Academic journal article Social Work

A Study of Community Guides: Lessons for Professionals Practicing with and in Communities

Academic journal article Social Work

A Study of Community Guides: Lessons for Professionals Practicing with and in Communities

Article excerpt

Social workers appreciate the knowledge local populations have to solve local problems, but theory and models of practice are often generated in settings outside the communities in which they are used. An emerging postmodern critique of how social workers position themselves as expert "knowers" is leading the profession to look for sources of helping knowledge indigenous to the communities it serves (Borg, Brownlee, & Delaney, 1995; Howe, 1994; Leonard, 1997; Pease & Fook, 1999; Saleebey, 1994). This article presents a study that used nonprofessional community helpers as a source of knowledge and examines the implications of this nonprofessional expertise for clinical and community practice.

Those who have looked at the social work profession through the lens of privileged knowledge caution practitioners to deconstruct the power implicit in what is accepted as truth. As Howe (1994) wrote, "The social work professional is no longer the sole arbiter of the meaning of events" (p. 525). How then, are we to proceed day-to-day

in our practices? Although social workers frequently discuss postmodern and critical conceptualizations of privilege and knowledge, scant evidence has been provided that elucidates the principles necessary to work in diverse contexts. In a postmodern world where social and cultural realities are becoming increasingly fractious, social workers must reposition themselves with and in the communities they serve.

The research discussed in this article, studying the work of indigenous, nonprofessional community helpers, looked practically at how we might invert the privileged position of the social worker as "expert," "other," or "outsider." This use of community collaterals, those indigenous to the communities social workers serve, is not new to the profession's methods of practice. Outcomes from this research, however, support the repositioning of social workers in communities in ways similar to those of nonprofessional helpers.

As early as the mid-1960s, a recognized emphasis on indigenous knowledge was evident in the social work literature. Indigenous encouragers, to use Biddle and Biddle's (1968) term, sought to do much the same work as the guides who participated in the present study. These encouragers are volunteers who work with community professionals tasked with providing local services. According to Biddle and Biddle, encouragers were created by these outsiders to further their goals. In contrast, the community guides introduced in this study are self-referential, existing apart from formal delivery systems.

There have been a number of well-documented attempts to work with a community's "indigenous nonprofessionals" (Reiff & Riessman, 1965). Little has changed in this approach over the past four decades. Reiff and Riessman differentiated local informal helpers from the now ubiquitous nonprofessionals whom outsiders designate, however benignly, as service agents. According to Reiff and Riessman, the indigenous nonprofessional is a member of the group being served, whose skills and relationship with the community is valued because of his or her social position.

   The indigenous nonprofessional is poor, is
   from the neighborhood, and is often a member
   of a minority group. His (sic.) family is
   poor. He is a peer of the client and shares a
   common background, language, ethnic origin,
   style, and group of interests which it would be
   impossible, and perhaps even undesirable, for
   most professionals to maintain... Because of
   what the indigenous nonprofessional is, there
   are things he can do which the professional is
   not able to do and should not do. Even professionals
   who have excellent relationship skills
   are limited by the nature of their function as
   an "expert." This definition of role, which
   they and the poor both hold, resents the development
   of a fully rounded, everyday relationship. … 
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