International Social Work Practice and Education
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Interview with Pamela Murua By Rachel Signer

Posted by Justin R. in Interviews
I met Pamela on the bus from Mendoza, Argentina to Santiago. For eight years she has been doing almost weekly trips to Argentina to buy various household goods and clothing, which she in turn sells in Santiago to earn a profit. Pamela is about 30-35 (I didn’t ask) and is a social worker in Santiago, Chile. She has been doing social work for about 4 years. She was studying social work at la Universidad Academia de Humanismo Cristiano (www.adademia.cl), but she had to quit her studies when her son was born about 3 years ago because she could not continue paying the tuition. She also has a daughter, about 8 years old.

Pamela worked before in an NGO called “Comparte  (which means “share”), which was created during the dictatorship in Chile (1973-1989). She worked on four case studies with children who had been abused, some sexually. For two year she worked there as a volunteer as part of the field work for her studies.

Next she worked at “Liceo Para Todos  (“high school for everyone”), a governmental program which gives scholarships to children with behavioral problems (delinquency). Pamela’s job was to go to the houses of the children and talk with them about their problems, and find out how their personal problems were inhibiting their ability to concentrate on school.

Pamela now works at an NGO called “Cordillera.  There are 30-35 teenagers involved, and their parents are active in the program as well. It includes a personal development workshop, conducted through group exercises, in which the participants discuss what they have in common. It is meant to last a year. Pamela works in a specific sector of this program called “Amigos Grandes,  which intends to turn teenagers into leaders in their own communities.

What kinds of tasks do you do in a typical day’s work?
I really don’t have a typical day of work, because I only work on some days. I only get paid about the equivalent of $60 U.S. dollars a month for my social work, but I do it because it is a passion. I earn my living by going to Mendoza, Argentina and buying goods to sell in Chile. My social work is in a community called La Florida (one of the poorest areas of Santiago), where I do group work with three teenagers, of 13, 14, and 16 years-old, in a government-sponsored community center. On Wednesday I will meet with them. We are now in the “evaluation  stage of the process. In the beginning, we all met as a group to talk about various ways they can improve their situations, and each person chose an individual theme, such as “communication,  or “community work,  or “doing better in school.  Then we go through a process over time of finding more specific objectives within the theme (such as “I am going to improve my communication with my parents,  or “I am going to do volunteer work in my community”). Then we do a practical workshop so they can learn about the skills they have or need to accomplish the tasks. Now the teenagers are evaluating the process they have made, and we meet for three hours on Wednesday to talk about it.

How do these clients come into your service, and how is it organized?
In this case, they come voluntarily, although I have worked with other organizations in the past where the kids were sent by schools or courts to be reformed because they had behavioral problems. These kids come from the same neighborhood, and we meet in their community center. The government organization “Cordillera  has been organizing cultural activities such as dances or events in this neighborhood for ten years, and in the past few years they added the element of social work. The service is free of charge.

How is social work education organized in Chile?
It is a career of five years, and from the start it includes field work. At first, it might be an internship just to learn the practical elements of social work, like in an office. Then there is a year of case studies, a year of group work, a year of “local development,  or community work, and a year of a “integrated practice,  which is more focused on a certain issue. I was studying at la Universidad Academia de Humanismo Cristiano, which has careers that are more focused on the humanities and social sciences. It is different from many universities in Chile that are more professional or technical only.

Other universities in Chile, such as the Univ. of Chile, used to have social work programs, but they were either reduced or eliminated during the dictatorship. Initially, social work developed within the public health sector in Chile, for poor families that had to meet with a social worker to discuss their problems in order to get health services. In the late 1960s, Chile began looking at the model of social work used in the U.S., but we realized that we couldn’t copy it because the problems we have in Chile are so different from the ones in the U.S. Then began a period of “reconceptualización,  which was influenced in many ways by the Cuban revolution, which was very popular in Chile at the time. This movement included a new perception of social change, one that was aimed at deeper problems within society, not just giving services to the poor, but fixing the cause of their poverty. But all that was reduced to mere office work during the dictatorship, because all of the funds and energies for social work were taken away. Today, Chilean social workers are lobbying the Congress in Valparaíso so that our work can receive more attention and funds in the universities.

Do most of the people doing social work in the NGOs have social work degrees? Do they identify as “social workers”?

Most of them have professional degrees, and many in social work, but not all. There are some psychologists, sociologists, and teachers as well. Also, not all of them call themselves “social workers.  This has a lot to do with the changes in the social work career that occurred during the dictatorship. These days, the career is called “social assistant,  not “social work.  Many social workers call themselves “trabajadores asistentes,  instead of “trabajadores sociales,  because they consider themselves to be only “helpers.

*Note by interviewer: To clarify the issue, when Pamela says they have degrees, I am pretty sure she is talking about undergraduate degrees. I don’t think a master’s program exists in Chile because the university system is different than the one in the U.S.

What experiences led you to want to do social work?
For me, becoming a mother changed the way I looked at society and the world, and opened my eyes to problems I had not seen before. For example, when my daughter was born we had to go to the local public health center. When I met with the social worker who was to evaluate my financial situation to make sure I actually needed help, she looked at me and said that my hair looked to clean for me to be poor. I was appalled. Eventually they gave us health assistance but only because I insisted. Also as I learned more about the poverty and inequality in Chile I decided I wanted to help. Chile is one of the ten countries with the most unequal distributions of wealth in the world.

What do you like most about your work?
Knowing that my influence can change the lives of people, just by interacting with them. And to me they really are people-I don’t think of them as clients. It means a lot to me that I can directly change their lives.

What do you like least?
It frustrates me that I can’t make any big changes in society. Also many times people have false expectations and they are disappointed when they don’t achieve certain goals, so I feel like they have been let down. It really hurts me to have to accept the tragedies in other peoples  lives. I see that so many people really have nothing, and have so many problems. What bothers me is that they are so used to it–they have become desensitized to the constant abuse and neglect. It especially hurts me to see children like this.

What is unique about social work in Santiago and/or Chile?
Social work is really undervalued in Chile. The only people who think it has an important contribution to society are the educated upper-class, the intellectuals. Outside of that circle, social work is actually looked down upon. There is the idea that people who receive social work are lazy and should be helping themselves, and that social workers are wasting time and government money by trying to help people who should just find jobs and be productive. I think that in Argentina social work is more supported because when I tell people in Mendoza about my work, they seem really interested and tell me how great it is what I am doing.

The system of social work education in Chile puts a lot of emphasis on the field work element. There is a lot of focus on working with minority groups, such as the Mapuche populations. It is very popular now to look for “cultural roots  among mestizo or Mapuche communities, because during the dictatorship their cultures were really repressed or denied. Also there is a growing popularity for the fields of psychology, anthropology, sociology, and so on.

One big difference in the way social work is done is that now there is less concern about a person’s social class and more focus on who he is as a person. Before, everything was about the person’s social standing and his job, but now we recognize that a person from any walk of life can have problems and can need help. Now we are focusing more on the individual person and his problems, and less on the person as a socioeconomic category.

Have you ever studied/worked in another country?
No, but I would absolutely love to. I would love to work in Central America. However, I think it is important to start locally. Of course I have to finish my degree first, which is the thing I want to do more than anything.

Anything else you want to say?
I think the theme of education is really important. It is a huge problem that people cannot afford to study because they just don’t have any money. There are scholarships for Mapuches but not for anybody else. There is just not enough government support for education, especially in the social sciences.

And I hope Chile starts to reexamine its definition of “development,  because we need to focus less on economic development and more on social and moral development. There is so much focus on businesses and not enough on the people. There is a great need for “capacitación,  to teach people how to pull themselves out of poverty through new job skills and well-rounded education.

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