The Essential Power of Both/And in Social Work

The Essential Power of Both/And in Social Work

     Life can be many things. It can be full of great joy, and it can be full of great hardship. Life has ups and it has downs. It can be quite volatile. The great adventure of humanity is learning to adapt and cope with the ever-changing landscape of the world around us. Sometimes it is difficult for humans to do it all on their own. That is where I see social work at play. Social workers help guide others through life’s adventures and challenges. The most essential tool I have learned to aid in this task is the powerful phrase both/and.

     Throughout life, people have to make many decisions. Sometimes they are big life decisions, such as where to go to school or where to work, and sometimes they are less consequential, such as what to watch or what to have for dinner. Often, in these decisions, people fall into the trap of false dichotomy. We tell ourselves or society tells us that we have to choose between this option and that option. This thinking often traps us, because we are not fond of either option. Both/and frees us from this mental cage. Social work education has taught me that life is plural. Social work takes the dichotomies in life and says what if we did both? Or what about this third, fourth, or fifth option? Or what if we do not have to make this choice at all? This idea sounds simple, but it is simply revolutionary.

     Life reduced to simple dichotomies can be very limiting and debilitating. False dichotomies make us believe that life is a zero-sum game. If we do one thing, we are giving up another. The old proverb says, “You can’t have your cake and eat it, too.” Both/and says you can. Both/and creates space. Space for ambiguity and space for conversation. It explores the gray area in between and surrounding our choices. Social work operates in the gray area.

     Both/and allows us to imagine a better way. What if we ate half of the cake and saved the rest? What if we bake another cake? What if we share our cake with someone else? What if, in fact, we do not want cake at all? These questions show just how artificial the dichotomy is. It is not a choice between having a cake and eating it. There is a wide variety of options outside of those limits. We simply need the tools to access the options outside of the limiting dichotomy. Both/and is that tool.

     The mantra of both/and gives us permission to imagine a better life. Both/and gives us permission to think outside of the mental boxes that are constantly imposed upon us. Above all, both/and is revolutionary, because it gives people hope. Hope for a future, hope for a different way forward. Both/and allows us as social workers to both change the current world and imagine a better future world.

     Both/and is the most essential piece of knowledge I have learned in my social work education, because it is an element of everything a social worker hopes to do. We cannot work with individuals, families, groups, organizations, and communities if we cannot imagine worlds outside of our own limiting dichotomies. We cannot be social justice advocates if we cannot imagine what a just world  might look like. We can only start the planned change process by believing things can change. We can only see strengths in our clients if we reject the idea that they are either good or bad. Both/and is extraordinary, because it is simple, but just because it is simple does not mean it is easy. Both/and bothliberates us and liberates our clients. If we continue to practice the philosophy of both/and, we have the power to change the world.

Mason Ferguson is a senior social work student at St. Olaf College. He is from Hinckley, MN, and is interested in social policy, social justice, and child welfare.