Social work, social justice

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 Fighting for Change: Black Social Workers in Nova Scotia
New ground charted in 'Africadian' history

FIGHTING FOR CHANGE: Black Social Workers in Nova Scotia, edited by Wanda Thomas Bernard, is a fascinating hybrid: an academic book that is also a socio-political history and a guide to practice.

Like many other books by African-Canadian women from the historical black communities, it seeks to lay claim to territory, to social memory and to theory-made-earthy (that is, practical). See also Christie Cromwell Simmondsâe(TM)s excellent âe" I mean, excellent âe" memoir, The Colours of My Memories, Community Books, 2006).

Although the editor is a University of Sheffield PhD and an Order of Canada recipient (2001), her book exudes the homey learnedness of lay church histories written by Donna Byard Sealey (2001) and Pearleen Oliver (1953, 1995).

Fighting for Change opens with history sketches. In the mid-1970s, black social workers in Montreal turned to the U.S.-based Association of Black Social Workers for support and advice in dealing with racism within the Quebec social services establishment. Once they realize that African-American concepts do not easily fit Canada, the Montrealers form a separate chapter. Then, in 1979, a branch is organized in Halifax.

The early years of the Nova Scotian chapter are marked by struggle and debate, burnout and then replenishment of the membership by newly arriving black graduates of, primarily, the then Maritime School of Social Work, at Dalhousie University.

It is the personal testimony of African-Nova Scotian social workers âe" all women âe" that gives this book its life. Their stories are compelling, and, at times, harrowing, treating personal experiences of adoption, abuse and racism from whites, and sexism from black men.

Some narratives are nicely punctuated by biblical language and outright biblical quotation, elements that would appear odd in any standard, "professional" text.

These asides remind us, however, that the historical, cultural basis of African-Nova Scotian (or, to use my term, Africadian) existence was rooted in Christianity, and, especially, the African Baptist Church.

Bernardâe(TM)s contributing essayists suggest, if inadvertently, that Nova Scotian African Baptist theology is âe" profoundly âe" social work, or service.

The styles of the individual testimonials vary.

Lois Fairfax teaches us that it is important to confront injustice at once: "if you second-guess yourself and attempt to address a bias at a late time, it is not effective."

Wanda Taylorâe(TM)s prose performs cadenced, living speech: "I learned more on the Bible, and I discovered that God did not want my children and me to live a life suffering at the hands of (my husband). . . .

Phyllis Marsh-Jarvis recalls a grievous childhood, wherein her black adoptive mother used her as a slave in her store. She writes of "[t]he crisp sharp suffocating fangs of tension always in the air" but also of "[t]he aroma of . . . black-eyed peas and roast chicken in spicy tomato gravy on Sunday. . . ."

The closing essays of Fighting for Change support the case for "Africentric" (black-focused) social work practices in regards to Africadians.

Most testimonials agree: it is the intervention of a black social worker (often Bernard herself) that improves a life and initiates a career âe" or both.

Fighting for Change fills a gap in our knowledge of the 1960s through 1970s development of quasi-secular, Africadian professionals, folks who fought to establish useful links between communal traditions (informal adoption plus extended-family care) and the provincial social services bureaucracy.

But there are gaps here. Little is said of the late Black United Front of Nova Scotia (BUF), whose first director, Jules Oliver, emerged from the Maritime School of Social Work. (Latterly, the BUF was an arm of the Department of Social Services; thus, most of its employees, degreed or not, did social work.)

Black male social workers are missing âe" without explanation.

Happily, (my Aunt) Joan Mendes is mentioned âe" thrice.

Strangely, class is seldom discussed. Yet, blacks were imported to Nova Scotia as cheap labour âe" and as slaves. Surely, this basic fact informs our experience of race and class marginalization.

But I applaud Bernardâe(TM)s fundamental point: education saves (our) lives.âe"George Elliott Clarke

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