I have been thinking a lot about my social work training lately. Two of the major ways I currently spend my time are not directly related to my master’s degree. At my full-time job, I coordinate projects and manage grants at a media organization. In my free time, I write.
I am a proponent of the social work degree because it offers skills that can be applied to a range of organizational settings. On the one hand, you become more skilled than when you came in, and on the other hand, you remain a generalist unless you choose to advance otherwise through your career.
I also believe that many components of advanced social work training enrich one’s own life. Although I am not a direct service practitioner at the moment, I have benefitted immensely from field work and learning about methodologies to improve mental health. I often apply social work theories to sort through my own thoughts and determine which are helpful, and which thoughts I can work on letting go. It has also primed me to recognize, for myself and others around me, situations in which self-help is possible and those where professional help is needed.
Writing consistently for the past few weeks has me reflecting on how the social work training offers other unexpected gifts to its recipient. Many of the competencies learned in social work school can be applied to the act of writing:
Person-in-environment | The concept of “person in environment” is a cornerstone of the social work profession, and distinguishes it from the field of psychology. Social workers focus on improving the well-being of individuals and therefore consider person-level factors, such as behaviors, personality, and thought patterns. But they carefully place these in the context of environment, and consider how social-structural issues impinge on the individual and intersect with their overall wellness. Writers also attend to the person-in-environment perspective while creating the worlds that their characters live in. They must develop personalities for the people who animate their stories, and consider how their personhood bumps up against the environment they find themselves in. Writers can employ certain environments to illuminate different aspects of a character. Similarly, writers can draw out more nuanced descriptions of a particular environment by showing the reader how it affects different characters.
Appreciation for narrative | One of the basic skills that social workers learn is to conduct an intake interview. This involves social workers assessing potential clients to determine their needs and whether those align with the services that their agency can provide. Such an assessment requires social workers to elicit narratives from potential clients regarding their experiences. The social worker then transmits those narratives to agency representatives to determine the potential client’s eligibility for services. In this way, storytelling is considered fundamental to social work practice. Certainly, there are critiques to make regarding the justice of how narratives are employed to determine one’s worth for assistance. But the point I am trying to make here is that social workers are sensitized to the importance of narrative. There are other ways that storytelling appears in social work practice, such as narrative therapy and tracking client progress through the use of case notes. Writers must also cultivate an appreciation for narrative, finding it in daily interactions and dramas that extend further across time.
Deep empathy | Social workers must toe the line of empathizing deeply with their clients while also maintaining professional boundaries. Through the process of the helping relationship, social workers come to know many aspects of their clients’ lives. Clients share their stories with social workers, and even let them into their living spaces when the social worker comes for a home visit. There have been several clients in my own training with whom I have felt a strong sense of connection, despite the very different worlds we inhabit. Social work often brings us into contact with a diverse array of individuals that we may not have ever have gotten to know otherwise. In this way, social workers learn to hold many different perspectives; they also develop the skills required to come to an understanding of those perspectives in the first place. Writers must also practice deep empathy in developing the protagonists of their novels, or writing about the real lives of others. Powerful writing is vivid and textured; I think bringing these qualities to the page require the writer to imagine themselves and the people they write about in sometimes unfamiliar or challenging circumstances.
Observational skills | Social workers are trained not only to gather the stories of their clients, but to make careful observations about them and their environments. The ethical social worker will pay very close attention to detail, and will not make judgements without direct substantiation from their observations. We are taught to recognize patterns of speech and thought; to detect the signs of child abuse and neglect; to pick up on body language and adjust accordingly to help the client feel more at ease. Writers often draw upon real-world observations for inspiration in their work. Even when creating a work of fiction, their descriptions of settings and characters are grounded in qualities they have observed from the world and its varied inhabitants. Writers must draw upon their repertoire of observations to magnify the little details that make a scene feel compelling and more real to a reader.
Curiosity and cross-cultural competence | Despite many of the unfair representations we see of social workers in literature and film, the majority of social work students and practitioners I’ve interacted with approach their work with curiosity and strong cross-cultural competence. We are taught to keep an open mind while interacting with clients, seeing what we can learn from them and their experiences, before we attempt placing them within theoretical frameworks. Further, cross-cultural competence is not taught as a set of facts that you should know about someone from a particular identity, such as their race or ethnicity. Instead, the social worker is taught that cross-cultural competence is deeply grounded in an orientation of respectful curiosity. The social worker must get to know the client to see how they themselves interpret their culture and its significance in their lives. I think writers must be fundamentally curious, and if they ever write about an experience outside of their own, they would benefit from applying cross-cultural competencies in their research process.
Showing up (even when you don’t feel like it) | Some days, or maybe even most days, practicing social work is difficult. The clients that social workers interact with are often at the socioeconomic margins of society. Social workers are constantly confronted by how social injustices play out in the lives of individuals they’ve come to know personally. It can be incredibly tiring to show up for one’s clients everyday, especially when we consider that social workers are people too. They have their own baggage, and they must do their best to check it everyday before coming to work so they can be as available and present as possible for their clients. I am learning that writers, too, have to practice showing up even when they don’t feel like it. There are days when I feel stressed, anxious, tired, and unexcited to put words on a page. But I remind myself to trust in the process, as a social worker trusts in the importance of consistently being there for their clients.
Self-care | Lastly, social workers learn that they must take care of themselves so that they can more sustainably take care of others. Although showing up is important, so is taking time for oneself. I find that writing can be a similarly draining practice as social work. It requires many hours alone in contemplation, and stirs thoughts and ideas that can be difficult to turn off during the day. I am learning that it is critical for writers to also practice self care. This means learning how to quiet the mind, and creating space in one’s life to actually do so. The writer needs a break from constantly seeking inspiration for the next piece, so that they can enjoy the present and come back to their work rejuvenated.
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Any social work readers on the other side of the screen who have additional thoughts about how our training intersects with writing? Or people from other professional backgrounds who see intersections between their own training and writing? I am curious to hear your thoughts!
My MSW cohort, one of the kindest and most curious groups I’ve had the privilege of spending time and learning with!