Linda Gast is an independent trainer and consultant in the social care and criminal justice fields. She provides training on diversity, equal opportunities, gender issues and working with hate crime offenders. Anne Patmore is an independent social worker, trainer and practice assessor. She has worked in child and family social work and trains on various topics including equality and diversity, safeguarding children, and working with disabled children.

In this interview, Linda and Anne discuss their new book, Mastering Approaches to Diversity in Social Work, which looks at a range of diversity issues in social work practice and includes a model for understanding discrimination.

Diversity is one of the nine overarching competences for social workers in the Professional Capabilities Framework for Social Workers in England. Why is this such a cornerstone in social work practice?

Linda: Everyone we deal with in social work requires us to think about difference; be it the culture of the different organisations with whom we work, the personal preferences of our colleagues or the socio-cultural aspects of our service users’ lives. We all have biases which incline us to see the world from a particular perspective, so to work effectively with diversity we need to understand ourselves, recognise our biases and work constructively to overcome these.

Anne: Understanding ourselves and the people we work with, both service users and colleagues, is crucial if we are to be effective as social workers. In our day to day interactions we are required to understand and work with a wide range of differences and the importance of being able to do this effectively is why diversity is the cornerstone of professional capabilities frameworks for social workers in England, Scotland and internationally.

This book is one of the first (alongside Jane Wonnacott’s book, Mastering Supervision in Social Work Practice) to feature in the brand new JKP series, “Mastering Skills in Social Work.” Can you tell us a bit about the need that these books aim to meet, and the approach you have taken to writing it?

Linda: After social workers have qualified they find it hard to keep focused on reflection and development as they are very busy learning the job and managing the considerable workload. This series tries to provide stimulating ideas in a succinct manner and sufficiently closely related to everyday practice where learning takes place.

Diversity is addressed very fully during the social work training programme, but as we move into being experienced practitioners we can become “unconsciously competent” so we start to take our knowledge for granted. It is possible to become complacent and drift into less thoughtful practice. The series overall seeks to remind practitioners and managers of the level of “conscious competence” where practice is thoughtful, learning is continued and self-exploration is actively pursued.

Anne: We set out to provide a straightforward, accessible and thought provoking resource to assist busy social work practitioners and managers make sense of their day-to-day professional experiences. Through our daily interactions with a wide range of practitioners at all levels of social work, we recognise the challenge of keeping abreast of current thinking and debates, particularly given the pressures they are experiencing in the current climate. With this in mind we have explored a range of different approaches and made links to practice across a range of settings, as well as including tools to enable the reader to reflect on and develop their practice and confidence.

You regularly train social workers on this subject. Do you find that trainees feel confident talking about diversity?

Linda: On the whole newly qualified social workers are not very confident in talking about diversity. It is an area that receives considerable attention during training, but there is often a sense that there is a ‘right answer’ and people are frightened of speaking for fear of getting it wrong. Most people do not want to offend anyone else, so become self-monitoring and wary of the subject. It is only in a spirit of learning – where we can all get things wrong on occasion, and need others to be able to point things out and explain why particular words, phrases or behaviours are not acceptable to them – that we are then able to modify our own behaviours.

Anne: In my experience of working with student social workers and those undertaking post-qualifying awards, there is a tendency to think ‘race, culture, religion’ when asked about diversity. Recognising the importance of other aspects of difference may be more of a struggle for people, and takes more teasing out. There can also be a feeling that ‘it will take too long’ to explore and address all areas of difference, and yet in reality doing so effectively from the outset actually makes better use of precious social work time.

What are the most common issues that social workers flag as problematic?

Linda: Race is still the issue that raises the most concerns, but much of this is about finding the right language to be able to talk about skin colour, culture, and difference. More recently race has become confused with religion with a media antagonism to “Muslim terrorists”, and the suggestion of a very close co-relationship between the two words, such that anyone who looks like they come from South East Asia is (a) assumed to be a Muslim, and (b) assumed to be a terrorist! Rationally we know that is not the case but, particularly after incidents like the London bombings, emotions can take over. Being able to talk openly about reactions that we have, which we certainly aren’t proud of, is more honest and beneficial than trying to pretend that these reactions don’t exist.

Anne: Much of my training is around aspects of working with disabled children and their families, and so for me disability is usually the main area for discussion, often alongside race, culture and religion. As Linda says, there remains for many people a fear of ‘getting it wrong’ and causing unintentional offence, which can hamper the debate. Accepting that it’s OK to get it wrong as long as we learn from and correct our mistakes, and freeing people up for discussion and exploration of issues has got to be the best way of moving forward in my view.

This book takes a very broad definition of diversity considering ‘difference’ in all its forms, and you’ve avoided using common terms such as ‘anti-oppressive’ or ‘anti-discriminatory’ practice. Can you tell us more about the approach you put forward in the book?

Linda: Anti-discriminatory practice is the legal basis for all social work. Similarly anti-oppressive practice should be an underpinning principle for all work with others. However they are both a stance ‘against’ either treating different groups of people less favourably, or exerting inappropriate power over people. This book tries to explore the positive aspects of each person being different, with a different set of personal preferences, prejudices and opinions. As long as we are aware of the biases which we hold, we can take other people’s behaviours as ‘reasonable’ by understanding the different preferences that they might have and their different perspectives on the world. It avoids putting things down to personality difficulties, and the more explicit we are about our approaches to the world, the more we can harness the benefits of these differences.

Anne: As you say these terms are both in common usage, although in my experience they are often used interchangeably, sometimes with little real comprehension of the meaning of either. As Linda says, in the book we have aimed for a positive approach, based on respect for those we work with, in the hope that it will widen the debate.

The book is very readable and practical, combining relevant theory with a number of different models and tools for practice. Can you tell us about some of the models that feature?

Linda: Some of the models are well tried and tested, such as the Kolb learning cycle as developed into learning theory by Honey and Mumford and used as the basis for the reflective practice cycle developed by Tony Morrison. The Myers-Briggs Type Indicators based on Jungian psychology is also used quite widely, but we are not sure that it has been considered seriously in working with service users.

Other models are less well-known and one developed by Conroy Grizzle has been taught to hundreds of practitioners but has never been published. This model provides an understanding of the different meanings that can be attached to a diversity issue word, such as ‘racism’, such that different people mean different things by it and it becomes a source of antagonism and dispute. By appreciating that there are different meanings it is easier to begin a discussion about what each person means by their use of the word.

Anne: We’ve intentionally drawn on a variety of theories and models, including some which have previously been used more in human resource settings than in social care. We are hoping this will encourage practitioners to be more creative in their use of models and tools for practice. It’s not a case of ‘throwing out the old’, but more ‘if it’s out there and helpful, then why not try it and see if it works for you?’

How have attitudes to diversity changed since you started your own careers in social work and criminal justice?

Linda: When we started in social work, diversity was firmly considered from an anti-discriminatory, anti-oppressive viewpoint, and it had the feeling that if you were white, male, heterosexual and able-bodied, YOU were part of the problem. A lot of the training at that time induced guilt but was not very helpful in encouraging best practice through open exploration of the subjects of difference.

Since then diversity has come and gone from the political agenda, with more or less focus on it in day-to-day practice. It tends to oscillate between being a subject of great importance and one that is a distraction from doing the day-to-day job. Hopefully at the moment we are so focused on best possible practice that consideration of ‘all the ways in which we differ’ is intrinsic to good practice.

Anne: I totally agree. What has been really heartening over recent years is people’s willingness to explore and engage in debates about diversity, recognising that in doing so they are more likely to make positive and purposeful relationships with service users and colleagues. This is firmly on the current agenda in social work and will hopefully remain so!

Finally, what do you hope the reader will take away from this book?

Linda: As with all of our training courses what we hope people will take away is a ‘can-do’ approach. We seek to engender a sense that it is possible for all practitioners to move from their knowledge base into their practice base, and feel that they can move on confidently into discussing and exploring all issues of diversity with their practice supervisors, colleagues and service users.

Anne: Social work continues to be an incredibly challenging profession, but it is one that offers endless possibilities for learning and development. My hope for the book is that it will excite and energise those who read it, provide them with fresh insight and ideas, and renew their enthusiasm for this complex and rewarding task.

Copyright © Jessica Kingsley Publishers 2012.

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