People who are marginalized or oppressed have to change
the way they behave to bring about the desired social
change, and human action is the business of social work.
My interest in community development started in the early 1970s during my student movement days. My first practicum in social work was in a public housing project in Hong Kong. Hong Kong was under British colonial rule back then, and public housing was provided not only as form of service, but also a form of social control. Colonial bureaucrats, most of them having internalized the meritocratic ideology, had little regard for the residents living in those housing projects. They call them housing estates, and the low income, under-privileged members of community struggled with all sorts of adversities ranging from poor housing conditions, to unsafe environment, inadequate service, bureaucratic harassment, social stigma, and a general sense of marginalization and disempowerment.
As a student activist, I was exposed to an overdose of high-sounding rhetoric, to which I also contributed gladly. My social work education, however, led me to imagine a disciplined practitioner who works towards concrete, observable results.
As early as the late seventies, I started advocating for what was then called a behavioral approach to community worki. It focuses on setting observable goals for change, and emphasizes strategies of changing people's behavior through systematic social skills training. A central tenet of that approach was that people who are marginalized or oppressed have to change the way they behave to bring about the desired social change, and human action is the business of social work. Instead of spending endless hours criticizing the system, which activists often enjoy more than the community members they are working with, I loved to imagine effective strategies that would bring about substantial change, and how they could be learned and mastered by the people who needed them the most.
One of the typical case examples we used back then was how members of very impoverished communities living in Hong Kong back then got organized to change their environment, and their lives.
After the Second World War, many refugees came to Hong Kong, and they lived in what was then called squatter areas, building temporary shelters out of wood planks and tin sheets, plus whatever building material like bricks, stones, or cement they could find. The government claimed to own the land on which these squatter huts were built, and believed that it could do whatever it wanted to control these areas, including bulldozing them off to make room for developers.
Many of these communities, up till the seventies, did not have access to basic services such as electricity, running water, and postal service. Many of the community members bought into the colonial classist discourse and did not believe that they had any legitimate claim to a better deal. Our work with these community people mainly entailed changes in the way they think and the way they act, and a systematic behavioral intervention proved to be the most useful tool in my tool box as a young community worker.
The typical scenario back then was people putting up with absurd situations such as the absence of electricity, water, or sanitary facilities such as washrooms and showers, and the use of ineffective, costly, or dangerous methods to obtain them, like stealing power by connecting your own lines, waking up early in the morning and bring your buckets to the communal water tap, or paying criminal gangs to deliver water to you. My intervention model targeted actual behavioral change, getting community people to make the transition from unengaged onlookers to passive respondents, then to active respondents, and then to passive participants, active participants, and ultimately to become leaders equipped with an impressive skills set.
My early social skills practice was informed by Bandura's social learning theoryii, and the idea of reciprocal determinism was particularly helpful. It positions people as agentive subjects who can bring about substantial change in their world, and not only as passive recipients of oppression or marginalization. They can learn to become more effective, and thereby empower themselves. In the last few decades I have got community people to learn new behaviors such as networking, calling and chairing meetings, planning, implementation, coordination, talking to the media, effective communication of information, persuasion, negotiation, bargaining with bureaucrats, dealing with harassment and intimidation, providing peer counseling, and maintaining positive mental health themselves. The mastery of these skills and strategies often led to organized action that brought about desired change, such as government concession to provide services, resettling people to more favorable housing situation, and listening to the voice of community representatives.
Most of these learning occurred as a result of observation learning and symbolically mediated learning (verbal input, recordings of previous projects or campaigns). The principle of incremental systematic learning also served me well. Later in my roles as fieldwork instructor and as consultant to community organizations, I was able to train a few community organizers in this approach, and some of them are still applying this to date.
Over the years, as we witness people from the grassroots emerged as leaders, I became more convinced of the value of a learning and development approach to community work. When members learn and develop useful strategies and skills that stay within the community, it is a solid capacity building process that enables the community to do more for itself and its members. Self-efficacy, another central idea in Bandura's early social learning theory and his later version of Social Cognitive Theoryiii, has also been very valuable in my experience working with communities. Witnessing and accompanying community members while they are breaking away from the pessimism and passivity of victim mentality, and coming to feel better about themselves, and to have faith in their ability to bring about change, probably constitute the most heartening and uplifting experience for any community worker.
After coming to Canada, I have my own firsthand experience with marginalization and oppression as an immigrant and an ethnic minority. I was amazed at how radical rhetoric got circulated much more widely and generated more enthusiasm than effective strategies of change. I called that the NATO (no action, talk only) phenomenon, a cynical reinterpretation of the acronym I picked up during my student activist days. In the last few decades, I have been through various fads, from radical social work to structural social work, and more recently, anti-oppressive practice (AOP). Whereas I am still cynical as an observer of how people try to gratify their own psychological and emotional needs through their activism, and do not want to be bothered with the challenge to bring about change effectively, I still wish to reach out to, and engage with, students and colleagues who are genuinely interested in making a difference. I have therefore repackaged my behavioral approach to community work into the SSLD Approach to Anti-Oppressive Practice. I hope I can get a few more people interested in learning and developing strategies and skills for social change.
- Tsang, A. K.T. (1979). Behavioural approach to community work. Unpublished manuscript. Hong Kong.
- Bandura, A. (1977). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Bandura, A. (1977a). Social learning theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall.
- Bandura. A. (1977b). Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84, 191-215.
- Bandura, A. (1982). Self-efficacy mechanism in human agency. American Psychologist, 37, 122-147.
- Bandura, A. (1986). Social foundations of thought and action: A social cognitive theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.