Empowering School Social Work Practices for Positive Youth Development: Hong Kong Experience

Article excerpt


Empowerment has become an attractive concept for practitioners working with adolescents (Chiu & Wong, 1999; Claus & Ogden, 1999; Lee, 1999; Ravindran & Duggan, 2001). It acknowledges that young people have a distinct capacity for facing life challenges and achieving positive development. It also focuses on raising youths' consciousness to address society's institutional or structural problems that adversely affect their lives. While many practitioners adopt the empowerment approach in rendering youth services, however, little attempt has been made to examine the concept of empowerment and its relevance to school social work. While education affects adolescents' future trajectory of life and school social work is a significant auxiliary service in the school setting, there is a need for practitioners to explore the possibilities for generating empowering practices.

School social work service has existed for almost a century in the United States. Previously, school social workers emphasized assisting individual students, especially those who are maladjusted, in adapting to schools and using the learning opportunities presented there (Johnson, 1962; Lee, 1959). During the transformation of modern school social work, practitioners have considered wider social systems contributing to the students' situations and have identified a developmental perspective of this service (Allen-Meares, 2004; Constable, 1999). Nevertheless, the issue of balancing between serving individual students and serving the educational institution remains controversial (Allen-Meares, 1993). Some school social workers play the advocacy role in bringing about positive changes to the education sector, while others concentrate on helping students adjust in the existing school system (Clancy, 1995; Ginsburg, 1989). This dilemma is not only theoretical but also touches on the heart of school social work practice. It is suggested that the empowerment perspective, as it takes heed of social work's dual obligation to both the individual and society and of their dialectical relationship, can replace the dichotomy of personal change against institutional change to become the theoretical foundation of school social work.

The concept of empowerment has been popular since the late 1980s (Chiu & Wong, 1999; Lee, 2001; Miley, O'Melia, & DuBois, 2004). This concept was originated by Soloman (1976), who worked in the low-income black communities of the United States, and it kept evolving under the influence of the ecological perspective (Germain & Gitterman, 1996), the critical theory (Ife, 1997) and an affirmative form of postmodernism (Parton & O'Byrne, 2000). The empowerment approach in some ways parallels the ecological perspective by which practitioners are expected to address all macro-, meso-, and micro-levels of assessment and intervention (Germain & Gitterman, 1996). It goes beyond the ecological perspective and emphasizes the construction of social reality that is underpinned by broader and deeper levels of structural oppression (Ife, 1997). Practitioners empower individuals to reflect critically on different forms of oppression emerging in the social structure and to combat these oppressions. By adopting an affirmative form of postmodernism that seeks a philosophical and intellectual practice that is critical, flexible, strategic, and dynamic (Patton & O'Byrne, 2000), the empowerment approach highlights practitioners' diverse political actions to subvert the existing power relations (Fook, 2002).

In light of the ecological perspective, the critical theory, and an affirmative form of postmodernism, empowerment school social work practice can be understood as the political activities of practitioners in mobilizing service users (mainly students and parents) and service partners (school personnel, other youth workers, and community members) to protect the rights of students, cultivate different domains of young people, create a favorable learning environment, and initiate positive changes in the school and education systems. …


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