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Dr. Akua Benjamin
Recipient: February 2005
Dr. Akua Benjamin has been in social work her whole life in varying formal and informal capacities. Now the Director of the School of Social Work at Ryerson University in Toronto, she began her "formal" social work career after graduating from the University of Toronto in the early 1980s. Following employment in the fields of psychiatric social work and addictions, she has been teaching at Ryerson University since 1988. This interview was conducted in advance of National Social Work Week which is being celebrated March 7-13, 2005 under the theme:
"Social Workers: Celebrating Community - Honouring Diversity"
Akua - as she prefers to be called - says her career in social work grew from lifelong interests in community development and the promotion of human rights. As a social work educator, she has taught courses on community practice, group work, anti-oppression, ethnic diversity and social issues, intercultural communication, and families in the Caribbean. Her research interests and community work are in the areas of anti-racism, crime, feminism, equity, anti-oppression, human rights and other related social justice issues. A long-time activist in the Toronto Black community, she has worked extensively with coalitions that focus on meaningful social, economic, and political change, and is currently a member of the management team on a project examining the impact of racism, violence and health on African Canadians and their families.
According to Akua, the social work profession has experienced a steady evolution over the years and has marked out its territory in some areas that have become traditional sectors for social work intervention (for example, in gerontology, addictions, and child welfare). She also notes that there have been growth areas such as settlement services for newcomers. She is concerned, however, that there has been an erosion in the field of community development, especially in light of the fact that many community agencies are constantly subject to budgetary constraints. She feels very strongly that the social work profession must increase its profile around social welfare issues. She believes it is imperative for social work to strengthen its visibility: "We need a public face, we need a public voice." She also calls on social workers to be less reactive and more proactive: "Plan, think ahead and be strategic. Our mission is about justice, transformation, equity, and peace, and people living to their full potential - let's be proactive about this mission."
Akua stresses that leaders are not self-made: "Being in a leadership position does not make you a leader. Leaders are identified by a community." In her position as Director of the School of Social Work, she feels that she can make a contribution through her research, her input on curriculum, her contact with students, and her community involvement. She believes that being a leader is about taking a risk, making a change for the better, challenging structures and processes, taking up an issue and carrying it forward. She stresses that a leader has a responsibility to do something that makes a difference in society: "You become identified as a leader when others recognize that you contribute to some meaningful change."
"Social work faces many challenges and barriers", says Akua. She believes that social work is a unique vocation, with specialized training, which addresses a need that cannot be satisfied by other human service professions. She is of the conviction that in the face of global issues such as environmental disasters, HIV/AIDS, war, and racism among others, it is essential for social work to be visibly at the forefront. She points to crisis response teams as an example - the public is not aware that social workers are an essential component of crisis teams. She highlights the need for greater numbers of social workers in schools to allow for preventative work instead of being called upon to handle crises after the fact. She wonders: "Why don't we have social workers at the airport? The need is so great, considering that a large majority of immigrants and refugees arrive in Toronto, yet there are no social workers attached to immigration." She emphasizes the need for social work to move beyond traditional areas and become visible in other facets of modern society.
Akua's passion for social work goes back to her childhood. She remembers her volunteer work in the community, with women in prison and with children with physical and emotional disabilities. Her passion blossomed into her professional life and in her community work. She emphasizes: "That's who I am, that's who I'll always be. I look at the world through the prism of social work." She believes that social work is a calling, a vocation, for most people who choose the profession: "It's not for the money, it's not for the status - you become a social worker because you want to reduce human suffering."
Akua believes that social workers have an important role to play in facing the major issues that confront today's society: homelessness, child poverty, abuse, addictions, racism. She says: "Social workers have a huge contribution to make related to larger structural issues. We need to look at how we can address these issues at their root systemically. Social workers will always have to attend to human need one-on-one, but it is vital that we also look at the systemic issues in a profound way if they are to be prevented and eradicated."
Dr. Akua Benjamin is a social work leader - she takes risks and she makes a difference. Celebrate the social work community and honour its diversity during Social Work Week, March 7-13, 2005, and throughout the year.
Word from Editor: It is appropriate and respectful to refer to Akua's designation as Dr. in the profile line and the opening and closing. Referring to "Akua" in the text socially locates Dr. Benjamin in her grassroots approach and heartfelt commitment to social work practice.