World Social Work Day is celebrated across the globe on 20 March each year. This year, in celebration of the international day of recognition, the Social Work department in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences hosted a talk by Dr Abigail Ornellas entitled 'These clothes don't fit us anymore!' – Expanding Your Idea of Social Work.
The talk forms part of a number of events being hosted by the department in celebration of the university's centenary year.
“The theme of World Social Work Day is promoting community and environment sustainability – these are big topics, and topics that social workers can at times shy away from, or limit themselves to certain areas with the belief that this is as far as their impact or reach can go," said Ornellas, who has just completed her doctoral degree in Social Work at Stellenbosch University (SU). (Read her full story here.)
“However, through my experience and research I have found that the social work profession is both capable of, and responsible for, a much grander vision than I believe we sometimes allow for ourselves."
For this reason, Ornellas wants to challenge social workers to “go further and be bold in their right and responsibility to tackle politics, economics and macro-scale challenges" and to engage with policies and government structures to make a far bigger impact on society.
She encouraged social workers to start thinking of their field as a professional one, where they are capable of bringing about change at a higher level and not only on the ground.
During her talk she highlighted how the revised global definition of social work of 2014 calls upon social workers to “go beyond the individualistic approach we have been too long comfortable with, and to consider the collective and the structural causes of individual challenges".
“In particular, I often refer to a need to understand the impact of economic and political theory and landscape on our profession – to critically question the intervention activities we undertake and ask, “Why? Why this way? For what and toward what?," said Ornellas.
For the last few years, Ornellas has been focusing on expanding her research knowledge of social work and building up her expertise. Currently, she is a postdoctoral research fellow of the Social Work department at SU. Before completing her doctoral degree at the university, she spent some time travelling as a full-time research associate for the department across 11 countries. This expedition was funded thanks to two EU International Research Staff Exchange Schemes. Over the years her work has also been published in more than seven scientific international publications and she has lectured and presented at conferences in South Africa, Portugal, Italy, Spain, England, South Korea, Russia, Finland and India.
While she did not work as a social worker following her studies, the degree programme in the department is set up in such a manner that students gain extensive practical work experience in both child and family welfare as well as clinical social work.
It is these experiences during her Masters studies, she said, that led her to the concept of deinstitutionalisation.
“It was my work experience at a local state hospital in my final year that really propelled me into research as I became aware of the role of policy and socio-political dynamics in social work practice – which could limit or free the profession to fulfil the mandate of the global definition. My work was concentrated in the psychiatric ward, and at the time South Africa was undergoing a transition toward deinstitutionalisation of mental health care. This where institutional psychiatric facilities are shut down and mental health care is shifted to community-based initiatives," explained Ornella.
“This sounded like a noble idea," said Ornellas, “but when implemented in a neoliberal (a policy model favouring free-market capitalism) environment, it is very much a cost-saving exercise that frees the state from the expense of mental health care, turning this responsibility over to civil society without sufficient community development and support or facilities."
It is one of the main reasons, she said, that the Life Esidimeni tragedy took place. In 2016, the decision to move patients from Life Esidimeni, a state-run facility, to a number of NGOs that were ill prepared to accommodate these patients led the deaths of 144 vulnerable patients.
“Some of the conversations I had with social workers attempting to navigate this shift and assist vulnerable groups affected by deinstitutionalisation still haunt me today. They felt they were hitting out against a solid brick wall. The frustration and desperation was concrete. It made me realise that social work research had a role to play in challenging the structural systems that hinder social workers on the ground," added Ornellas.
“What I have come to realise," she said quoting from research she conducted with Prof Lambert Engelbrecht of the Social Work department at SU and Dr Gary Spolander from Coventry University in the UK, “is that unless social work is able to correctly identify the nature and causes of social distress, it will be unable to recommend and support appropriate interventions."
“That said, I am deeply aware of the limitations in my understanding, as an academic. I am not facing what they face. But my commitment in my academic endeavours is to social workers grappling with these challenges. It's why my doctoral thesis highlighted the need to move outside of the small academic periphery, into unpacking and showcasing the views of frontline social workers," she said.
What she does know, said Ornellas, is that “social work has a critical role [to play] in the current neoliberal and globalisation debate and should not just acquiesce to priorities such as budgetary constraints and premises that one cannot make a difference beyond helping those on the ground. It also plays a critical role in challenging policies of current regimes that do not work.
“Social work should use research, pedagogy and critical voice to support it in facilitating social change, development, cohesion and social stability, as well as the empowerment and liberation of people."
She encouraged the up-and-coming social work students to feel “empowered in their role and profession and to “truly be committed to social justice in its entirety rather than being an instrument or bystander to someone else's agenda and also touched on the need to “decolonise social work training from its Western colonialist, capitalist and neoliberal underpinnings".
While she may not have practised as a social worker, Ornellas has intimate knowledge of the child welfare system. As a young child Ornellas and her twin brother often found themselves in foster care as their mom, who tried in vain to deal with a mental illness, struggled to raise Abigail and her brother.
“My biological mother wanted to take care of us but it wasn't easy for her and we would often need to be moved into places of safety. I have always been grateful to her for finally making the decision to give us over to another family permanently. We were adopted when we were almost five years old by an amazing South African family of musicians – they have been an incredible support system and really are some of the best people I know. The experience was hard and certainly there have been things I have needed to work through as an adult, but I wouldn't really change things. It certainly has made me a better social worker. But it is only one part of my story and there is so much more that has shaped me and my love for this profession. I try not to make it the central focus."
It is one of the reasons that led her to social work in the end, she told the audience.
“My first experience of social work was when I was in foster care as a child and so I have always believed it to be important – in my world, it's always been quite large and meaningful and it played a significant role in bringing me to where I am today, so I have a deep respect for it. As I went further into my studies, the more I learnt, read and witnessed, the more I believed this profession was even bigger than I had initially imagined in terms of its impact potential and role in society. Though the practice of social work is something I deeply love and wish to engage in in the near future, it was the profession itself, the people, the concept, that really grabbed me. This was something I wanted to be a part of."
Today as the world focuses on World Social Work Day, Ornellas hopes that the day is not only celebrated as a day for social workers to reflect on the “collective mandate into which our day-to-day practice falls , but that the day also implores us to think bigger, reinvigorates our commitment on days we struggle to remember why we do what we do and if we make any difference. It also encourages us to remember our strength and value as a profession – we are a globally collective body that plays such a massively significant role in societal wellbeing."
“In a country like South Africa, we need to know what our society needs and whether we are meeting those needs and if not, what needs to happen in terms of structural barriers for us to meet those needs. There are a lot of professions doing therapy work but there are not a lot of professions like social work, that engages with the macro aspects of the social systems that lead to social ills."
Photo: Dr Abigail Ornellas was the guest speaker at the World Social Work Day event of the Social Work department at Stellenbosch University. (Lynne Rippenaar-Moses)