On May 22, 2009, a fire at the Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre claimed the lives of seven girls (wards of the state). Then Prime Minister Bruce Golding ordered for a Commission of Enquiry to be conducted to investigate the circumstances surrounding the events of the tragedy. Justice Paul Harrison was appointed as the Commissioner.
Less than a year later a report was published, giving insight into what might have led to the outbreak of the fire that took the lives of the seven girls. After the publication of the report, I wrote a paper (in April 2010) entitled ““Silence Means Consent” – Exploring Worker Silence and its Role in Perpetuating Social Injustice“. Returning to this paper, I view the whole course of events with a new perspective. The report criticized frontline staff, emergency personnel, and the directorate of the Department of Correctional Services for the role their actions (or lack thereof) played in the outbreak of the fire and demise of the girls. As much as my analysis (outlined later) looks at the culture of silence in an organizational context, I cannot help but reflect on how much that culture plays out in our everyday social life. To what extent are we willing to remain silent to protect the status quo? To not be labeled a “troublemaker”? To not be fatigued after being the “lone crusader”? To reconcile the conflict that arises from our own values and identities?
To what extent are we responsible for the perpetuation of injustice in our society?
Below are excerpts of the paper I wrote. Although the paper generally looks at “silence” or “turning a blind eye” in an organizational context, it compels us to understand this phenomenon of “silence” in a broader social context.
On the night of May 22, 2009, in the town of Alexandria, Jamaica, seven (7) female
wards of the state died tragically in a fire initially thought to have been set
by them during the staging of a riot at the facility (Armadale Juvenile Correctional Centre) where they were being held. An enquiry into the incident was commissioned to determine what exactly took place that night and, essentially, who is to be held responsible for the deaths of the seven young girls. By the end of the enquiry, it was found that the Commissioner of Corrections, whose decision it was to house twenty-three (23) wards in a building space that was supposed to house five (5) wards, was
found to be in “patent breach of the duty to promote the best interests of the children, violated the statutory requirements and was accordingly negligent, in
all the circumstances” (The Armadale Report, 2010, p. 16).
The report noted that limited space, coupled with only one means of entrance/exit, restricted the ability of the girls to escape the fire (The Armadale Report, 2010, pp. 19-21).
Though the enquiry has found the Commissioner of Corrections to be negligent in her decision, there is something even more troubling in this story. In giving his account of what led to the events of May 22, 2009, the Property Manager for the Department of Correctional Services (DCS) informed that he was aware of the inadequate space in which the wards were expected to live, but “participated in moving 23 girls to [the] dormitory”, even though he noticed that it was “obviously overcrowded and insufficient” (pp. 14-15). According to him, “[the Commissioner of Corrections] told us what was to be done” (p. 15). As the Commissioner of the enquiry noted, neither the Property Manager nor the Director of Juvenile Services “raised even a whimper of protest or a contrary opinion at the decision of [the Commissioner of Corrections] to house over twenty (20) girls in that dormitory…” (p. 17). One can only speculate that if someone protested that decision and took the position not to house the wards in that dormitory, the “unlucky seven” girls would still be alive today. It can only be assumed that silence of those who could have given the girls a voice helped to perpetuate an injustice that cost them their lives.
How could it be that even when one is aware of oppression and injustice, one remains silent? In a profession such as [Social Work], can one afford to be silent? How, or in what ways, can social workers find their voice in speaking out against injustice and oppression?
The Burden of Being the “Lone Crusader”
It is a possibility that an individual worker who finds that he or she is the sole dissenting voice in the organization would be intimidated by the enormity of the task of speaking out against injustices. This is particularly so when the general consensus or status quo is threatened. So, not only would there be a fear of being singled out as a “troublemaker”, but if there is perceived to be no support from other colleagues or supervisors, the likelihood of raising such concerns is limited. This concept of “lone crusader” is one adopted from Jan Fook’s (2000) writing about a personal experience being involved in an argument with a colleague. As she shared her experience of coming to the defence of an Asian student whom she believed was being discriminated against, she highlighted that with being a lone crusader there is the assumption that “no one else is on these missions…It’s all up to me” (p. 191). Taking this into consideration, if there is a strong perception of being alone on these ‘missions’, then it suggests that more room should be made for dialogue to ascertain how other employees feel about the pertinent issue to dispel any unwarranted fears of being “the only one”.
Accountable to Whom?
Workers could also be silenced by being placed in a precarious position where there are conflicting demands of accountability. When the question is “Accountable to whom?” workers are faced with the dilemma of prioritizing needs and risks, and where there appears to be no congruence between those needs, it renders them powerless to speak. Questions of accountability become even more complex when there are issues of funding and/or access to resources to continue a program or project (Morrison and Milliken, 2000). If power and knowledge are intertwined (Burr, 1995), then what we see as how things are or should be is shaped by those who hold such power…
The Insider/Outsider Dilemma
Postmodernism has brought with it the concept of ‘voice’ and ‘emancipatory practice and research’ that allows for persons from the margins to speak from their own experiences against oppression and injustice. However, this concept makes it more challenging to be an ally as a worker (depending on their social location and identity) would not want to take away from the voice of the marginalized. Therefore, that worker is silenced particularly if he or she is an ‘outsider’, having no shared experience with the oppressed group. Boushel (2000) comments on this as she raises the concern of conducting anti-racism research without what she termed “experiential affinity” (p. 76). Without having shared experiences with the marginalized group, how can one truly speak on their behalf while allowing them to keep their own voice? Many workers are face with this dilemma and are unsure about how to come to a resolution. As a result, they opt not to speak out for fear of acting out of turn.
Intersectionality of Social Identities
It is possible, too, that where one’s social identities intersect, there is little space to be vocal about concerns of discrimination and injustice. Steinhouse (2001) alludes to this as she addressed the challenges of “understanding and negotiating identities” (p. 11). When there are several conflicting identities, one is forced to identify a “primary allegiance”. For example, how does a Black female probation officer speak out against police brutality on her client (a Black man) who was arrested for assaulting his girlfriend? In this case, she is an agent of the state who is expected to uphold the law protect the safety of citizenry. However, her client has been made a victim himself, though to advocate for him would be detrimental to the safety of his girlfriend. Her professional role conflicts with her identity as a woman of colour.
When one point of identity comes into direct conflict with another, a worker who is reflective and recognises this faces the dilemma of having to inevitably make against himself or herself. This is no easy feat, and such a worker is more than likely compelled to say nothing, so as to protect the status and acceptance of his or her already marginalised self.
POSSIBILITIES FOR CHANGE
Taking all of these contexts into consideration, there are many avenues that can be pursued to dismantle what appears to be the pervasive silence that exist in social service organizations when it comes to addressing oppressive attitudes and policies.
Shifting the Lens and Creating Knowledge
One way in which we could address the problem of silence is to expand research and discourse that validates the experiences of people who are marginalised. By doing this, what now exists as the status quo is challenged to become less oppressive for persons whose identity and experiences are marginalised. Therefore, social workers could become actively engaged in critical social scientific research that “critique and transform social relations…by revealing the underlying sources of social relations and empowering people, especially less powerful people” (Neuman, 1997, p. 74).
If research is expanded and continuous, this legitimises the experiences of the marginalised, increasing the discourse around their oppression and raising awareness around such issues. Thus, there would less likely be a stigma attached to speaking out against injustices on behalf of oppressed populations, and the label of ‘troublemaker’ is more likely to lose its effect. Additionally, expanded discourse and knowledge around issues of oppression and marginalisation may actually garner more allies against injustices in the field, reducing the likelihood of any one worker feeling burdened as a ‘lone crusader’.
Changing Managerial Attitudes
At the most simplistic level, workers can help to challenge managerial attitudes that foster a culture of silence by, as Donna Baines (2007) puts it, “being good at your job” (p. 62). Baines informs us that by doing this, workers are likely to increase their supervisors’ “willingness to listen to their ideas and concerns” (p. 62). At a much higher level, organisation board members could prevent against foster a culture of silence within their organisation by hiring managers with the skill-set and characteristics that encourage foster open communication and even facilitate negative feedback. As Morrison and Milliken (2000) suggest, to overcome employee silence, top-management turnover that reflects more positive driving assumptions about employees and feedback would be necessary (p. 722).
Creating the Space for Dialogue and Change
Social workers would also benefit from having the assurance that there is a space to actually present concerns that go against the grain of organisational politics and expectation, especially where they have implications for social justice and oppression. Encouraging upward feedback and putting in place mechanisms to facilitate that would be a good place to start, allowing workers to feel that their opinions are valued and needed.
Additionally, it would also help if workers, through team/staff meetings or other such formal and safe spaces, were given the opportunity to be reflective and engage in active discussions with other colleagues on issues regarding how their identity and social location, or even the positioning of the organisation impact a particular case, and the ramifications for justice and equity.
There is no doubt that employee silence exist in our social service organisations, but its presence is increasingly questionable, especially when such silence allow injustices and oppression of marginalised populations to persist. In order to break this pervasive culture of silence, it is important to look at the underlying reasons for its presence which may include an emphasis placed on maintaining the status quo, the organisational structure and politics, and other individual reasons. Perhaps not all of these reasons are present at any given point in time, but the existence of these conditions will make it more likely for workers to refrain from giving voice to important issues. It is therefore imperative that mechanisms be put in place to guard against the perceived fear of repercussions or backlash for speaking out, and encourage feedback and dialogue from the bottom of the chain of command upwards. By doing so, frontline workers who actively engage with clients and face the day-to-day realities of the conflict that arise from the oppression and marginalisation of some of these clients would be able to have their input valued and utilised for the benefit and progress of the organisation, as well as the pursuit of social justice.
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Boushel, M. (2000). “What kind of people are we?” “Race”, anti-racism and social welfare research. British Journal of Social Work, 30 (1), 71-89.
Burr, V. (1995). An Introduction to Social Constructionism. Routledge.
Fook, J. (2000). The lone crusader: Constructing enemies and allies in the workplace. In L. Napier and J. Fook (eds.) Breakthroughs in Practice: Theorising Critical Moments in Social Work. London: Whiting and Birch Ltd.
Milliken, F. J., Morrison, E. W., Hewlin, P. F. (2003). An exploratory study of employee silence: Issues that employees don’t communicate upwards and why. Journal of Management Studies, 40 (6), 1453-1476.
Morrsion, E. W., Milliken, F. J. (2000). Organisational silence: A barrier to change and development in a pluralistic world. The Academy of Management Review, 25 (4), 706-725.
Neuman, W. L. (1997). Social work research methods: Qualitative and Quantitative Approaches. Allyn and Bacon – Pearson Education
Ng, R. (1990). State funding to a community employment centre: Implications for working with immigrant women. In R. Ng, G. Walker, J. Muller (eds.) Community Organization and the Canadian State. Toronto: Garamond.
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Steinhouse, K. (2001). Bisexual women: Cosiderations of race, social justice and community building. Journal of Progressive Human Services, 12 (2), 5-25.
The Armadale Report. (2010)