March on RNC in Minneapolis
by Ellen Belluomini, LCSW
Advocacy is at the foundation of social work practice. One of the differentiating premises between social work and other fields of human services is the underlying need to work toward equality and social justice for every population. Traditional forms of advocacy range from organizing demonstrations and community education activities to changing local, state, and federal policies addressing social injustice. Advocacy for our client populations is needed in the political, economic, social, and environmental arenas. Digital self-advocacy is a way to involve and empower every client population toward change.
In the past, fewer options have been accessible to clients for self-advocacy. Demonstrations or organized events may be held during work hours, inaccessible, or overwhelm vulnerable participants. Writing letters of support or meeting with government officials may be intimidating. Digital advocacy creates a manageable way to connect to client interests with activism for their empowerment. If you want to understand more about effective digital advocacy, you can visit MoveOn.org, Heartland Alliance (heartlandalliance.org), Amnesty International (AmnestyUSA.org, check out activism tools), Change.org or the Human Rights Campaign (hrc.org). These sites can give social workers ideas about how they, and their clients, can advocate successfully.
Teaching digital self-advocacy can effect change within political, economic, social, and environmental systems. Social workers can help clients problem solve the most effective way to have a voice.
There are four steps in educating clients to choose self-advocacy methods. Evaluation, identification, practice, and evaluation are the four steps that provide the path to effective engagement. These steps develop critical thinking skills in the client’s ability to voice concerns, traumas, or values.
Step 1: Evaluate technology literacy with the client. Demographics or client situations do not determine digital literacy. Some client populations may experience digital exclusion, which hinders their ability to advocate for themselves. Clients should minimally be able to understand multiple forms of digital communication, open programs on a computer, be proficient in word processing, effectively search for information on the Internet, fill out web forms, and be informed about digital etiquette and security. Everyone can be taught something new about technology. Clients can feel empowered by learning technological advancements that previously confused them. Those clients who are digitally literate can benefit by understanding how to use the power of technology to effectively advocate in their lives.
Step 2: Identify which digital advocacy needs will empower the client. Encourage the development of an outline by subject. Helping the client determine areas of concern is the most difficult step. Where do they want to effect change? A specific therapeutic issue is usually perfect for self-advocacy. The issue can be anything clients recognize as needing activism to heal or inspire their lives. Sometimes the client may need guidance in this area, but remember—the social worker’s role is to teach to fish, not fish for them.
Once the needs are labeled, the second part of identification is discovering the appropriate advocacy tools. There are many digital alternatives for self-advocacy. I have a running list of appropriate blogs, websites, mailing lists, social media options, newsletters, and educational videos, as examples of self-advocacy. Apps in this area are limited, but the larger causes have the money to invest in these resources. Coupled with strategies on how to delve into each format, the client reviews options for involvement. We start with one route best fitting the client’s situation, drive, and digital literacy. Small steps in the beginning help clients to feel empowered when they succeed.
Step 3: Have the client practice with the digital tools he or she can identify. This can be done in session to develop a better understanding of the process. Practice with the tool can involve keeping a journal about the experience to use in the evaluation stage. Self-advocacy may be a new concept. Homework can be tailored to the area where empowerment is needed. Even digitally literate individuals need help understanding avenues for championing themselves.
Step 4: Engage the client in a process of evaluating effectiveness. Evaluation develops critical thinking and problem-solving skills that are transferable to their lives. The social worker communicates with the client on what works, what does not, and why. If a client is frustrated with the process, no matter how effective the tool, it will not help him or her to feel empowered. After mastery of the tool, clients can reflect on their thoughts, feelings, and actions in the empowerment process. Once a client grasps the skills of advocacy for one issue, he or she can work toward self-advocacy in any area.
On a micro level, I had a client who came to this country as an adult from Vietnam. During therapy, she disclosed that a doctor had inappropriately touched her and made derogatory comments about her ethnicity. This abuse of power left her unwilling to seek medical attention. We looked up the American Medical Association (AMA) Code of Ethics and information about filing complaints electronically. Through her healing process, she learned to voice her strength by going online and filing a complaint with the medical board, the AMA, the Office of Professional Regulation for the state, and she wrote a letter to the hospital. Her final ritual for healing came as she e-mailed a letter to the physician detailing the trauma inflicted by him and the steps she took for reporting.
Clients can feel powerful on a macro level by participation in demonstrations. Digital advocacy efforts coordinated 10,000 peaceful protestors in the demonstration pictured on page 30 through Facebook, websites, mass e-mails, and posts on mailing lists to concerned citizens. Walking city streets closed for the march, chanting messages, and speaking with others in the cause, can provide a strengths-based approach for self-advocacy. Clients using digital tools on a micro or macro level create experiences that stay with them as a foundation for future empowerment.
Ellen M. Belluomini, LCSW, received her MSW from the University of Illinois, Jane Addams School of Social Work and is currently a doctoral student at Walden University. She is an educator at National Louis University and Harper College. She has developed online and blended curricula with an emphasis on integrating technology into human services practice. She writes a blog “Bridging the Digital Divide in Social Work Practice” to increase awareness about technology’s uses. She presents and consults on various issues related to social services. Her clinical work has been in private practice, management of nonprofit agencies, and programming for vulnerable populations.