Episode #3: Community-based Social Work in Cuba & the U.S.


In any program that trains and prepares social works, you will no doubt encounter issues about objectivity, exploitation, and dual relationships. Usually, though, those concepts are taught to us in strictly binary terms. In this episode, Ondine and Drew look at an example of community-based social work in Cuba to deconstruct how we in the United States might do better to reconsider our attachment to objectivity as well as our total avoidance of dual relationships.

Ondine:               You’re listening to Decolonize Social Work, a conversation about social work, oppression and liberation. I’m your cohost Ondine.

Drew:                   And I’m your cohost Drew.

Ondine:               Welcome everyone.

Drew:                   Hello.

Ondine:               To the third episode of the Decolonize Social Work podcast, where today we’re going to be asking the question, “How well do we serve our communities?”

Drew:                   I will admit that we have no fear of the big questions in social work.

Ondine:               Nope, nope. We’re just gonna get right in it.

Drew:                   So, let’s get right in it.

Ondine:               So, this topic really came from an article we read from a book full of case studies of social work around the world.

Drew:                   Yeah. This is an awesome book.

Ondine:               Yeah, it’s called, “Decolonizing Social Work” and it’s about practice around the world that is decolonized.

Drew:                   Right.

Ondine:               So, this particular chapter was about community based social work in Cuba, and that really got our brains fired up. So, we are gonna address, using that sort of model we learned from Cuba, and taking a look at ourselves. We’re gonna talk about these five points: How social workers are recruited and trained, dual relationships, objectivity, community organizing, and how we respond to social issues.

Drew:                   Seriously, nobody can ever say that we don’t tackle the big topics.

Ondine:               We’re gonna do our best in 25-35 minutes.

Drew:                   We’re gonna do all of this. I know. We’re gonna kill it.

Drew:                   So, we’re gonna go right into it then. So you wanna talk about how social workers are trained and recruited in this case study?

Ondine:               Yeah, I do.

Drew:                   Okay.

Ondine:               So what I learned is that in Cuba there are social work degrees in the university, like we do have, but remember, that university in Cuba is free. So there’s that.

Drew:                   There is that.

Ondine:               But, there’s also this effort to recruit social workers to stay in the communities where they live. To do their work there. There was this big effort to create these paraprofessional schools, which if y’all listen to episode two of our podcast, where I talk about alternative models for training social workers, this is a theme.

Drew:                   I’m just gonna go ahead. I gotta do it. Beep, beep, I gotta toot our own horn, because that was a little validating to read that, ’cause we had recorded that before we read that in this case study.

Ondine:               That’s right.

Drew:                   I was like, “See, other people think it’s a great idea.”

Ondine:               Other people are thinking about this.

Drew:                   I know.

Ondine:               And so, they create these paraprofessional programs. They really targeted young folks in these communities, who maybe weren’t gonna go to university, to give them employment and purpose in the neighborhoods where they live. That really got me thinking about, again, how do we do that here? So my understanding is that you end up being a social worker, ’cause you decided you wanted to. There’s not this intentional effort of recruiting folks into programs, especially folks from specific communities, and definitely not with the thought that they will then remain in that community.

Drew:                   That really raises, for me, the question of, “Do the institutions that train and certify social workers have some responsibility to locate people, in distressed communities, who would be even better equipped to help their own communities and serve their own communities, if they were provided these skills from these institutions?”

Ondine:               Yeah, I wonder that too. Might I add too, not just distressed communities right, like all communities.

Drew:                   All communities. That is true.

Ondine:               Deserve to have social workers that understand them.

Drew:                   Yeah, ’cause we talk about that too. How sometimes social work is a reactive profession, and there’s not enough proactive work to kind of keep people from getting into a crisis in the first place. So, yeah, you’re right, you’re right to bring that up.

Ondine:               And the training in Cuba sounds a lot, again, like sort of vocational … We’ll talk about this later, but the training is more in line with community organizing, I think, than what we think of as social work work. We’ll talk about that more later.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               So, what popped up, also for me, in thinking about training people from neighborhoods to stay there and do the work, is dual relationships.

Drew:                   It’s kind of hard to avoid when you’re living where you work.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   Yeah, and I think that the code of ethics actually says something pretty specifically about this, right?

Ondine:               They do. I remember hearing all the time, in social work –

Drew:                   I do too.

Ondine:               -school about dual relationships. And basically, the refrain was don’t have them. So, our code of ethics is clear. Here it says, “Social workers should not engage in dual, or multiple, relationships with clients, or former clients, in which there is a risk of exploitation, or potential harm, to the client. In instances where dual, or multiple, relationships are unavoidable, social workers should take steps to protect clients, and are responsible for setting clear, appropriate, culturally sensitive boundaries. Dual, or multiple, relationships occur-” This is sort of what this means.

Drew:                   Right.

Ondine:               “-when social workers relate to clients in more than one relationship, whether professional, social, or business. Dual, or multiple, relationships can occur simultaneously, or consecutively.”

Ondine:               So, what they mean by professional, personal, it could be that you see your clients go to your church, or they are your banker, or they have a lawn care service and you need your lawn cut.

Drew:                   The first thing, though, that jumps out to me, about that, is the fact that this is there to primarily protect people from exploitation. I got no problem with that.

Ondine:               Yeah, I mean that’d be shady as heck, if somebody who’s your client, you coerce them into giving you cheaper lawn care services.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               Because if something your doing for them-

Drew:                   Or watching your kids for free, because you’re helping them get some kind of service that maybe you have to … You know, that’s just messy.

Ondine:               It’s super messy. So that’s the spirit, and it’s trying to leave a little bit of room so that you don’t have to run to the hills at the potential of there being a dual relationship. But, my experience, is what happens in practice is there’s so much fear about how to navigate that terrain ethically and sensibly, that the marching orders are ‘just don’t have dual relationships’.

Drew:                   I don’t like that binary black and white model though, because I think there is room to have healthy relationships with somebody. Like if your kids go to the same school, you can acknowledge them, or be on the PTA with them, or something like that. I think that this binary thinking, again to be in the spirit of our podcast, is very colonial, white supremacist.

Ondine:               Yes.

Drew:                   Like culture of making sure that everything is objective. That you’re not attached to the work that you do, or the people you’re helping, in any way. I think that’s a problem, because again, there is room to have a relationship with somebody where you don’t exploit them.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Drew:                   Maybe that’s an onus on social workers to be a little bit better trained on how to do that.

Ondine:               Yeah, here, here.

Drew:                   Yeah. I gotta say, it kinda sounds like a shortcut, like, “Well we don’t have the time to teach everybody how to respect everybody, so we’re just gonna tell them not to have any relationship with anybody else.”

Ondine:               Just don’t do it.

Drew:                   Yeah, and I just think that’s kind of a lazy solution. I think there is plenty of room. We’re capable people. We obviously are in this profession for a reason. I think there’s room to have both semi-personal relationships with people, and also not expressing favoritism or exploiting people.

Ondine:               Absolutely.

Drew:                   Through the services we provide them.

Ondine:               Yeah. So, in thinking about the Cuban model, where the expectation is that you’re gonna be a social worker in your neighborhood, and in Cuba neighborhoods are really interestingly defined.

Drew:                   I love this.

Ondine:               It’s like 250 households, and/or 750 inhabitants.

Drew:                   It is perfect that nobody is going to have a caseload bigger than another person. It’s like the perfect socialist model. Everybody collectively shares the same amount.

Ondine:               It’s the same.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               I made a joke before, “So, like if your grandma comes to live with you, does that like totally throw the composition of the neighborhood?”

Drew:                   Community just gets split into two social workers service areas now.

Ondine:               See like, but living where you work I think can be really powerful, because ideally, and this is not perfect, but ideally this is your neighborhood, this is your community, and you are more invested in it’s success.

Drew:                   You’re more invested in it’s success, and also, you and I have talked about this too, nobody is gonna know a communities problems better than –

Ondine:               The people who are in it.

Drew:                   – the people in the community. There’s a familiarity with it. You have a history of knowing, maybe, what has been attempted before and didn’t work. Maybe, some things that have been overlooked, because you just have that embedded experience of living in that.

Ondine:               And there’s just a greater potential for empathy and compassion too, when our struggles wrapped up in with each other.

Drew:                   Yeah, it is possible to do that and be ethical, and maybe also have some non-exploitative dual relationships with people.

Ondine:               Yeah. Another thing, too, just keeping on this idea of living where you work, that came up for me, which felt really powerful, is that when people are forced to leave communities for work elsewhere, the community suffers from their loss.

Drew:                   It’s like a brain drain.

Ondine:               Yeah, we see that especially in parts of our country that have been … Where there’s a lack of investment. We’ve seen a lot of that in Appalachia. I mean, I’m gonna pick on you now, but you come from a town in Kentucky, where people they leave, right?

Drew:                   I do. Yeah, I do. I left. I didn’t go back. I’ve never thought to go back, because there aren’t opportunities there, but also because as I grew up, the message I kinda grew up with was, “You have to get out. There’s not much here. You have to go out. If you wanna do something you gotta get somewhere else.” That’s just such a terrible dilemma to put on somebody.

Ondine:               It is, and I think it’s violence.

Drew:                   I think it’s violence too, because it does destroy communities.

Ondine:               Which is a hallmark of colonialist, white supremacist, behavior.

Drew:                   It is. I think you were right to name that that is violence.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   Because people sometimes think that violence it’s just like physical, sort of, blood shed, but erasure is violence. We’ve talked about that before.

Ondine:               So, let me bring us back to our-

Drew:                   Okay.

Ondine:               No, I love this conversation, this is exactly what I think we need to be talking about in decolonizing social work.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               So, the third point we wanted to bring up, that really kind of came home as we were reading about this model in Cuba, was the problem with objectivity. You have some good stuff to say about that.

Drew:                   I do. You know, I just gotta pause for a second. We’re just reading for filth. Dual relationships. Objectivity. I just have to beg our social worker listeners … I know you probably –

Ondine:               Hang in there y’all.

Drew:                   You probably clutched your pearls and like, “Oh my gosh! This is antithetical to everything I’ve been told, but stay with us here, because, again, we’re going to a good place.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   Talking about this. But, yeah, so if you’re living where you work, if you’re having dual relationships, obviously the next thing that you gotta contend with is this idea of maintaining objectivity. Being objective, having a boundary between you and your clients, and I wanna read something I came across in a book called, “Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence” by Dr. Derald Wing Sue.

Ondine:               I love him.

Drew:                   He is amazing. He is a counseling psychology professor at Columbia University. In this book, he talks about dismantling white supremacy culture, and tackling a lot of unintentional raci- … Well, not unintentional I guess, but like subversive racism and stuff like that.

Ondine:               Right, right.

Drew:                   Anyways, here’s a quote from him, talking about objectivity and how it’s related to white supremacy culture. “We’re often told to be objective. That rationality is the ability to separate ourselves from the issues and not to let our emotions get in the way. Our worship of science reveals the value placed on symbolic logic, analytical and linear approaches, and the ability to tease out parts from the whole. While individualism, as a value, has many positive components, is it possible that it’s extreme form may lead to an unhealthy separation between people. When you objectivity others, see them as distinct from you, and perceive your relationships with people as less desirable than separation and objectification, is it possible that you may also be prone to dehumanize them.”

Drew:                   “Because your world revolves around you, others are less important. Others become objectified and, in many cases, dehumanized as well. You will have little regard for others, see them as separate from you, and experience little empathy for them.”

Ondine:               Hmm, I’m just gonna snap my fingers.

Drew:                   Yeah, that’s brilliant.

Ondine:               Because, you know what comes to mind immediately is the way … Coming back again to like living where you work, and how in Cuba that’s just different, is that we parachute into communities. And by ‘parachute’ I mean it’s just social workers go into communities and don’t live there, don’t have a stake in it.

Drew:                   They are detached.

Ondine:               They are detached, right, and believe themselves to be objective.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               Which is not actually ever true.

Drew:                   Right, we all can never truly separate our own biases, our own beliefs, from any action we take.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               And this just does feel like some white supremacy at work.

Drew:                   Yeah, and I just wanna clarify too, individualism … I know Sue said that sometimes it’s not bad, but the reason it’s being critiqued here is because individualism, in white supremacy culture, and in colonizer ideology, is strongly linked to Western European values and a Protestant work ethic, where you and only you are responsible for yourself, and this is the purest form of, I guess, scientific inquiry, is like the individual and the detached individual at that. And that’s harmful.

Ondine:               It is, and that’s a good segue into the next bullet on my list, which is to talk about community organizing.

Drew:                   Yeah, and you started to talk about parachuting into communities and how harmful that is, but there’s also when you parachute into a community what goes along with that too is you aren’t just going there to be a person there, but you’re going there because you think you got answers.

Ondine:               ‘Cause you got answers, and then you’re gonna give them all your answers, then you’re gonna get the F out.

Drew:                   Yeah, and I think that’s really, again, I think we’ve heard this story, and if you’ve listened to this podcast you’ve told this story of a certain community, a certain group of people, going into other communities and saying, “We know what’s wrong with you and we’ve got the answers for you, and you’ve just gotta do it the way we say.”

Ondine:               Hashtag –

Drew:                   Colonializ-

Ondine:               I was thinking Columbus day.

Drew:                   Oh! Columbus day! You are right. That was better.

Ondine:               Same, same.

Drew:                   That was better anyways. But, yeah, you can’t just go into a community, parachute into a community, and just stand at the end of the street in a Jesus Christ pose, and just say, “You gotta listen to me. Follow me, I’ve got the cure for what ails you.”

Ondine:               Yeah, and I mean Jesus even lived where he worked, come on y’all.

Drew:                   He lived where he worked. He did.

Ondine:               So community organizing right, this really stuck out to me too, in learning about the model, the social work model, in Cuba, is that when we say community based social work in the United States, I think as you mentioned before, what that means is that the social worker goes, maybe, to the clients house, or where the client is. So, very much in that social work sort of mentality of meeting people where they are, but the services are still very individualistic.

Drew:                   They are. Yeah, they are.

Ondine:               They’re really based on this one-on-one, or I mean social work on family interaction that’s meant to help those people figure out how to live better, pick themselves up by their bootstraps, or whatever it may be.

Drew:                   Right.

Ondine:               Whereas in Cuba, the social workers are trained to see the community as an organism, as the client if you will, and that the mechanism for making change is bringing them together to really think through what their power is, and what their demands are. Then the social worker acts as sort of the broker to try to get the community the resources, or whatever it is, that they believe they need.

Drew:                   There’s a lot of different roles for a social worker in community social work in Cuba.

Ondine:               Oh my gosh! Yeah.

Drew:                   Like you said, kinda being an advocate, I guess, for them with the government, and brokering for services or resources.

Ondine:               Yeah, maybe sometimes one day you’re like mediating some disputes in the community that really can impact everybody’s health and well-being, then the next day you’re sort of the neighborhood representative at a council meeting, then the next day you’re going to some government official who has the ability to divert resources in the community, and getting them to do that because you have helped organize the communities demands into something really tangible.

Drew:                   I love how thorough this is. It is like a community response right.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Drew:                   It’s community based and it’s not just focused on individuals in a community, but it is still focused on individuals who are a part of a community, if that makes sense.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   I mean it’s a weird, kinda confusing switch of words, but I think there’s some big differences there.

Ondine:               No, it makes sense to me, and I think what’s also kind of cool, when I was reading this account in Cuba, is that as the social worker, in this role, you’re also gonna be just on sort of multi-disciplinary teams, right?

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               So sometimes whatever needs are surfacing in the community relate to healthcare stuff, then you might be working with doctors, or nurses, or other folks, to try to address those needs. I wanna lift up too that this does not mean that there aren’t individual folks in these communities who need individual services.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               Or have individual needs that must get met. It’s just that the approach and the strategy is very different.

Drew:                   Yeah, I was thinking about that when you were talking about that, because I think it is great that there are social workers who will go into communities and work with individuals and meet them where they are, because there might be some barriers to somebody going to get services outside of their community, or something, and I think that’s awesome. I just think it’s a little incomplete, if that makes sense?

Ondine:               Yeah, yeah.

Drew:                   Because, again, what good is a therapeutic intervention if the person just continues to say in a system that’s making them sick?

Ondine:               Yeah, right? Yes.

Drew:                   So, again, I think there is a broader scope of the interventions that happen when you focus on the community as a whole, rather than the individuals. Because, again, I think that alleviating some of the problems, or the stressors in somebodies life might make it easier for them to recover, and maybe get better benefits out of therapy.

Ondine:               Yeah, and building power in a community is powerful, and it helps develop relationships, and foster deeper networks. We then suddenly see ourselves as in it together, and our liberation is wrapped up with each other.

Drew:                   I was just thinking that that is the key word there. It is liberatory.

Ondine:               It is definitely more of a liberatory model than maybe what we do.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               I know that when I was in social work school, somebody in some syllabus or something mentioned that community organizing is a thing social workers can do, but you didn’t feel like that was actually something you could do.

Drew:                   We didn’t really get trained in that either.

Ondine:               No.

Drew:                   Yeah.

Ondine:               We didn’t. So, the last point we wanted to bring up, this was thought provoking to me too. When I was reading that, in Cuba, the governments response to social problems is just universally, just sort of different than what we do. They see emerging social issue, and the first response is, “Okay, I think we need to train and deploy social workers to start taking the pulse of the community, and kinda helping folks coalesce, maybe, their complaints, or whatever it is, to come up with some community based solutions.”

Drew:                   Also, emphasis on the fact that they’re seeing these problems and they’re recruiting, or training, people who are a part of these communities. Who are experiencing these problems too.

Ondine:               Right, so they’re wrapped up in the solution making, and also might, like, they know the people who are struggling with XYZ. I think one of the examples that really stood out to me, is they were talking about concerns about young folks who maybe felt disenchanted, or there were other things at work in their lives, as a sort of this is a … What is that word, when you do something in advance?

Drew:                   Proactive?

Ondine:               Yeah! That’s the one! As a proactive response, was to deploy social workers to try to deal with something, before it becomes a problem.

Drew:                   Yeah. I think that it was … I’m sorry. I was just gonna say I think that one of the things that stood out to me was the difference between how this … Social workers are mobilized to respond to a community problem in Cuba. I think when we have an emerging community problem here, historically, the response has been … Think about crime for example.

Ondine:               Okay.

Drew:                   Crime is becoming a big problem in the city. The thing that gets mobilized is, not social workers here.

Ondine:               It’s law enforcement.

Drew:                   It’s law enforcement, it’s cops, it’s police officers, and I think about how different it would be if instead of policing the hell out of people who are already experiencing problems, if we just deployed a bunch of social workers instead, what the outcome, how different those outcomes could be. I realize too, you gotta hold up the fact that right now in the U.S. there’s a lot of discussion on the opiate misuse problem that we’ve had.

Ondine:               Especially where we live in our, in you know-

Drew:                   In Kentucky.

Ondine:               In Kentucky. For our listeners outside of the states, our particular state has been really heavily impacted by the opioid epidemic.

Drew:                   And I think the response has been, probably, kinder than it has been in the past, in that a lot of money has gone into treatments, a lot of money has gone into, maybe, some interventions that aren’t carceral, but that-

Ondine:               But, why is that?

Drew:                   So, yeah, that was the point. It’s like, that hasn’t always been the case. You compare this to the way our governments, and our society, responded to the crack epidemic in the 80’s.

Ondine:               In the 80’s, yeah.

Drew:                   The population largely effected by that were African-Americans living in cities.

Ondine:               Mm-hmm (affirmative)-

Drew:                   Whereas now, it’s like White folks living in rural areas, and the response in the 80’s was, “We will police the hell out of them.” They’re gonna arrest them. We will just keep removing them from the city.

Ondine:               Yeah, we’re gonna pass laws that make it easy to throw these folks in prison.

Drew:                   Right, which, again, I think is, to echo what you said earlier, tearing apart communities like that is violence.

Ondine:               Absolutely.

Drew:                   That is certainly not a just way to respond to these community problems. So, while the response to the opiate addiction has been different this time around, it hasn’t always been that way. I don’t think it started that way either.

Ondine:               Yeah.

Drew:                   But, yeah, I like the way that this is how Cuba responded to emerging problems in communities, was like we need to get some people from those communities to organize, and to get them some skills to help them figure out what these communities need for themselves.

Ondine:               And, as always right, our podcast is about exploring different ways of thinking, exploring maybe different possibilities and frameworks, and talking about these issues. Talking about how to decolonize our practice as social workers. It’s not always to just say, “This is the answer!” ‘Cause I do wanna lift up that Cuba, a socialist country, has something else going on for it that we don’t have. So, copy/pasting sort of interventions, may or may not work perfectly.

Drew:                   Yeah, it is a different society, just how it’s structured, but at the same time that doesn’t mean that there aren’t things that we could learn from this model. Like the challenging of objectivity, or living where you work. These are things that we could do here.

Ondine:               We could do that here. I do wanna make the point though that capitalism is bad for social work.

Drew:                   Yeah, it is not a good match for social work, at all.

Ondine:               No, as a social justice profession, doing that, in an environment where profits rule the day, is really challenging. I think, again, in Cuba … I mean firstly, I read in this chapter that Cubans, there’s this different sentiment that the government is supposed to provide you with services and goods. So, a community organizer, in that environment, has maybe a little bit more leverage to get the community what it needs. That’s a bigger challenge here where culturally, as Americans, we’re not on the same page about what we think our government should, or shouldn’t, do for us. And our governments don’t feel like they owe us anything necessarily.

Drew:                   Yeah, so that is a very different problem.

Ondine:               Yeah. Not to be a downer, like you said a minute ago, there are some things from this model that I think we need to really examine. Like how we recruit and train our social workers. Where they live. Not being so weird about dual relationships. You know, examining objectivity and how that doesn’t need to be lifted up as the standard.

Drew:                   Yeah, I agree, and like I said, as a reflection to how we do social work here, it does help us decolonize it. It’s not like the solution, there’s not just one sure fix for it, but it is examples like this that show us how we can do this in a more decolonized way.

Ondine:               Yeah. So, I wanna let folks know that we will, in these two books that we referenced, we’re gonna drop them into our social media, so that you all can find them yourselves.

Drew:                   Derald Wing Sue’s ‘Race Talk and the Conspiracy of Silence’, and then ‘Decolonizing Social Work’, which is again a collection of case studies of social work around the world, edited by Mel Gray, John Coates, Micheal Yellowbird, and Tiani Hetherington.

Ondine:               I kinda wanna leave with something kinda warm and fuzzy.

Drew:                   Let’s do it, yeah.

Ondine:               So, we learned that, in Cuba, they have a couple of, I think, endearing terms for social worker. The first one being emergentes, or emergents, the folks that respond to emerging social issues, which I just thought was, I don’t know, kinda neat and proactive.

Drew:                   I like that a lot. Then there’s one thing that I really was touched by, which was that social workers are considered, in their communities in Cuba, as agents of transformation.

Ondine:               I love it.

Drew:                   I do too. I think you need that on your business card.

Ondine:               Okay.

Drew:                   I think you do.

Ondine:               And lastly, this really warmed me, but Fidel Castro, the former President of Cuba, was known to say, or to call, reference social workers as doctors of the soul. I love that, and it just gets me thinking about how I want that for us here in the United States. I think in order to connect on a soul level, with the people that we work with and serve, we have to believe that our liberation is wrapped up together, and we have to decolonize our work.

Drew:                   I think that’s a beautiful note to end on. So, I think that’s gonna do it for us. Thank you all, and we’ll have those links for you, and we will see you on our next episode.

Ondine:               Thanks y’all.

Drew:                   Bye.

Ondine:               Bye.

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