SW 3743
Social Work with Oppressed Groups

"To be oppressed is to be rendered obsolete almost from the moment of birth, so that ones experiences of oneself is always contingent on an awareness of just how poorly one approximates the images that currently dominate a society."

Goldenberg, 1978.

"To fully incorporate diversity is to promote the full humanity of all voices . . . in our society." Hooyman, 1996.

"To assist clients in their transformation from oppressed people to agents who are active on their own behalf . . . "
Van Voorhis, 1998.

These quotations together go a long way towards explaining my orientation to social work with oppressed groups. I believe that certain valued images currently dominate Canadian society. These include: physical and mental health, an absence of poverty, a white skin, the male gender, good looks, a slender build, membership of a two-parent family - one parent male and the other female, young or middle adulthood, heterosexual sexual orientation, urban residence, ability to speak the English language . . . and there are many more. If we possess these valued characteristics we tend to take them for granted and are often unaware of the benefits that result from them. Those who do not possess these qualities and characteristics can explain to us just how they experience being "rendered obsolete" when they fail to possess them. Oppressed people may be treated as "less than human" through a failure to resemble the dominant group in one or more respects.

Social work has an important role in promoting the full humanity of all oppressed individuals and groups. The aim of this course is to help students to develop their understanding of oppression and to develop values and skills which will assist them in their efforts to confront oppression, thereby promoting "full humanity" for all people. An important part of this work has a radical humanist value base; social workers can become involved in work that has as its aim goals such as advocacy, normalizing, giving voice and reframing so that individuals and groups with whom we work can become empowered to take action that will help them to move from an "oppressed" condition. The other element is "radical structuralism"; we can identify social structures at all levels that oppress and we can take steps to bring about change.

Before we can engage in this (and any) social work we need to develop individual and social empathy with oppressed people and groups. One element of this is to gain understanding of our own biases so that we are open to hearing what other people have to say. Another element is to understand what people from oppressed groups are actually saying and wanting. If we develop skills in each of these areas we can begin to construct a social work that is relevant to each unique situation we encounter.

During this course you will engage in a number of exercises and assignments that are designed to help you to develop understanding about your own orientation to oppression and to particular oppressed groups. We will explore conceptual and practical skills needed for this work throughout the course.


3743. Social Work with Oppressed Groups

This course will introduce social work students to the concept and nature of modern day oppression: its origins; its causes; its various forms; its dynamics; the social processes and practices that produce and reproduce it; the political functions it carries out for the dominant group; its effects on oppressed groups; and the various responses of oppressed persons to it including internalized oppression. The situation and experiences of several oppressed groups in Canadian society will be examined, and anti-oppressive forms of social work practice at all levels of intervention will be explored. 3 credit hours."

Link with other courses

This course will link with other courses where oppression is considered. During the third year theory class you will consider oppression by exploring theories such as the one constructed by Mullaly. If you take the anti-racist course and the course on social work with women you will be considering particular sources and forms of oppression, and you will probably learn about how different oppressions link together to multiply oppress. Indeed, the concept "oppression" is relevant for the entire social work programme. In this course we will begin with the lived experience of oppression, ourselves and others, and try to construct theory and practice methods from it. From time to time we will examine how well existing theories, models and concepts fit with lived experience.

Preliminary statement of objectives - the course will aim to help students to:

1. understand more about their own experiences of oppressing and being oppressed;

2. understand more about the experiences of an oppressed group that is unfamiliar to them;

3. construct a social work that will respond effectively to oppressed people in the light of this enhanced understanding;

4. link "lived experiences" of oppression to social work theory and practice methods;

5. develop their cognitive skills to understand the oppression that they will encounter in social work practice;

6. develop their practical skills to respond to oppressed individuals, groups and communities.

Course Content

We will begin by trying to understand the nature of oppression. The starting point will be what oppression means to each of us, I would like us to draw upon our own experiences so that we can examine and share what it is like to feel oppressed and also examine how we might oppress others. This will lead to a discussion about what we as social workers can and should do about oppression. During the second part of the course we will examine particular forms of oppression, how they are manifested and how they may be similar or different from other forms of oppressions. Directly or indirectly we will listen to the voices of people who have been oppressed and learn from them what they want from their social workers, as individuals and as groups. Also I will share with you some of the ideas of the participants of my ongoing research about the necessary knowledge, values and skills for social work with groups that have been oppressed by race or ethnicity and invite you to consider with me how these ideas apply to social work with other oppressed groups.


I would like you to buy the following book. It costs just $15.95:

Bishop, A. (1994). Becoming an ally: Breaking the cycle of oppression. Halifax, NS: Fernwood

This small book has been written by a community development worker and educator in Halifax. For more than 25 years she has worked with groups that struggle to achieve social justice. The book is informed by her experiences.

I think that you will find the book to be practical and very readable. It is described on its back cover in the following way:

"This book is my attempt to answer some of the big questions of my life: Where does oppression come from? Has it always been with us, just "human nature"? What can we do to change it? What does individual healing have to do with struggles for social justice? What does social justice have to do with individual healing? Why do members of the same oppressed group fight each other: sometimes more viciously that they fight their oppressor? Why do some who experience oppression develop a life-long commitment to fighting oppression, while others turn around and oppress others?"

I do not propose to go through the book chapter by chapter in class. I recommend that you read it through as early as possible so it can be a resource for the course. We will be addressing Bishop's important questions often.

Other major resources

I will expect you all to have a working knowledge of Mullaly Ch. 8 by mid January, required reading for third year theory, and that you will allow this to inform our discussions in class. During mid to late January third year students will be exploring issues to do with oppression on Monday morning in this class and on Monday afternoon in theory. In this course we may be able to continue and develop some discussions in the theory and other courses in this programme.

Four books and one article that I expect to refer to in class quite often are:

Gil, D.G. (1998). Confronting injustice and oppression: Concepts and strategies for social workers. New York: Columbia.

The ideological basis of this US book is similar to that of Mullaly but the analysis is expanded to consider the relationship of human beings to nature. Despite the title the book is theoretical rather than practical, but it suggests orientations and concepts that can inform radical social work practice.

It can help you develop conceptual skills but you need to go beyond the book for practical skills.

Greene, R.R. and Watkins, M. (1998). Serving diverse communities: Applying the ecological perspective. Hawthorne, NY: Aldine de Gruyter.

Although this US book begins from a value base that differs from that of our social work programme

there is much useful information in it. It applies an ecological perspective (person-in-environment) to an understanding of diversity and applies this to many different groups that are oppressed in society

Thompson, N. (1993). Antidiscriminatory practice. Basingstoke: MacMillan.

This British book begins by presenting a model of anti-discriminatory practice and then systematically applies it to gender and sexism, ethnicity and racism, ageism, disability, mental illness, religion and sexual orientation. It is a useful resource to help us to consider similarities and differences between different conditions that can oppress

James, C.E. & Shadd, A. (1994). Talking about difference: Encounters in Culture, Language and Identity. Toronto, ON: Between the Lines.

This is a collection of short essays, poems and articles by people from different ethnic groups in Canada. It provides very good examples of "lived experiences" of oppression. The disadvantage of the book is that it focuses mainly on oppression by race, culture and ethnicity, and how these conditions link with others to multiply oppress. Nevertheless much material is relevant to other forms of oppression.

Christensen, C.P. (1992). Training for cross-cultural social work with immigrants, refugees and minorities: A course model. In Ryan, A. S. (Ed.). Social work with immigrants and refugees. (pp. 79 - 99). Binghampton, NY: Haworth.

I will be adapting exercises from this article for some of our classes.


1. Learning contract

By the beginning of class on Monday January 25th I would like each student to give me a draft learning contract which includes what they intend to do for assignments 2, 3, and 4. If you wish you can suggest alternatives to any or all of these assignments, if so you will need to convince me that you can gain equivalent learning from your alternative(s).

Include in your contract information about the oppressed groups you will study , how you intend to contact them, preliminary plans for your class presentation including any other people you will be working with, and the area of study for your essay or annotated bibliography. You should also suggest a breakdown of marking for each assignment, I have given a suggestion after the description of each assignment, feel free to modify this to fit your own projects. Include due dates for each assignment.

I will meet each student for a tutorial to discuss and confirm the contract. Make contact with me for an appointment as soon as possible. Also, feel free to contact me if you would like to discuss the contract before submitting it. I would prefer the final version to be discussed with the class so that we can share our resources to help each other. I will expect all students to share what they will be doing for the third and fourth assignments, you can decide whether or not you will share the second assignment.

Marks: 10% term mark. Marks deducted for late assignments. Full 10% will be awarded if students produce a draft contract which contains details of how they intend to approach the following three assignments (or equivalent) by the due date (Jan 25th) and arrange for a meeting with me to take place before February 1st.

2. Field Report - "Understanding oppression" - 30% term marks


To enable students to increase their comfort levels in working with oppressed people and to gain knowledge and skills in relating to people from a particular oppressed group.

I would like each of you to identify an oppression that you know don't know much about, this should be one that moves you from your comfort level. I would like you to spend about 10 hours engaging in experience(s) that will help you to get to know something about this form of oppression. Maybe you will visit a Reserve and talk to an Elder, or visit a gay bar, or spend time in a resource for people with learning disabilities, or a night at a homeless shelter...be creative but select an oppression and activities that you find unfamiliar and that provoke some anxiety.

Journal your process, including any difficulties that you experienced in making contact with the group and how you were received. What do your experiences tell you about social work with oppressed groups? I will not ask to see the journal but it will be helpful for the written assignment you hand in.

The assignment will be a field report in which you share the feelings evoked by this project as well as what you have learned. People in the class may be able to help you to network with your selected group. We'll use class time for this. This will be an individual not a group assignment.

Suggested Breakdown of Marking (can be modified):

Description of experience, why you did it, how you set it up, what you did - 2 pages, 8% marks

Learning about yourself in regard to social work with this group - 2 pages, 10% marks

Learning about social work with this group, knowledge, values and skills needed - 3 pages, 12% marks

2. Class presentation - Giving voice to oppressed groups -30% term mark


To enhance your understanding about oppression by exploring an oppressive condition that is familiar to you. To give voice to oppressed people by sharing your learning about oppression in this context with other class members.

This is an opportunity for you to share with the rest of the class the voices of people from an oppressed group, so that we can enhance our understanding about the nature of their oppression. Working individually or in groups you will decide how to "give voice". Possibly you will have speakers, maybe a video, maybe you will use the words from a biography and devise a simulation....you decide. I would like you to find a way of facilitating the class so that it can hear the voices of people from the oppressed group that you select. Possibly you will link this with your first assignment but you will probably select an oppressed group you know more about, maybe you will be a member of this group yourself. During your presentation you will facilitate discussion about the implications of these lived experiences of oppression for social workers and for sociasl.

Suggested Breakdown of Marking (can be modified):

Defining the group, explaining how this group experiences oppression - 8% marks

Exploring implications for social work - what can be done, how it can be done - 10% marks

Creative and interesting but ethical "sharing" of voice of oppressed groups - 8% marks

Sharing what you have learned about yourself as a future social worker with this group - 4% marks

3. Written assignment - 30% term mark


To enable you to develop cognitive skills about oppression by researching from existing written materials. To enable you to relate "lived experience" from other assignments to academic writings about oppression. To provide an opportunity for you to marshal your thoughts and write about an aspect of oppression.

Either Annotated bibliography

Select an issue relating to oppression. Do an annotated bibliography of six items, such as books, articles or films (or a combination) that address this issue. You may decide to address an issue relevant for one of the groups you have worked with.

The paper should begin with a short introduction to the subject, it should then contain the annotations of the references and it should end with your conclusions about the subject

Length: Introduction and conclusion, 2 pages each (double spaced)

Annotations, 4-6 pages in total (double spaced)

Or Short Essay

Write a short formal essay (between 6 and 8 sides of double spaced typed script, 1500 to 2000 words) which answers a question of your choice related to social work with oppressed groups.

Form and format

Use any recognized style. Cited material should be referenced. References at the end of the paper (or in each of the annotations) should contain author, title, date of publication, location and name of publisher, page numbers for a journal reference. I encourage use of the first person and active tense.

SCWK 2023 Introduction to Social Work
SCWK 3033 Applied Social Research
SCWK 3223 Social Work and the Organization
SCWK 3753 Anti-racist Social Work
SCWK 3743 Social Work with Oppressed Groups
SCWK 4023 Field Integration Seminar

R. Clews / Social Work / Faculty / STU Homepage