Social Work and Empowering Communities

As we acknowledged in our ‘call for papers’ for this special winter edition of the journal, the terms Community and Empowerment have become popular catchwords, not only in the social sciences and a wide range of welfare services but also in everyday discourse. This makes them highly contested, ‘intellectually messy’ and somewhat slippery concepts to use. However, despite the challenging nature of the terrain empowering communities remains an important aim for social work practice and represents a broader vision of what the profession might achieve. It should be remembered that working at the micro, mezzo and macro levels has historical precedence, and revealed in the late 19th century during the early development of the profession, with the community approach initiated by Jane Addams at the Hull House settlement (Addams, 1910; 1981). This has become especially important in more recent times of uncertainty characterised by social divisions, inequality and injustice.

Empowerment has rightly come to occupy a central place in the social work literature and can be defined in various ways. Malcolm Payne (2014) argues that empowerment ‘seeks to help clients gain powers of decision and action over their own lives’ (Payne, 2014:294). It does this principally by removing social and personal barriers, increasing individual’s capability and self-confidence, and shifting power to the powerless. Community empowerment implies something broader and more ambitious involving community engagement and action that explicitly promotes wider social and political change. Hence, it may be seen as a multi-dimensional construct, informed by the classic work of Paulo Freire (1972), aimed at helping local people gain control over their lives, in ways that increase the personal life chances and power of the oppressed. This connects well with the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) and International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW) definition, which links empowerment with human rights and social justice (IFSW, IASSW, 2014).

One of the issues that emerges from the debate is whether empowering communities is a theoretical construct, a process concerned with social change or something broader which encompasses both theory and practice? Perhaps it has developed into a fundamental paradigm underpinned by a vision that helps to map out the possibilities for a progressive social work practice (see Stepney, 2019) and informed by an emancipatory pedagogy (Sewpaul et al., 2015). Writers from the United States such as Janet Lee (2001) suggest it is a complex overarching process and framework for practice underpinned by a range of theoretical ideas. The process may be like a journey that develops and expands as we experience it. In planning this special issue what informed our thinking was the belief that a commitment to empowering communities, protecting human rights and promoting social justice would encourage everyone to consider new ways of thinking about and doing social work. This applies to us all, whether we are practitioners, managers, educators, academics, students or indeed journal editors.

It follows that one of the primary goals of this special edition was to encourage a sense of critical exploration – specifically to open up possibilities for working in dynamic and challenging ways that might help to empower local communities. Community social work is clearly one such method that very much reflects this approach (see Stepney, 2018) and this is helpfully referred to by a number of authors in the articles. In very general terms this method is premised on a clear commitment to community empowerment and change, working closely in partnership with clients and community members. One important way of doing this is by seeking to develop more preventive and inclusive local services combining prevention strategies with protection plans, especially in high risk child protection and mental health work (Stepney, 2014).

The community approach has been found to be effective in working with new immigrants and refugees. In particular by helping to organize community based activities where people can meet and develop a shared sense of belonging and identity, as well as strengthen self-efficacy by adopting important roles in the community. One successful model developed in Tampere, Finland has involved utilising community open space for all local residents, organizing shared group activities, offering guidance by social and health services professionals and the social insurance institution, and developing local expertise and resources. In this model of two-way integration new migrants are treated as ‚experts by experience‘ who take positions as intercultural volunteers working alongside social workers, and later some obtain paid positions in immigrant services (Kostiainen et al., 2019; Leppänen et al., 2019). Further, the aim of empowering communities can become an important component in other social work methods and can be applied to work with any client group (Payne, 2014; Thompson, Stepney, 2018).

The empowering community approach emphasizes the importance of relationships in people’s lives and relation-based social work in facilitating conditions for the development of meaningful social participation, a sense of belonging, hope, coping and recovery. This may be seen as an alternative to neoliberal, managerial and technical approaches criticized in the article by Vishanthie Sewpaul and Princess Nkosi Ndlovu. Empowering community work has sometimes been referred to as structural social work, promoting new ways of achieving social and structural change in both policy and service delivery systems (Mullaly, 2007). Structural work has helped to increase grassroots democracy and, as early as in the 1970s, it was the main feature of empowering community work in the Nordic countries (Wahlberg et al., 1978). Many of the authors in this special issue make research based suggestions for structural changes in both services and policy.

Having set out the theoretical background and practice framework for empowering communities, it is clearly important for the journal to play an active and leading part, for example, to stimulate discussion about the implications for social work practice, education, research and theory development. Social work is an established profession based on knowledge of the social sciences and a wide range of professional disciplines, bringing skills, interventions and resources that are knowledge-based and can contribute to community well-being. As a profession we must be open to new ideas and the exchange of expertise across the globe. We hope that this special edition will rise to the challenge and make a valued contribution here.

We would like to take this opportunity to thank every author who responded to our call for papers and submitted articles. A special thanks is due to the dedication and skill of the anonymous reviewers who provided fair, independent and critical judgement which crucially helped us to make a number of sometimes difficult decisions. The collection of articles that follows reflects a high level of knowledge and understanding of the international social work literature with contributions from authors in a number of countries. The inter-personal and social problems they identify and analyse in their research are often acute, and the solutions they recommend are not only justified but contribute to the aim of empowering communities.

One of the most basic needs that we all have is the need for shelter and the availability of good quality housing. However, in many western societies this need is not being met by the mainstream housing market and can result in the social exclusion of vulnerable people. When mothers with children find themselves homeless, for whatever reason, they become especially vulnerable and require emergency accommodation and often crisis intervention. The ensuing crisis places high demands upon the role of social workers as the first article reveals. Veronika Aresta’s article on Shelter Homes for Mothers with Children in the Czech Republic and the Target Group of Needs They Meet surveyed social workers working with mothers in shelter homes in the Czech Republic. Shelters of course can only provide temporary refuge to the crisis. She found that apart from the need for social housing the mothers required crisis counselling and help particularly in dealing with official agencies, child care and financial management. Empowering communities can be enhanced by policy reform and the author importantly highlights the need for new legislation in the Czech Republic to regulate the provision of social housing.

The issue of finding an empowering response to homelessness is a central theme in the second article on “Help Me Do It by Myself ” – About the Empowered Homeless from the Socially Engaged Perspective. Here Małgorzata Kostrzyńska conducted participatory research out on the streets with homeless men and spent time in a local hostel. Her informative and insightful research, and use of grounded theory, led to developing a perspective that views the homeless as an empowered and resourceful group of survivors rather than fitting the stereotype of being hapless and dependent victims. This has some important lessons for social work, in particular, what might be termed ‘the paradox of helping socially excluded people’ but in the process disempowering them. The article highlights the danger of patronising attitudes of unintentionally instilling a sense of helplessness in keeping with the more disciplining approach consistent with prevailing social norms. What is clearly needed is genuinely empowering social work that will help to counteract the disadvantages and discrimination homeless people face.

Changes in the demographic profile of society is a topical issue in the Czech Republic as in many other societies. The proportion of younger people in the population is decreasing and, at the same time, the share of older people is rising. The consequences for social care are significant, such that, with older people now living longer this inevitably leads to an increasing demand for care at a time when resources and availability of people able and willing to care may be limited. This is the topic of an important article by Agáta Marková, Lenka Komárková and Zuzana Truhlářová on The Perception of the Care Work and Its Importance: A Pilot Study. The study was based upon a quantitative survey of respondents using convenience sampling. It was found that care work is commonly perceived as meaningful and necessary, but physically and mentally demanding, poorly paid, not prestigious and therefore largely unattractive. However, despite these findings a majority of respondents acknowledged that they still felt a duty to offer informal care for their dependent relatives. This pilot study raises important questions about the public perception of caring both in the Czech Republic as elsewhere. Clearly more research and importantly resources will be needed to address the care crisis and its implications for social work. In particular, to consider how the status of formal carers can be improved and how to attract more people into the social care sector.

The need for empowering social work can be found in many fields but particularly in mainstream schools. This is the focus of the article by Shorena Sadzaglishvili, Nelly Akobia, Nino Shatberashvili and Ketevan Gigineishvili on A Social Work Intervention’s Effects on the Improvement of School Culture. This is an important study which examined the effectiveness of social work intervention in two Georgian schools. Using a participatory pre-post intervention design the authors found that social work was particularly effective in enhancing the psycho-emotional and social well-being of students. In addition having social workers in school had a positive impact on both the wider school culture and importantly supported work of other staff with parents in the community. It is our view that the findings from this study in Georgia offer important lessons concerning the value of empowering social work for schools in many other countries.

Against a backdrop of economic globalisation, rising migration and the challenge of maintaining social cohesion in more culturally diverse societies is now occupying the minds of policy makers and practitioners across the EU. This makes the next article by Eva Dohnalová on Development of Intercultural Work in the Czech Republic– Premises and Challenges in Establishing an Intercultural Worker Profession, Allied to Social Work that Promotes the Use of Skills that Migrants Have very timely and highly significant. The article adopts a case study approach concerning the integration of new migrants into Czech society and the role of inter-cultural work allied to social work in facilitating this process. The article raises important questions about establishing inter-cultural work as a distinct profession, working closely with social work, or whether it would be better to develop this within social work. The debate again has broader implications concerning the role of social work in facilitating the integration of migrants in other countries across the EU, as well as outside EU.

The issue of forced migration in Southern Africa features centrally in the next article by Tapfumanei Kusemwa, Pius T. Tanga on Exploratory Research on Community Empowerment for Women Victims of Forced Migration: Implications for Social Work in Sustainable Community Reintegration. The research adopted a qualitative design, based upon semi-structured interviews with victims and informants, to explore the experiences and assess the coping strategies of women victims of human trafficking in Zimbabwe. The study also examined the social protection measures taken by social workers to assist the reintegration of women back into the community. It was found that the women survivors not surprisingly experienced many problems and faced stigma, blame and stereotyping in local communities. The need for an empowering and preventative community social work approach at different levels, better training and policy advocacy were all found to be crucial to better outcomes. The article has global relevance, because human trafficking has become an issue in every country today.

The sexual abuse of children has become a serious problem in many South African communities as elsewhere across the globe. This is the central concern of the article by Tasneemah Cornelissen-Nordien, Sulina Green on the Empowerment of Sexually Abused Children in South African Communities. The study adopted a qualitative approach interviewing participants from a number of non-profit organisations (NPOs) who provide empowerment services to communities scarred by child sexual abuse. The empowering approach by social workers involved the sensitive and systematic process of building trusting relationships, having clear goals, helping restore the boundaries, identifying individual children’s strengths and developing action plans that empowered the children. The need for skilled work at the micro level was enhanced when supplemented by empowering the community to adopt good prevention strategies and establish appropriate protection systems.

The need for a more radical and empowering social work approach, encompassing both prevention and protection, could not be more necessary and urgent as in working with people affected by HIV/AIDS. The final article by Vishanthie Sewpaul and Princess Nkosi Ndlovu entitled Emancipatory, Relationship-Based and Deliberative Collective Action: The Power of the Small Group in Shifting from Adversity to Hope, Activism and Development provides an authoritative and compelling account, as well as a fitting example of the very best in social work. It gives a very powerful voice to a service user, Princess, who is living with HIV, and has become an HIV/AIDS counsellor. Her story is extremely moving and important with enormous implications for developing empowering community based social work. The article calls for a shift away from neoliberal, new managerial and positivist paradigms in social work to participatory and democratic ways of working with people. In so doing it demonstrates the power of small groups supporting the transition from adversity, particularly in the area of HIV/AIDS, to hope, activism and emancipatory development. The article makes a truly groundbreaking and outstanding contribution to the international social work literature.

We invited teachers, practitioners, students and researchers in European and global networks to submit articles on empowering community social work, which could be of interest to an English readership alongside Czech and Slovak audiences. We appreciate the effort made by everyone to answer our call for papers and are pleased that we are able to present this Winter issue 2020 of Czech and Slovak Social Work on Social Work and Empowering Communities.

Taken together these articles contribute to and, we would argue, progress current debates about empowerment in social work and different ways of empowering communities. In one way or another each article has demonstrated that social workers have risen to the challenge of engaging with different communities to develop more equitable, research informed and empowering practice. The changing social, economic and political climate, and the inequalities and injustices that derive from this, call for new forms of professional practice. These have important implications not only for social work practice, but education, policy, research and theory development. We hope that this special edition will inspire everyone, whatever their background or role, to rise to the challenge to find new and more empowering and inclusive ways forward.

As always we welcome feedback on any of the articles published in this special edition and would hope that this will help stimulate and build upon the current debate about social work and empowering communities. This is likely to remain extremely important for social work in 2020 and the challenging times we will face in the years ahead.


A special thanks to Barbora Grundelova for her highly accomplished and systematic administrative work, and skilled collaboration in editing this Special Issue. Thanks also to the editorial board of the CSSWJ for the opportunity to edit this Special Issue.

Paul Stepney and Anna Metteri
Department of Social Work Tampere University, Finland