Subversive Action

Extralegal Practices for Social Justice
Wilfrid Laurier University Press
  • 1. Auflage
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  • erschienen am 10. Dezember 2015
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  • 197 Seiten
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978-1-77112-086-9 (ISBN)
Subversive Action presents cases that explore the use of extralegal action undertaken in pursuit of human rights and social justice, and locate that action with reference to the boundaries of social work. Definitions of social work often include goals of social change, social justice, empowerment, and the liberation of people, but social work texts make little mention of extralegal actions. Mainstream conceptions of social work usually consider it to fall within the framework of particular legal and societal contexts. As such, it is presented with boundaries for legitimate action even as it espouses principles that may require it to challenge these boundaries. How does one do social work in legal and societal contexts that challenge these principles with institutional and state-mandated exclusion and discrimination? Should social workers simply act within the bounds of the law in line with their professional sanction and mandate? Do their actions qualify as social work if they are beyond the limits of the law? The essays in this volume, by authors from around the world, raise these questions by providing a basis for reflection about the claims we make in social work embodied in discourses on social justice and human rights.
  • Englisch
  • 3,06 MB
978-1-77112-086-9 (9781771120869)
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Social Work and Salt Making Nilan Yu and Deena Mandell

On 5 April, after twenty-five days of marching, Gandhi reached the sea at Dandi, not with his seventy-eight followers behind him but with thousands.. At first light, he led a few into the water for a ceremony.. Then he waded out and felt his way up the beach with his spindly legs to a point where a thick crust of salt, evaporated by the sun, was cracking. He bent down and picked up a chunk of the crust and in so doing broke the British salt law.

Kurlansky, Salt: A World History

So began the salt rebellion instigated by Gandhi against the British Empire. The British had, for over a century, imposed heavy taxes on salt and forbade the making of salt in areas with hundreds of years of history of salt making in a bid to monopolize the salt trade and protect British salt producers. The ban imposed by the colonial rulers was so restrictive that traditional salt makers were forbidden from making salt even for their own family's consumption. They could not pick up crusts of salt lying right at their feet without risking severe punishment. Traditional salt makers were forced to leave their families starving at home as they searched for work in other parts of India. Although so-called salt rebellions had sporadically occurred for decades, Gandhi's action inspired hundreds of thousands in many parts of India to challenge the colonial regime by violating colonial law through the act of salt making, instigating widespread repression that put into question the legitimacy of British rule in India and eventually led to Indian independence.


This volume represents an effort to identify and examine the experiences of "salt makers" and the place of "salt making" in social work. The book features cases involving extralegal social action by social work professionals and citizens in response to challenges to social justice and human rights. One would occasionally encounter the mention of the likes of Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr, in discussions about the promotion of human rights and social justice (see, e.g., Ambrosino, 2008; and Ife, 2010, 2012). Gandhi's struggle against the British Empire and the drive for civil rights led by Martin Luther King, Jr, embody the discourse on social justice and human rights that we find in some of the most widely accepted definitions of social work today; such as the one adopted by the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW) (2014). But while many definitions of social work fashion it as a profession devoted to the pursuit of social justice and human rights, standard social work texts (see, e.g., Wilson, 2011; Thompson, 2009; and Zastrow, 2010) hardly make mention of the traditions laid down by Gandhi and King. Much less explored in social work texts are the extralegal dimensions that accompanied these traditions. There is occasional treatment of the notion such as with Spech's (1969) discussion of disruptive tactics in social work and the appropriation by some social work practitioners of Alinsky's (1972) model of practice. But extralegal action arguably does not occupy a central place in mainstream conceptions of social work. And yet we speak of challenging structural oppression, discrimination, and disadvantage that in many cases occur within particular political economic orders where legitimate action - legal action - is defined and redefined at will by those in positions of power. It would then be difficult to speak of the promotion of social justice and the liberation of people, as the IFSW's definition of social work does, without confronting the possible necessity for extralegal action.

By extralegal action for social justice, we mean action intended to subvert and/or resist oppression, discrimination, and disadvantage through a suite of strategies ranging from skirting the law or breaking the spirit of the law without breaking the letter of the law to what may be considered patently illegal in particular political-economic contexts.

The presentation of the cases in this volume is not meant to showcase good practice as much as to evoke questions about social work and what it represents. These questions arise because of the unique place of social work in the community of professions. Social work, like all recognized professions, operates on a claim to legitimacy within the political economic contexts in which it is practised. Unlike other professions, however, social work espouses discourses such as social justice, social change, and emancipation that, if carried to their limits, can mean the challenging of the foundations of the social order in which such practice is undertaken. In other words, social work can potentially involve actions that run counter to dominant ideology and practice and question the legitimacy of the social order within which the practice of social work derives legitimacy of professional status.

This book offers eight stories from around the world of what can be regarded as extralegal action by social work professionals and citizens in the pursuit of social justice and human rights. In gathering and presenting these narratives together, it is not our intent to suggest generalizations or invoke judgments, nor do we particularly wish that the reader do so. On the contrary: the highly localized contexts of each story - political, historical, cultural, and subjective - are not meant to offer conclusions but to raise questions and induce reflection. Taken as a whole, these stories perhaps raise more questions than they answer. We see this as a good thing: for what is a critical perspective, if not one that raises difficult, often uncomfortable questions and eschews easy, definitive answers? Why do some social workers see themselves compelled to "push the limits" and others not? What mix of political and historical context and timing, individual social location, and personal proclivities or vulnerabilities contributes to different stances? What role does "professionalization" of social work have in discouraging subversive social action on the part of social workers? Under what circumstances do we begin to feel that a social worker may have gone "too far," and how do our own subjectivities and (perhaps unacknowledged) allegiances shape such a determination?

We, as editors, sometimes had very different responses to the individual narratives - not just stylistic ones, but perspectival as well. We have had some fascinating exchanges about what we respectively saw as the strengths and weaknesses in a particular piece and what those differences might reflect about our own politics and notions about the scope of the book's topic. We hope that this volume will provoke similar discussions among readers and colleagues.


The stories featured in this volume involve what can be regarded as extralegal action by social work professionals and citizens in the pursuit of social justice and human rights.

In chapter 1, Deena Mandell, a senior social work academic, and Alex Hundert, a committed radical social activist, recount a story of state repression and the criminalization of dissent surrounding the Toronto G20 Summit protests of 2010. The state crackdown on protest and radical groups led to Alex's incarceration for a total of nine months plus severely restrictive house arrest for over a year. To the initial very serious charges of conspiracy were added charges of breaching his bail conditions, after Alex participated in two university panel discussions on the implications of G20 policing for activist groups. One of those panel discussions was held in Mandell's Faculty of Social Work, where undercover police were present. Alongside Deena's outrage over state violation of the academic space and criminalization of dissent was the crucial fact that Alex is her son. Their dialogue begins with her disappointment at the lack of response within the university to the oppressive police incursion. It grapples with questions about the essential conservatism and privilege of professional social work and social work academics in North America and the perception of its limitations by non-professional workers for social justice.

In chapter 2, John Tomlinson distills a national story of injustice toward Indigenous peoples into the tale of one social worker (aided by a few administrators) who acted in the early 1970s to subvert that injustice for the sake of one child, Nola, and her family. The act of returning Nola to her family against explicit directions was both specific and symbolic, and it ignited a strike by Tomlinson's fellow social workers in protest - the first social workers' strike in Australia - when Tomlinson was suspended for acting against orders. Although the author's focus is on the operation of the child welfare system as a mechanism of colonization and systemic discrimination, we cannot help, in reading his unembellished narrative, but wonder about what motivates one individual to take up a stance of resistance when others do not. The collective response of John's colleagues tells us that his extralegal act resonated sympathetically, the strike itself representing a kind of expanded resistance to prevailing policy. What individual histories, values, beliefs, and social identities foster the courage to take personal risk on behalf of social justice? We are given a few clues by Tomlinson in relation to himself but we can all reflect on this question in relation to ourselves since systemic injustices actively continue, not only in Australia but in all of our respective countries.


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