Radical Social Work in the UK – Liberation Health at SWAN 2014

Dispatches from the SWAN conference at Durham University, Durham, UK

It is with gratitude that the Boston Liberation Health Group wishes to thank the Social Work Action Network (SWAN) for the opportunity to speak about the practice of Liberation Health at their annual SWAN conference. From the outset of this post, I want to thank everyone I met for their outstanding generosity and friendship, for their unceasing willingness to explain to me all of the things I didn’t know about social work in the UK and most of all for being allies in the fight.


SWAN is a dedicated group of social workers, practitioners, academics, labor and community activists and community members from around the United Kingdom. Although based in the UK, SWAN is a global organization and committed to social justice and anti-oppressive work around the world. SWAN, celebrating its 10th anniversary, brings attendees/delegates from around the globe to talk about the state of social work and the struggle for human rights. The focus of this year was “Social Work in a ‘Cold Climate’: Fighting for Good Practice in Times of Austerity”, which focused on the devastating effects of the current UK government’s attack on funding social services and critical programs for those with the highest need.

The UK is currently facing a terrifyingly familiar proposition for those of us who hail from the States. Cameron’s government has demonstrated an absolute commitment to neo-liberalism, and is now moving to privatize almost every sector of the UK’s once prized social safety net. Under particular attack is the National Health Service (NHS), one of the greatest achievements Great Britain has undertaken in its history. The NHS, since its inception, has served as an inspiration for societies around the world. It has exemplified the clear and sound sense behind universalized, socialized medicine. Although residents of the UK will be the first to point out that the NHS is a heavily-flawed, increasingly “managerialist” organization, it nonetheless provides inexpensive or no-cost healthcare to every one of GB’s citizens. The NHS is also responsible for many advancements in medicine and public health, demonstrating that private capital is not required to make advances in the propagation of health for all persons. Increasingly, the Cameron administration has been calling for privatization, forcing any and all services that can be divested into the marketplace out of the social safety net.

“They are punishing young people for the crime of having nothing to do.”

However, as Lizi Gray, a filmmaker and sociology student so brilliantly demonstrated with her colleagues the Utter Legends, austerity has taken aim at other vital services. In particular, parliament has divested from much of the youth services work that has previously funded activities and diversions that served multiple functions: community centers that offered mentoring, counseling, the arts and a nearly endless number of vital services that enrich the lives of young people. Lizi pointed out during the final plenary of the conference that the effects of these cuts are most clear when you look at the uptick in youth involvement with local authorities. “They are punishing young people for the crime of having nothing to do.” To view the Utter Legend’s remarkable work please click the following link.



In part owing to the location of the conference this year, Durham University, the entire event was kicked off with a rousing account by Heather Woods of the miner’s strike of 1984-1985. Woods recalled how after Margaret Thatcher attempted to suppress a labor strike, she organized women in her local community to begin serving meals to families of striking workers. She describes how as awareness spread- despite efforts of the press to ignore the strike- people within the town and around the UK were contributing in whatever ways they could think to do. One woman hand-knitted mittens and hats for the children as the cold winter approached. Co-ops donated food; the baker lent his ovens for cooking. A social club donated space. Little by little, the women created a free cafeteria to feed the people of the community while they waited out big mining interests’ attempts to starve out the strikers. Despite police repression and arbitrary arrests, the community continued to come together. They formed support groups. Mixed in this inspiring story was another thread of the simultaneous struggle against institutional and structural sexism that attempted to blockade the women from carrying out their tasks.

It was impossible to listen to this narrative without thinking about what Paulo Freire said about the role of praxis in consciousness-raising. As this one incredible woman and her comrades searched for ways to combat the seemingly insurmountable task of keeping the community afloat during the strike, their understanding of the situation broadened and, their consciousness having so broadened, their efforts began to become more and more politicized and increasingly bold. Although Heather recounts that most of the women who had initially joined (miner’s wives affected by the strike) had explicitly stated that they were apolitical on the matter and looking simply to alleviate the community suffering, this only lasted so long.

“When they came to us, initially, they said ‘[we] don’t know anything about politics, [we] just want to help our husbands’, but in time they were the ones who wanted to be on the front lines. They were running the union meetings, they were holding the picket line.”

Soon, the women were on the front lines of the picket, running union meetings and dealing with the police. Reflecting on this story, it was easy to see the central tenets of what we had come to Durham to present so eloquently and brilliantly displayed.

At the start of the strike, this community and its members were positioned in an object role. Upon this object, the world rained down a gamut of physical, economic, social and emotional violence. The women of the community, not having called the strike in the first place began in a position even more removed than the striking men from a place of agency. Oppression was gripping their community and squeezing it. Yet, one single call by the speaker had led to a spark that pushed a community to challenge its relationship to oppression. Before the strike was over, every community member who participated had had the experience of renegotiating their relationship to the world around them; they became subjects in their own lives. They chose to resist, and in resisting, they found that they were more powerful than they ever imagined they might have been. And as they discovered their own power, the power of the people, they became stronger and more focused on the struggle for human rights. As legendary radical feminist author extraordinaire Audre Lorde wrote:

“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision, it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.”

Although by the time I have posted this, I will have travelled for a cumulative 20+ hours (counting planes, taxis, buses and many, many trains), I return to Boston with a renewed vigor, a refocused vision and a commitment to carrying the message of radical social work. For there can never be a twilight for the notion that the struggle for human rights is intrinsic and essential for the practice of social work.

We will see you all next year in Glasgow, Scotland.




Important author’s note: quotations are approximations, I was taking notes on the back of my own presentation notes, so they’re a little mottled. For those that went, I encourage you to spot check it and see if there’s anything you would change.