Reposted from Collapse Psychology

I’m learning to be a social worker, in a time when the system is falling apart.  Halfway through my second year of a Masters of Social Work program, the COVID-19 global pandemic hit the United States, sending classes online from K-graduate level. After over a month of stay at home orders, most nonessential businesses, social services, and schools have been shut down or gone online. We are no longer allowed to dine in restaurants; gyms, bars, and national parks have been closed indefinitely. For my daughter and me, going to the grocery store is now a panic inducing affair.

Most of us are still uncertain of what the future will hold for work, school, and life as we know it. As I study to become a social worker, I find myself questioning what this profession will look like post-COVID. It is a surreal time to enter the field, as most agencies are unclear on how to best serve clients from a distance or help process the collective trauma of experiencing a pandemic (particularly for people who are under-resourced and oppressed). Through this period of quarantine, I am seeing social workers struggling to access clients and assess their safety. The institution of social work, much like the rest of our society, may be collapsing (or collapsed), and as I am sitting in my fourth Zoom call of the day, I am aware of the immediate need to re-vision our approach and practice as social workers.

Even before COVID-19, I was overwhelmed by our world, recognizing that we are experiencing the collapse of our social, economic, political, cultural, and environmental systems. Through this pandemic it has only become more clear. The normalcy of the disease, the masses anesthetized on media and tech. Poverty and oppression. Global capitalism. The divide of power; I can’t NOT see it now, in our media, advertisements, schools, and politics. In our streets. Mass surveillance. Mass incarceration. Mass fear. A failing healthcare system. 5G. Pipelines. Oil spills. The earth digesting our toxic civilization and starting now to spit back our own poisonous storm. The wildfires, floods, droughts. The list goes on. It’s a world of our own making. It’s intense, and at the end of the day, everyone is too exhausted to care. Myself included.

A nagging voice in my head whines that social work is still just a bandaid for capitalism, a good show on the part of the elite that the poor and marginalized are being attended, while profits continue to surge. I haven’t seen many licensed social workers leading revolutions, though they may understand better than most the need for one. The NASW Code of Ethics, however honorable, is rooted in a commitment to a failing paradigm. Social workers promote justice, human rights, and healing, but remain compliant to the system we know oppresses and divides us. For most of us who aren’t the 1%, this is not by choice; social workers are good people doing their best to help in a time when bureaucracy dictates the limits of helping.

I’m learning the limits of social work agencies, the rules and policy that dictate the rights of “service users”, often sending people through a dehumanizing labyrinth of rules and requirements to get assistance. Our county has received over $80,000 to provide food and resources to the unhoused population, and yet reports from within the community say some of the food has made them sick, there is no water in the hand washing stations, porta potties are overfull, and there has been profiling and surveillance by police.

As COVID-19 is teaching us now, our systems are shaky, and don’t have the capacity to provide for everyone. It is a system we are outgrowing (or perhaps was never suited to us). Issues like global pandemics may not go away, however hard we may wish for that quality of normalcy and comfort to return. COVID-19 is going to have lasting social, economic, and cultural impacts in the United States. Currently we are facing a worldwide double recession, potentially worse than the Great Depression. It seems likely that budgets for social services will be cut, and the limits placed on us as social workers, managing cases, will continue to increase. In the face of so many changes and governmental restrictions, how can we keep social work practice humane? Can it be humane and address the real needs of our people and communities?

Collapse is happening to all of us, but it will impact us disproportionately. Right now we are seeing how Black, Indigenous, and Hispanic communities have disproportionately high rates of COVID-19. Communities of color, the unhoused population, the mentally ill, and other oppressed groups will continue to carry the heaviest burden of collapsing systems.  I feel the urgency for social workers to become more active in dismantling old paradigms and building networks informed by the needs of the land and people on it. This can look many different ways. Envisioning healthcare for everyone. Protecting natural resources and species. Thinking smaller, more local. Challenging how dominant culture and white supremacy have shaped traditional models of western psychology and social work. Educating our communities on the history of indigenous peoples, intergenerational trauma, and the impacts of white settler colonialism. Deconstructing academia to make education more accessible. Growing food.

Changing times are calling for more radical approaches to social work. COVID-19 is teaching us that resilient social networks are local. After the pandemic broke out in my community, opportunities for resource sharing and communication opened up. Mutual aid support networks emerged, where neighbors post what they need help with, and what they have to offer. I am seeing brilliance, generosity, and creativity. BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) backyard garden projects. Mask making and distribution. Bed and breakfasts converted into shelters. Meals for the unhoused. Most of these organizers are not “social workers,” but perhaps this is an indication of the direction social work should be going.

I’m noticing that social workers and activists are often providing services for the same groups, but there is a gap. Can social work agencies stay informed by local organizers, BIPOC communities, and activists to create cohesive support structures within the community? In a halted economy, people are going back home. The impetus for consumption has waned- our circles have grown smaller. We are holding tight to what is most important. Radical social work is needed, now more than ever, to reinvent our world and build a future of possibility.

We exist in the context of our planet’s ability to sustain life and we need each other. As climate continues to change dramatically, we must learn how to change with it. Radical approaches to social work means inviting the principles of regeneration into our practice, taking care of people and the earth. The future of social work may be in our reconnection to the land in our service practice, in our therapy, in our organizing. Our role as social workers may be shifting toward managing local resources; creating movements for local advocacy efforts to develop community gardens, food hubs, safe houses, and provide education and therapy. We can help build communal infrastructure that is connective, supportive, and just.

As collapse unfolds, personal and collective grief become more entwined. The use of community ritual in social work practice brings intention into the ways we tend to each other. Grief ritual can support the shared experiences of challenge, fear, despair, emptiness, outrage, and loss that result from collapse. Art and earth-based therapies also nourish community healing, providing voice, vision, and ground in building transformative culture. How can this be woven into the fabric of our social work?

Liberation is a beautiful and terrifying idea that requires us to let go of everything we’ve known. The future of social work depends on our connection to the earth, our ability to imagine a code of ethics that is ever responsive to the needs of the community, that values the human before the client, that is ever in question of who it is serving and what for. In my pursuit to be a MSW, I’m recognizing that the revolution isn’t something we as social workers are going to start. I’m realizing the revolution isn’t some far off grand event. The revolution is already happening to us.

This confusion I’m feeling, the overwhelm, disorientation, isn’t going away. I keep hearing the same echoes of uncertainty, fear, and dread among my colleagues and friends.

I have far more questions than answers about how to enter the field as a social worker in a post-COVID world, but this is where I’m starting:

  1. Laying on the earth.

  2. Supporting and plugging into mutual aid networks in my community; connecting fellow social workers with local activists who are advocating and organizing for marginalized groups.

  3. Giving myself permission to fall apart regularly. Learning how grief moves through the body. Holding regular spaces for community grief ritual and emotional processing.

  4. Making Art.

  5. Growing food and supporting local food projects, seed banks, community food hubs, BIPOC farms, and gardens.

  6. Acknowledging personal, collective, and intergenerational trauma, understanding that we are all going to have our own responses to collapse.

  7. Asking for help. I’m realizing, despite what neoliberal individualist ideals have taught me, I can’t do this alone. Interdependence is needed now, more than ever.

  8. Slowing down: capitalism would have us believe we need to be productive all the time, but collapse is reminding us what is most important.

  9. Talking with kids. Listening to kids. Playing with kids.

  10. Composting my cynicism- allowing for the feelings of defeat and overwhelm to come and go (as best I can some days). Imagining futures.

In this next iteration of social work change, it will be how we choose to respond in crisis, and more importantly, after a crisis, when the hope of normalcy can easily become a tool for oppressive systems to regain control. Collapse will continue to teach us about the intricate web of this planet, our connection to it and to each other. As social workers, it looks like our job is going to get harder.

If we want to be of service in these times, we are going to have to do better than academic theories and models of assessment. We will have choices to make about how we want to serve the people in our communities, and what we advocate for within our agencies and clinical practice. We are going to have to be honest with ourselves, and begin re-orienting now towards what will sustain humanity through the changes to come.

I’m learning to be a social worker in collapse, in a time when it feels as though social work itself is dying. As I look closer however, I see it is very much alive; mutating, churning in a state of adaptation, like the fractaled inside of a seashell spiraling outward from the center. And I realize, that is the place where change comes. There is no plan or map, and I expect it won’t be easy or comfortable as we move forward. But there, in the center, I see our very human desire to help each other; I can see a new emergence, a vitality, and direction for the future of our work together.


About the Author:

Desiree Coutinho, MSW (candidate) she/her/hers

Desiree is completing her Master’s in social work through Portland State University. She’s focusing on social justice and collapse awareness within the context of social work. She is a spoken word poet, mother, and group facilitator.