The Meandering Social Worker

wandering : wondering : learning

Archive for the tag “values”

As Christmas approaches …..

My heart sinks.  It always does as Christmas approaches.  I see the tinsel and trappings appearing in the stores, the job adverts for this year’s Father Christmases, the craft, cookery and home magazines appear with their recipes and ideas for home decorations, and so on.  I know the loan sharks will be rubbing their hands in anticipation of the extra income as poor families struggle to keep up with the false expectations of the happiness they can bring by buying things they can’t afford, and in reality don’t need, just because that is what the media circus is telling them.

When I was first starting out in social work, nearly 20 years ago, I remember a young mum telling me with great excitement that the Provie man had lent her £200 to spend on toys for her young son that Christmas.  My heart sank.  The best I could manage was a wan smile – she was just trying to do the best for her son in the only way she knew how and it was too late to undo the loan.  I knew it would take her all year to pay that back and it would cost her way more than £200 by the end of that year.  And no doubt by then most if not all those toys would have been broken and discarded.

Since then there has been the credit crunch or banking crisis, a world recession and a downward pressure on the poor under current political austerity measures.  With the threat of tax credit cuts still looming (although there might be some shifting on that) the outlook is bleak for whole swathes of society.  Pressure to be jolly and spend hard-earned money on things you can’t afford and don’t need is just as great, but the gloom and doom that follows as the bills stack up along with the extra debts in the new year will be even more crushing.

At the end of the day it is our relationships and our experiences that make us happy, not the stuff in our cupboards.

As a society we have been spun the lie that we need to keep consumerism high in order to keep the manufacturing industries going and the money flowing.  At the time of the 2008 financial collapse the economists were saying ‘we need to get the Chinese to consume more’.  But none of that is true – as this blog explains more fully:  Sure, if we all suddenly stopped buying the latest cheap fashion rip offs, changing our home decor every year because some fashion has changed or because we are enticed by some new decoration we see, if we all turned to the charity shops to replace our furniture, if we all bought fewer clothes but chose instead those of higher quality and wore them for longer, if we worked together and shared as a community more, then there would be an impact on manufacturing industries.  But entrepreneurs will find other ways of making money.  If we all bought less ‘stuff’ we would have more to spend on leisure, art, beauty, travel and the ‘stuff’ we buy would be of better quality, and those who remain employed in manufacturing could be paid more.  This was the vision of the early pioneers of technology: little did they realise then that we would chose instead the path of the materialism.  At the end of the day it is our relationships and our experiences that make us happy, not the stuff in our cupboards.

The poorest communities have always been better at the economies of reduce, re-use, recycle, restore, remake.  We’ve not seen it for generations in the West, although in the poorer Latin American countries this lifestyle is still thriving.  We need to re-learn these values.  We need to be able to teach our children to value what they have.  That’s not to put on them the pressures of adult money worries, but to teach them the lost skill of appreciating the value of things, instead of succumbing to the pressures of advertising, to always be wanting the next new thing.  And we have to model that for them.

And we need to learn these things ourselves so we can encourage those we work with to see through the lies that tell us to buy our way out of unhappiness.

It won’t solve the problems of a ruling elite that appears to have no concept (or care) of the impact of their policies on poorer and middle income earners.  We have to look after ourselves and we have to recognise that if there is to be change it will have to be from the bottom up.  Two recent (and still current) events may well spur that on: the migration crisis as refugees and asylum seekers pour out of war-torn Syria, bringing the reality of their situation to the shores of Europe and the attention of Europeans where it is the less-well off who are the most heart-broken and responsive to the sight of their suffering; and the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader, showing that politics is not necessarily the preserve and interest of the elite.

 

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British values

Since Jeremy Corbyn’s entry into the Labour leadership race there has been a phenomenal rise in interest in politics, which I have been following.  I found this comment on a recent Facebook post that seems to sum up so much of how more and more people seem to be feeling these days.

Lydia Smith Dear Mr Cameron,

My children’s school has asked them to undertake a homework project on what “British Values” means to them. Although I’m happy to support them with their homework, I admit I’m struggling with the concept of “British Values” and what they are supposed to mean.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value our children because they are our future. Yet under this government, 3.6 million children in Britain live in poverty. Mr Cameron, as a direct result of tax and benefit decisions made by your government since 2010, this figure is set to rise to 4.3 million by 2020 (http://www.cpag.org.uk/child-poverty-facts-and-figures). And you have imposed massive cuts on Children’s Centres, which were designed to help lift the poorest children from poverty.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value and protect our environment. Yet, Mr Cameron, you are ignoring local government opposition and forcing fracking upon our country, which poses significant risks to our environment and risks poisoning our water supply. You are also failing to protect Britain’s national parks and protected wildlife habitats from destruction through fracking. You have cut subsidies for renewable energy, but continue to subsidise non-renewable and nuclear energy. What kind of environment can our children expect to inherit?

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we look after the sick, which is why we have a free healthcare system, the NHS. But Mr Cameron, our NHS is now in financial trouble, isn’t it. The NHS has just reported a £930m overspend in the first financial quarter of this year, and we both know that this is as a direct result of the actions this government has taken: short-sighted financial planning and sweeping cuts to the public sector. I find myself wondering how long the NHS, free healthcare, and therefore caring for the sick regardless of ability to pay, will survive under your government.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value our education system. But this year, your government introduced the most severe funding cuts to education in years, which has affected jobs, morale and subject availability. Since Michael Gove was made Education Minister, our government has attacked and undermined the teaching profession, making greater demands upon our teachers while cutting resources and funding. There have been hasty, sweeping changes to the exam system; my daughter worries whether her qualifications will mean anything at all once she leaves school.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, everybody’s right to education is valued. But since you have become Prime Minister, university tuition fees have trebled and you have scrapped maintenance grants for the poorest students. I now find myself wondering whether my children will be able to go to university at all, even if they are bright enough for Higher Education.

I want to tell my children that Britain values human beings over corporate greed. Yet you seem on the verge of signing up to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), which would give enormous power to multinational companies at the expense of consumers and workers.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value disabled people and believe that they too make a valuable contribution to our society. Yet you have practically removed all of Britain’s support structures for disabled people. In fact, because of your government’s violations of the rights of disabled people, Britain is the first country ever to face a high-level international UN inquiry into its breach of disabled people’s rights.

I want to tell my children that it is a British value to offer help and sanctuary to those who have nothing because they are fleeing war or persecution. Yet we are now facing the largest refugee crisis since WW2 and the UK houses just 1% of the world’s refugees. Of 4 million Syrian refugees, just 143 have been resettled to the UK. Furthermore, in 2010, the UK pledged to end child detention for immigration purposes, yet just last year, 40 children under 5 were held at detention centres in the UK. (https://www.refugeecouncil.org.uk/tellitlikeitis)

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value human rights. But your government wants to scrap the Human Rights Act, so your government will be able to overrule the European Court of Human Rights, meaning far less protection for our people from human rights violations in the UK.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value our laws which are designed to protect our people and our environment. Yet one of the first things you did as Prime Minister was remove and weaken many of our existing laws, benefiting business at the expense of individual people and our environment.

I want to tell my children that in Britain, we value freedom of speech and freedom to protest so that when good people make bad decisions, we have the voice and power to speak up against what is happening. Yet what use is freedom of speech when the British government callously ignores even widespread opposition to its decisions? What good is the freedom to protest when you pass laws to silence British trade unions and pressure groups? There is no such thing as freedom of speech or protest when you make people afraid to speak out, Mr Cameron.

I want to tell my children that British Values mean being brave and kind, tolerant and inclusive, caring and sharing, honest and integrous. Yet these are not exclusively British Values, Mr Cameron, and – it must be said – values which are hardly being demonstrated by the current British government. These are values that are intrinsic to being a good person, regardless of nationality. You don’t have to be British to be a good person. The reverse is also true: not all British people are good people, Mr Cameron.

When I asked my young children what British Values meant to them, their response was, “We are brave and kind and honest. We care and share. We look after our world. We care about other people. We look after babies and children, people who are sick, poor people, disabled people and homeless people.”

If even the youngest children in our society understand that these qualities are something British society should aspire towards, why doesn’t the British government?

A society is only as good as the way it treats its weakest and most vulnerable members, Mr Cameron, and I’m very sorry to say that I could not find any examples of my children’s “British Values” in your government. Where do I even begin with the hypocrisy of trying to instil “British Values” into the next generation by a government who fails to lead by example? Perhaps we are trying to teach “British Values” to the wrong people.

Thankfully, bravery and kindness, tolerance and inclusion, caring and sharing, honesty and integrity are being nurtured in the next generation, without the need for these values to be labelled as “British”. Perhaps, Mr Cameron, you should spend more time in British classrooms, in the presence of our children and our teachers – you might actually learn something. Then again, I rather suspect you are beyond redemption.

 

Life Experience counts

An article in Community Care this week highlights the problem of the growth of the importance of academia in social work training and why the lowering of the age of qualification has its drawbacks.  Social work students with ‘life experience’ found it easier to get alongside service users and empathise with their needs better than those who had gone straight from school to college and university.

Clare Evans’ article highlights that you just can’t teach values and experience in an academic environment, often leaving this to be learnt during practice placements.  Practice placements have so much ground to cover in a relatively short space of time they are not the place to have a transformative experience in developing life experience and empathy.

There are undoubtedly some young students who, straight from school and university, have the gifts of compassion and empathy.  But by making it possible to take this path, have we done any favours to the others who are having to take this steep learning curve on the job?  Have we done any favours to the service users and the vulnerable who are the source of such learning?

It’s one of the tragedies of so many of the caring professions, and I’ve seen and experienced it in nursing as well as seeing it in social work, that the rise of the importance of academic achievement blocks so many of those with the genuine empathy and caring skills from taking the professional path.

http://www.communitycare.co.uk/2015/05/26/social-work-students-know-makes-difference-service-users/

 

Respect! as well as responsibility

Respect is a variable.  In some ways it is a right.  But it can be lost and it can be given.  It can be deserved and it can be earned.  It can be directed outwards towards others.  It can be directed inwards towards ourselves.  But one thing is for sure: it seems to be missing in a lot of places, including university campuses.

A new report commissioned by the NUS (National Union of Students) “That’s what she said” has come up with some alarming findings.  And it links in with the anti-blame-the-victim campaigns.  The NUS found that the extent to which “lad” cultures are prevalent in university campuses is detrimental to education and social development.  At the ‘soft’ end, if there can be a soft end, a generous interpretation might liken some of the findings to “Miss World” competitions at best – sexist and about women’s looks and bodies.  Of course, in an environment populated mainly by hormonally maturing young adults it might be reasonable to expect an undercurrent of sexual interest.  But it doesn’t stop there.  The most alarming aspect is a rise in jokes about rape, including one that points out that the under-reporting of rape makes it worth taking the risk.

They might be considered old fashioned values but it’s about time respect and responsibility started getting a better press.  If there was more respect for others as well as ourselves there might be less victims of crime (sexual or otherwise).  And there might be less need for police and social workers.

How poor is poverty?

In a world where poverty is measured in terms of material wealth, I have found myself asking myself this question again and again in recent years.

I think of the man living alone, in England, in a one bedroom flat with no more than a table, chair, bed and a few kitchen utensils to his name, yet with regular social gatherings with friends he can rely on he describes himself as completely content and wanting for nothing.

I think of the Andean mountain village community in Ecuador who struggle to raise the $2 per child charged by the school to provide their children with a bag of sweets and biscuits on the last day of term before Christmas, the only Christmas present those children will receive. The children make no complaint, they are no different from their peers. They live a life of daily adventure, exploring their environment, taking risks European parents would quail at, getting all the attention they need and want from their parents and extended families, with no shortage of food or clothing. Just no Christmas presents. To all intents and purposes theirs is a life of poverty, and even though they know they don’t have money to spare they only recognise themselves as poor when someone draws it to their attention.

I think too of the Mongolian nomadic people who could lose their whole livelihood when a harsh winter follows a dry summer, a combination that can kill off all their livestock. A harsh life that can be seen in their eyes, in a climate where the relatively rich (in livestock) can be brought into utter deprivation due to the circumstances of their climate. For this reason many have moved into the capital city where there is only a little evidence of wealth in a country that is innately poor.

One quartz miner's makeshift home.

One quartz miner’s makeshift home.

And then I see the home of a quartz miner in the mountainous deserts of Namibia: an old North American pick-up dragged high into the mountains, its wheels long gone, the interior seating beyond sagging; a mattress laid out in the flat bed of the rear of the truck, tent canvas spread out to cover the mattress and an area beyond that servers as a kitchen and eating area. A home has been constructed here. Inside it is clean and tidy. Nearby is a pit toilet, dug into the ground with three walls and a door for privacy, but no roof – a roof is hardly needed in a country where there is no rain. A huge water cistern stands on a trailer nearby. There is so much apparent hardship in this life, living conditions that some have described as appalling. The ground is barren, no food will grow here. When they have enough quartz to trade the miners drive into the nearby town, like the pioneers and gold diggers of the American West, their route worn as tracks through the rocky landscape, where they trade gemstones for money, food and water. How much choice do they have about their lifestyle? To me it seems hard and lonely – the miners are all men and most if not all seem to live alone in this barren land. It’s not a lifestyle I would choose but what would they say if we were able to ask them about living in poverty? Would they consider their lifestyles as deplorable as we might in the West?  They work hard and their basic needs for food and shelter are met.

As one of the last remaining traditional African tribes, the bare-breasted Himba women who live in the wilderness areas of Namibia’s Kaokoland trade posting for photos in exchange for basic foodstuffs such as sugar, salt and rice. Or at least those who live near the more well-used roads do. Those who live deeper into the wilderness know more the suffering of hunger, when the rivers rise and close the roads during the wet season, preventing the tourists, the people who pay for their photos with packets of food, from driving the flooded roads. The land is all but barren, crops are scarce. Some of the Himba have chosen to abandon their traditional lifestyle, moving instead into towns and villages, often selling the jewellery and crafts for which their people are known. Such transitioning is hard but that is no doubt better than experiencing the pain that can be seen in the eyes of the women when they look at their flaccid breasts that are not making enough milk to feed their babies as they beg you to take their photo so you will give them food.

How poor is poverty?  I make my own judgements on these situations, based on my own experience of living in a relatively wealthy country, although I am by no means relatively wealthy within that country.   What I see is that poverty and wealth come in many guises but, materially speaking, sometimes even the relatively poor can seem relatively rich, while sometimes the relatively rich are also insanely rich, in a world where material wealth often doesn’t bring emotional happiness or spiritual contentment but where severe poverty destroys lives and human potential.

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