It has been fifteen meaningful years of social work practice since I graduated from the College of Social Work and Community Development of the University of the Philippines. I never regretted having chosen this great profession. It took me to places I never would have imagined going to and served so many people from diverse backgrounds responding to needs as basic as access to clean water, to issues as complex as mental health, and challenging systemic issues such as racism and discrimination.
It has been fifteen great years of practicing the social work profession bringing with me basic values and principles which were entrenched in me by my great professors and mentors from the College. I admire the fact that I was taught the basic principles of social work but more significantly I was shaped to become a strong leader and advocate for the vulnerable and was trained to work at the highest level of professionalism.
I remember having fun in the College especially the moments of our exposure trips which turned out to be eye openers to get a feel of the social issues affecting real people. We travelled in a group to Oriental Mindoro on one stormy day to integrate with the Mangyans, a well-known indigenous group. We climbed the mountain and slept where the goats slept for we could not fit in the small huts of the Mangyan families. We devoured the content of their deliciously cooked “wonder” rice while sharing our humble packs of sardines.
It was not all fun, though. We learned how our Mangyans were being discriminated against because of their origin, color, and even hair type. They were driven away to the mountain which obviously does not have the basic necessities and services they need, and they were slowly losing their ancestral domain to greedy and dishonest people. It was disheartening to hear their sad stories, and to learn how inequality destroyed generations of their families.
I started out as a community development worker with the Institute of Social Order in a coastal community in Bataan. I brought with me my fresh experience as a social worker. I was not sure how I survived amidst a male dominated community but from what I recall, it was a fun and meaningful experience working with the fishers to protect marine life against commercial fishers. What I clearly remember was strategizing to get the fishers to attend the meetings which meant that drinking sessions had to be on the agenda at the end. I also learned not to set a meeting when there was a boxing match set for the day for not a single soul would show up. This is when the social work profession gets to be exciting. We do what people love to do, and then facilitate the agenda for change.
I have worked in several non-profit organizations in the Philippines. I jumped from one organization to another, advocating for children’s rights and their participation in social reform at PLAN International, and promoting corporate citizenship among businesses at the American Chamber Foundation.
I finally worked overseas when I volunteered with the Voluntary Service Overseas (VSO)- Bahaginan and was assigned in Bangladesh for more than two years. My first day in Bangladesh was surreal. I felt like I was just dreaming. People dressed up totally different from what I was wearing. I did not understand any word said to me. My mouth burned from chili peppers from the food we ate everywhere, and I heard loud speakers from several mosques surrounding us when it was time to call for prayers, on a daily basis. I ate with my hands every day together with our staff in our communal kitchen, and travelled to beautiful, rural villages everywhere to monitor and evaluate our projects.
The only part that was different about me traveling to many places there was that I was not backpacking for fun and adventure. I was traveling to witness with my own eyes the hardships of the people living in the countryside, evaluate the impact of my organization’s projects and recommend improvements to better serve the people. It was hard to see so much poverty, Iworse than what I had witnessed in the Philippines. I witnessed very young girls being arranged for marriage to older men who had some income to support them. The newspaper always has some news about women getting killed from not being able to pay dowry. Girls were not sent to school because they were treated as disposable individuals practically having no other future but marriage. But I also had the honor of meeting strong leaders of the women’s movement who fearlessly advocated in their own capacity for women’s rights. It was not an easy task to do.
I also had a short opportunity to meet members of several community based organizations who were mostly impoverished fishers at remote flooded areas of Battambang and Banteay Meanchey in Cambodia where we encouraged participation in evaluating their project in natural resource management. I admired the impressive participation of women fishers in these communities who actively involved themselves in the critical analysis of their situation and identified solutions to improve their project.
Anywhere I worked, I realized that social problems were not any different, whether these be found in the poorest or richest countries of the world. When I came to Toronto, Canada in 2006 as an immigrant, I thought that life here would be more convenient and a lot easier. It was the opposite of what I had expected. The cold, enduring, harsh weather, lack of family support system, and expensive labor cost for extra help were unbearable. We do have a reliable health system that takes care of everyone regardless of economic status and skin color but we still have an increasing number of people struck with mental illness due to isolation, depression, anxiety, and lack of family support. In addition, we also have problems of higher rate of unemployment especially among immigrants, indicating racism and discrimination.
I was fortunate enough to be able to get a job in line with social work within two months of landing here which saved me from any potential harm as a result of lack of employment. This does not happen to all immigrant professionals, whose experiences could be totally heart-breaking. There was a funny joke saying that you do not have to worry about having a heart attack in a cab in Vancouver because the driver in most cases would probably be a doctor. This was not just a joke, this was a reality.
We have a multitude of professionals who are underemployed and whose skills are underutilized or worse, unutilized. Foreign-trained professionals are treated as second class and immigrants. Newcomers have to go back to school to gain new set of skills or maybe just to have a Canadian diploma. The immigrants have become the main customers of money-making businesses such as schools and accreditation bodies who profit out of this horrendous situation. Social isolation is a common problem due to lack of support system. Children are sent to daycare centers even when they can e barely walk since their parents have to go to work.
When an immigrant finally gets a job, keeping the job is itself another struggle. There is a lot of discrimination in the workplace and immigrants have to put up a fight against this as part of their daily struggles. I work at a non-profit organization in Toronto, the Agincourt Community Services Association, and serve the needs of new immigrants. I also handle a coalition-led community engagement project to help communities come together to prevent youth from getting into gang-related activities. It is an exciting kind of work dealing with such a diverse population, and responding to extensive needs ranging from language barriers to dealing with immigration issues of refugee claimants and people who were on the verge of deportation. I serve a lot of Filipinos here who are mostly skilled professionals, sponsored dependents, and live-in caregivers. Just like people from other cultural backgrounds, Filipinos are faced with issues of unemployment, underemployment, long time separation from families (especially for live-in caregivers who needed to leave their families behind to work here), unrecognized qualifications from back home, etc.
I am forever grateful to the fact that I have been working on the ground and trained to be in the frontline. I witnessed real live experiences of people and helped them in several ways to enhance their well-being in a way that they do it themselves with me just playing a supportive role. This is what I like the most about the social work profession. Social workers work behind the scenes and even though we may remain unrecognized, the joy that the profession gives us is invaluable, especially when we see a broken person who came up to us one time for help, eventually become an empowered individual again. These sre the little victories of life.
Having learned my lessons from the College of Social Work and Community Development of the University of the Philippines, gave me the edge to do things differently. I do my work wholeheartedly, without any hesitation, not in a half baked fashion , but just putting my heart into it. The social work profession is a profession for individuals with strong hearts and will power. It is not meant for the weak but for people who have an abundant source of patience, optimism, and creativity. Whenever I face challenges or feel dissatisfied, I go back to the basic lessons of social work and reflect on the wealth of my experiences — and these make me feel better and invigorated.
I would encourage the younger generation of social workers to explore and get into the world –and contribute to the magnitude of our impact in changing the world to what it used to be, peaceful, abundant, and accessible to everyone. I would like to end this by providing a great insight from Mahatma Gandhi who once said, “You may never know what results come of your action but if you do nothing there will be no result; be the change you want to see in the world”.
by Jamillah T. Mananghaya-Poernama