Beyond Radical Social Work: Casework For Change

By Mac Scott and Lesley Wood

"Casework is a point of contact with the community you are organizing. If you can't show you can make a difference in people's lives - you can't expect them to join in to larger struggle. [Not doing casework], is as if a trade union only did organizing around broad questions. We do casework to build a base for action." John Clarke, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty

Involving both direct service provision for individuals or families and broader political campaigns, "casework" melds the grievance approach of unions with an emphasis on collective action and expansive political goals - often using direct action or street protest tactics. An organizing strategy that is being adopted by an increasing number of organizations, it provides a way for radicals to remain grounded in day-to-day community concerns, while engaging in larger campaigns. Although it may sound like social work, Sarah Vance of the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) explains how casework by groups like OCAP differentiates itself: "the political underpinnings of our casework are radical rather than reformist. The intention is to publicize wrongs done to individuals and use victories to inspire broader struggles for structural change."

The ability to achieve such change depends on building ties amongst those targeted by systems of oppression. Monami Maulik of Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM), an organization based in New York City's South Asian communities, explains why casework is important: "It is important for the grassroots, especially around building leadership from the families. You use meeting people's immediate needs to challenge the system in a long term way and you try to use it to keep people as members of your organization." Sima Zerehi of No One Is Illegal (NOII) Toronto explains why her organization does the day-to-day casework: "Because there is a desperate need for immigration casework and it's a good way to build links and trust with communities."

Of course, using individual cases as a way to put pressure on the system is not new. During the US welfare rights movement of the 1960s, welfare recipients demanding their cheques disrupted welfare offices en masse, intending to bring the welfare system into crisis, and radically expand the provision of welfare. The group actions of the period were described as "the most effective tactic…A group of recipients descended on the welfare center to hold a demonstration, demanding that all grievances be settled before the group left, with the threat that a sit-in would follow if the demand were not met. These actions generally succeeded, for with the ghettos of the cities seething, welfare officials feared confrontations."

This collective action approach provides opportunities for solidarity in an attempt to counter the isolation common amongst those caught in the legal, welfare, criminal or immigration systems, all of which treat cases individually, limiting the opportunity for those most affected to unite their experiences into a more general understanding of the problems and the possible solutions. Because organizations that use casework provide a direct service, people are often willing to get involved, at least on their own cases. When these demonstrations succeed, as they often do, new members can begin to believe that change is possible, and begin to share their experiences. Through such discussion, links between issues and struggles can be built, as can the capacity for making change. Nevertheless, using casework as a tool for radical change poses serious challenges.

The Challenges

"The work is time consuming and deals with individual people and situations rather than generalizations. Casework is also done on a one-to-one basis, behind the scenes. It is hard to build momentum or a campaign or to advance political goals through casework. It is also emotionally draining." - Sima Zerehi, No One Is Illegal

Organizations using casework for political organizing face three main challenges. The first is to keep the larger systemic goals central and thus avoid being either sucked into the vortex of endless individual cases or co-opted into projects that deal only with the symptoms of the crisis. The second challenge is to build leadership in the communities under attack and avoid becoming an elite cadre of casework professionals with a set of specialized knowledge. The third challenge is to maintain commitment and accountability to those targeted, while avoiding organizer burnout.

Keeping It Revolutionary

"Winning individual victories with relative ease can inspire impatience and frustration with the difficulties of taking on broader campaigns." Sarah Vance, Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP)

It is often difficult to set limits or priorities as an organization when absorbed in the day-to-day oppression that goes on in poor, racialized and immigrant communities. Resource limits are quickly reached, the routine dealings with bureaucracy become disempowering. There is a constant danger of state bureaucracies setting the terms of debate and defining the possible outcomes. As a result, the more revolutionary goals of the organization can easily be forgotten. As John Clarke of OCAP puts it: "You don't want to become so absorbed you cannot organize broader campaigns." In New York City, Bekah Wolfe of the Immigrant Justice Solidarity Project (IJSP) adds, "I think that balancing between a political ideology and the nastiness of a legal system that we know doesn't work is really hard. It's important not to get caught up in legal definitions of how things work and legal understandings of how things work because we know that that should not be true."

Another risk is cooptation. Some collective solutions that respond to the needs of communities can end up spending too much time negotiating with authorities, defending the funding or legitimacy of their organizations or indeed, becoming part of the oppressive apparatus themselves. Despite the best of intentions, groups inadvertently limit their own potency. In the 1960s and 1970s many poor people's organizations in US cities, responded to the needs of their members for low income housing by taking over abandoned buildings, renovating them and managing their operation. While the low-income housing was provided, the social change organizations ended up in the awkward position of becoming landlords and policing the projects they had developed, unable to continue to engage in confrontational tactics where necessary.

Leadership By The People For The People

Casework often requires some specialized knowledge, be it legal or social service based. This often reinforces patterns of privilege within an organization, and can lead to an emphasis on individual, rather than collective solutions. While this can assist short term victories, it keeps power hierarchies intact and does nothing for the larger revolutionary project. Monami Maulik of DRUM explains how casework can fall into traditional power-based relations: "Casework in any system, detention, prison, welfare, tends toward immediate short term problem solving and it's set up within institutions to be disconnected from social change work. People who have been through the system are used to being treated as clients and spoken on behalf of, which is disempowering, extremely disempowering."

Commitment And Accountability, Sustainability

As activists who have a larger critique of capitalism, racism/imperialism and patriarchy, we see that certain oppressed groups are consistently targeted by the system in routine ways. And yet, some of us hoping to overturn these systems often have little contact with the communities most targeted by them. If we believe that the people most directly targeted by these systems have the clearest idea of how they operate and impact peoples lives, it becomes obvious that if we want serious, sustainable change, it must be directed by those people. Bekah Wolfe from the IJSP explains: "I do casework because first of all, the kind of relationships that I want to build are accountable relationships and I think that you actually have to provide some kind of assistance to the people that you're actually trying to be accountable to, rather than just asking their opinion and getting their information." Providing concrete mutual aid builds trust between those doing the organizing and those being targeted, leading to relationships which can overturn the traditional hierarchy of organizer/organized or caseworker/client.

If we have a commitment to accountability, specialized skills are often not enough, and by keeping the work in a few hands, lead to burnout. Wolfe continues, "It's really hard and casework sucks when you're an individual working on a case because especially in immigration detention, it's very hard to be responsible for something that you may or may not have any control over whatsoever. Especially if you are doing casework not as a lawyer or anybody, but as an advocate. It's hard to have that responsibility I think and not go crazy." Despite the limitations of resources, systems of privilege and the difficulties around accountability, commitment and sustainability, organizations are strategizing around how to use casework effectively.

Capacity Building For Revolution: Overcoming The Challenges

"The challenge is to build leadership within [oppressed] communities, to train them to be advocates for their own cases and their own community." Monami Maulik, DRUM

DRUM places a direct emphasis on transferring skills and leadership to the families of detained immigrants, particularly women. They see building leadership out of these communities as inherently revolutionary, and the job of the organization is to provide a forum for the development of political analysis and to obtain the skills necessary for this leadership to be utilized. This is the strategy behind DRUM's new Family Organizing Project. Monami Maulik explains that "we will hold monthly meetings to do trainings on topics like 'negotiating through the detention system' and 'how to work with detention officers'. The idea is to transfer skills to family members, particularly women. These meetings will include political discussions on the limitations of casework and what has to happen beyond casework." Sarah Vance of OCAP also suggests the importance of keeping people who come to the organization through casework involved in the larger political work, saying "[we] keep people who have had cases up to date on what else is going on in the organization, they may be very interested even if they can't personally participate. Non-participation shouldn't be taken as a sign of disinterest."

Workers Centers, especially those who organize in immigrant and day labourer communities, have developed popular education programs in increasing numbers. The Workplace Project of Hempstead New York grew out of the struggle of Central and South American immigrants to respond to non-payment and underpayment of wages, high rates of injury on the job, and other labor abuses. Governed by a board elected from the membership, the Project emphasizes organizing and education through its programs. Over 370 workers have graduated from the Project's nine-week class in immigrant and labor history, labor law, and organizing techniques. Members seeking to remedy their own situation learn to defend themselves at hearings, launch campaigns for enforcement of existing labor laws, and organize others in their workplace and community.

Strategic Choices

Many caseworkers working for broader social change agree on the importance of developing a careful strategy that can influence the choice of cases a campaign takes on. Bekah Wolfe from IJSP argues that it is important to focus on implications for broader issues by "doing casework with lots of similar cases or casework that's not particular to one case, [but] one that has implications for lots of different cases. It's also useful to do organizing around casework and not simply limit the work to the legal system." In Toronto, Sima Zerehi of NOII agrees, "Be selective about cases you take on. Use them as a way to empower communities under attack as well as activists. Only take on casework that can't be taken up by agencies and is somehow politically charged. Connect your case work to political mobilization." Sarah Vance from OCAP emphasizes that an organization must do casework on its own terms. In order to keep casework from becoming radical legal work, an organization must, "keep casework separate from bureaucratic processes as much as possible i.e. demand that situations be rectified within a reasonable timeframe rather than have caseworkers who have to know how to navigate appeals etc."

Emphasis On Collective And Direct Action

While all radical casework emphasizes both political gains and capacity building, different organizations vary in their emphasis on collective direct action and leadership development. OCAP notes that the use of collective action, and especially direct action in their work keeps their work anti-capitalist. "The key is to ensure that you always or generally use collective action or the threat thereof - a legal component is fine - but if you are only replicating work done by agencies or clinics, you're aren't building much politically," says John Clarke. Sarah Vance explains that this approach is central to maintaining OCAP's casework as revolutionary: "it is intended to win gains by using the threat of collective action by those directly affected, unlike agency casework which removes the power from poor people to participate in righting wrongs impacting their own lives." She goes on to note the accessible and collective nature of such casework: "[it] provides a forum for often less confrontational collective action which is effective nonetheless, giving a broader opportunity for participation from those who might not otherwise be in a position to take risks associated with direct action." Emphasizing the use of popular education as a way to build collective strategizing, DRUM organizes community meetings, forums and educational evenings in order to bring together families and individuals facing similar problems. Such activities make concrete the idea of ordinary people working collectively to overturn power hierarchies and defeat oppression.

While we have had the privilege of being able to get ideas and opinions from many talented caseworkers in both Toronto and New York City, this article is not meant to suggest that there are easy solutions to the very real challenges surrounding casework in revolutionary movements. Nonetheless it is our hope that this is a contribution to an ongoing discussion on how to make casework more revolutionary, more effective and more sustainable.

Mac Scott is a member of the NSG and does immigration casework with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) and worked with the Immigrant Justice Solidarity Project (IJSP) in New York City.

Lesley Wood worked with The Immigrant Justice Solidarity Project (IJSP) in New York City.