Talking about social graces improves social work practice: Frontline Fellow Saul Lovell
Saul Lovell is a Frontline Fellow whose career in social work spans over 13 years. Now in his sixth year as a social work manager, Saul is currently leading a new team on a project called ‘social work in schools’ in Croydon.
‘Social work in schools’ is an innovation that Croydon Council is committed to as part of their systemic practice, where social workers are based in schools rather than council offices. The pilot initiative is running in 21 local authorities with the aim of building stronger relationships with young people and families.
We spoke with Saul about how he has encouraged open conversations around ‘Social GGRRAAACCEEESSS*’ with his new team, which originally started informally last year.
Shortened as ‘social graces’, the term refers to aspects of social and personal identity such as race, gender, religion and age that have an effect on an individual’s privilege and power in society.
The new initiative provided a good opportunity to openly discuss social graces with the newly formed team of 7 social workers. The feedback from his team has been overwhelming positive and Saul reflects on some of his main observations from the conversations.
Saul explained, “It was quite apparent when we formed as a team that we enjoyed having deeper conversations – we were curious about what each other thought about things.
“In our weekly team meetings, we started having conversations about all sorts of things, including what we were reading and hearing about Black Lives Matter and George Floyd.
“We can’t work without having these conversations – this is real and it affects people. If we want to actually work together, we have to understand each other’s experiences.
“It started quite informally and we enjoyed it so much that we decided to make a conscious effort that at every team meeting we have, we will reserve some space to talk about difference and diversity.”
The informal discussions eventually became more of a formal agenda item where the team would consciously make an effort to be aware of any current issues relating to social graces that had affected them in some way.
“We started to put some more structure around it so that we are always mindful that the conversations were going to happen.
“We went on to conversations about race and ethnicity more largely, and how that impacts on staff and the community we work with. It then broadened to other areas of the social graces, like LGBTQ+ issues and issues around gender. The conversation became one about intersectionality naturally.”
Although it is often hard to evaluate the positive effects of initiatives such as this, Saul has many examples of how the social graces conversations have helped the children and families the team work with every day.
“One clear example that I can give is when we had a conversation about heteronormativity. We discussed how our language can express an assumption that being heterosexual is the default position. This is very common for social workers and other professionals when they’re talking to teenagers and asking them about romantic relationships.
“The question ‘have you got a girlfriend?’ sends a message that having a girlfriend is the only type of relationship considered. For a teenager, it takes a lot of courage to explain to someone that they have made an assumption.
“In effect, you’re shutting the door on a conversation and an opportunity to actually connect with that young person. Instead of being curious about who they are, you’re narrowing the conversation down.
“As a team, we decided that we don’t need to specify the gender – we can just say, ‘is there anyone special in your life?’ or ‘have you got any romantic feelings for anybody?’
As Saul’s team are regularly encouraged to talk about their experiences within a safe space, they have managed to create a space where personal vulnerabilities and mistakes can also be shared.
“My team are much more prepared and able to talk about their vulnerabilities now. There’s not a culture of blame or judgement. The conversations we’ve been having around difference and diversity have been good for us to practice putting our necks on the line and showing the fact that we’re fallible and everyone has prejudices. We’ve all got learning to do.
“As a manager, I am confident that if something didn’t go well, or if a mistake was made, the team would actually talk to me and their colleagues about that. That’s a much safer place to be as a manager, instead of a culture where people are afraid to admit to mistakes – where there’s no opportunity to learn. That often means that children and families are not getting a very good service.”
Read more about the positive impact our Frontline Fellows are creating in their communities:
*John Burnham and colleagues developed the acronym ‘social graces’ to represent aspects of difference in beliefs, power and lifestyle, visible and invisible, voiced and unvoiced, to which we might pay attention in supervision. The ‘social graces’ have grown since their original development and currently represent: gender, geography, race, religion, age, ability, appearance, class, culture, ethnicity, education, employment, sexuality, sexual orientation and spirituality, though the acronym can be more than a list. The intention is not that the acronym is used as a list but as a guide to consider the interacting factors that can inform identity and power and to consider the uniqueness of each person and consider how this interacts within the supervisory relationship. Having said this, the list-like qualities also are useful in reminding and making named, some of the possible unique differences to be considered about ‘otherness’. This list thereby becomes a framework for considering further aspects of difference.