Social Work Practice in Community Development

Social workers in the field of community development can be found in many areas of practice and a variety of settings. The work is often not situated within legislated programs, and workers may or may not be required to be registered with the provincial regulatory body. Community practice can involve community economic development such as improving local economies in rural areas experiencing out-migration, or it can
include working with citizens, groups, and organizations to interface with large systems, institutions, and the political process. The identity of "community” varies widely and changes depending on the context of the specific issue or social problem. Social workers who practise from a community development or community organizing perspective attempt to address the systemic issues that create social problems. In many cases, they may also be engaged in the kinds of individual problem-solving practices embodied in many social work positions.

Community social work involves understanding the power dynamics and social relations that govern the relationships between various structures and diverse communities and working to achieve social justice through structural change. If the issue is poverty, for example, a social worker practising from a community perspective may focus on the political economy that creates these conditions. This may include trying to address the policies that perpetuate poverty or organizing groups around the issue to lobby decisionmakers for change.

The main approach to this work is a belief that people acting together have a great capacity to improve their own circumstances, as they have first-hand knowledge of the situation and what needs to happen to change things for the better. In fact, this reflects the fundamental values of the social work profession generally. Some of the tools utilized by community social workers are developing community awareness, leadership identification and development, creating strategic alliances, adult education, fostering collaboration, and building community capacity. The community social worker can be involved in various large-scale social movements and broad issues such as homelessness, or in the development of programs or projects and research.

To achieve a better understanding of conditions from social, economic, and political perspectives, social workers practising at the community level concern themselves with matters of public policy and often engage with others in policy analysis. The analysis assists in developing strategies towards achieving some form of sustainable change. In any situation, the communities of focus must play a leading role in defining the issues and developing the solutions. Community social workers spend much time working with leaders and allies to identify common goals among community members. The social worker becomes a leading organizer to generate a strategic direction in the context of goals identified and defined by the  group and that the group works toward. The social worker shares any and all information related to the presenting problem or issue so that stakeholders are better able to participate in formulating solutions.

Social workers who practise as community organizers or developers are guided by the ethics and standards of the profession and by principles of sustainable community development. Research approaches most commonly used in this area of practice are qualitative, such as participatory action or ethnographic research. From a community perspective, the social work role is to conduct assessments and share information with the identified community of interest. Research knowledge is often used to formulate the steps needed in developing a strategy. In turn, the social worker learns from the people in their communities, enhancing collaboration and partnerships that lead to achieving real social change.

Prepared by Cyndi Hall