“The system needs shaking up”: Promoting and prioritising diversity in social work

Darlington Ihenacho and Vivian Okeze-Tirado discuss what is needed for social workers, and the organisations they work in, to affect meaningful change and promote diversity and cultural competence.

30/11/21

“The system needs shaking up”: Promoting and prioritising diversity in social work

Promoting and prioritising diversity begins with creating safe spaces for people to have conversations and has to be about action to change practice across the organisation. That was the message in a seminar presented at the COMPASS Jobs Fair, London last week by Darlington Ihenacho, Principal Social Worker, and Vivian Okeze-Tirado, Advanced Social Worker and Social Worker of the Year Winner, West Sussex County Council.

The session began with a short quiz – to identify key legislation in promoting and prioritising diversity -- the 1998 Human Rights Act, and the Equalities Act of 2010 -- and, less obviously, to list the nine protected characteristics. Namely: age, gender, sexual orientation, pregnancy and maternity, disability, race, religion or belief, gender reassignment, marriage and civil partnership.

Ihenacho said in social work, cultural competence has to be dynamic: “You're going into people's lives. If you're trying to understand how they live and act as agents for change, we need to be able to understand people's cultures.”

“Social workers who demonstrate cultural competency strive to understand the cultures of the people that they serve and approach them with cultural sensitivity and respect.

“If you're going to visit a family, with a Muslim background, and they don't want you to wear your shoes in the house, you take that into account…if you're moving a child from one point to another, do you take that into consideration when you're doing care plans with young people?”

Crucially, he asked, does your employing authority and the systems you use support you to do that?

Vivian Okeze-Tirado, co-presenting the seminar, then introduced her Diversity acrostic poem, which she has developed into a training method used throughout West Sussex Council, and published as a book.

For example, in the poem, ‘D’ is for ‘decide’: “We have to make a conscious decision to become culturally sensitive in our practice. In social work, that is not an optional area of practice,” she said.

“Social workers promote social change social justice, anti-oppressive and anti-discriminatory practice. That's what we signed up to do. So it is something that we need to be skilled at.

‘I’ represents ‘invite’, Vivian said: “Invite people to talk about their cultures, their values, their beliefs, and experiences. What I'm saying here is, we need to allow our service users to tell us their individual stories, and help educate us on how to work with them. Because if you haven't got information, how can you even begin to work with people? So we need to be open, to invite people. Talk to me about those things that are important to you so that I can then be able to work with you.”

‘V’ stands for ‘value’: “Value clients’ history, individuality and differences,” Vivian said. “So we've all been talking about diversity, I will talk about differences. When we talk about history, we talk about those things that make people different. We need to value what people tell you about their culture, their language, their food. It's about showing respect and remaining open minded and curious.”

The tools outlined in the acrostic enable the social worker to acknowledge and make sense of the situation before acting.

“Don't run away with the first word that someone says to you. Relax, listen, take in the process, acknowledge, and make sense of it before acting.”

Vivian Okeze-Tirado, who was recently announced as Social Worker of the Year at the 2021 Social Worker of the Year Awards, joined West Sussex County Council as a newly-qualified social worker in 2014. Vivian scooped the overall award and the Social Justice Gold Award for her pioneering work in developing diversity workshops for staff, and for her work in children’s services.

The Social Justice Gold Award, a new category at this year’s event, was judged by people with lived experience of social work. It was given to Ms Okeze-Tirado for creating Black Lives Matter, Diversity and Cultural Competence workshops, following the murder in the United States of George Floyd last year.

Speaking to Social Work Today after the session, Darlington Ihenacho said that the support of service leaders was vital. At West Sussex, diversity is now an item in boardroom meetings. An Equalities, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) Officer has been appointed as part of the senior management team, and the principal social worker network has been involved to cascade information across services.

For staff, improving diversity and inclusion begins with raising awareness, creating safe spaces and giving people the opportunity to have conversations.

“We have a BAME circle, an anti-racist forum which used as a myth-busting space. We need selfless leadership,” Darlington said, adding: “The system needs shaking up.”

Picture: Darlington Ihenacho and Vivian Okeze-Tirado with Dr Neil Thompson at the COMPASS Jobs Fair

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