Sonia Pouyat

Recipient: March 2007

Sonia Pouyat believes that social work leaders must have passion and remain open-minded to manage the challenges and the issues they face on a daily basis.

She was interviewed in advance of National Social Work Week which is being celebrated March 5-11, 2007 under the theme:
"Social Workers: Making a Difference in the Lives of Children and Families".

For Sonia Pouyat, social work has provided the platform that has allowed her to engage in work that she is passionate about - enhancing the lives of children and families. Since graduating with her MSW from Wilfrid Laurier University, Sonia has worked mainly with children and families: in a children's aid society, in the child and adolescent psychiatry and pediatrics medicine units at Kitchener-Waterloo Hospital (now Grand River), in private practice, in program development for the Region of Waterloo, and as Executive Director of the Family Counselling Centre in Brantford. For many years, she was also a field instructor for Wilfrid Laurier's Faculty of Social Work and a lecturer at Renison College. For the past 13 years, she has served as CEO of KidsLink, a child and youth mental health centre in the Kitchener-Waterloo area.

From her perspective, in a career devoted to children and family services and for many years a step removed from the front-line, Sonia has seen social work grow. Social work has its roots in people looking out for the disadvantaged, and she believes that this is the context that defines the profession and makes it unique. After an important period of clinical focus, she welcomes the growing emphasis on community development. It pleases her that many schools of social work are now systematically focusing on social justice issues.

Sonia Pouyat believes that it is the nature of social work to be challenged, given its mandate of looking out for the disadvantaged. It is how social workers deal with the opportunities that these challenges present that will determine the future and scope of the profession. She suggests that the trend towards more anti-oppression philosophies will make a difference. She sees new graduates coming with different expectations related to working with families, communities and government. These incoming social workers are more interested in advocacy. Sonia says: "One of the questions that social work will have to resolve is how to best advocate for clients when working within a system that funds the services but may be part of the problem." She cites as an example immigrants and refugees welcomed to Ontario but not provided with the support and opportunities to address their trauma and integrate with dignity into work and community life, due to systemic problems not being addressed.

A major challenge Sonia sees for social work is the danger of dichotomizing the field between the clinical side and the advocacy/anti-oppression side. She emphasizes the need for both aspects to work together within social work practice in the best interest of clients. Another challenge for social work stems from being an undervalued profession within an under-funded system. She says: "This is a problem that will not go away. As long as we are serving people who are less valued by society and not respected by the economic and political system, social work itself will be undervalued." Sonia argues that: "The answer lies not simply in more money, but in a different paradigm that values all people and gives everyone the opportunity for dignity."

Sonia Pouyat also says: "Solutions for the future are not based on the past." She emphasizes that it is important for social work leaders to let go of "pet philosophies" and open up to creative ideas and innovative solutions. She strongly believes that a leader has to be prepared to be wrong and to take risks. Another attribute that she finds particularly valuable in a leader is the willingness to mentor and to share experiences - this not only helps the next generation, but also provides the mentor with new perspectives and an orientation to the future.

Sonia sees great potential in the growth of social entrepreneurship in Canada, a strategy that allows non-profits to gain greater autonomy and sustainability. By engaging in ventures to generate earned income and retainable surplus funds, agencies can finance advocacy and provide services in areas not sufficiently funded. The practice has been used successfully in the U.S. for a number of years, for example, by Housing Works providing housing for street people with HIV/AIDS in New York City. Sonia reports that her agency, KidsLink, formally adopted the approach of social entrepreneurship in 2000, with the goal of growing its budget while becoming less reliant on government funding to achieve all of its mission.

With respect to the future of social work, Sonia Pouyat has a strong sense of hope when she sees the new and young social workers that are graduating. She finds them grounded in the core set of social work values and concerned about the broader issues. As a group, they are informed about the inter-relationship of the social, political, and economic systems, locally and internationally, and their impact on people. In talking with these new graduates, Sonia finds them intelligent, connected and aware of the impact of globalization. She sees social work as a vehicle for the socially conscious younger generation.

In keeping with the theme for Social Work Week 2007, "Social Workers: Making a Difference in the Lives of Children and Families", Sonia Pouyat's wish list includes putting the mental health of children and youth on the public agenda to ensure early intervention and better access to services. She also points out: "We need to recognize children's capacities and facilitate their growth and expression. As social workers, we need to listen to them and learn from them."

Sonia Pouyat is a social work leader - passionate, hopeful, creative. During Social Work Week, March 5-11, 2007, and throughout the year, take the time to acknowledge social workers who make a difference in the lives of children and families.