Sensuous supervisors: Understanding ourselves and others in the context of Black Lives Matter

Written: 29/07/2020

By: amy bishop

In: Reflections

Published: 29/07/2020

Author: Gillian Ruch

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) campaign has caught the attention of a wide section of our global society with BLM posters and graffiti appearing in all sorts of expected and unexpected spaces, places and organisations publishing BLM position statements. 

But is it enough?

In a recent meeting of the Practice Supervisor Development Programme (PSDP) operations and strategic management group we discussed how we might ensure that equality and diversity issues were mainstreamed in all of our discussions. Our concern was that initiatives, such as BLM, are important pinch points that focus our attention on painful and difficult aspects of our collective lives, but there is a danger that their immediacy and intensity are short-lived, ‘allowing’ us to return to a more or less ‘business as usual’ mindset, once the initial flurry of activity wanes.

So we were eager to avoid simply inserting into our regular meeting agenda a standing item on equality and diversity, for fear of it being treated as a tokenistic statement with no genuine substance or longevity. Instead we agreed to commit to ensuring that all agenda items were viewed through an equality and diversity/BLM lens. Something we had already committed to do and have undertaken for all our open access resources in the PSDP: Resources and Tools for Practice Supervisors website. So, moving forward, we have agreed that at each meeting we will all be alert to equality and diversity issues throughout the meeting and, in addition, we will take it in turns for one person to take specific responsibility for holding up and equality and diversity lens on all our discussions, decisions and actions. 

In her book Sensuous Knowledge: A Black Feminist Approach for Everyone (Salami, 2020), Minna Salami provides an accessible and challenging call to grapple with what she refers to as European patriarchy, with its stranglehold (a powerful term in light of the nature of George Floyd’s death) on our thought processes and daily lives. Much as our PSDP management group was committed to avoiding tokenistic behaviours, Salami also underlines the risk of superficial responses.

The book invites us, gently but firmly, to peel back the layers of – I was going to write here ‘skin’ which feels somewhat apposite but also provocative – our established ways of thinking and feeling, in order, authentically and without defensiveness, to rise to the challenge of developing decolonised understanding of everyone’s everyday lives. In effect she invites us to get beneath the surface – under the skin – and penetrate the depth of our colonised ways of behaving. The remarkable feature of the book is that it does not shy away from the seriousness of this challenge, but does so in an invitational, as opposed to a confrontational, manner.

What then, as people involved in a range of ways with the PSDP – practice supervisors, supervisors of practice supervisors, facilitators, one-to-one coaches, professional support personnel and management board members – can we learn from Salami’s authoritative and compassionate approach?

Firstly, as the book’s title infers we are all in this together and binary thinking – them and us, black and white – does not promote mature and adult responses. Much like the ‘both/and’ systemic stance that is embedded in the PSDP, Salami refers to ‘with/within’ knowledge:

‘the mind exists with and within the body, reason with and within emotion, the feminine with and within the masculine and vice versa’ (p.21).

Binary thinking is both excluding and hierarchical. For example, one element of the binary relationship is ‘better’ than the other. To reconfigure it we need to be open to new inclusive ways of seeing the world, which do not, as we can be inclined to believe, threaten our ‘resource base’, but actually enrich and expand it. When supervisory relationships become difficult, exploring how binary thinking might be contributing to the situation might begin to untangle often deeply held beliefs. The Social GGRRAAACCEEESSS exercise on the programme has been widely cited by candidates who submitted reflective assignments as an illuminating activity that unlocked challenging practice – social worker/family – and supervisory – supervisor/supervisee – dynamics and allowed more productive relationships to blossom. The GGRRAAACCEEESSS are a model which describe aspects of personal and social identity which include gender, geography, race, religion, age, ability, appearance, class, culture, education, ethnicity, employment, sexuality, sexual orientation and spirituality (Burnham, 2013).

Secondly, for Salami, our identity should act as a compass and not as a weapon. By owning our identity – be that our race, ethnicity, gender, sexuality – we are invited to be joyful in our recognition of who we are. Refusing to ‘other’ others avoids us falling into the trap of seeing ourselves only in relation to the dominant voice/presence. We need to speak from our own position of strength that does not require the belittling of others. Supervisory relationships provide an ideal space to model strengths-based behaviours, which through the power of parallel process dynamics, are likely then to be replicated by supervisees in their relationships with families. 

And thirdly, Salami’s framing of knowledge as ‘sensuous’ speaks directly to the PSDP commitment to inclusive understandings of knowledge and recognition of the importance of experiential ways of learning, which pay particular attention to the role of emotions and affect in social work practice. Sensuous knowledge is inclusive and does not reject the dominant knowledge discourses of rationality and objectivity, but argues firmly for equal weight and status to be afforded to emotionality and subjectivity, approaches to knowing that, up until now, have been equated with feminine ways of knowing.

We have a long way still to go and to believe we have arrived is always a cause for concern. In particular as we move into wave three of the PSDP for practice supervisors and wave one of the PSDP: Supervising the Supervisor Programme for managers of practice supervisors, those people responsible for recruiting participants for the programmes might use this opportunity to take a rain check on their own, and their organisation’s, levels of engagement with matters of diversity. Are practice supervisors and their supervisors who identify as Black, Asian or from Minority Ethnic groups, for example, given appropriate opportunities to join the programmes?

The voice of the marginalised must be heard and listened to and to do this we have to listen to our own inner voice. The PSDP does just that. The more attuned we are to ourselves the more inclusive and open we can be to the voices of others – children, parents, supervisees, peers, senior managers and other professionals – and surely that is what makes for effective practice supervisors.

Gillian Ruch

Gillian Ruch is a facilitator for the Practice Supervisor Development Programme and Professor of Social Work and works in the Department of Social Work and Social Care at the University of Sussex.

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