2 Place in Anti-Oppressive Practice: Rurality, Decolonization, and Equity

Michelle Lam and Denise Humphreys

What does it mean to practice social work with rural clients from an anti-oppressive perspective? We are settler women living in the Canadian prairies who share our perspectives and insights on oppressive practice and equity issues in rural human service contexts. Using the method of duo-ethnography, “a collaborative research methodology in which two or more researchers of difference juxtapose their life histories to provide multiple understanding of the world” (Sawyer & Norris, 2012, p. 9),  we draw on personal narratives as in education and social work settings. Recurring themes of displacement, colonialism, accessibility, ethics, and stigmatization reveal themselves through our reflections.

I (Denise) have experienced rural social work as an outsider living in an urban setting. My primary practice was working with Indigenous youth unjustly displaced from their rural communities through the child welfare system. Other areas of my past practice also relate to rurality through those displaced from rural areas. I also travelled   to provide services periodically in rural areas. I (Michelle) was an English as an Additional Language educator for newcomers living in non-metropolitan areas. As an educator, I witnessed the assimilative forces involved in “welcoming” newcomers to rural Canada. Together, we describe and further explore equity issues associated with education and social services provided to people living in rural areas from our distinct professional backgrounds. Our experiences suggest that change in provision of services is needed  to address the oppression and inequity rural residents may encounter through dominant human service practices. After recognizing these issues, we suggest further action towards achieving anti-oppressive practice and more equitable futures for rural residents.

Learning Objectives

By the end of this chapter you will have had the opportunity to:

  • Learn application of anti-oppressive practice in rural settings
  • Learn reflexivity when working with rural communities
  • Learn use of practice frameworks that may be helpful when working with rural clients
  • Learn application of the Canadian Association of Social Workers (CASW) code of ethics in context with anti-oppressive practice
Rurality and the Importance of Place

Rural contexts within the Western Canadian provinces are a significant portion of the population, although the term “rural” is contested. Rural can mean “non-urban,” or it can be used to denote a specific community or region. In addition, some cities can be described as “rurally influenced cities,” which means that although they technically classify as cities according to population numbers, they retain strong connections to rural industries and identities (Banack, 2018). One example of a rurally-influenced city is be Brandon, Manitoba. While it is technically a city, it is sustained in large part by the surrounding agricultural communities. This is notable in both the city’s moniker, “The Wheat City,” and the city’s hockey team, “The Wheat Kings.” It’s also observable in the ways rurality influences social relationships (Lam, 2021). Others define rural according to economic and social attributes like extensive land use, attachment to the environment, and cohesive social structures (Blake & Nurse, 2003). According to Statistics Canada, rural communities have less than ten thousand inhabitants (Statistics Canada, 2001). Depending on how rural is defined, Canada’s rural population varies between 22 percent and 38 percent (Statistics Canada, 2001). Economically, rural areas produce 30 percent of Canada’s GDP  (Keung, 2019), supplying food, energy and other necessary supports to the rest of the country. In the words of columnist Jeffrey Simpson (2018), Canada is a “country of cities strung together by countryside” (p. 2).

In the social sciences, the significance of place is often overlooked. If mentioned, place is “just the surface upon which life happens” (Tuck & McKenzie, 2015a, p. 9). Yet places are not neutral backdrops. They should not be reduced to bounded physical landscapes or symbols of the past but are mobile and dynamic “sites of presence, futurity, imagination, power, and knowing” (Tuck & McKenzie, 2015a, p. 15) experienced, understood, and practiced differently. Against a backdrop of globalization, neoliberalism, colonialism, climate change, and environmental degradation, Critical Place Inquiry (CPI) draws attention to place,  an element often lacking in research in social work. Drawing on postmodern shifts, the shifts in society abandoning universal reason, truth and unitary schemas (Patton, 2001), along with spatial, new materialist, and other critical shifts in social research (Jocson, 2016; Tuck & McKenzie, 2015a) CPI reminds researchers and practitioners of the interconnectivity between humans and nature. It calls to attention the necessity of considering place and land, as well as the ongoing displacement and dispossession of Indigenous Peoples in relation to land (Tuck & McKenzie, 2015b). Centering place requires acknowledgement of colonial histories and lasting impacts. Centering place encompasses the dynamic, interactive mobility of places, mutual shaping of social practices and places, recognition of disparate experiences, understandings, and practices of place, countering place-based processes of colonialism and their further entrenchment through social science research, the consideration of non-human inhabitants and the land itself, a relational ethic of accountability, and valuing the contributions of Indigenous epistemologies (Tuck & McKenzie, 2015b).

Place can encompass land, nature, the non-human world, and community. Yet within discussions of place, definitions are contested. Idealizing place as a stable, warm, intimate community can erase distinctions among “historical, geographical, cultural, political, economic, and other dimensions of place construction, [as well as] issues of strategy, power, cooperation, and exploitation” (Nespor, 2008, p. 478). Nespor (2008) argues for a robust definition that neither considers the transition from a rural to industrial society as a fall, nor find its salvation in a localized, moralized emphasis. Rather, a definition of place is needed, which recognizes continual interaction with the “outside,” and acknowledges power, class, gender, and racial dynamics within local places and broader structures. Jocson (2016) also emphasizes this notion. She defines place as “lived space with dynamic networks, shaped by and constituting cultures and identities” (Jocson, 2016, p. 1269). Defining place is thus a difficult task, as it can be used to denote something as simple as a geographical location with a bounded setting or as complex as a dynamic and changing accomplishment created by permeable borders through which relationships and transactions occur and are shaped by values and meanings (Jocson, 2016; Nespor, 2008). Place carries a constellation of networks, connections to other places, shifting negotiations, and social realities (Jocson, 2016).

Some place-based initiatives tend to reorient activity to a local scale to reverse trends of neoliberalism, globalization, or climate change. These initiatives encounter problematic practical barriers. It is not possible to ignore these realities and focus only on local places. A focus on larger systemic factors is also needed, as well as an examination of how these forces impact localities. For example, a teacher works within a system that includes standardized testing. A local business competes with big box stores. Farmers operate on land that large-scale industries may impact. As these examples illustrate, not only is the paradigm of place-consciousness important to consider, the realities of the places themselves and the connections they have to other systems are also important. As Nespor (2008) writes, “The question, then, is not whether or not we are place-conscious, it is the places of which we are conscious” (p. 487).

To this end, humans are inseparable from nature (Tuck & McKenzie, 2015a). Rooted in decolonizing research, environmental research, and Indigenous methodologies, CPI aims to deepen understanding of place, redefining it beyond geographical and physical space. It seeks to remind “how places and our orientations to them are informed by, and determinants of, history, empire, and culture” (Tuck & McKenzie, 2015a, p. 23). In other words, people do not only “construct place but that, in fact, the very matter and material of place profoundly acts on and affects place-making” (Jocson, 2016, p. 1272).

CPI  employs a range of research methodologies, data collection, and analyses methods, but in each, place is conceptually engaged explicitly and politically (Tuck & McKenzie, 2015a). Within CPI, legitimacy is established through relational validity (Tuck & McKenzie, 2015b), which can be described as responsibility and accountability toward the relationality of life, dependent on other species, land, social context, and future generations (Tuck & McKenzie, 2015b). This chapter begins by acknowledging that rural, remote, and northern communities are not one single context but uniquely shaped by the land, history, culture, and the complex web of relationships, always dynamic and shifting. For example, in rural areas, communities separated by only a few kilometres may experience rivalry and prejudice between towns, racial groups, or between settler and Indigenous communities (Epp & Whitson, 2001; Perry, 2018). While this chapter calls for imagination in pursuit of equity, the pathway towards that goal will look different in different contexts because of the importance of place.

Stories that Beget Stories

To explore these ideas further, we employed a methodology known as duo-ethnography (Sawyer & Norris, 2012), by which two people use their own life stories and reflections to prompt further thoughts in one another. In this relational way, “stories beget stories” (Sawyer & Norris, 2012, p. 28), leading to new ways of thinking about the topic for both participants.

In any duo-ethnography, the two participants must recognize their positioning and be dissimilar  in order  to spark further insights in one another. They must also enter the process with humility, acknowledging that their own stories and insights will be challenged and reinterpreted through the process. This chapter focuses on social work, reflexivity, and rurality. Our backgrounds meant that we could bring insights from distinct professions practicing in rural places, which led to  valuable insights for social work.

To do this, we spent several months “conversing” through a shared document. We began with the question, “Why have you gravitated towards ‘helping professions?”’ and then began sharing our stories with each other. In the end, we had 21 pages of  reflections on early experiences, deconstructions, ethical practice, education, values, race, relationships, community, rural places, and current beliefs. We then took this document and began examining  it for areas where our stories held similarities and other themes that demonstrated insights into social work practice in rural communities.

There are plenty of benefits in working across disciplines, such as breaking down the silos or echo chambers that each field tends to create. Because of our (Denise and Michelle’s) unique backgrounds, we were forced to avoid the jargon of our respective fields, which caused us both to think about the topic in new ways. If you ever want to challenge yourself in a similar way, try explaining what you do without using any discipline-specific vocabulary. It may be more challenging than you think!



I (Michelle) approach this chapter as a white woman from a rural community. Both whiteness and rurality have shaped me, my beliefs and perceptions of reality, and the position I take up in society. I was drawn to the explanation of privilege by Harry Brod in 1989:

We need to be clear that there is no such thing as giving up one’s privilege to be ‘outside’ the system. One is always in the system. The only question is whether one is part of the system in a way that challenges or strengthens the status quo. Privilege is not something I take and which therefore have the option of not taking. It is something that society gives me, and unless I change the institutions which give it to me, they will continue to give it, and I will continue to have it, however noble and equalitarian my intentions. (p. 280)


This passage describes my positionality concerning systemic injustice based on identity. I worked for 10 years as an English as an Additional Language (EAL) teacher. In that role, I heard stories of discrimination and racism from my students and have observed that those who strategically adopted the traits of the dominant culture tended to find success more quickly. This pattern disturbed me, yet coincides with research on how “playing the game” (Henry et al., 2017, p. 307) still ultimately led to success for racialized individuals. I am now the director of Brandon University’s Centre for Aboriginal and Rural Education Studies (CARES). In this role, I continue to see themes of discrimination, racism, marginalization, and othering. However, I also see strength, resilience, and hope. As an anti-racist scholar on a journey of decolonizing myself and the systems of which I am part, it feels confusing to be working towards my loss of status, privilege, and prestige. However, in the words of Debby Irving, “It’s not enough to feel empathy toward people on the downside; white people must also see themselves on the upside to understand that discrimination results from privilege.” (2014, p. 73).

I (Denise) operate as a white woman but from an urban community. I live with racial privilege and the privilege that comes from living in an urban setting. bell hooks (2014)  helps describe my social position eloquently:

The process begins with the individual woman’s acceptance that American women, without exception, are socialized to be racist, classist and sexist, in varying degrees, and that labelling ourselves feminists does not change the fact that we must consciously work to rid ourselves of the legacy of negative socialization. (p. 157)


I may experience particular forms of oppression in my own life because of my social location, but this fact does not absolve me from the impact of other positionalities. I am a colonizer and racist based on my negative socialization. The hooks passage above resonates with how Michelle and I must consciously work to rid ourselves of our racism. The geography of where we live has also affected how we experience white privilege. I, especially as an urban resident, have learned racist perspectives from living in the metropolis.

From recent research Michelle and I have conducted, we found participants noted that healthcare facilities, places of business and work, and the street itself were significant places where racism was experienced (Lam & Humphreys, 2021). Many rural residents must travel to urban areas to access healthcare, find employment opportunities, and provide goods and services. Many participants in the study noted they experienced increased racism when coming to the city. This study is one example of the racism of urban areas and how I have access to healthcare, employment opportunities, goods and services, yet experience racial privilege in these areas of social life.

Exploring Early Reflections and Formative Experiences

Through the process of duo-ethnography, we found that there were significant similarities in our early experiences. We both entered our careers because we wanted to “help people” and had childhoods that involved volunteer work. These early experiences formed our values. We also both reflected on experiences in the late teenage and early adult years where we began recognizing that there were issues related to power and inequity. I (Michelle) wrote, “I stopped to critically wonder whether the help was always needed or whether I might be perpetuating problematic dynamics,” and I (Denise) wrote, “Through an increase in experience, education, maturity and learning, my early ideas of ‘helping people’ in my childhood and early teen years shifted to recognizing my role in the production and maintenance of inequity in my community.” [1]

This desire to help others is not limited to us. Both teachers and social workers tell stories about themselves. Many of us entered this profession because we have what Irving calls “Robin Hood Syndrome” (2014, p. 106) or the good feelings that come from helping other people. The stories of teachers and social workers as helpers begin early in life. Children are praised for fixing problems and helping others. These fix-it, help-them messages don’t change much as children age. “Wow, you’re going to be a teacher! They will be so lucky to have you” or “a social worker, that will be so hard, very noble of you.” While encouraging values such as compassion, responsibility, and helpfulness are certainly not wrong, it is necessary to acknowledge and critically engage with the systems that have marginalized others in the first place.

We questioned what compelled us to go through these shifts in our understanding. While we identified many factors, such as gender, spirituality, and the influences of family and community, there were other nuances. For me (Michelle), it involved questioning motivation, “I started realizing that I cared a lot about what the people in my life thought about me, and being in this ‘helping’ role was a way I was garnering their affirmation…when I finally dared to look at it, it made me question [my motivation].” Becoming a healthier individual (“There was a needy person underneath all of it, looking for love, validation, or affirmation”) meant deconstructing the ways I was using my identity as a “helper” to try to make other people like me and think well of me. Through the process of becoming a healthier person, I was able to find the courage to face my positionality and recognize that “helping was more about me and my insecurities than about the people I was caring for – that was a frightening prospect, and hard to work through.”

I (Denise) also questioned my positionality and privilege. I recognized that my initial goal of “helping people” was to connect and find belonging, which pushed me towards caring relationships in the community and introduced me more practically to social justice. However, one of my early volunteer experiences, which involved activities with older adults in a care home, caused me to question later why these older adults were feeling lonely and isolated in the first place. I began questioning the systems that I had experiences with, grappling with my positionality and what it meant to be “part of separating families, displacing individuals from rural to group homes, half-way houses, and to cities in which parole boards chose that it was fit for past offenders to reintegrate.” I began asking a key critical question, “Why am I needed?”

Both of us asked the big “why” questions as early adults, although we phrased them differently. I (Michelle) asked, “Why am I doing this?” and examined my motivations. I (Denise) asked, “Why am I needed?” and challenged the systems of which I was a part. These “big questions” point to the fact that both reflexivity and critical consciousness are needed in social work. This is reiterated in the literature. Reflexivity is a key tool in addressing power in social relations and is paramount in deconstructing and reconstructing knowledge for emancipatory purposes (Butler et al., 2007; D’Cruz et al., 2007; Houston, 2015; Trevelyan et al., 2014). The use of various forms of reflexivity can improve practice by going beyond procedural accountability by applying critical knowledge to the power relations in context. (D’Cruz et al., 2007). This may assist in challenging power and increasing social change (D’Cruz et al., 2007). It may also go further to expand the context of practice of social workers, where historically social workers have tended to focus on symptoms (Midgley, 2014; Midgley & Conley, 2010; & Pawar, 2014b as cited in Pawar, 2019) like poverty and homelessness, rather than root causes of social issues such as the effects of capitalism on people (Gil, 1998 as cited in McMahon et al., 2010).

Deconstructing “Helping” Professions

After the initial and harsh realizations that we both encountered, our stories moved towards deconstructing. I (Denise) reflected on the answers to my earlier question of “Why am I needed?” That reflection shifted to “I am not needed…I don’t need to insert myself here, and [especially in my current context] I am contributing to upholding a white system of social work.” I (Michelle) also had a similar reorientation: “As a younger person, I felt like I was a good person if other people thought I was ‘doing good,’ and ‘doing good’ meant helping others, so it was a kind of simplistic A+B=C equation.”

However, deconstructing is not a simple once-and-done event. It is an ongoing process, and one which we are still encountering today in various ways.  I (Denise) reflected that many careers in Canadian society will be oppressive. I chose to further my education to become a professor, so I could assist in harm reduction through teaching about colonialism. I was reminded of Audre Lorde’s quote, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change” (1984, p. 2). At the same time, we also reflected that while we are learning and growing and reflecting and deconstructing, racialized peoples are still experiencing violence. I (Denise) wrote, “I have tried to make sure I don’t get comfortable thinking I have my whole lifetime to learn, because it will be at the expense of the wellbeing of racialized individuals.” This comment prompted me (Michelle) to write that “Inertia, or ‘keeping the status quo,’ or ‘only moving as fast as the ship can sail,’ harms people.” Change is necessary to provide increasingly equitable and just services. For us, asking critical questions and deconstructing our previously held notions was the first step towards creating positive change.

Maintaining the status quo, when the status quo is harmful, is a dangerous place to settle.  Both of us identified this obstacle as “inertia.” I (Denise) wrote, “It takes nothing to be oppressive as a social worker. It’s not a matter of doing something oppressive; the system was built to be oppressive, and doing nothing will uphold it.” Collier, the author of Social Work with Rural Peoples, emphasizes, “It is difficult to change social work practices to pursue different ends. But the choice of serving only the interests of the employer… is nothing more than [serving] a colonial administrator” (2006, p. 49). I (Michelle) shared a story about trying to make change within a highly-bureaucratic system, where a suggestion to rectify an inequitable practice moved through a department meeting, to a faculty meeting, to another faculty meeting, to a discussion with administration, and then was moved into a sub-committee that is still (as of now) talking about the suggestion. I (Michelle) pointed out that the bureaucracy of the system is not only difficult and slow to maneuver and also has a “huge learning curve” for many people involved in making decisions. In the meantime, while new hires are learning the system, or while the bureaucratic system itself prevents meaningful change, the status quo continues to cause harm.

Harmful Practices in Rural Places

Our deconstruction and subsequent critical reflections through this duo-ethnography led us to identify ways that social work practice can cause harm specifically in rural places. We want to note that some of these practices are not motivated by hatred or ill intent. However, as Paul Gorski wrote, “Good intentions are not enough” (2008, p.1). Good intentions can still be harmful, and we must consider the intent and the impact of our actions. That being said, these harmful practices result from violent colonialism that continues to play out, even if they may be more subtle forms of what Durst identifies as “benevolent colonialism” (2010, p. 76).


One example of the ways that rural places experience inequity is through displacement. We can see this displacement happening in post-secondary institutions, as they are primarily located in major cities, and students must be separated from families and communities to attend hundreds of kilometres away. Displacement also occurs when rural residents may be forced to leave their homes for socioeconomic reasons or to access social services. As services become more centralized in urban areas, rural communities and the residents within are unequally served.

I (Denise) reflected on the displacement caused by the lack of services in rural communities, “From my experience in social work, there is an aim to be equitable, but in practice, equitable outcomes do not occur.” I (Denise) cited the example of youth and children leaving their communities, people having to travel for appointments instead of the social workers going to their locations or reduced local autonomy in rural governance. I (Denise) also pointed out that rurality made it especially difficult for parents in the justice system to see their children, and reiterated, “Just because there may be fewer people from rural areas should not mean there is an inequitable access to children.”

Rural places should not experience service inequity just because of location. However, rural residents experience social injustice in transportation, healthcare (both physical and mental), education, government and private sector services, and employment (Senate Committee on Agriculture and Forestry, 2006 as cited in Annie & Patterson, 2005).  For example, as published in the journal Canadian Social Work, rural residents in Canada lack access to palliative care services compared to their urban counterparts (CIHI 2023; Epp, 2012; Pesut et al. 2022; Pugh et al., 2019). The lack of availability of social workers and palliative care teams leaves many residents to navigate end-of-life care and grief without any formal supports. Because many support systems may also be displaced, this gap also creates more disjuncture in the informal supports of families and communities.

White Notions of Success

Both social work and education are overwhelmingly white fields. For example, only 13 percent of educators in Canada are visible minorities (Statistics Canada, 2016) compared to 25 percent of the total population. Social work is even more stark. In 2021, it was found that only 18 percent of social workers in Canada were visible minority status and only 7 percent were Indigenous (McNamee et al., 2023). In Winnipeg (Manitoba’s largest city), only 5 percent of all social workers in the city are racialized (See-Toh, 2012). Little research is available to the public on the current demographics of social workers in Canada (Hoselton & Walsh), including racial and ethnic demographics. However, both historically and currently in the literature, it is confirmed that there has been and continues to be a high proportion of white social workers in Canada (Bejan et al., 2014; McNamee et al., 2023) Fourteen percent of healthcare and social assistance workers are racialized individuals, and 86 percent were non-racialized individuals (Statistics Canada, 2006). In 2000, 74 percent of Canadian social workers were employed in healthcare and social service settings (Stephenson, 2000). Based on these statistics, it appears many sectors in the social work field are white-dominated. In addition to underrepresentation, based on a large-scale literature review of experiences of visible minority social workers, it is clear that despite adopting anti-racist and anti-oppressive practices, the field of social work has not yet removed barriers to mainstream social service agencies (Corley & Young, 2018; Strier & Binyamin, 2014; Yee et al., 2006)

Because the field is so predominately white, and white men govern the system itself (Vodde, 2001), the results of this domination permeate the values in the field. We reflected on how these values continued to influence social work, with particular attention to rural areas. I (Michelle) reflected on the value of independence and acknowledged that although many communities value interdependence, autonomy or a sense of rugged individualism was still “pushed as though it’s better.” I (Denise) shared examples from reasons for initial contact with Child Protection Services to case planning where the foci were primarily on school attendance instead of youth and family/community goals and familial or community ties. I (Denise) also shared my experiences with corrections: “What warrants contact with the justice system and frameworks for addressing ‘deviance’ are based on white ideals.” I (Denise) pointed out the Western “tough on crime” agendas of workers, which is primarily punishment-focused instead of focusing on restorative approaches, and I concluded, “Did it actually help the individual and the public in a lot of cases? No, I don’t think so.” Hyper-individualistic approaches that devalue community and familiar connections are deeply rooted in white colonial values such as meritocracy, that assigns power and worth based on achievement (Young, 1958) and individualism. For me (Michelle), this realization came after living in Asia for five years: “I realized I have a very Western way of thinking about things.” I (Michelle) used the example of a Vietnamese staff meeting where those with young children were not expected to attend if it was held after school hours. This difference in expectation depending on individual contexts and circumstances was seen as a normal consideration of the variances in the community. I (Michelle) wrote, “I think it’s closer to the idea of ‘equity’ and not just ‘equality.'”

These white ideals or values are often based on deficit models of “the other” and attribute the lack of this arbitrary definition of success to personal factors rather than systems (Delpit, 2006; Park, 2005). Research from the field of education shows that teachers use different interventions and strategies for minority students (Glock, 2016), to the point where they have even coined a phrase “pedagogy of poverty” to explain this type of teaching based on a deficit model (Haberman, 2010). This approach is supported by “those who have low expectations for minorities and the poor. People with limited vision frequently see value in limited and limiting forms of pedagogy. They believe that at-risk students are served by a directive, controlling pedagogy” (Haberman, 2010, p. 82). Within social work, the same deficit response can be seen in the justice system, where those with low expectations believe that a controlling, punitive response is the best way forward. The research, however, suggests otherwise, with restorative, community and healing approaches to justice as more effective in lowering rates of recidivism (Bonta, 2003; de Beus & Rodriguez, 2007; Fulham, 2018; Hansen, 2019)

With colonization and the domination of the Western way, fluency with Western behaviours, beliefs, mannerisms, and language became the barometer for cultural “others” – both racialized newcomers and Indigenous Peoples – for so-called success; success was not determined by Indigenous Peoples or racialized individuals themselves. When social workers or teachers define success for their clients or students, they implicitly or explicitly establish whiteness as the de facto standard against which all else is measured (Applebaum, 2012; Badwall, 2013; Davis, 2016; Delpit, 2006; Walter & Baltra-Ulloa, 2019; Whitaker, 2019). However, jettisoning cultural expression, beliefs, and worldviews is not what is required for students and clients to succeed, in the sense of decolonial success. Marom (2018) describes how marginalized people in professional roles had to adopt a particular dress code, management style, and communication style to be considered “’professional.” This assumption coincides with research on rural immigration and how newcomers adapt to find success. As Lam writes, “One way that newcomers try to overcome these stereotypes and disadvantages is to ‘act white’” (2021, pg. 95).  However, as Marom (2018) writes, “professionalism is not an objective concept, but rather a manifestation of certain explicit and implicit assumptions grounded in certain worldviews” (p. 7). The recent emphasis on “soft skills” in education or the manifestations of “interpersonal competencies” in social work could be similarly critiqued for valuing a particular set of cultural norms and expressions over others. For example, effective skills taught in communications courses for social work may involve open communication suggestions of making eye contact or skills such as mirroring. However, only certain cultures, including Western cultures, find it polite to make eye contact when conversing. It may be considered disrespectful in certain cultures and contexts (City of Saskatoon, 2019). Where it is a white social worker working with a racialized client or worker, mirroring may be a professional asset in offering a chance to remove some communication barriers, but it also may be seen as mocking or culturally appropriative if not practiced wisely. When cultural sensitivity is taught this way, the assumption is that social workers will be white.

In addition to telling stories about themselves, social workers and teachers also tell stories about their students and clients. For example, Indigenous students are spoken of as a “problem,” an “issue,” or a “challenge” (Applebaum, 2012; Collins, 2012; Delpit, 2006). These helping professions have been socialized to see non-white clients and students as needier and deficient (Applebaum, 2012; Delpit, 2006; Glock, 2016). I (Denise) have experienced racialized populations labelled as “at-risk” or “vulnerable” populations in social work settings. These social work and teaching settings typically do not focus on the strengths that diverse individuals bring to the community or the learning opportunities that all community members can have (Collins, 2012; Delpit, 2006; Glock, 2016). Instead, these settings focus on an imagined route to success, which involves adopting white patterns of behaviour, language, and being.

Whether in social work or education, the helper’s role is constructed to involve understanding the individuals’ deficiencies and then fault finding as to the cause of those shortcomings (Amadasun & Omorogiuwa, 2020; Applebaum, 2012; Baskin & Sinclair, 2015; Gorski, 2008; Henwood et al., 2015; Weick et al., 1989). When the deficiencies have been identified, then social workers and teachers investigate what is causing these deficiencies, which usually blames individual students or clients for not achieving the established norms (Amadasun & Omorogiuwa, 2020; Applebaum, 2012; Baskin & Sinclair, 2015; Delpit, 2006; Glock, 2016; Henwood et al., 2015; Weick et al., 1989; Whitaker, 2019). Thus, when students or clients are not living up to the established “white” norms, then it is up to the helper to “fix” those who are not “acting white.” However, in this case, the idea of fixing “often means assimilating – as in assimilating poor students into the very structures and values systems that oppress them” (Gorski, 2008, p. 518).

We reflected on this tendency through our duo-ethnography and found that these white values are also tied to rural settler communities and “fitting in.” I (Michelle) pointed out that although rural values such as community and dedication are not unique to white people and that there are also rural people who don’t hold those values, specific “performances” tend to lead to acceptance in small communities. I (Michelle) wrote, “If a newcomer family moved in and pitched in to help [with local sports or community events], they’d probably be welcomed with open arms and casseroles. But if they preferred to keep to themselves, people might not be as welcoming.” This example demonstrated that belonging to rural communities involved performing personality traits or values (such as supporting sports, being extroverted, or being helpful and eager). I (Denise) pointed out a similar link between values and certain rewards, such as employers and employees being rewarded for managing high caseloads on low budgets.

In the CASW code of ethics, “social workers [are to] uphold each person’s right to self-determination, consistent with that person’s capacity and with the rights of others” (2005a, p. 2). However, in practice, as we have described above, the ideas about what constitutes successes are often externally applied and based on white  values. What would it look like to work towards clients’ definitions of success? In response to this question, Brandon University Cares Research Centre shared the outcome of a photovoice research project that asked Indigenous youth leaders from around the province to use photos and stories to share their perspectives about success, leadership, and Indigenous cultures (2016). These stories highlight the need to critically reflect on assumptions about goals, identity, and power and challenged the white-centric notions of success typically held by teachers and social workers.

Rural Relationships

Rural communities can be tightly knit places, which can lead to complexity within professional boundaries. We both found these complexities challenging to navigate. As a residential caseworker in child welfare, I (Denise) was a caregiver for youth. Still, I had to be strict that the time I spent with youth was in set work hours and most forms of personal touch were discouraged, which led to feelings of inauthenticity in the relationship. However, the complexity arose because a more authentic approach could lead to burnout and inappropriate relationships for those who might abuse professional freedoms. Social workers must navigate this complexity while upholding CASW guidelines 2.1 maintaining professional boundaries with clients and 2.5 avoiding physical contact with clients (CASW, 2005b). I (Denise) wrote, “This takes quite a bit of navigating on the professional’s part on how to separate their role.” I (Michelle) wholeheartedly agreed with this complexity.

I (Michelle) pointed out that in rural areas, “students know where their teacher lives, know all their family members and run into each other doing errands around town.” I also pointed out that there are positives and negatives of such interconnectivity. The positives are that there are many opportunities for collecting feedback and developing relationships that are more holistic instead of one-dimensional; however, there can also be difficulties with the dual relationships that we described. I (Michelle) wrote, “You’re never not a teacher in a small town.” As an additional layer, I shared my struggles with the differences in cultural expectations around personal/professional boundaries while living in Asia, where it was normal and expected for students to regularly “pop in” to visit their teachers at home. I (Michelle) wrote, “Students felt comfortable, but it went against my western ideas of separating personal and professional. I wanted to be culturally sensitive, but it’s something I struggled with. I always felt some tension, even though I hope they [the students] didn’t know it!” The same struggles can be seen in the realm of social media and the decisions that individuals make about whether to allow their students or clients to follow their accounts. For some, the personal approach builds connections and strengthens relationships. For others, constant accessibility can lead to fatigue and burnout (Lam & Kirk, 2020). I (Michelle) wrote, “I don’t think there’s one clear way.” These decisions are dependent on policy, personal approaches, and context. As the CASW Guidelines for Ethical Practice suggests, “social workers [are to] take care to evaluate the nature of dual or multiple relationships to ensure that the needs and welfare of their clients are protected” (2005b, p. 12).

Levels of Social Work

Throughout our stories, we were able to engage in anti-oppressive practice through varying levels of social work. Inevitably, we always are engaged with each level, but we also highlighted times we engaged with rural clients in each one. Both of us related our positionalities to each level of social work. We reflected on our locations within the social structures (macro) of our practice working with individual clients and families (micro) and relevant communities and organizations (mezzo).

The same can be said of the white values we examined in our places of work. For example, I (Michelle) shared the interconnection of language and culture:

Travel[ing] to several different countries thinking that I was doing a good thing teaching English…[It] was so laced with my own culture that it was hard to separate language teaching from cultural imposition. Language and culture are very strongly intertwined.


We both noted that language and pedagogy are both influenced by micro, mezzo and macro levels. For example, language exists nominally in education, but the discourse itself, the pedagogies by which it is taught, and the social context where it is taught are affected by community and systemic levels.

When referencing the social work approaches that have helped guide my (Denise) practice towards being more anti-oppressive, it must be noted they are impacted by each level described above. I typically “operate my practice from person-in-environment and strengths-based approaches to practice [and] I think using these theories have helped support this idea of social workers not breaking up preexisting ties individuals may have.” Here I am speaking to the strengths of individuals and communities, including their relationships. These strengths are in context with the greater systems around them and align with the definitions of place described at the beginning of the chapter.

Both of us recognized the complexity of how the place of practice relates to each level of social work. Working together in a university, we agreed with this statement from our conversation: “Post-secondary institutions are still colonial entities. And from a rural perspective, they again separate families and communities by forcibly displacing students to urban centres.” In this example, we see that universities are institutions at the mezzo level, with the whole education system being at the macro level. Students and families separated take place on the micro level, and the separation of communities at the mezzo level. No place of practice exists exclusively at one level. There may be a focus on one in specific settings, but we found they are always interrelated. Therefore, we found reflexivity essential to shift our orientation to all levels by having each of them on our radar.

Things We Learned About Ourselves

Doing this process with Denise has helped me (Michelle) critically analyze my assumptions and realize that there are many places where social work and education are grappling with the same issues. The themes of this chapter – rurality, decolonization, equity, deconstruction, anti-oppressive practice – are themes that both of us grapple with in our spheres of influence. These also inform our ideas about future directions for social work practice. It has been eye-opening and encouraging to see that these issues are being addressed in multiple, overlapping fields such as social work and education.

I (Denise) have realized that duo-ethnography is a research methodology I wish I had discovered sooner. I am very thankful Michelle introduced it to me. I find this way of knowing and learning can challenge oppression within our professions and scholarship. This duo-ethnography helped make knowledge dissemination more creative, fluid, interwoven, and collective, in contrast with other methodologies that are more linear and rigid. From my experience, Western academia has been more likely to discredit narrative research more often than positivist research. Duo-ethnography has given me the confidence to explore narrative more fully. Collectively engaging in a dual narrative instead of an autoethnography has also given me new courage to challenge narrow views of white-knowledge creation and sharing.

Future Directions for Social Work Practice

A lot of the future regarding equity in social work practice has been reiterated by clients, students, practitioners, and scholars, especially Black, Indigenous and Peoples of Colour (BIPOC). Future directions include following their lead, if you have not already (take note of the BIPOC resources in the additional resource section for further reading). Reflexivity and critical action with rural clients based on anti-oppressive practice are to be guided not only by others who have gone before us and by those BIPOC individuals who benefit us with the continued use of their voices. This chapter is an example for readers about what some white settler service workers are doing to adapt their personal and community narratives towards a more equitable future.

Reflections on Hope

We both felt that our perspectives on rural equity in social work  contained hope. I (Denise) wrote, “Just because it is currently impossible does not mean that meaningful work to change the situation cannot be done. Social work can always move in a more decolonial and anti-oppressive direction and lead to more equitable, peaceful and autonomous outcomes.” I (Michelle) wrote, “There is great potential in rural areas for decolonizing because the relationships [to land, to the more-than-human world] are already there.”

It is not enough to be intellectually anti-oppressive; we must use the agency available from privilege, giving up power and pushing against or even leaving certain institutions. These things do not guarantee any form of justice. However, it is far more harmful to do nothing. Systems do not dismantle themselves. Therefore, for us, hope is found in continuous action.

In this chapter, we have explored our journeys of critically deconstructing previously held beliefs and have looked at how these beliefs also shape social work in rural places. This process has and continues to be an uncomfortable one. However, the work is also fundamentally hopeful, as the discomfort signals us that we are still invested. If we did not care, we would not feel any discomfort. Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better” (Oprah Winfrey Network, 2011). Because we care, we continue to believe that we can do better, and we work towards that aim.

Key Takeaways

We have several key takeaways as you reflect on your motivations and journeys to becoming an ethical, anti-oppressive social worker. These are offered as thoughts for future directions and to inform the activity assignments in the following section.

  1. Reflexivity is crucial to anti-oppressive practice. The adage what you don’t know can’t hurt you is dangerously false. What you don’t know can hurt you – and others as well. Spending time to reflect on personal motivations, systems of belonging and examining current forms of responsivity can strengthen practice. Deconstructing ideas about “helping” can assist in developing an anti-oppressive practice. Action resulting from reflexivity is the most crucial step in the process.
  2. Whiteness pervades mainstream social work in Canada. If you identify as BIPOC, this is probably already obvious. Even though the social work field may be a heavy place, thank you for your presence in the field and for using your knowledge and skills to benefit the communities around you. If you identify as white, it might be difficult for you to identify the pervasiveness of whiteness. Whiteness is not “neutral” but a specific culture, complete with values and ways of doing things. Question why whiteness is often the default in settler social work systems and seek to unlearn its supremacy by listening and engaging with the BIPOC communities around you.
  3. Displacement is often the result of the lack of equity and social services available in rural communities. Rural communities face unique challenges, and displacement has a long history and legacy. Recognize how it works and challenge it where you can.
  4. Social workers must navigate dual relationships in rural communities. There are different ways of dealing with this complexity. Be thoughtful and creative in how you address these complex issues.
  5. Certain social work positions may be more associated with decolonial values than others. Pay attention to the institutional racism present in the organizations you may work for and see if you are contributing more to challenging it or upholding it in your position.
  6. Approaches to practice such as strength-based and person-in-environment may be conducive to anti-oppressive practice by acknowledging clients’ lived experiences and social contexts. Reflect on which social work frameworks may assist you in anti-oppressive practice.
  7. The application of anti-oppressive practice to the CASW code of ethics needs to be addressed by social workers. Using reflexivity, self-assessment of one’s power in the context of the values that guide the helping relationship can lead to a more ethical approach. CASW is not immune to institutional oppression. As individual social workers and as a collective, reflexivity must also take place.

[1] Italics are used when quoting directly from our duo-ethnographic dialogues that shaped this chapter

  • Think about the many movies you’ve seen, where helpers (often with little training or experience or cultural awareness) make grand changes in the lives of those they are helping. These tropes are not accurate and can lead to unrealistic expectations. Spend time thinking about what it means to help in an ethical, humble, and loving way. As you reflect on your own future practice, think about factors that you may deconstruct for anti-oppressive practice pertaining to race, class, gender, and disabilities, etc.
  • How might you confront the colonialism of Western social institutions in your practice? If you are working for a decolonial institution or have some decolonial actions in your practice, how might you maintain this?
  • What social work frameworks will guide your practice with rural peoples in rural or urban settings? How might you apply these frameworks at 3 different levels of practice with rural peoples (i.e. micro, mezzo, macro)?
  • How might you apply the CASW code of ethics when working with rural peoples in practice? Consider issues of displacement, colonization, and availability of services.
Additional Resources
  • Jeffery, D. (2005). ‘What good is anti-racist social work if you can’t master it?: Exploring a paradox in social work education. Race, Ethnicity and Education, 8(4), 409-425.
  • McMahon, J., Borg, D., & Delaney, R. (2010). Anti-oppressive social work practice with Aboriginal Peoples. In K. Brownlee (Ed.), Social work & Aboriginal peoples: Perspectives from Canada’s rural and provincial norths (pp. 43-53). Lakehead University, Centre for Northern Studies.
  • Mullaly, R. P., & West, J. (2018). Challenging oppression and confronting privilege: A critical social work approach to anti-oppressive and anti-privilege theory and practice. Oxford University Press.
  • Strega, S., & Esquao, S. A. (2009). Walking this path together: Anti-racist and anti-oppressive child welfare practice. Fernwood Publishers.


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Rural and Northern Social Work Practice: Canadian Perspectives Copyright © 2022 by Michelle Lam and Denise Humphreys is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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