Creating social change through research

Atkinson’s School of Social Work has a thriving community of faculty, researchers, students and alumni dedicated to challenging inequality and strategizing for meaningful social change through research, scholarship and critical practice. On April 26, the school held its inaugural symposium – A Celebration of Research through Social Work Change – highlighting the volume and variety of research projects undertaken by faculty, community members, and current and former students.

More than 50 people attended the event including David Dewitt, associate vice-president, research; Wilburn Hayden Jr., incoming director of the School of Social Work; and Atkinson Dean Rhonda Lenton (left). Researchers presented on a range of topics including racism and ethnic diversity; social welfare; international social work; lone mothers; culturally queer children; immigrants and refugees; and bridging the gap between academic and community-based research.

“The symposium highlighted some of the truly innovative and exciting work being carried out by faculty, students and alumni,” said Lenton. “It was an excellent opportunity to learn from each other and to reflect upon ideas and interventions that inform our research, teaching and practice. The breadth and depth of topics explored was a reflection of the rich and diverse research culture both at Atkinson and at the school.”

There were nine presentations throughout the day, followed by an opportunity for discussion – most of which centred on offering up strategies for change. Along with presenting their findings, researchers also focused on how to use their studies to develop and implement useful solutions to social work issues locally and internationally.

“At the School of Social Work we use research as a tool to affect meaningful social change by asking important questions about our structures, our systems and our institutions,” said Nick Mulé, Chair of the Research & Ethics Committee and key organizer of the event. “Through critical research we engage in progressive work that challenges inequality and strives for valuable social transformation.”

Several presentations contained a similar message: to effect meaningful change we must continually link theory to practice and internalize that practice in our everyday experiences. For example, the paper, titled "Transgressions and omissions: Decolonizing the pedagogy and practice of international social work", presented by Graduate Program Director Narda Razack and graduate student Hana Varzandeh conveyed the idea that the classroom can be a colonizing space where the “historical rulers and historically ruled” debate contested political and social issues. Conflicts arise when students with Western interpretations of social justice espouse their opinions on issues concerning the Global South.

Right: Prof. Narda Razack (left), Shana Almeida and Johanna Petite

As Razack noted, debates about these issues produce tensions and often re-create power imbalances. Students who suffered through experiences like ethnic cleansing and other forms of abuses become disengaged as they listen to students who have a very Westernized perspective. Similarly, some voices are silenced as students are forced to listen to the depravation and social ills of their home country – again from a Westernized point of view.

“As individuals, we need to recognize how we are implicated in these global issues by connecting our experiences to broader historical, socio-political and economical realities,” said Razack. “Though theory and academic knowledge may inform our social work practice, we do not necessarily apply that knowledge to our everyday experiences. To be a critical practitioner one must always be aware of one’s place of privilege and open to maintaining a self-dialogue that asks the question ‘How do I contribute to racism and oppression?”

Johanna Petite (BSW ’06) and MSW graduate Shana Almeida recently worked with Razack on a paper, titled "Resistance and Containment: the Emotional Struggle to Internalize ‘Everyday’ Anti-racism", which addressed the disconnect between theory and practice. They conducted two focus groups of minority and white social work practitioners, exploring whether or not anti-racist knowledge and theory held up in real-world social work environments.

Petite and Almeida presented the project findings at the symposium – concluding that the most effective way to bridge the gap between knowledge and practice is to internalize everyday anti-racism by engaging the emotions, rather than just the rational intellect. They offered up strategies for achieving this internalization that included things like engaging in regular dialogues about racism and whiteness; and maintaining a critical awareness of the ways in which we can and do oppress others.

“The paper is about an emotional process, and our research together modelled that,” said Petite. “As we interpreted the transcripts of the focus groups, we also addressed the differences between us, and our own lived experiences. [Internalizing anti-racism] is about a continuous practice of questioning, and bringing knowledge to an emotional process.”

Atkinson Professor Barbara Heron (left) gave a presentation, titled "Creating Global Citizens? A Review of Literature on Learning/Volunteer Abroad Programs", similarly addressed the disconnect between practicing anti-racist behaviour and living it in the everyday. Heron, a former development worker, recognizes the value of international volunteering, but challenges the notion that it creates “global citizens”. She raised two critical questions: Whether or not individuals who volunteer abroad translate their experience into affective change in their own communities upon returning home; and whether or not the experience of having outside volunteers actually benefits the organizations and communities in which they are working.

“It’s one thing to go into a community for a week, two months or a year to do social justice work, but it is entirely another to come back from that experience and to apply what you’ve learned to your own community,” said Heron. “Are international volunteering opportunities truly creating ‘global citizens’? Or do these kinds of experiences merely become a great learning experience at the time but not one that produces lasting changes for the individuals who participate?”

Heron is currently working with Rebecca Tiessen from the International Development Studies Department at Dalhousie University in Halifax, NS, to examine the impact that short-term learning/volunteer placements in developing countries have on Canadians who go abroad and the organizations and communities that receive them. The project is funded by the International Development Research Council of Canada, and involves interviews with 140 Canadians who have studied or volunteered abroad; interviews with 120 staff of local host organizations; and 30 informants in six developing countries.

“There are a disproportionately large number of Western volunteers working for organizations in developing communities,” said Heron. “We hear about the benefits volunteering internationally has on the Western individual but rarely about the impacts their volunteering has on the organizations and communities they are working in. Generally, our motives for volunteering are genuine – but we need to ask ourselves if the practice of volunteering internationally is the most effective way to help create sustainable communities.”

York recently developed a two-year, full-time Masters of Social Work Program aimed at further addressing and providing solutions to the disconnect between theory and practice. The program is geared towards professionals working in the field and students with an honours degree in a discipline other than social work who are interested in acquiring the critical anti-racist, anti-oppressive framework needed to meet the demands of a complex, multicultural client base.

The program will teach students to reflect on their personal and professional practice, while taking an approach to research and teaching that places diversity of experience – due to things like race, class, sexual orientation and ability – as central to understanding how oppression and marginalization are constructed for persons in need of service. Students will graduate able to conduct advanced social work in a manner that is sensitive to issues of difference and understanding of the dynamics of social location in practice contexts.

To learn more about the new two-year MSW visit For more information about research at Atkinson’s School of Social Work, contact Nick Mulé at