“I throw my hands up in the air sometimes saying AYO gotta let go”

This lunchtime’s blog post comes from Gema Hadridge, our MA Social Work Student Public Engagement Ambassador. Gema reflects on her first year of learning at Sussex with a special emphasis on ‘use of self’ in social work, and the challenges that boundaries between public, private and professional lives online and in practice present when, as well as a social worker, you are also a seasoned musician.

Earlier this year we began the Social Work MA with the task of writing our own biography. The terror in our eyes as we all wondered whether we had to read it aloud and how many words and pages to write about (would it be immodest to write pages or seen as lacking insight if only a paragraph) was one of the first experiences this course would bring us.

Now, first year down I can see how that piece of biographical writing kickstarted an ongoing process of reflection: why I was drawn to social work, why I had  interest in specific areas, and what influence my values, ethics and personal attributes have on my practice. There have been many things learnt this year, both personally and professionally. For this blog post, my first ever, I want to explore (briefly) two lessons. First, what I learnt on my first placement. Secondly, one of the significant thoughts I’ve had of what personal Vs professional means to me. The two are related.

Interest and conviction about the relevance of a theory come alive when a connection is made with a lived experience.” (Morrison 2007, p247).

The above quote could not have been more true as I began my first placement. It was a setting I had not worked in before: a secure unit for women   . The women had histories, ‘behaviours’ and the ‘potential’ to be very challenging and unpredictable. Incident forms were handed over in the dozen. My first official day on the ward someone tied a ligature, and that was not an abnormal occurrence for the staff.

The experience reiterated to me the importance of seeing the individual as a person. To remain curious throughout practice and allow for the social worker to be authentic and transparent. To understand experiences, not just read case notes on hospital headed letters. To view the world they view, not just be-little them. To see their life, it’s not just about getting better. Not a team discussing their life walls between them, but a team to build their life together. A patient’s team to hold hope, support and work collaboratively, not a power imbalanced tight-rope. But the most significant aspect for me with regards to my practice? How my ‘use of self’ impacted my relationships with the women.

One of my main means of building rapport with the women was through music: whether it was discussing a patient’s favourite band or singing together. One of my most significant moments on placement, that  moved me so much it bought a tear to my eye, was when I sat on the floor in the communal area playing Dynamite by Taio Cruz and I Want You Back by Jackson 5. The patients sang, the staff sang and I played guitar. The woman who had just been telling me to “fuck off” led the harmonies. The woman who had previously not engaged with any conversations with me sat throughout the whole music session. This was a brief moment where the power, oppression and control appeared to melt away. Everyone was empowered. We were just people, singing together, clapping along and laughing.

I wrote my ‘theories, methods, values in practice’ essay with music (and humour) taking up a large section. In the setting above, my use of self and personal skills (my vague ability to play guitar and willingness to risk being very embarrassed sitting in a communal space alone playing guitar) helped build rapport. Then I went to the Connected or Protected conference organised by tutors at the University of Sussex  #uscopro on 5th June..The conference was great. I got to sit on my first panel (felt like a real academic!) and I was intrigued to have discussions about the topic which also gave me the opportunity to reflect on my use of self, my music in particular, in a different way.

What stood out to me? Something that was said about ‘posting’ on social media sites: before you click ‘share’, question why you’re writing it. What is your motivation? This is the exact same conversation I had in a seminar just months before when discussing ‘use of self’. It is something I believe to be relevant and appropriate to consider when discussing use of social media and use of self. But my issue? I’m a musician too.

I have been playing music for ten years. It’s a part of my life – songwriting and listening to music is part of my reflection on both a personal and professional level. In the practice setting I consciously diffused conversations about my own music when I could and only briefly discussed my songwriting once when actually writing a song with some of the women. When asked to play my own songs, I declined. There’s nothing inappropriate with my songs, but I explained I felt it was too personal in the workplace. But even with a conscious effort to not discuss my own music is that allowing for an inadvertent cross of the personal/professional boundary?

If any of the women searched Google they would immediately find my songs, pictures and old (horrendously embarrassing at times) videos – there’s the bonus to having a unique last name. But more importantly regarding the issue of social media to either protect and/or connect, it is very easy to find out where I am at a set time every few weeks. In fact I actively advertise this information. The reason? Because musicians promote their gigs. There is nothing inappropriate about being a social worker and also being a musician, and as a musician I need an online presence. But what does that mean for me as a social worker?

I still haven’t worked out a solution. And I’m not sure I ever will. But it is something that I believe that tutors, universities and employers need to consider. There is the constant worry of people posting ‘inappropriate’ things online (and that is an area that needs to be discussed more), but what about people who use social media in public forums for other aspects of their life?

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July 24, 2014. New media & new technology, Social work practice.

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