Ruth McDonald, Social Worker, Sheffield
Ruth’s journey into social work involved tackling some of the institutional and cultural barriers which can prevent BME people from pursuing jobs in the field. This has allowed her to play a major role in Sheffield City Council’s work to reduce institutional inequality and discrimination alongside her social work role. Combining social work practice with her posts as Lead Worker for BME Empowerment and Race Equality Commissioner, Ruth is certainly someone who likes to keep busy!
For the last five years, Ruth has specialised in preventing child criminal exploitation, which includes sexual exploitation alongside involvement with organised crime. In this area of social work, building good community relationships is vital, as piecing together information from several sources is often the only way to understand who is at risk. An important issue here is the school to prison pipeline, where the way that disruptive behaviour is handled in schools can increase the risk of social isolation and leave young people more vulnerable to criminal exploitation. With young people from BME backgrounds especially at risk from this, it’s vital to be reflective and look for ways to make sure ethnic minority communities are heard and engaged with in order to break the cycle.
“As a social worker, I can now go back and speak to senior leaders and let them know exactly what we need to start doing to really engage with BME communities. I’m really pleased and proud that we can actually say ‘Look, we’ve been doing it wrong.’ Lived experience plays a vital role and we need that help to get things right.”
As well as advocating for open dialogue, Ruth is able to draw on her own personal experiences of marginalisation. Excluded from school at an early age, she feels that her younger self would never have considered herself suitable for social work, in part due to a cultural barrier which she is passionate about highlighting and deconstructing:
“A lot of BME people see the local authority as a big organisation, and they are scared of the big organisation. For a lot of people who grew up with parents from the Windrush generation, they were brought up to be quiet, and to respect the authorities. There has been that fear instilled from a young age.”
After discovering strengths in mediating, problem solving and education, Ruth was attracted to a role in family support at Sheffield City Council, which was accessible through a positive action scheme aiming to diversify the workforce. Working with the family support team helped to convince her that a career in social work would be an ideal fit, so in 2003, Ruth began studying social work at Sheffield Hallam University. While studying, she also managed to find time to work with a psychologist on a project which helped young people from mixed ethnic backgrounds to explore their identities. Both this degree course and the cultural identity project reinforced the idea that Ruth’s personal experiences could bring something positive to social work practice.
“At 17, I nearly died. I was stabbed in the back, it was millimetres away from my kidney. That was a massive wake up call. Looking back, I realised that a lot of that was about being a black woman trying to fit into a white society and being rejected and discriminated against at so many different levels. Young black people need to be proud of who they are, and this needs to come from different levels – teachers, allies. It’s so important, because I’d never have expected to be where I am now at that age.”
As part of her extra work, Ruth was able to secure funding to run residential outings with the young people she was supporting. Seeing the positive impact of this project was a real eye opener for what positive relationship-building could achieve.
“A lot of these children came from dysfunctional households, they had experienced and witnessed a lot. Just having a safe space over a weekend was great for them. It started off with them hating each other, then before you know it, we’ve got team building and the kids excelled.”
Another project Ruth helped to set up was the multiple heritage service in Sheffield, which worked mainly with dual heritage children, enabling them to explore their roots and cultural identity.
“This was not only an amazing project, but allowed the young people to celebrate who they are.”
After qualifying, Ruth decided it would be best to experience social work practice in a range of settings. She felt that this was a good way to challenge herself and learn more about different ways of working, and agency social work provided a good way to achieve this.
“I wanted to go out and see how things worked in different authorities, so that’s why I did some agency work – it wasn’t just about social work, it was about project work for me and the chance to move around.”
With a career including both agency and permanent social work posts across several different authorities, Ruth is well placed to reflect on the pros and cons of agency work. Although the extra pay and the chance to pursue a variety of experiences were positives for her, she found that agency casework could be particularly complex and stressful, and at times the relative lack of support and protection could be worrying:
“If your caseload is all at the high end of safeguarding, you have to ask yourself if you can really be effective. You’re constantly firefighting, but if you do want to leave, you can hand your notice in. You’re always thinking, ‘This is a bit dangerous, could I lose my registration?’ At least in a permanent post you’re more protected, you’ve got regular training, and if you need a second worker or extra support, you’re more likely to get that.”
After returning to Sheffield as an agency worker, management recognised Ruth’s value and contribution to her team and offered her a permanent role. When weighing up this decision, one of the major factors was feeling more vulnerable as an agency worker, moving around different authorities. The familiarity and positive culture in Sheffield, alongside the additional sense of security, made it feel like the right time to switch back to a permanent role
“With Sheffield, I know what I’m walking into, I know what it’s about, and I’m protected in a lot of ways. You get your sick pay, you your annual leave and you get the full support of your managers and colleagues, even counselling if needed. Don’t get me wrong, agency money is lovely, but money’s not everything in this job!”
The pandemic was an extremely difficult time for Ruth, as she lost her stepfather, cousin, and uncle. Having stable employment allowed her to take the time she needed to support her elderly mother whilst dealing with her own grief.
“I can honestly say that having the employee counselling to hand helped me immensely. I was able to continue to work and support my mother through this difficult time.”
As well as the additional security and training, having a permanent post offered a chance to get involved in the extra project work which Ruth finds so rewarding. Since returning to permanent practice, she has worked on the Race Equality Commission, been the driving force behind creating a safe space for discussing BME identity and issues at work and worked with a range of community groups to organise Sheffield’s Black History Month celebrations. For Ruth, building better understanding of how other groups have been disadvantaged can help social workers to be advocates for equality.
“We talk about equality and diversity, but it’s really important as a social worker that we actually learn to understand how other groups have been marginalised and discriminated against. We can create a more equal environment, engage with people from different backgrounds, and we help level the playing field.”
For more information about the campaign, children’s social work and the opportunities to get into a career in Yorkshire & Humber go to: https://www.childrenssocialworkmatters.org