• Podsoc #36

Strengths-based practice:

In conversation with Venkat Pulla

[Transcript for this podcast is available in the Tab below]

Venkat Pulla presents on a much requested topic, strength-based practice. He poses some challenging ideas useful in generating discussion on how we practice strengths-based approaches. The importance of nurturing strengths and supporting hope in the people with whom we work is highlighted.

Dr Venkat Pulla is a Tata Dorabji Merit Scholar from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences India. Currently he teaches social work at Charles Sturt University in Australia. His research interests are in human coping and resilience, spirituality and social work, and green social work. He is the founder of the Brisbane Institute of Strengths Based Practice.

Recommended citation – APA6th

Fronek, P. (Host). (2012, December 9). Strengths-based practice: In conversation with Venkat Pulla [Episode 36]. Podsocs. Podcast retrieved Month Day, Year, from [http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/strengths-based-practice] (http://www.podsocs.com/podcast/strengths-based-practice).

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Transcription Podsocs 36 Strengths-based Practice

Thank you to James Attard for this transcription

[musical intro to 00.10]

Hello, and welcome to Podsocs, the podcast for social workers on the run. Brought to you by a bunch of social workers from Griffith University in Australia.
I’m Tricia Fronek, one of that bunch, and we’re just basically really glad you found us. So, happy listening.

Tricia:By request I'm speaking today with Venkat Pulla, the founder of the Brisbane Institute of strengths-based practice. Venkat we're very pleased to have you on
Podsocs, welcome.

Venkat: Thank you.

Tricia: Would you like to tell us a bit about yourself to start with?

Venkat: Yeah, Basically over the last 21 years, I've been in Australia and I've come from India and I'm from the Tata Institute of Social Sciences Mumbai, you know, from there I did my Masters in Social Work and my PhD. And I came into this country to, you know, start teaching social work and over the period of time also got into a lot of practice work in child protection, in immigration, migrant resource centres, disability services, community recovery, and various other things and I guess at this point of time I'm back to academics at the Charles Sturt University.

Tricia: And your interest, one of your interest areas, is strength-based practice?

Venkat: That is right. I guess one of the reasons why strength-based practice which is, you know, which everybody has been talking about, for me as someone who's come from India, it’s actually my understanding of that is to rely on one’s own strengths. In other words, that's the kind of meaning that we get from Gandhi’s own freedom struggle, and the way in which India won its freedom, and the work that he's done in South Africa, and also the kind of work that Nelson Mandela, and other people followed Gandhi, and self-reliance. You rely on your own strengths, it's not the external strengths, but it's largely internal strengths and you whether it is for an individual, whether it is for a group, or a community or, even for an organisation, there is you know an open and ample opportunity for people to think about drawing from within rather than looking towards external resources and external help for everything that happens as part of their own situation or as part of the community situation.

So, that's one of those things which actually inspired me and over a period of time I try to follow the thoughts of various people and also followed how individual thinkers in social work and also practitioners in social work have been propagating this in the Western world. And I tried to see what is it that is happened in the Eastern world and what is it that has happened in the Western world and what kind of models have we got and how is it that we could actually bring in a bit from here, a bit from there, and try and synchronize the, you know, the essence, the very essence, of strength-based practice and I felt that that is something very akin to social work. We tend to do it but, you know, saying that we do it always is different from actually practising it and I've shown this in very, very difficult situations where extreme dependency has become part and parcel of social work. Extreme welfare dependency has been seen as part of social work, and most of the welfare states have done that, most of social workers also kind of like to be in a situation where the clients are dependent on them, and scenarios like that where I had to change.

I obviously took it up on a much larger scale even at an international scale and have had some success in taking back to United States, taking this to you know to Europe, and taking certainly back to Asia and in my own way in the field of disabilities for some time. This is how I try to utilize this and I'm very passionate about it and I guess a time came around 2004, 2005 when I was thinking in terms of why some of the things that we always talk about are not working and not bring the best out of clients. And why is it that we set up dependency cycle. Then I was thinking that there is something radically wrong or otherwise we seem to be going wrong and I was looking around for people on the internet in terms of other more people like me who are looking for alternatives, and alternatives in social work, specially social work solutions, whether it be solution-focused methods or whether it is some kind of a search within, and whether it is any kind of breakthroughs, what is it that they are trying to do to set up something new, innovations.
And it was at that point of time I found fairly, you know, quite a number of people who are up there trying to look at alternatives, look at innovations, and for the first time in 2006, I try to organize a kind of a collective of people which is called the First Global Conference on Strengths-Based Strategies. So, we held it in India, because I felt that look India has, you know, gone through a lot and despite its poverty, despite lack of social security, despite its, you know, various other kinds of problems including their caste system, their class system, and their ups and downs in their classes, and very rich and very poor at the various levels. The social, the class of people they are and the kind of contentment that they show the happiness that they have shown in various, you know, various communities sometimes actually baffled me. So, I thought look let's go back and see how this will chime with the country, with the ethos there and we will also try and see how everybody can relate and bring both the Western model as well as Eastern model.

And the whole idea at that time Patricia, was not to talk about deficits at all. Not to talk about, you know, these are the social problems plaguing India; these are the social problems plaguing Congo; or in Africa we've got hunger, you know, problems connected with hunger, problems connected with extreme poverty, and everything else. When the problems are there they don't disappear. And we kind of understood, you know, whether it is, you know, the modern-day Katrina, so tsunamis, or whether it is anything else. All these things well, you know in some kind of shape, some kind of form, they keep occurring. Some of them keep coming up every other time. So, what is it that allows human beings to, you know, continue the next day and what is it that, you know, he or she looks forward for just in case there is a social worker to work alongside? Is he asking that you take over his problem, is he asking that you immediately solve his problem, or is he asking you know a way or means by which he can solve his own situation?
And should something like that come back again, does he have an opportunity to learn what kind of skills he could actually use? So that there could be a day without a social worker, there could be a day without a voluntary social worker, or whoever that is, any helping professionals. So, that's the kind of I mean, I won't call it a radical shift, but I've just said to a number of people we’ve got to do things in a way, in a better way. That we should probably be in a position to do away without ourselves in the scheme of things. Especially as far as welfare is concerned. If people are able to mind themselves and can look after some of those things, we probably will find ways and means to survive out in other ways too. It's not that everybody, I mean there are there are going to be other spots where we could actually go and do some more work. So, that's the kind of a thing that I started Patricia and the first congress that we had I think had close to 275 people who came in.

Tricia: And the next one is in Nepal, yes?

Venkat: No, that was in 2006. The 2007 we obviously didn't do much, but I have been individually gone around and try to do something in similar activities. 2008 we had an opportunity to do a kind of a conference around populations, vulnerable populations in Malaysia. 2009 we took the plunge and went to Dubrovnik, that is, you know, East European countries where there are seen a lot of what are all called transition countries. They've all you know, the Balkanized countries. So, we looked at their coping and resilience in that particular part of the world. There too, we have suggested to them, guys we are interested in what are those kind of strength-based activities by which you have increased individuals coping, individual resilience, and how you have managed to rekindle what we would call at that point of time, what we call it that point of time, hope? But in 2009 not many people, either academicians or social workers, came forward to talk to me about whole building strategies. Because they felt that clients are always taking them back to situations where they always talk about the old miserable stories or they would like to talk about their frozen memories and they're still reeling in a whole lot of issues. I value the comments, I do not integrate any of those kinds of situations that yes, there are, you know, especially when you come out from trauma, or torture or whatever. Those kinds of situations obviously will be with individuals for a long, long time. But there is always an opportunity for us to all summon, we can't briskly work with them, but not to work with them at all, to rebuild their hope or to just simply listen to their narratives day in and day after, will make them also, you know, we're not building hope around them, we are actually dealing with the kind of hopeless situation. So, that's what I found largely the European welfare situation where social workers, psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses, and everybody else around who are basically groping in darkness and I had the opportunity, you know, for the next two years 2009-2010 to generally go around to Europe and talk to different governments when they have organized their meetings, especially like in-service trainings, especially for psychiatrists and social workers, as well as psychologists.

Talking in terms of what are our alternatives and what is it suddenly if European aid or any of those international aid organizations tell you that look there's no more aid for all this X victims of war, we’ve got to get our act together and we’ve got to look forward for tomorrow. What do you do and even alternative, how do you go about setting alternatives? Do you yourself have an alternative, because you've been reeling in this for the last 8 or 10 years? You do not know any other business other than dealing with torture victims and listening to their stories. These are the kind of rather radical proclamations and radical questions that I raised from the podium which made people think that we need to be creative, we need to be taking the same business in in a slightly different way, we need to possibly challenge ourselves with alternative creativities so that we also have opportunity for the client to think yeah, one day this entire thing is going to basically, you know, wind up and wind up where. You know, if you don't have dollars to support, we don't have services then. Then if you don't have services then clients no longer come. If clients no longer come to our places that doesn't mean problems have gone away.

Tricia: So, Venkat what is the difference between a Western perspective of strengths-based and what you're seeing in the rest of the world?

Venkat: I think the Western, when we talk about the Western-based way of looking at the strengths-based perspective, Western strengths-based perspective largely looks around representing problem with which the client comes in and looks around immediately for the possible responses. Which are around assisting the individual to set a few priorities, start working with them, and possibly move forward. And if we were to add a few more questions to this to make it a holistic strengths-based perspective you would be asking questions such as; the problem that you have got at this point of time, was such a problem ever present in your life before? That's where you start, then they would possibly start telling us yes it was there once, you know, once probably a year ago, or two years ago, five years ago. It's then what you are, actually then, going to talk to him is okay if that was the case what was the situation, the what is the situation then and now? So, you would not concentrate much on the now, but you will be asking a lot of questions around what was the situation of the problem and what were the resources at that point of time that were available.

Tricia: How important is a sense of being part of the community important to strength-based practice because I think we tend to look at it individually rather than from a community point of view?

Venkat: Yes, I think one of the most important things that probably makes a difference between highly vested development of strength-based practices where the emphasis in social work, as well as in our model itself, is been on individualization, individual achieving his highest potential. We survey individual achieving that potential as part of a group individual achieving his highest potential as part of a larger community, that identity that we are talking about actually makes him feel that he's not alone, that's the first thing.

Second thing that it does is it actually brings him an opportunity to see that there are other people around him, who might even be just like him, and the opportunity there is again to think in terms of look we are not alone. I'm not bowling alone, that's the first kind of, you know, impression that you would start getting. The empowerment that you feel that you are part of a group is completely different from individually waging. So, if you had an alternative to be strengthened as an individual in a community that would be a preferred mode because there's a fall back on the community and there is the sense of meaningfulness if you are, you know, that community perspective is rekindled back. And that's something that we are trying to do I mean in social work’s main purpose in the future when the dollar sign starts hitting as badly and we don't have any more dollars to spend, where do we get the community sense? Where do we get the group feeling? How do we generate the feeling of me and my community? So, when we start thinking in terms of those things, we automatically go towards more systemic community engagement type of risk. You will have to be looking around.

Tricia: So, Venkat what sort of skills do social workers need to really tap in and support people strengths?

Venkat: I think basically, I think our appreciation that every individual has the capacity to come out of his or her own problem. That will be the first thing.

Tricia: So, we have to believe that, don't we, as workers?

Venkat: We need to also, because one of the things that I have noticed is because of our own profession for our own, maybe within the profession, we don't possibly agree that everybody has that capabilities. And if we believe that everybody has those capacities then what happens is then our assessments, and form of providing services to them will be dependent on, you know, very much dependent on that kind of a belief. In other words, we will be doing what I have always called as variable assistance. In other words, we will be addressing and weighing how much he can actually do it. We would not do spoon-feeding, we would not do, you know, a child who is two or one and a half possibly requires, you know, for you to hold his finger or hand and slowly give him a little bit of a walking training. But a little later when he starts running about, all you need to ensure is just, you know, provide that hand in a kind of a global way that he is not falling down but at the same time you don't constantly put him on a leash, or something, hanging on with the fear that he would run away. So, it is that sort of a thing that I always felt we probably need to understand and in the model of the, strength model, has been used largely for helping and people have said that, you know, we have people we even with severe persistent mental illnesses and people who have had, you know, alcohol and drug problems and even in, you know, now even in child protection area it's been used.

But the thing is sometimes in order to work with a strength-based model we also it's not just the individual with whom they will be working, in especially if you are looking at it in child protection area, we would also be utilizing a strength-based model to work within the child protection system within possibly. I mean if I just take the Australian example, within possibility the Australian Centrelink system, and we will have to be also trying to work with any other services which are available for the adults who are involved in that kind of child protection system. So, that they also receive some services while maybe temporarily or otherwise, child has been taken in or has become the ward of the state. I mean if I continue that very example, one of the things that why we work at cross purposes in child protection, or we are models in child protection work, is because as soon as a child becomes a ward of the state there's a tendency to ask the parents; go fix yourself up, go pick up parenting skills from UQ or somewhere, or go and get some counseling. That's one thing that is fair enough, we probably ask them to do that. And of course, if they have been associated with other problems, whether it's drugs or whatever it is. In the time when the child is not there, money gets cut off and when money gets cut off and there's no other way by which they can actually rebuild the house or buy some toys and keep it already for the child to come back, or do anything by which they can actually show that they do still care for the child. So, one of the things that I always found which is important to me was to actually check the pulse of these parents, you know, despite their habits, despite their drugs, despite their domestic violence, despite whatever those things are through which we have picked up the children. I have found them to be very loving as far as the children are concerned, they obviously do not like to lose their children.

Tricia: So, we really have to pay attention to structural factors as well as the individual factors. We can't just ignore those and expect people to be able to get past those barriers by themselves. Is that what you mean?

Venkat: Yes, they can't pass those. They require our help whether they are, see the barriers that they have some of them on an individual level they could pass through but as there are some barriers at the group level, there are some barriers at the community level. Their struggle has to be recognized and we need to actually understand that they need help, and we do not know the upper limits of the capacity to grow and change within themselves. You can challenge them at every level by saying look this is what I'm going to offer you from the other system. This is not being offered by me, but this can come because we are going to work with them.

So, in working with the strength-based practice, it has always been in examine each step. People ask me is there a complete methodology for this? Is it a mix and match? How do you go about? I try to tell them that everybody has a dream, everybody does think in terms of a particular thing that they like. All we need to do is ask them have they ever dreamt before of something similar and if they've dreamt something before similar how did they go about you know managing to make a dream into a reality. Kind of things when we indulge in what we are doing is we are actually befriending the individual even in the most critical point and trying to make that person appreciate, hey there is somebody who still trusts me and I'm not hopeless. Building active hope, yes, I think it's not an easy thing, I'm not suggesting that, you know, only those social workers who are spiritually, you know, very, very active are in a position to go ahead and do it. No, you need to have compassion, you need to have a belief that it is possible that everything can be set right. We can move on, I mean on an average, I mean if I were to see how many people have attended my conferences and my inner courses and some of the stuff I think it goes into 800 to 900 people and how many of them have come back? More than a hundred, hundred and twenty-five of them who run from each conference to the other. Because every time they find something new that we are talking about and we are trying to find a different wavelength and we are trying to find a different meaning.

Tricia: Venkat, just for a final question. What do you think the most important thing that social workers need to know to be able to practice in a strength-based way? And to actually have hope for their clients and to help the clients tap into their own strengths? What do you think we most need to know?

Venkat: I think first of all we need to believe our clients. Second thing, we should always be in dialogue with the client. The third thing, of course is that we need to believe that we are capable of giving hope and we believe that everybody belongs somewhere. I think these are some of the things that we need to have as our basic convictions. This is our, what I would call the dictionary of our faith. It is quite possible for us to move on with the kind of work that we will be wanting to do in social work. Social work is about building active hope. It is not about, you know, something as a result of systemic failures and there's an opportunity for us to dialogue and to work with the clients.

Tricia: So, no one is hopeless?

Venkat: That’s right.

Tricia: Thank you so much Venkat. And it’s been a pleasure talking to you.

Venkat: Thank you very much.

[Musical outro 26.15 to END]

Interview ENDS: 26.42