I never knew what a social worker was until I needed one. Growing up in Nigeria, whether it was because they didn’t exist or more likely, just weren’t recognised, the concept of a social worker was alien to me. The idea of someone who specialised in improving/maintaining the welfare of vulnerable people didn’t seem like a realistic profession. Providing medical care, of course. Providing legal services, shop. Policing crime, definitely. But welfare overall? My young mind couldn’t fathom how a person could do that as a career let alone make a living from it. As far as I was concerned, the idea of “welfare” had to be broken down into chunks and addressed individually by a plethora of people. Parents and family doing most of the heavy lifting in a person’s childhood but still assisted by doctors, teachers, neighbours, laws, etc… and many more who never really cease their role but increase or decrease their involvement depending on the primary person’s stage in life and overall circumstances. This was clearly a reflection of my very limited understanding of the world because of my own sheltered and fortunate upbringing. I was lucky.
I wasn’t necessarily wrong. In an ideal world social workers wouldn’t be needed, and neither would most of the professions I mention or allude to. But our world has never been even remotely close to ideal, never have been and probably never will. Even my own childhood wasn’t as problem-free as I thought going up. Most people don’t have loving parents, financial stability, an immediate environment with all well-meaning people, fully functioning infrastructure and societal checks & balances to ensure the need for social workers is non-existent. Even I didn’t, but the aspects of these I did have worked more than well enough to shelter me from any I didn’t. Again, not everyone is so lucky. The real world is a lot more unforgiving and unfair. And for every one of the above a person may lack in life, there are vulnerable people with no means to make up the difference. This is where social workers come in.
For every obstacle I had faced the first 2 decades of my life, there was something or someone else in my life who could help me get through it. And then I hit a bump that nothing and no one had prepared me for – disability. Since then, social workers have served me as a compass when I was lost, motivation when I was down, lights when I couldn’t see a way forward and even on occasion, a literal pair of hands when I couldn’t use mine. I know these are vague metaphors for how social workers help me. But they are also a very accurate description of things I had had access to in order to get through life until one day, I didn’t. Plus, the point here is not the specific things social work is have done for me in my life but the types of things they do for so many people with so many run vulnerabilities every single day.
By the very nature of the profession, social workers exist to help stop, manage or even prevent problems (Not unlike many other professions that exist today). As such, if they are involved, there is already a problem in the picture, either already in play or on its way. And the responsibility of addressing said problem falls on their shoulders, be it wholly or partially. But ironically, social work is one of a select few roles that even though very important, will go almost entirely unnoticed when done well. A social worker doesn’t give people superpowers and riches but brings standards of living to a “normal” level. Unfortunately, this means you’re more likely to hear about social workers when their involvement in something that’s gone quite wrong. They aren’t as celebrated as a lot of other professions that are just as important.
Now I am by no means saying all social workers are victims or need to be revered as modern-day heroes. I’m not saying a lot of the criticisms and “bad press” for and around social work aren’t warranted. I know fine well there are, have been and will be failings across social work. But the profession could definitely be a little more appreciated. And they aren’t the only professionals that are underappreciated, but with the start of Social Work Week 2022 and World Social Work Day coming up tomorrow, March 15th, I thought I’d devote a few words to one of the many professions responsible for saving my life.
So, I went from not really knowing who social workers were to very quickly learning to appreciate their role in a world that has always marginalised different groups of vulnerable people in different ways, at different times in our history. My understanding of what a social worker is is constantly evolving as my needs change and I’m exposed to the many varying needs of others. So what does social work mean to me? Well, at least for today…
…A social worker is a compass when I am lost, motivation when I am down, light when I can’t see a way forward, on occasion a literal pair of hands when I cannot use mine and so much more I am yet to discover.
I have spent more than a decade to date receiving social work services and working alongside social workers to improve the services received by others. Take it from me, we are ALL better off with social work in existence than without. Or better yet, find out for yourself. In fact, tomorrow, on International Social Work Day, do me one favour. Learn something new about the work that social workers do. Don’t do what I did and learn as I received the service. Like with everything else in life, educate yourself even if only a little. You will likely find something you like, something you absolutely do not like or even some way you can help. But I guarantee you’ll find something interesting.
Check out any of these and see how deep the rabbit hole goes: