Special Articles / Bala Raju Nikku / Community Work : Theories, Experiences & Challenges
Recognising the global, regional and local forces that are influencing communities, this chapter, based on the author’s experience as a social work educator and community practitioner in the region, aims to discuss the nature and challenges for community work and its relationship to social work. Two central questions raised are: 1. How to organise South Asian communities that are negatively impacted by local and global social policies and practices, internal conflicts and weak governance systems? 2. How to introduce students of Social Work to the philosophical, political, and sociological theories that inform community organising and advocacy?
The chapter concludes that social work educators specialising in Community Work will have to (un)learn and refocus their teaching strategies to engage with these processes, and revise and re-interpret social work curricula and teaching methodologies. When this happens, it helps students who are interested in Community Work within broader Social Work to move further from a micro to a macro perspective with further proactive self-engagement and involvement in ensuring social, economic, cultural and political rights of community members that they work with and a life with worth and dignity.
Key words: Community Work, Social Work, South Asia, Engagement, Teaching, Communities, Community Organisation
Four important processes have changed the definition, nature and structure of communities and hence community organising in South Asia in the last three decades. Firstly, many countries in this region have gone through a series of internal conflicts and transitions and hence have struggled with institutionalising the building of human rights and democracy. Secondly, increased global influence to implement structural adjustment programs has resulted in weak social policies, causing further exclusion and deprivation of the communities. Thirdly, access to information communication technologies (ICT), social networking tools and mobility has benefited a few, but has also resulted in a digital divide that has further alienated some communities and lessened cohesion at large. Fourthly, involvement of social workers in organising communities in opposition to atrocities, exclusion and against forms of dominance is also evident in almost all countries of South Asia. At the same time, the history of social work education, praxis and professional recognition in this region is different, diverse, but also disjointed. This context provides immense challenges in teaching and the practice of community organisation in the region.
Recognising the global, regional and local forces that are influencing communities and community work/ organisation, this chapter, based on interviews with social work educators from the region and the author’s experience and self-reflection as a social work educator and in community practice in the South Asia region (particularly in India and Nepal), aims to discuss the nature and challenges for teaching and practising community organisation in the region and its relationship to social work.
To meet these aims, two main questions that this chapter tries to answer are: 1. How are communities in South Asia organised to address the unhelpful impacts by local and global policies and practices? and 2. What are the challenges of teaching Community Organisation? In other words, how best to introduce students of social work to the philosophical, political, and sociological theories that inform community organising and advocacy?
This chapter is divided into five sections. After an introductory section, section two presents how and why communities in South Asia are organised. Teaching community organisation in South Asia is discussed in section three. A detailed discussion is presented on teaching community organisations at the Nepal School of Social Work as an in-depth case in section four. Section five concludes the chapter.
Community, Community Organising and Social Work
The term ‘community’ means different things to different people. Almost a century ago, MacIver (1882-1970), a distinguished Scottish-American sociologist, defines a community as needing not only a geographical identity but rather being a matter of spirit and interrelationship. He further defines community as ‘an area of common life’ (1917, 1935, pp. 21, 151). Are these ideas relevant or have the changed local and global contexts led to further confusions in defining the nature, scope and structure of a ‘community’ as the boundaries are blurring? Hence community organising is a means of bringing people together to address problematic social conditions.
Cohen (1985) defines community as a system of norms, values, and moral codes that provide a sense of identity for members. Fellin (2001) describes a community as a group of people who form a social unit based on common location (e.g., city or neighbourhood), interest and identification (e.g., ethnicity, culture, social class, occupation, or age) or some combination of these characteristics.
Like the term ‘community’ the term ‘community organisation’ (CO) has several meanings. It is often being used synonymously to community work, community development, community action and community mobilisation. Ross describes community organisation as a process by which a community identifies its needs or objectives, gives priority to them, develops confidence and will to work at them, finds resources (internal and external) to deal with them, and in doing so, extends and develops cooperative and collaborative attitudes and practices in the community (Ross, 1958; 1967).
The goals of community organising, particularly neighbourhood-based organising, vary, but generally include forming groups; bringing about social justice; obtaining, maintaining or restructuring power; developing alternative institutions; and maintaining or revitalising neighbourhoods (Fisher, 1994).
Scholars have also argued that Community Organisation is long-standing practices that predate community development, grounding a tradition for social workers that predate even the settlement house movement (Ross with Lappin, 1967). Stuart argued that the creation of Charity Organization Societies (COS) and Settlement Houses were the result of community organisation effort (Stuart, 2011). He further stated:
Community organization in social work . . . is widely used for a category of positions held by professional social workers in the social welfare field ... Social workers engaged primarily in ‘community organization’ are also to be found occupying a special staff role in medical and psychiatric agencies that give direct service. The distinguishing feature of all these positions is that they are primarily concerned with maintaining and developing the programs and standards of welfare agencies and services rather than directly helping individuals and groups. (Stuart, 2011, p. 424)
According to Chambers (who worked with Saul Alinsky), community organising is distinguishable from ‘activism’. Activists engage in social protest without a coherent strategy for building power or for making specific social changes. Similarly, when people ‘mobilise’, they get together to effect a specific social change, but have no long-term plan. When the particular campaign that mobilised them is over, these groups dissolve and durable power is not built (Chambers, 2003).
Community goals are rarely accomplished in the absence of a coherent strategy and a target, a process for maintaining a fight over an extended period of time, and an institutional structure for holding people together and mobilising large numbers. Unlike activism, community organising consists of a coherent strategy, targeted sustained interactions, and intensive and durable power is built. Community organising creates durable institutions to give relatively powerless individuals a collective voice. In brief, the process of building a ‘mobilisable community’ is called community organising (Alinsky, 1971). It involves the ‘craft’ of building an enduring network of people, who identify with common ideals and who can act on the basis of those ideals. In practice, it is much more than micro mobilisation or framing strategy (Snow et al., 1986).
Like social work, community organising has also a long, moral, and, at times, controversial tradition. Definitions, pronouncements and descriptions of social work consist of a combination of what authors understand to be the actual content of social work and what they think it should be, based on their judgment, theories and opinions. Even when we try to decide what social work is, these ideas come into the picture: social work as it appears, real-life demands on social workers and so on, and what we think social work should be (Ronnby, 1990).
Community organisers have contributed to the growth of social work. The development of the public assistance provisions of the 1935 Social Security Act in the USA created a great demand for personnel to administer social welfare programs. Knowledge of the method of community organisation became important for social workers in the field of public assistance (Reid, 1981):
Community organizing within social work has contributed its knowledge, skills, and leaders to these causes, and also has its own tradition. The early social workers were leaders in the social reform struggles of their day and also helped build community institutions, such as settlement houses and social services to meet people’s needs. While community organizers have always been a minority in number within the social work profession, their impact has been significantly felt. Beginning with Jane Addams who founded one of the first settlement houses in Chicago (Hull House), they have been among the leaders of the movements for social security, labor reform, and health care, as well as shapers of the social programs in the 1960s and 1970s through the Economic Opportunity Act, Model Cities, Community Block Grants, and a myriad of other social service initiatives. (Mizrahi, 1993)
By the end of the 20th century we have seen the birth of professional associations for the study and promotion of community organisation. The Association for Community Organization and Social Administration (ACOSA) was formed in 1987 to strengthen community organisation and social administration. Another professional association named the Association of Macro Practice Social Workers (AMPSW) was organised in 2006. The presence and functioning of these professional associations suggests that community organisation has evolved into a distinct professional practice in its own right within the broader social work realm. Despite these developments within community organisation, feminist scholars have critiqued that:
Despite a rich and proud heritage of female organizers and movement leaders, the field of community organization, in both its teaching models and its major exponents, has been a male-dominated preserve, where, even though values are expressed in terms of participatory democracy, much of the focus within the dominant practice methods has been non-supportive or antithetical to feminism. Strategies have largely been based on ‘macho-power’ models, manipulativeness, and zero-sum gamesmanship. (Weil, 1986, p. 192)
Why and How are Communities Organised in South Asia?
South Asia is a diverse region with countries like Nepal and Sri Lanka in transition and struggling with post-conflict issues. Out of eight countries of South Asia (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan, India, Maldives, Nepal, Pakistan, Sri Lanka) three countries are land-locked (Nepal, Afghanistan and Bhutan) and four are declared as included (Afghanistan, Bangladesh, Bhutan and Nepal) as the least developed countries (LDCs).
There are many social, political, economic and ecological causes for which communities are organised in the South Asian Region: against lack of basic minimum public amenities, lack of sewerage in poor neighbourhoods, the need to support public schools, and affordable housing, to conserve rainwater, to name just a few.
Community Organising for Environmental Rights
Communities in the South Asia region have been organised to protect their environmental and conservation rights. An important case is the Plachimada struggle. Coca-Cola, a multinational company based in the USA, has the largest soft drink bottling facilities in India. In 1950, Coca-Cola initially opened bottling plants in New Delhi and, by 1973, they operated twenty-two bottling plants in thirteen states in India. Coca-Cola re-entered India in 1993 following the opening up of the Indian economy to foreign investments in 1991 (Wramner, 2004). In a number of districts of India, Coca-Cola and its subsidiaries are accused of creating severe water shortages for the community by extracting large quantities of water for their factories, affecting both the quantity and quality of water. There have been numerous public protests against The Coca-Cola Company’s operations, involving thousands of Indian citizens and several non-governmental organisations. Protests against the Coca-Cola factories have taken place in a number of districts including: Mehdiganj, near the holy city of Varanasi; Kala Dera, near Jaipur, state of Rajastan; Thane district in Maharashtra; and Sivaganga in Tamil Nadu state. The protests by villagers from Plachimada have shown the strength of community-led activities, even against this global multinational company. The bottling plant opened in 1998 finally closed down in 2004 owing to the community’s continued protests and legal activism (see Cockburn 2005; Shiva, 2008). The Plachimada Coca-Cola Victims’ Relief and Compensation Claims Special Tribunal Bill 2011 was passed by the Kerala Assembly in 2011 to help the victims of Plachimada in Kerala’s Palakkad district who had alleged that the Coca-Cola plant had dried up their wells. The bill is still pending with the President of India for approval.
Nepal’s Community Forestry: From Pilot to Policy
In Nepal a system of forest administration barely existed until the 1950s (Mahat et al., 1986). Forest Acts of 1961 and 1967 reinforced forestry administration and the government’s reluctance to part with ownership of and authority over forests with local communities. Changes in Nepal’s forest legislation began as a result of a national forestry conference held in Kathmandu in 1975. Creation of the 1976 National Forestry Plan reinforced the rights of local users and offered legal provisions for handing over limited areas of government land to village councils (panchayats) with technical assistance provided by the Forest Department. By the mid-1980s it became apparent that if local institutions for forest management were legally formed, then resources would also be properly managed. A central component of this approach to organise forest communities has been the development of a user-group based on seeking consensus through dialogue and informal exchanges, and by increasing informed understandings about resource-related activities and possibilities (Shrestha & Gronow, 1992). Forest users are identified – including primary, secondary and tertiary users – and initially informed about their legislative rights and responsibilities, so that they are in a better position to decide whether they want to be user-group members. Agreements are reached by consensus. However, in many cases the local powerful and elites have dominated the decision-making. As a result of this power elite and a host of other factors, community forestry user-group performance has been uneven across the country. In some cases it has become ‘committee forestry’ rather than ‘community forestry’. In addition to these issues, marginalisation of women, scheduled caste groups, and the poor, and a lack of knowledge about legislative and forest-users’ rights remain much too prevalent (Shrestha, Kafle, & Britt, 1997).
Efforts were made by donor representatives, local nongovernmental community workers and some forest department front-line workers to organise and unite communities around forests as a source of their livelihood. This led to increased consensus, income-generation models and enhanced forest-user networks as platforms for communicating new ideas, disseminating information, sharing productive material, and collectively voicing concerns about resource-related policies and activities. While it is apparent that some inequities remain, forest-user exchanges are creating new pathways for collective community organising, seeking accountability, gaining access to forestry officials and politicians, and influencing policy (Ojha et al., 1999).
Challenges in Community Organising
The two brief case studies presented above confirm that organising communities against ecological and environmental causes is challenging, time-consuming and process-oriented. Community organising seeks to unite previously unorganised people into effective groups and coalitions that work together in pursuit of a shared social agenda and goals.
The women of Plachimada were forced to trek long distances for water – something they eventually learnt was a result of the Coca-Cola plant that was drawing sub-surface water from huge wells sunk into the factory premises. This realisation brought them together and united them to fight against the multinational corporation. In the process they brought different kinds of pressures on the multinational company. This case study reinforces Rothman’s (2007) conceptualisation of the social advocacy approach of community intervention. Social advocacy in its predominant mode ‘relies on pressure as the core instrument of change with the aim of benefiting the poor, the disadvantaged, the disenfranchised and the oppressed (Rothman, 2007, p. 28).
The case of Nepal’s community forestry shows that community members are aware of their roles and take ownership of the process. Bureaucracy, red tape and politics act as crucial hurdles that communities need to know how to challenge, using legal mechanisms to argue their points of view. While organising the community, the social worker must be able to distinguish this organisation from ‘activism’.
So how to teach community organising effectively so that it helps social work students to acquire the required philosophical, analytical and application skills? This question is answered in the following section.
Teaching Community Organisation: Challenges and Opportunities
Little has been published about instructional methods for teaching community organisation practice. (Prof. Donna Hardina, California State University (2002)
Although social justice is one of the central goals of the social work profession, the actual involvement of social workers in social change is very limited. Similarly practitioners lack the tools needed to analyse existing social problems and policies and to enable them to intervene (Weiss et al., 2006). To be able to promote social justice effectively, social workers (students, faculty, and practitioners) must understand and be able to analyse the impact of social structures on livelihoods and must be actively involved in community organisation and social action in order to better serve the needs of diverse populations and communities at large.
Scholars like Dunham (1958) and Siddiqui (1997) formulated principles of community organisation. Hardina (1997; 2002) lists core required analytical skills, which should be acquired by social work students in community organisation practice, including information gathering and processing, legislative research, needs assessment, participatory action research, political analysis, population forecasting and social indicator analysis, power analysis, program development and planning, resource development, budgeting, and grant writing. Hardina argues that analytical methods, often used in practice but seldom systematically discussed, assist the practitioner in identifying community problems, planning interventions, and conducting evaluations (Hardina, 2000; 2004)
Teaching Community Organisation and Practice requires that social workers utilise strategies and tactics associated with different approaches to community organisation to influence change. Given the different models, approaches to strategies, tactics and methods and socio-political contexts (in a particular country and community), teaching CO is a challenge and differs substantially.
Teaching Community Organisation in South Asia
Like the South Asian region, social work in the region is also very diverse and disjointed. Social work education was introduced in India way back in 1936, whereas the neighbouring country Nepal introduced it only in 1996. Bhutan and Maldives are yet to initiate fully fledged social work programs. In Pakistan, the first in-service training course, sponsored by the Government of Pakistan and the United Nations Technical Assistance Administration (UNTAA), trained its first 65 Pakistani social workers in 1953 (Rehmatullah, 2002, p. 1). Social work education also travelled to Bangladesh when it was separated from Pakistan in 1971. Social work does not yet exist as a profession in Afghanistan. Due to the socio-political and cultural influences, social work education in the region is very diverse and also facing an uncertain future within the academy as it has to compete with other market-oriented disciplines (Nikku, 2010).
Selected social work educators interviewed from the region commonly stated that teaching a course on community organisation is a challenge, as it requires a lot of reflection and internalisation of community issues, especially the process of exclusion that is still evident in South Asian societies. To quote an educator from a South Indian University:
I start with the definitions of a community from Arthur Dunham and Murray G. Ross and use definitions given by the Indian authors like K. D. Gangrade. By doing this I ask students to identify the community’s common needs (during their field practicum and block placements) and find ways to organise the community around to meet these common needs. However, I found that students are finding difficulty in applying these theoretical insights as they are sometimes expected to do or follow the local NGO in which they are placed or do not have simply enough grounding in the theoretical applications. So this is just one of the challenges for the social work educator to help students to grow as community organisers. (Interview, May 5, 2013, Department of Social Work, Dr. B. R. Ambedkar University, Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh, India)
Jeevasuthan, who received a master’s degree in Social Work at an Indian University, is a Sri Lankan School of Social Work faculty member and currently a doctoral candidate at Universiti Sains Malaysia, provides a comparative perspective. Jeevasuthan stated that:
While teaching in Sri Lanka students are given six months to complete community work practicum. It seems students are completely detached from the system and it would be difficult for us (social work educators) to monitor them. In India, strength-based practice was not insisted on, but we consider that as an important aspect in our teaching. NISD [National Institute of Social Development] gives more attention on social development perspective rather than organisation. Therefore, students are expected to show some visible outcomes and it is mounting pressure on them. In India, according to me, it was not the case. (Interview, June 6, 2013)
Another Social Work educator, Mr. Jaffar from Pakistan, narrated that:
In Pakistan, community organisation is being taught both at master as well as bachelor level, but there are several challenges for teaching this course. First of all, there are no locally published written materials/books on the subject, although social work education started in the country in the early fifties. Some books are available for bachelor level and in Urdu language containing few concepts on the community organisation. … There is another challenge for teaching community organisation, especially at master level. This challenge emerges because mostly students in M.A. have not studied social work at their bachelor level. So when they come to the university, with no knowledge about basic concepts of community organisation, they are a challenge for the teacher. … Last but not least is the linguistic barrier; in most of the colleges the medium of instruction is Urdu, so they do not understand enough to conceptualise the lecture and its contents if delivered in English. (Excerpts, e-mail response for interview, July 10, 2013)
Prof. Andharia at the Tata Institute of Social Sciences states that ‘a generation of teachers and activists from 1980s onwards who began to associate themselves with mass-based struggles, discovered different strategies and new allies and questioned conventional moorings of western forms of institutionalized social work and its relevance to India’ (2009, p. 277). Interestingly, ‘the rapid rise to power of US President Obama brought community organizing sharply into public focus, partly because of his own personal history as a community organizer in Chicago South Side, in the tradition of Saul Alinksy (see Seal, 2008), and also because of the apparent success of these methods propelling him from seemingly nowhere to the heights of power’ (Carpenter & Miller, 2011, p. 14).
Regarding the status of community organisation in Bangladesh, a social work educator-scholar stated that:
We teach courses titled ‘approaches to community interventions’ and ‘social work camping’ at Bachelor’s level and both courses are compulsory. But they are not taught at master’s level which is one year only. But formal practice of community organization method of social work in the context of Bangladesh is not that much found. In Bangladesh, some efforts are taken by affluent community people in posh areas so that they themselves can address their problems and needs with their own resources. The awareness in relation to community organization among the people in our country lies at very low level, even among the social work graduates. (Personal e-mail communication, July 13, 2013, Prof. Tulshi Kumar Das, Department of Social Work, Shahjalal University of Science & Technology)
The self-narrations of social work educators from the South Asia region suggest the diverse and fragmented nature of social work and also lack of academic resources at their disposal to teach courses on community organisation in particular and social work in general. A brief analysis of curriculum focus and teaching materials used in teaching community organisation shows that there is a wide variation in terms of content, references used, focus and credits allotted for this course. The references frequently mentioned in the reading lists are mainly western authors1 (Rothman et al., 1995; Ross et al., 1993; Dunham et al., 1990; Kramer & Specht, 1975; Cox et al., 1974; Alinsky, 1971; Rothman et al., 1970; Kramer et al., 1969); Ross, 1967; Murphy, 1954). However, a few South Asian scholars are also mentioned sporadically (Rafiq, 2006; Khalid, 2004; Chaudhry, 2000; Dhama & Bhatnager, 1994; Siddique, 1984; Gangrade, 1971).
Teaching Community Organisation at Nepal School of Social Work
The birth and development of professional social work in Nepal is a recent process. Imparting social work education and training in Nepal is a challenging task due to the ongoing political transitions, multicultural issues, need for social work educators, absence of professional associations, and the lack of government recognition for the social work profession in the country more generally (see Nikku, 2010; 2012). There are abundant challenges for providing social work education and profession in Nepal given the historical and current political instability in the country. However, major opportunities have come with declaring Nepal as a federal republic in 2008, abolishing centuries of monarchy and restructuring of society. The crux is turning these challenges into opportunities for the development of social work.
Reamer (1999) states that community organisation is viewed as a unique field of practice requiring an ethical code and a theoretical framework that commits the organiser to the struggle for social justice. Such a commitment requires that an organiser fight to improve economic conditions and civil rights for members of marginalised groups (Rivera & Erlich, 1998). Pyles (2009) describes progressive community organising as an approach that works towards the liberation of oppressed and marginalised individuals and argues for transformation of social systems that perpetuate oppression.
Taking ideas from Pyles (2009), Reamer (1999), Rivera and Erlich (1998), we have deliberated over social work teaching methodologies and student learning needs. The author of this chapter developed the community organisation course for Purvanchal University’s BSW program and also taught at its affiliated college Kadambari Memorial College, Department of Social Work, during 2005–2012. The section below is based on his self-reflection and narrative based on nine years of social work teaching both in Nepal, India and currently in Malaysia.
What do I know about good or reflective practice in teaching? What is effective teaching? How does one become a good teacher/instructor in social work education and specifically in teaching courses like Social Action and Community Organisation? In addition, I ask a few more questions that have guided and influenced my social work teaching in the past and present: How to introduce social work students to the philosophical and political tools and theories that inform community organising and advocacy so that they develop their own frameworks for ethical decision making? The narrative below is drawn from my teaching experiences at Nepal School of Social Work from 2005 to 2012.
A context of conflict
Conflicts are quite often perceived as a destructive and negative phenomenon, and there is little understanding of how they also offer opportunities for a positive change in the society. In particular, little is understood about how violent conflicts and development processes interact and create positive changes in local institutions and practices (Nirmal, Shrestha, Acharya, & Ansari, 2009). On the constructive side, conflicts are considered a major cause of destruction of old socioeconomic structures and processes that are often discriminatory and exploitative (Karki & Seddon, 2003).
In February 1996, the leaders of the Maoist United People’s Front began a violent insurgency with an aim to reform and restructure society and governance. In August 2001, the Maoists declared that they were in the phase of strategic balance, ‘a state in which the people’s strength and the enemy’s strength are in a certain sense equal’. By 2005, the Maoists decided to side with the political parties to strike at the institution of monarchy. Against this backdrop, the 12-point agreement, signed by the Maoists and the political parties on November 22, 2005, ushered in a new era in Nepal’s fragmented politics (Nayak, 2007, p. 931).
The decade-long (1996-2006) armed conflict affected the majority of Nepalese lives. Poverty and exclusion, particularly among marginalised castes and ethnic groups in rural areas, were key factors driving the insurgency. Schoolchildren were recruited to the camps particularly prominent in areas where socioeconomic or ethnic exclusion was most apparent (Eck, 2010). At the end of 2010, more than four years after the government of Nepal and Maoist rebels ended their ten-year conflict, about 50,000 people were still displaced by the war and by inter-ethnic violence, and remained unable or unwilling to return to their homes. Meanwhile, the government lacked the institutions, resources and presence in rural areas to provide basic services to many citizens. In a depressed post-war economy, many returnees had still not established the means to sustain their basic needs, and some were forced back to towns and cities again in search of work (IDMC & NRC, 2010).
Skills for Community Organising
Social work education is where a large component of the socialisation into the profession takes place, and where awareness of the crucial role of social workers in political conflict should begin. Recent research also indicates that what teachers know and do is the most important influence on what students learn (Wenglinsky, 2000). What is formally taught in classrooms and the students’ activities inherently are also crucial for social work learning. Hence a school of social work should strive to facilitate such social work learning beyond classrooms through creating new forums and platforms for advocacy and collective learning. Some evidence shows that teaching is not regarded as a powerful tool to engage students and as a scholarly activity and hence not given a high priority. Kraft (2000, p. 50) argues that ‘teaching is not regarded within disciplines as a serious intellectual pursuit. It is simply functional, operating knowledge.’ Kraft further states:
… Knowing how to teach is knowing how to run the copy machine. Yes, we need copy machines, but we do not need to know their hows and whys. They may require some chat, but they’re hardly worthy of sustained earnest conversation. Copy machine know-how is not scholarship. You don’t do research about copy machines. (2000, p. 50)
I wonder sometimes whether Kraft was correct and teaching is just a mechanical activity to me. Taking clues from Wenglinsky (2000), I have made an effort to take insights from the Maoist conflict of Nepal to understand the community power centres, class loyalties and community organising strategies, and this has become part of my teaching from the ongoing Nepalese struggles. There have been immense challenges in and outside the classroom including many personal challenges arising from my nationality which is different from Nepali identity. Despite these challenges, I saw opportunities and have tried to turn some of these challenges into opportunities, especially in the last seven years of my work in Nepal. Teaching community organisation courses gave me an opportunity and further insights into Nepalese society.
I have realised over these years of my social work teaching career that, just as there are passionate social work teachers, there are committed and ardent social work students too. These students do provide the required hope for me about the future of social work education and community organising in post-conflict Nepal.
The more communities are poor and powerless, the higher the expectations placed on Schools. They are being asked to perform at higher levels than ever, with the most challenging issues, with fewer resources and for a digital age of learning that is unmatched. To make a further impact and bring visible changes, as the head of the Nepal School of Social Work (NSSW), I continue to encourage and support its current students and alumni to form associations and organisations in order to reach and empower local communities. The first batch of social work students (2005-08) were encouraged to participate in the people’s movement for democracy in Nepal in 2006 (known as Jana Andolan 2). During this time, educational institutions were closed. NSSW faculty and students came together, decided to organise a campaign for the protection of children’s rights, and raised awareness against using children in these protest movements. The students donated and organised blood donation camps to collect blood for children who were caught in-between the police and the rebels. They spoke on the local radios, met with the local young politicians with a request that rights of children and citizens should be guaranteed and ran a poster campaign on peace.
I took the concept of student-centred teaching and learning. I also believe that in the classroom the teacher and students are co-learners. As a social work educator, I bring my professional and personal experiences, beliefs and values to the classroom and am open to learn from the students’ field work experiences and their own understanding of the social world. My goal is to help students realise that the concept of praxis, the term Paulo Freire (1970) assigned to the merging of theory and experience, is an important component in community organisation practice. Development of a critical consciousness (Gutierrez & Alvarez, 2000) among students is the key for their further professional development.
Alongside these challenges, community organising teaching gives rise to a number of unique dilemmas. I have encountered questions from students stating that ‘I am not interested in macro social work issues anyway. So why should I worry and learn about community power structures and dynamics? I cannot solve all the problem of a community but may be successful in solving individual problems’. I am aware that these dilemmas are not new to social workers and hence my answers to these students varied, but have a common line of argument. I viewed it as a challenge to get students ‘engaged’ in macro practice. Hence my answer was: ‘The choice is yours, but one needs to know that individual clients are also part of families and are invariably part of communities and play crucial roles. Hence as social workers we should not dichotomise between case work and community work, but focus on the goals of social work and that is social justice and change’.
In the literature, I came across one school of social work that warns of the risks and potentially negative implications of politically engaged social work. It distinguishes between the ‘professional’ undertakings of social work and the political process. This approach variously claims that political involvement diverts attention from direct practice, is incongruent with professional values such as emotional neutrality and a non-judgmental approach to clients, and prevents social work from serving a wide spectrum of clients (Bardill, 1993). However, based on our experiences, we argue that social work in developing countries like Nepal need not and cannot centre on case work practices alone, but larger societal issues such as rights violations, gender inequities and access to resources need to be addressed. Moreover, these students should be taught these strategies right from the bachelor level of social work training. For us, community organising is one of the core methods of social work and we must understand the communities that we work with in terms of their geography, cultural cohesion, ethnic identities and relationships, including social and psychological connections and networks.
Building Relationships and Connectedness with Social Work Students
Reflecting the School’s vision of ‘nurturing young social workers to craft a just society’ many resources and training opportunities to work with communities were built over years into the overall teaching and training at Nepal School of Social Work. I gave priority to building relationships not only limited to the classroom but also extending beyond it. The neighbourhood, rural and urban camps that I have joined as a faculty member in charge (during 2005-2010) have given me the opportunity to understand students’ attitudes towards issues like feeling part of a community or inclusiveness. At the same time, I am also aware that I am also being observed by the students and they are also making an assessment of me and my attitudes and views. I used to share my life experiences and incidents from my own difficulties with access to education hailing from a village agrarian family. I sometimes felt I was exposing myself and asked myself whether I was revealing too much and crossing the professional boundaries. Reflecting back, I find that these incidents inside and outside the classroom did help in building connectedness with the students, which I believe has implications for their professional training and my teaching career.
Solas’ (1990) study identified criteria for effective teaching. The results indicated that students felt ‘the most important component of overall teaching effectiveness was the relationship between the educator and themselves’ (p. 149). Now the question before me is, How to ensure the relationship and connectedness that ensures effective teaching? Which method of teaching will encourage autonomy (freedom with responsibility) in learning by students and motivate them to work for themselves and ensure that they have the required knowledge and skills to be successful on their own terms? How can I create a trusting and professional relationship between me and the students? Below I present a few initiatives taken by students:
In 2007 the second batch of social work students organised a month-long campaign on prevention of Child Sexual Abuse, marking 19th November, World Day for the Prevention of Child Abuse. Different forms of child abuse are evident in Nepalese society. The scale of abuse was further aggravated due to the internal conflicts, poverty and lack of proactive legislations and weak implementation mechanisms. As a result the issue has always been kept under the carpet and not recognised as a societal issue. Our campaign did receive wide attention from the residents of the Kathmandu Valley and many local NGOs later have taken up the issue. As a school of social work, an educational institution, we could not take up directly issues of child abuse. In this process, we have learnt that, unlike the social work approach to community organisation, the political activist approach has a greater potential in organising communities that are stable and democratic by using the strategy ‘meeting power with power’.
Alumni of Nepal School of Social Work are extended institutional support and mentored by me and other faculty members, if the students are motivated and interested in initiating grassroots organisations. A few alumni have started such initiatives while they are studying undergraduate social work at the school. While writing this paper I have approached them and asked what the main motivating factors behind their initiatives were. The general response has been that they are motivated in general due to the social work profession that they have chosen and also courses like social action and community organisation gave them the confidence and motivation to take the initial steps forward in setting up their initiatives. Below I discuss in brief the initiatives of current and graduate social work students.
Mr. Arbind Kumar Chaudhary graduated in 2010, founded LIFELINE in the same year and formally registered in 2012 at Sarlahi district of Central Nepal. His vision is to provide educational opportunities to children and to empower women (www.lifeline.org.np).
Mr. Dan Buda took the initiative and founded Karnali Alliance of Development (KAD Nepal) in 2008 as a registered association of five social work students (all from the batch of 2007-2010). KAD Nepal has started its operations on child protection issues in the poverty-stricken Karnali region since 2010. The aim is to empower children of Garjyengkot and Depalgaun Villages through Children’s Clubs.
Another student group named ‘Young and Hopeless’ staged a 48-hour hunger strike in 2011, demanding a constitution from the current members of the Constituent Assembly of Nepal. This action would not be something that would appear as a social work tool of practice in a formal curriculum, but for the students it is a part of their responsibility as young citizens of Nepal and also as students of social workers putting their conscience into practice (Nikku, 2012; Nikku & Pokhrel, 2013). Other student initiatives are: Nepal Unites for Social Work, We Stand to Understand, Yug Activist Group, United Hands for Social Development at NSSW, which staged silent protests in different parts of Kathmandu Valley to raise public awareness about current consensus politics and delays in constitution writing. These groups are actively using web technologies to mobilise public wakefulness and participation on crucial social, political, cultural and educational issues in Nepal.
The two main questions: 1. How are South Asian communities organised to address the negative impacts of local and global policies and practices? 2. How to teach or introduce students of social work to the philosophical, political, and sociological theories that inform community organising and advocacy?, asked in the beginning of this chapter have been answered. Based on the data, it has been shown that in the South Asian context community organising is a process of helping individuals, groups and communities to recognise their common interests, strengths and limitations and assisting them to fulfil their collective self-interests and goals through organised association and struggles.
We have discussed in detail the meaning of community and the historical connection of community organisation with social work in general and in the context of the South Asian region. Social work educators engaged in teaching community organisation in developing countries are frequently confronted with varied obstacles that need to be overcome if teaching and professional goals are to be achieved. Teaching community organisation needs a variety of strategies: classroom teaching coupled with appropriate field practicum placements to provide the students with real-life community living and understanding of livelihood issues. Using case studies (like Coca-Cola vs. Plachimada) is a powerful tool in contextualising contemporary community struggles. Mentoring opportunities for students who would like to initiate grassroots initiatives play an important role in crafting community organisers. Last but not least, vision, policies and leadership of schools of social work do play an important role in creating a learning environment that triggers curiosity for community learning and leadership.
Social work educators are also facing challenges in teaching community organisation due to lack of local materials and strategies that they may have to refine to work with communities. Social work educators in the 21st century are faced with many challenges: an increasing diversity of clients and communities, tensions in the classroom, a culture of accountability with outcome-based practice/education, and a struggle for relevancy in what students often describe as a disconnect between field and classroom learning (East & Chambers, 2007).
This paper concludes that social work educators specialising in community work have to learn and refocus their teaching strategies to engage with global and local processes, revise and re-interpret social work curricula and teaching methodologies. If this can happen it helps students who are interested in community work within the broader social work to move further from a micro perspective towards a more proactive self-engagement. The educator’s skill in combining theory and concepts with emotions, and the larger meaning of organisational practice have a crucial impact on students choosing community work as a future career. The case of NSSW provides evidence that young social work students if exposed to community issues and engaging skills are more likely to be involved in ensuring social, economic, cultural and political rights, a life with worth and dignity for all community members.
Real learning comes from the actual practice of helping to build a community organisation, working on the ground to advocate for policy level changes and working directly with communities to organise them to meet their own goals. This chapter argues that social work schools in the South Asian region should create opportunities for their faculty and students to engage directly in community organising activities and engagement.
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