all know those places where it is not safe to walk or where you would not want to raise your children.

When you actually take the time to not just look at, but really see and understand these communities, you immediately discover the inherent potential and beauty within them. This is no more evident than in the photography of Chris Arnade, who has taken thousands of photos of homeless people and sex workers in Hunts Point in the Bronx, one of New York City’s most dangerous neighborhoods. Through his photography, Chris states how he aims to “capture conventional snapshots of unconventional people.” However, what the photographs do best, is capture the humanity of even the most excluded and berated individuals; a humanity that we all share.

As a student Social Worker I undertook my first placement in an area of Sheffield that was notorious for gangs, shootings, violence and drugs. It was an area, I admit, that I had previously avoided and it would be dishonest to say that I was not a little nervous about working there. However, within the first few weeks, I found myself in love, not only with the eclectic an exciting range of people but also with the general sense of comradery and community that can only be found in neighbourhoods where there is a shared concern. The passion and involvment of individuals manifested itself in to local groups and charities who worked tirelessly to support and improve their community. Behind the poor reputation of the neighbourhood lay numerous individuals and families who were fighting for a better world. There was so much intelligence, compassion and dilligence waiting to be utilized even in this, the most “broken” of communities.

I believe that in the UK, we have lost the ‘social’ in Social Work. The true value of Social Work would be in immersing ourselves fully in these communities. Energy needs to be focussed on getting to know these neighbourhoods and then, not only supporting people on an individual basis around issues of health and housing, but also advocating for better resources and support for those living in poverty. We need to lobby at a political level and act as a voice for the voiceless.

Radical Social Work is not a new idea, but it is certainly one that has fallen by the wayside since the spread of neoliberalism which has pushed privatization, the centrality of the market and crucially, the individual as separate from the whole. As Social Workers we must draw on Critical and Radical Social Work to identify oppressive functions in society and analyze them to create social change. “No man is an island” and we must accept that a profession which seeks to heal social problems, such as child abuse, addiction and prostitution, will not be successful as long as we continue to work on a one-to-one basis with people.

No neighbourhood should remain a no-go area or indeed a complete ‘write-off’. Social Work, if utilized correctly, has the potential to heal these damaged communities. However, the key lies in ensuring that neighbours know and care for each other; that inequality does not go unchallenged and that people are never seen as less than the sum of all their parts. There is no such thing as a neighbourhood full of ‘junkies’ or ‘criminals’; there are only neighbourhoods full of varied, fascinating and important human beings.

Written by Rebecca Joy Novell

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Rebecca Joy Novell is a Qualified Social Worker working with gangs in central London. She graduated from The University of Sheffield in 2012 with a Masters in Social Work. Rebecca has been involved with Youth Justice since 2008 in a variety of voluntary and paid roles and is currently undertaking a Professional Doctorate in Criminal Justice. She was elected to the Professional Assembly for The College of Social Work, is part of the Criminal Justice Reference Group for the British Association of Social Workers and regularly blogs for The Guardian’s Social Care Network. She is also the author of Starting Social Work: Reflections of a Newly Qualified Social Worker. Her blog can be found at www.charitynovelll.wordpress.com.

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