Reflections on ‘Poverty Aware Practice’ with Trinity College

Reflections on the Trinity module

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.  On the 21st of April, a group of ATD members came together who previously partook in the Poverty aware module to educate and share their experiences with social work students from Trinity College. ATD evaluated the Trinity module to see how this in the future could help to break barriers and possibly be a first step in creating more awareness on lived experiences of poverty. For example, Gavin thought that it was really valuable to actually step inside this institution; ‘for me it was important just to get in the room’. In sharing thoughts on the Trinity module, some of ATD’s members highlighted that for them there is a barrier between Trinity and their communities. As Andrew noted that; ‘I didn’t ever think I would get this opportunity and talk about my experiences.

As we are all born into communities that we can’t choose, it is important to listen to each other. Therefore, the Trinity module gave an opportunity for the students to listen to voices that they might not have heard before. As Gavin noted, worries about where the next meal comes from might not be something that the Trinity students had to worry about in their past. However, what was interesting is that for other students this was not the case. However, another important take away from the module were the similarities the students shared with the panel such as experiences of poverty and experiences in education. ‘The feedback has been amazing, very open, I just hope that it’s going to be a future thing that is going to progress’.

For Lorraine who shared her story on video in the Trinity module, it was vital that her video was played as; ‘It showed a real story’.  It is important to show real examples, it helps the students to understand experiences that “reading a book doesn’t. I think this should be brought into the teaching in social care hearing a voice from experience of bad practice in the system”.  Some of the experiences with social workers in her life were not positive and the fact that a new cohort of students got to think of their position as a social worker could help to improve relationships between social workers and the community. Lorraine shared that it is essential for a social worker to have a bond with the people they visit, as only then a proper relationship can be built. ‘You need to be feeling comfortable enough to express your needs.

Socio-economic discrimination

All of the members talked about their experience with socio-economic discrimination and the way it impacted them. Paul noted that the socio-economic discrimination was a ‘symptom of a class system’. He mentioned that there can be a lack of awareness on this topic as for some students ‘it was the first time they ever heard about it’.  This is despite the fact that, for some, discrimination is an everyday reality. ‘However, we all know this, and have experience with discrimination.’  Although there were students could relate to what was being shared by the panel, the activists felt that the module also brought to light the very differing experiences that can be had by those from different backgrounds.  

This reflects the fact that we need more and ongoing discussions surrounding class and discrimination. This will allow experiences of discrimination to become more tangible, ‘more of an issue that they think upon, where they might prepare the solutions to help tackle this, try and address it and call it out for what it is and say is it wrong’.  These discussions need to be a fundamental aspect of the education system.   ‘We need to break that barrier within the class system’.  This is a necessary step in dismantling the segregation which exists within the class system and making attempts to learn from people who have experienced disadvantage, and ensuring that their inclusion does not become simply tokenistic.

A module such as this presents an opportunity for a deeper engagement to be formed.  Paul suggests that social work training should be carried out within the community in order to get a better understanding of people’s experiences and learn from the knowledge that exists within disadvantaged communities.  ‘The fact that none of it crosses that threshold or that barrier that leads into our world because we’re kind of stepping into their world and we’re going to give them our insights but there is a barrier for them, you know considering the subject matter they’re learning.  That shouldn’t be a barrier’.

However, it is important to recognise that this is not an issue only within Trinity College.   It is inherent within all the institutions we have in Ireland such as banking, the media, the medical system, education employment. From there it trickles down to the rest of society. As Paul notes that; ‘People think poverty is only issue for people who are poor, it’s not. People don’t recognise that it’s a problem for us all. We are all negatively impacted by a segregated class system with less opportunities for people to come together. It is important to be inclusive to people with lived experience from the ground up.  There can often be a ‘reluctancy to step outside of the class system’, especially if we benefit from it.  

Similarly, this class proved that despite the barriers they felt before entering Trinity the activists were more than capable of giving the lecture.  Although many felt nervous to be in an environment with Trinity college students, academics and professor, the skills and knowledge they showcased while presenting this module was really impressive. It proves that they have the capacity to engage in these discussions and these discussions deserve to take place inside Trinity College.  There is an enormous potential to exist within these spaces and  institutions and therefore it would be wise for many other institutions to use this wisdom, talent and ingenuity instead of exclusion.  As Andrew describes, it is not a lack of ability, it is a lack of opportunity; ‘Two kids can be born on the same day, they live right next to each other and one gets a house and better opportunities than the other in life.  I think that’s what discrimination boils down to’.

It was important to take some time on the day to share the #Addthe10th campaign and to ask for the support of the Trinity students and professors.  We would like to have more in-depth conversations between academics, practitioners and those with real experience of socio-economic discrimination as we know that these experiences can be intertwined. If we look beyond the regular binaries of the class system, we can see that we share more than we are different.

Many of the issues which are seen as staples of disadvantaged communities, such as addiction or poor mental and physical health are something we are all at risk of and which are prevalent across society.  Perhaps this is not spoken of enough because “people don’t want to associate themselves with stigma”. Furthermore, many of the policy issues such as lack of healthcare, high cost of living and an inadequate housing supply is also something that impacts all communities.

All too often when we try and address these aspects of society, we approach these conversations through conflict and not through genuine communication. We should instead begin by sourcing out our common goals with a willingness to learn from each other and recognise people’s inbuilt intelligence.  The class with Trinity second year students showed that such a cooperative dialogue based on mutual respect can be achieved. This discussion can open a space not only for the activists but it is also encouraging for the other students who struggled within these institutions to speak up and to feel empowered by these stories. Fundamentally, in order to sustainably tackle issues such as socio- economic discrimination and to encourage governments to introduce people centred policies, we need support from across society. By this, we can avail as many opportunities as possible to engage and learn of those with different life experiences.

We recognise the efforts made by institutions like TCD with the Trinity Access Programme and we recognise that many brave students stepped up and spoke about their own struggles. It was clear that these experiences were shared between students and the panel and there were common ideas for a better society and the future of social work practice. However, it is evident that remnants of a class system do still exist and further discussion and shared collective understanding is a good step forward. Our group of ATD community activists are willing to share and have others learn from their lived experience and have also proved their capability to be partners in finding long- term solutions.

Thank you to the students and professors at Trinity College and to the community activists who facilitated the poverty aware practice module and contributed their reflections and their knowledge to this article