Working in your own neighborhood

Although social work has its roots in community development, and being “with” people, with the strengthening of ethics and the discouragement of “dual relationships” many people find it much easier to work in social work outside their own neighborhood, where there is less likelihood of running into their clients in the choir, at the park, at church, at the grocery store, as their children’s teachers, etc.

This is especially true when a person works in a place of authority (child protection, mental health worker who has to certify people against there will) or of confidence (therapist, counsellor).  In these positions you know a lot about people that other neighbors do not that can make interactions awkward and both client and worker may find it difficult to draw clear boundaries between work and home life.

I was recently interviewed for a position working in mental health kitty corner from my house- visual distance.  I am fairly involved in my neighborhood, helping out at a local dinner at a community house and have folks over regularly to my dinner from church who are clients of that team.  If I took that position I would more than likely see clients at the same dinner table often; this could be difficult in mental health if someone already has paranoia that someone is following them.  I loved the idea of working in the neighborhood but in the end I decided not to and chose to stay working just a 15 minute drive away at the organization I currently at, but in a different department. In the end I chose to keep my role as that of a friend and neighbor only; I want to be able to invite people for coffee without worrying that I am somehow breaking a rule by inadvertently inviting in someone who is already on the mental health team and I may work with in filling in for a colleague. I want to be able to fully participate in the community without drawing my curtains in or relaxing in other parts of the city for fear that if I leave my home I will be actually working at not working.

In some ways I want to break this tendency to want to completely separate work and play as it seems kind of artificial.  It perpetuates differentiation in the class and status of worker and client.  For example, if I was in the neighborhood my clients would see my two year-old having a tantrum on the sidewalk; I would feel a little embarrassed, similarly I might see them in the soup line across the street from my house or working as a prostitute at a nearby street corner.  Perhaps this would make all of us a little more real and humble.  Hard to say.




3 thoughts on “Working in your own neighborhood

  1. Great observations April. I have lived in one community and worked in another about 15 mins apart and 2 different provinces for most of my public health nurse career. The advantages. As you say is you can relax and not work when off but I often feel like people only know one side of me. It is more of apparent when you work or live in a small community as I do or one where you have many interactions with your neighbors who could also be your clients. Sharon

  2. I have often found that we as social workers are much more worried about this than clients. I have had clients call out to me in local dining establishments and stores, and then with no embarrasment at all, tell who ever they are with “This is Brian, he’s my case manager” or in the past 2 years “He’s my therapist”
    I believe that in our attempt at being “other” as in rigidly “professional” we forget that we too are human, and ultimately we are in human relationships with our clients. That is not, of course, a dismissal of value of healthy boundaries.

    • Thank you Brian! I think you are right. I also have had no problem meeting clients of a recovery program I worked at in my neighborhood. I was scared in getting into social work that I would become as you say “rigidly progressional”. What we learn through research is that the most effective part of our therapy is “therapeutic alliance” i.e. our relationships with our clients- how loving, human and real we are not how well we stick to a certain model.

      I think there is some value in being part of a community that you work in though few seem to do it in a big city.

      I did choose another position at my current workplace, but often second-guess my decision to pass by working in my own neighborhood- I might like to try it in the future.

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