School of Social Work celebrates 10th research symposium

Themes of social work research and methodology, practice, and pedagogy and teaching were explored as the theme of the 10th annual Critical Social Work Research Symposium hosted by York University’s School of Social Work on April 21.

The symposium was coordinated by the school’s long-standing Research and Ethnics Committee, chaired this year by York Professor Mary Goitom and supported by enthusiastic student members Cameron Lomax, Cayo Whyte and Danielle Taylor.

Titled “Subversive Action: (Re)visioning Social Justice ‘Work’ in Social Work,” the theme of subversion ran through the day’s proceedings.

Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies (LAPS) Dean Ananya Mukherjee-Reed

Department Chair Andrea Daley opened the day with Indigenous land acknowledgment, and Faculty of Liberal Arts and Professional Studies (LAPS) Dean Ananya Mukherjee-Reed opened by congratulating the school on years of active, research-oriented and reflexive critical social work. She articulated the need for a strengthening dialogue between liberal arts and professional studies since the divide between them is false.

In her opening speech, Professor Soma Chatterjee challenged national borders as not only artificial but detrimental to solidarity between immigrant and Indigenous communities. She questioned whether a politics of open borders could bring anti-racist politics closer to decolonial solidarity without positioning immigrant rights and Indigenous self-determination as necessarily conflictual.

Marie-Jolie (MJ) Rwigema

The highlight of the day was the afternoon keynote by York faculty member Marie Jolie (MJ) Rwigema, who passionately introduced her documentary film, The Rwandan Genocide as told by its Historian-Survivors. ‘Survivor-historians’ (a subversive coinage by Rwigema challenging traditional, discipline-bound understanding of historians and historical accounts) Jean-Paul, Sarangabo, Natacha and Axelle shared their experiences of survival and making sense of the genocide. They offered their insightful analysis of the killings to a system of ethnic hatred inherited from colonization and positioned right to tell stories instead of being the supplier of stories as key to reparation and self-determination.

Apart from challenging disciplinary norms, the documentary and Rwigema’s speech threw a subversive challenge to dominant understanding of identities as nationalized, ethnicized and spatialized.

In the 10 papers that were distributed to three panels, graduate students and faculty members from York University, Renison University College, Laurentian University, and Carleton University discussed examples/possibilities and challenges/impossibilities of subversive action in social work research/methods, practice, and pedagogy/teaching.

Presentations included:

• a critique of higher education’s ‘existential aversion’ to community-engaged scholarship (Trish Van Katwyk and Rob Case);
• a positioning of ‘subversive scholarship’ as those resisting the tyranny of evidence-based knowledge (Karen McCauley);
• the interrogation of the existing understanding of ‘love’ in the profession and opening up its political/subversive potential (Kaajal Balkaran);
• the complexities of claiming queer South Asianness as a project of freedom (Khadijah Kanji);
• complicating the notion of empathetic encounters as both a possible and limited site for social relations (Chizuru Ghelani);
• making the case for social action-based social work (Filipe Duarte);
• launching a strong critique of competency-based social work as remnants of the seduction of bourgeois charity work (Marissa Barnhart);
• challenging social work’s historic focus on studying marginalized people as opposed to the injustices they are subjected to, e.g., the profession’s response to poverty (A. J. Withers);
• an examination of  social work’s colonial roots/routes brought to light by going back to its ‘origin’ in settler colonialism and in attempts to ‘re-imagine’ the profession (Edward Wong and Craig Fortier);
• discussion of social work’s decolonial future in a presentation on collaboration between Indigenous peoples and Indigenous Quechua immigrants (Brenda Polar).

The day’s proceedings left guests thoughtful about the integral relationship between subversive actions and the project of decolonization – both in the profession of social work and in the larger political sense – whose urgency was highlighted by so many of the speakers.

As the School of Social Work’s Critical Social Work Research Symposium moves toward its 11th year, the committee continues to take the politics of academic and community-based knowledge(s) seriously without precluding critiques of either, who/what indeed forms subversive scholar/ship, and how rigorous thinking and research can help us move towards a decolonial future.

Content provided by Soma Chatterjee. assistant professor, School of Social Work