On the 29th March 2022, a group from ATD Ireland brought a third instalment of the ‘poverty awareness practice’ for second year social worker students before going out on placement. This was the first time the group had the opportunity to conduct such a session in person. It was very important for the activists to be on Trinity campus and speak with students and professors as a way of breaking down barriers particularly noting the status that Trinity College holds in Irish society, “I never thought I’d get to see the inside of trinity college”. Knowing the standing that Trinity college has, the community activists felt like it was a significant opportunity to make a real difference. “It was important to present it at trinity because it is a well renowned college not only in Ireland but across the world and where better to try and get the message that we are trying to convey than on such a big platform.”
A recurring theme throughout the workshops was that of trust and lack thereof between social workers and service users/ those experiencing poverty. “When a young person is in care there’s very few people they trust so being able to trust a social worker would make a huge difference in the care system”. First impressions are vitally important when a social worker is interacting with a family member as a result of the historical negative connotations associated with social workers. “There is a power dynamic and social workers, whether they are aware of it or not have an enormous amount of power over parents who are fearful for a lot of reasons”. Building this trust may not be straightforward but it is clear that it can be achieved with some extra effort and intentionality on both sides. This lack of trust can also prevent well- intentioned social workers from making positive changes and helping their clients. “When that level of trust happens, because I know people who have had encounters with social workers and it’s just changed their life for the better”. It can be a big help to even make some simple changes such as having some phone calls before going to see a service user in person, having informal chats as an icebreaker and social workers making an effort to let service users get to know them, even a little bit. “This presentation has really opened my mind on what way to approach and introduce myself as a social worker”.
The feedback from the students showed the importance of this workshop for representation for young people studying social work who may come from an experience of poverty themselves. For those students they are often not used to people from their communities being in this environment or sharing knowledge from that perspective. “Sometimes I feel I need to hide my experiences because I don’t feel part of college in the way I want to. But you have empowered me today!” Similarly, during the workshop one student asked whether it would make a difference if the profession of social work was made more accessible to those from disadvantaged areas. More work is needed to ensure young people from these areas feel like going to achieve such a position is a possibility for them. “It’s so hard for people from those communities to break out of them to get the opportunity for third level education”.
The workshop also emphasized the importance of the sharing of knowledge between social workers and those with a lived experience. “It was important to present at trinity to give the students a picture of different types of backgrounds they may encountered in the future”. It is important for social workers to not meet with a new family anticipating that they will know what is best and to listen to those they are working with to collectively find the best outcome. “I thought it was really good the way they were talking about learning from young people instead of going in thinking that you know everything”. Young people and families who have experienced poverty have immense wisdom to share and should be taken heed of. The importance of this workshop was “to give students an in-depth background to the dynamics of different communities through real life testimonials rather than through a book”, and it is clear that the students understood the value of this.
Real- Life Experiences
The workshop also brought to light the individual and varied experiences of people who may be coming into contact with social workers. For example, Gavin spoke of his experience being diagnosed ADHD and how that interacted with also growing up in an impoverished area “I think the supports should be there because it is classed as a mental condition instead of just segregating you from the whole population of a school, we’re also children, we also have the right to an education as anyone else, and we shouldn’t be excluded because of our mental condition”. Christina spoke of the specific struggles faced by couples when accessing homeless accommodation, “We turned to the homeless service but we were told ‘no beds for couples only single beds.’” Kye spoke of the issues that still persist within the care system; “The children in secure care units have absolutely no voice. When you’re in this type of system and when the child turn’s 18, there is no help or services to help them transition from secure care to independent living and that is setting all the young people up to fail in life because there is no support at all”.
When sharing a story, he had written for the “If only you knew” book (read here), regarding his time in a treatment centre, Gavin shared an insightful lesson; “I realized it was not the person who comes out of the community, its actually the resources they have and the environment that they have that helps them grow”. Andrew echoed this sentiment of recognising one’s self worth and potential regardless of your background “Sometimes in life, life has messed us up, people have stood on us, life has hit us hard, but no matter what life has done to us we haven’t lost our value”.
Making an impact
Presenting at Trinity was a really positive experience for all of the activists. They particularly noted how engaged the students and lecturers were in the discussion, and how willing they were to learn from the panel. “The highlight for me was seeing how well the students and teachers responded and how comfortable it was to share. As a man that suffers with his nerves, I felt very comfortable”. It was very meaningful for the activists to feel as though sharing their stories was really going to make a long-term impact. “It felt great knowing that after the class the students really enjoyed our presentation, that made my day hearing all the students after it”.
Thank you so much to the activists who bravely took part in this workshop and shared their experiences with the class. Thank you also to Trinity College and the second-year social work class for their engagement and taking the time to pay such close attention to what was being shared with them. “The BSS classes have really benefited from the input ATD Ireland offer. Understanding the impact of poverty is essential for social workers”. We hope that these sessions will make a positive impact on the future of social work in Ireland and will help to create a more harmonious relationship between those experiencing poverty and social workers they may come into contact with. These sessions have presented an opportunity to further develop the relationship between Trinity college and ATD Ireland, we hope to continue carrying out similar workshops in the future. We also discussed the possibility of a joint academic article on these issues as well as support for the #Addthe10th campaign. We look forward to long term future collaboration with Trinity College!
“Adding the 10th Act would be a significant step towards increasing societal awareness, raising consciousness and combatting the pervasive socio- economic discrimination in Ireland. I support the campaign- Add the 10th!”
“A systemic issue like poverty requires a systematic solution. A change to the constitution is merely the first step”.
Feedback from students and professors
“A real privilege to attend this session today with our BSS year 2 group. Grateful to the panel for coming along, sharing their experiences and helping to develop poverty awareness”.
“I really enjoyed the session and thought it was well put together, especially having the opportunity to hear some real – life stories”.
“Thank you so much for coming here and telling us your personal histories. This class will never leave me and I will try my best to do good and tackle injustice”.
“As a social work student, I think it is really beneficial to hear from people who have experienced these life events first hand”.
“To hear such experiences from the people who have experienced them makes the reality of what we are learning as students real”.
“After today’s class, and especially after Lorraine’s experience, I will be even more mindful of client’s experiences”.