Poverty Aware Practice in Galway University and Trinity College Dublin

On Monday 20th November ATD Ireland delivered a session of our ‘poverty aware practice’ module to social work master’s students at Galway university led by community activists Lorraine, Jimmy, Christina and Paul.   This purpose of this module is to enable social work students to have a better understanding of poverty and promote a dialogue between those who have experience of social work intervention and the future social workers. 

Lorraine began by asking the students ‘what does poverty and socio- economic discrimination mean to you?’  The class brought up familiar ideas like facing stigma and having to make difficult choices.  One student discussed encountering socio- economic discrimination with those she worked with.  Paul explained how frequent these types of incidences are and can be especially common from police and security guards.  There is a need for more adequate training for people working in these sectors so that socio- economic discrimination is not perpetuated.

Christina then introduced our new ‘Talking Poverty’ film made in collaboration with Joe Whelan from Trinity College. This animated short addresses some key concepts such as ‘Lack of choices’, ‘Lack of opportunities’, ‘socio- economic discrimination’, ‘shame and stigma’, and ‘a divided city’.

The panel then shared some real-life statements about what poverty is and feels like.  Jimmy shares the hidden dimensions of poverty tree which explores the cycle of poverty.  This image looks at the roots and the causes of poverty like structural inequality and politics to common experiences faced by those living in poverty such as institutional intervention, lack of services and lack of choices moving towards the impacts of poverty like low confidence, debt and trauma.  Despite these impacts people who experience poverty can also have resilience, determination, hope and love in their lives.

Related to the cycle of poverty, Christina then shared a segment from her speech written for a presentation at the Social Platform Over the Poverty Line Conference on minimum income at the European Parliament in Brussels.  This was important to share in relation to social work as it showcases the effects of living below the poverty line on families and children.  Jimmy then shares his new poem “International poverty” that he wrote while in Brussels with Christina.

Lorraine then presented her testimony documenting her experience with a social worker as a new mother.  She also shared her perspective on the shared stigma faced by people living in poverty and social workers face in the media. Lorraine described just how important that initial contact between a social worker and their client can be.  There is often a genuine fear from people living in poverty.  They can be afraid of asking for help for fear of being judged and what the consequences of that may be.  Lorraine and the panel gave their insights on practical steps to help develop mutual trust.  They suggested meeting in a more neutral environment like a coffee shop instead of in a family home.  People can feel a stigma within their communities when they are seen to be having a social worker at their door- the person is at risk of “becoming a target within communities”.  They might be judged by their neighbours because of the negative reputation that social workers have.  Christina then shared her story of foster care and living in the homeless service which she wrote for the Lockdown Liberties: Spoken and written word collection.  

After a break to take in these statements, the panel did an overview of some of the key concepts discussed during the session; Christina stated how social workers being constantly changed throughout a young person’s lie does not enable them to build a good, constructive relationship.  Paul discussed feeling judged on your past and this can relate to how an individual’s past convictions can have long term consequences on opportunities.  Jimmy spoke on the power held by social workers and the need to recognise this unequal dynamic.  Lorraine discusses the genuine fear parents have of social work intervention.  Finally, Lorraine spoke on the need to highlight examples of positive practice and recognise the important work social workers can and often do carry out. 

Jimmy then asked a new question to the class, “If I was in poverty, how would you as a social worker help me?”  One student suggested that she would ask her client directly what supports they need.  In response, Jimmy spoke on how it is important to understand the person’s individual background, for example if they have a past of mental health issues or addiction.  We then had a discussion on the need to collaborate with parents while also balancing risk and protection.  One student spoke on the need to understand a parent’s circumstances and approach a client with a non- judgemental attitude while also putting the safety and protection of a child who may be in an unsafe situation as their number one priority.   Christina ended the session by asking; “what is your ideal social worker?”

Later that week on Wednesday 22nd November we delivered our ‘Poverty Aware Practice’ to Trinity College social work master’s students led by Jimmy and Andrew.  When asked what does poverty and socio- economic discrimination means to you, the students gave considered responses such as, “poverty is multidimensional”, and can be characterised by exclusion and loneliness, lack of opportunity, etc.  Andrew thoughtfully reflected on these ideas and spoke about his own perspective on what poverty means, through the lens of hygiene poverty and the everyday encounters with socio- economic discrimination.  ATD Ireland recently took part in a piece of recently launched research on this topic co- ordinated by Hygiene Hub.  Hygiene Hub describe hygiene poverty as “parents being unable to change a parent’s nappy as often as needed, or reusing dirty nappies.  Not being able to replace a toothbrush or one family sharing a toothbrush because one each isn’t an option.  Washing hair, bodies, faces and clothes in the same liquid used for the dishes.  Not being able to wash clothes, uniforms and sports kits when needed”.  Read the full report and find out about the work of Hygiene Hub here.     

The group had important discussion on the constant stigma, blame and judgement felt by people living in poverty and the necessity to continue to raise awareness of these experiences through actions such as this.  Social workers can often be restricted within the systems and structures they are working within which can prevent them from acting as an advocate for their clients.  However social workers have the potential to be activists and play a role in raising awareness of and in tackling injustices and inequality.   Jimmy spoke on how it is really important for a social worker to be consistent in the long term in someone’s life.  Additionally, it really makes a difference for services to have better communication with each other and be more interconnected.  In this way, the individual is more likely to ensure their needs are properly addressed.  Andrew visualised this image as a ‘school of fish’ all working in tandem together towards the same goal.   We then watch the ‘what does poverty mean’ video discussing this question from the perspective of a group of our members.

During the break we shared Andrew’s speech at the UN for the International Day for the Eradication of Poverty 2022.

After the break, Jimmy outlined the cycle of poverty as written by ATD community activist Gavin.   Looking at the hidden dimensions of poverty tree, Andrew asked the class which words stick out to them the most.  To him, among the most significant is the word ‘hope’.  Through their work as community activists, Andrew and Jimmy give hope to others that may be struggling.  They also want to inspire the social work students that they have the capacity to make a real difference in people’s lives.  He broke down hope into meaning Helping Ordinary People Excel’.  He pointed to a fact about how large numbers of social workers often end up leaving the profession early into their career due to burnout or other reasons.  Andrew asked the group to reflect on and discuss, ‘what does your ideal social worker look like?’  As the group called out important and positive qualities, like ‘compassionate’, ‘collaborative’, and ‘empathetic’ Andrew asked each person to look at themselves in a phone camera.  He stated that for him each of the students (and teachers) represent an ideal social worker to him.  He hopes the students can remember this in the future if they feel discouraged, disheartened and wanting to quit. 

Throughout the session the panel shares both positive and negative and difficult stories of social work intervention as a person living in poverty.  The module therefore aims to not just secure better outcomes for those living in poverty but also to motivate, encourage and provide a space for genuine communication with social work students and the social work profession overall.

Thank you so much to Galway University and Trinity College for having us.  Thank you very much to the students and professors Eleanor Kelly, Sinead Whiting and Erna O Connor for their active engagement in the session and for respectfully listening to and taking heed of the insights provided by the community activists.  We appreciated the teachers recognise the privilege it is for us to be able to hear the intimate details shared by the community activists.

Thank you so much to the community activists for leading this module on both occasions, sharing their experiences for the hope of creating a better life for others and for always being so supportive to both each other and the students.