Black bin bag

      M A R K   F R A S E R

143 Mark Fraser  143 Black bin bags

I started working with children with disabilities in the 1980s – residential care with teenagers, some of whom were lovely, while others would threaten harm with a combination of hair spray and cigarette lighters! After a few years I left to travel and while studying Buddhism in the Himalayas we had an audience with the Dalai Lama. ‘We don’t need westerners living here as monks and nuns,’ he said. ‘We need you all to go back to your own countries and be social workers or teachers. Give to your communities. That is the greatest work.’

It was 1991. I went back to qualify in Edinburgh and have worked in different roles with children and families ever since. I am now a practice development worker in Cumbria (English Lake District). Social work is an amazing privilege. It really is the greatest work.

I chose Black bin bag because …

… first is the context in which we used black bin bags in early 90s child protection work in Edinburgh. Our practice at the time included using bin bags to transport children’s belongings as we took them into care. A few of the team didn’t drive and would also then have to take children into care on the bus, sitting at the bus stop in the frequent cold rain with a couple of children and any number of bin bags depending if the children had any clothes other than the ones they were wearing. 30 years into my career I reflect now with a sense of shame at some of our practice.

… second, though, is that black binbags also represent a more positive theme, reflecting a degree of professional pride and humanity from another side of our work. Before the term ‘food bank’ became mainstream we had a ‘food cupboard’. The team would organise fund raising – quiz nights and the occasional Ceilidh. The funds were invested at the local supermarket restocking the food – which we gave away to families who were sent our way by the cold-faced benefits office after they’d refuse people emergency payments. At Christmas time people would also leave with donated children’s presents, which would arrive wrapped and ready to distribute. We’d have to unwrap and check them first though, as sometimes people would just wrap up broken toys.

One Christmas Eve I was on duty with my colleague. We were about to close the door at 4pm when a woman, standing quietly in the rain in the empty car park, stepped forward and approached the building. She hesitantly told her story which was being a single mum of five young children and not having either anything for the children for Christmas and also no food. She had been hoping that a miracle would happen and had promised the children that this year they would have a present each. It had got to Christmas Eve lunchtime before she had approached the benefits office for an emergency loan for the food and had been refused. She had never been in a social work office.

The food cupboard was fairly empty but we had one tin of potatoes and some canned ham. We searched another cupboard and found some peas and carrots. Nowhere near enough for this dignified mum and her five young children. We had some creamed rice and long-life yoghurts. We also had six presents for the five children but two of them were broken and so we asked her what she wanted to do. She chose to take four toys plus the most broken one, on the basis that it was more appropriate for her youngest. We had half a tube of glue but it was late now and there wasn’t time to stick the dolls head back together – so we added the tube into one of the black binbags.

She thanked us, so profoundly it made it all feel even more inadequate. She left the office very pleased and relieved.  I watched her go back into the street, black binbags swinging at her side on a long walk back along the dual carriageway to the tower blocks. I drove home for Christmas crying.

The mum had been so appreciative but it had felt such a limited piece of work in the face of her family’s needs. Contrast with that with other times in child protection when parents were angry and aggressive but the work felt valuable. Where it is that we find our validation for the work that we do? Small wonder that many social workers struggle to keep a focus on the great work that is done every day. I drove home with a sense of despair that day, but 25+ years later that Christmas Eve is a moment of social work that I can now value.

Elephants (in the room)

      B E N   R A I K E S

142 Ben Raikes   142 Elephants

I started my social work career as a Probation Officer, drawn in by the belief that building a relationship using simple skills such as listening and affirming the positive qualities of people caught up in the criminal justice system could be transformative, in terms of persuading them away from offending. Having grown up in a comfortable loving household, I was acutely aware that this had been denied to most of those I worked with. This caused me to reflect on the chance of our birth, and that if I had been born into their situation and they into mine, our roles could easily have been reversed. I learned a great deal from those I supervised, from their ability to remain resilient in the face of adversity and to live in the moment. I have always believed the best relationships, including with those who use social work services, are reciprocal.

I chose Elephants (in the corner) because …

… in every social work setting that I have worked in, since I qualified in 1992, there is always an Elephant in the corner. Several years ago I used the phrase with a colleague who had not heard it before. Sometime after I explained what it meant, she gave me these elephants. They have sat in the corner of all the offices I have worked in since. They are a reminder to always name the elephant in the corner!


    A L L A N   R E E S

Allan Rees.jpg   Marbles2.jpg

I’m a generic social worker who’ll quite happily work in children’s or adult services.

I’ve been qualified for 4½ years and started off with most of my training being in adult services as well as my first job in an adults team lasting a year on a temporary contract until I had to leave due to [the then UK Chancellor] George Osborne’s austerity warnings causing local authorities to panic and cut people like me off. I moved over to the one place where you are certain to get a job, front line child protection, and I’m just starting a new job in adult hospital discharge.

Becoming a qualified social worker was down to two reasons. The first reason has a few caveats to it. I had been working in the social care sector for around 7 years; prior to that I was working in youth clubs with teenagers whilst not being far off a teenager myself. Due to working for a social care agency I had a varied amount of experience, from working in day centres for older people, to brain injury residential homes, family hostels, pupil referral units, residential units for adults with learning difficulties, children’s homes, private nurseries – the list went on. During this time, observing how these agencies met people’s needs, I felt two things: for the majority of people using the services they were quite happy and their needs were evidently met; however, I met enough people who weren’t happy and I felt a lot more could have been achieved for them simply by listening to what they had to say. A few of the people using the services I met and got to know used to say to me that I’d make a good social worker which got me to contemplate about becoming one.

The second reason I became a social worker is my younger brother who, during my journey through social care, became mentally unwell to quite a significant level. He was sectioned a number of times, there were incidents where he once attacked me, was arrested a number of times as well as causing unbearable stress and worry to my parents. Observing his experience in the mental health system and how he was stuck in that revolving door of recovery and then illness made me determined to want to learn that system so I could advocate for him better. To be truthfully honest, becoming a social worker did help, as I learned that despite his high level of need, the services meant to help him only worked with him at points of crises with no proper assessment and analysis of his needs. Without training to be social worker I would probably never understood the link between a proper assessment, the analysis and then care planning. I was able to help my brother get what he needed to live a stable life as well as gain a lot of insight into the theory behind his illness even though I’ve never worked in a mental health team.

I chose Marbles because …

… roughly four years ago I started my first ever job as a social worker. I arrived and met my team then got on with making my desk my own by clearing old papers from it and moving some stuff that had been clearly dumped.

Whilst underneath the desk I found a small bag of marbles. I crawled back out and said jokingly “Look someone lost their marbles!”

An unqualified member of staff who’d been quite an established and long standing member of the team looked up and said, “That was probably from the last person who sat there and walked out.”

I stood there looking at the marbles in my hand thinking about this.  I thought, I’m going to keep these and never lose them. I knew that I was embarking on an extremely difficult and testing career, however I made a little promise to myself that I’d always retain my optimism.

I still have my marbles hanging on my desk. I’m actually lucky to be one of the few social workers who have desks. When times are bad and I’m up against it, I look at my marbles as a reminder to be mindful of my resilience and what it may take to tip me over and leave the profession. That little bit of reflection helps a lot and let’s me think about how I’m going to tackle whatever mountain is in front of me.


Small statue

S H I R L E Y   S I M O N

Shirley Photo.jpg   Small statue.jpg

My connection to social work began when I was about to complete my undergraduate studies in psychology from the University of Michigan. I did some soul-searching exploration as to what I would do next. Valuing my volunteer experiences with counseling, group work, advocacy and program development, I realized that a graduate degree in social work would allow me to continue to develop these interests with diverse populations in diverse settings. This decision was one of the best of my professional career. Being a professional social worker has allowed me to become a practitioner, group worker, consultant, educator, mentor, supervisor, therapist, researcher and author. This profession has provided me with meaningful interactions, challenges, and lifelong satisfactions. I am proud and grateful to call myself a social worker.

I chose this Small statue because …

… it was given to me by Elaine Finnegan, an active member of the International Association of Social Work with Groups (IASWG) and an adjunct faculty member of Loyal University, Chicago. She gave it to me as a gift when I was a new social work faculty member at Loyola. She shared with me that she thought it reflected the inter-connectivity of group work on a multi-generational level. In my eye, it also represents the family and our interdependence on one another and all of the systems that impact us. In any case, this statue has graced my office for over 20 years, and to me it symbolizes the multi-faceted connections that we have as social workers and the legacy passed on by one social worker to another.






Emma and the Social Work in 42 Objects display.jpg         Car Poster 1.jpg

Emma and her fellow students chose the Car approach because …

The body of the car … is the structure that keeps everything together.

The wipers … give clear vision on impending set goals; and having a clear image about what an individual wants and how to improve their wellbeing.

The engine … ensures the smooth running of the organisation; and keep staff together by making sure policies and legislation are followed.

The steering wheel … keeps the journey of life heading forward, even if the path meets a bump in the road.

The sun visor … provides a shield for when things get too much and helps to see things clearly.

The accelerator and brake … life speeds up or slows down for the people we meet on the journey.

The sat-nav … navigates the various options of routes and paths to take.

The glove box … is a place to keep your personal values – they are there at all times but sometimes need to be kept in the box.

The radio … listening to other people’s opinions (multi-agency working).

The lights … if it gets really dark, you can put your lights on, ask for help from your peers and management.

The windows … are reflective and provide various views out of each, promoting culture and diversity. Also provide a transparency and full assessment of the surroundings.

The MOT and servicing … ensure the system is working properly.

The fuel … to be able to function.

The indicators … signal to and from people, about what you and they are going to do.



Step-up To Social Work


‘Step-Up To Social Work (Cohort 4)’ – 10 Objects

We would like to contribute to the 40 Objects in Social Work Project so that we can capture the essence of the sum of our parts as a group.  We have collated our stories alongside objects that had and have meaning to us individually, whilst acknowledging that we are in fact a group of student social workers on a journey together as well as separately.  Each one of us came to social work for a reason and these reasons, implicit and explicit, are in some way reflected in the objects of choice and the narrative that we have assigned to them as we now reach the end of this stage of our professional training. We hope that the openness and honesty of our contribution to the project provides other students with hope and the motivation to keep going, even when the going gets tough.

Caroline, Becky, Katie, Helen, Fauz, Laura, Kimberley, Lydia, Debbie, Mary – who in total make up the ‘Step-Up To Social Work (Cohort 4)’.

 Caroline.jpg  Caroline - map.jpg

 Caroline                         Map

Caroline – My original object was a world globe, as I was preparing 
to go on a journey and whilst I wasn’t sure where the destination would be, I imagined that journey would take me to all sorts of places along the way. The course has definitely started that journey, although it took me a while to leave the safety of what I was familiar with and transition into the social work role. As I come to the end of the course, I feel a map perhaps better reflects my experience so far, in that the course has given me the opportunity to develop the foundation of knowledge, skills and 
practice experiences from which to navigate my social work career, and as the environment I am working in will change, a map better reflects how I need to navigate and journey within practice, as opposed to seeking to reach a specific destination.

Helen.jpg  Helen - iceberg.jpg

           Helen                              Iceberg

Helen – At the start of my journey into social work, the object I chose to represent how I felt was an iceberg, it was not something I could hold, it’s possibly a bit abstract but to me it was a metaphor for how I felt at the start.  The iceberg is still relevant to me now, coming towards the ending of my training.  Initially I felt the iceberg represented me, what could be seen above the surface of the water was me, sunny with optimism about my new career, what I could bring from my experiences teaching and from life in general. Everything under the water was what I hoped to uncover on my journey that I would need to develop and make the transition – the skills and knowledge, the theoretical perspectives, the policy and legislation and experience.  To a great extent I feel the iceberg is far more exposed above the surface now but I’ve come to realise there will always be a hidden part of the iceberg – the days you experience something totally new, the new people I will meet on my journey, the uncertainty around decisions, the mistakes I will inevitably make and importantly I’m ok with this and it keeps the journey interesting and exciting!

Laura.jpg  Laura - Voice.jpg

           Laura                                 Voice

Laura – I can’t remember the object I chose when I started the step up programme. However, my ‘object’ now would be my voice. When I started the programme I struggled to find my confidence and believe in my abilities to make a difference to others lives. Now I know that I have a voice, it is strong, passionate and makes a difference – reflected back in feedback from both professionals and service users. I am going to continue my journey through my career and intend to continue to speak up, make changes and stand up for those who have lost their own voice until they find it again.

Fauz.jpg  Fauz - Jigsaw.jpg

              Fauz                               Jigsaw

Fauz – My social work object was a jigsaw with a piece missing. I honestly thought that I could complete that jigsaw but have recognised through the journey both on the academic side and from a practice perspective that learning is never ending. Social work does not stand still as we all know, however you only get a true realisation of it having lived and breathed it for over a year of your life. I guess there is not just one jigsaw, there are hundreds and thousands and somewhere I will continue piecing them together through my academic journey and into the professional journey and beyond.

Becky.jpg  Becky - Onion.jpg

               Becky                         Onion

Becky – My original object was an onion. Looking back, it should’ve been one of those onions that have been in the vegetable rack too long and has sprouted shoots. When I reflect back, the onion metaphor still resonates – layers of interconnected issues that without each other the onion itself wouldn’t exist. The shoots are now part of this as it shows how this onion layers lead to new onions – new thoughts that are borne out of previous knowledge but interact with fresh ideas and developing my understanding of social work in the context of different disciplines, cultures and, ultimately, the lives of individuals.

Lydia.jpg  Lydia - Blue Bear.jpg

             Lydia                          Blue bear

Lydia – My object at the start of my journey was my blue bear, he was my mascot that came on all journeys with me. He’s a bear that is an individual, has his own identity and demonstrates consistency. He’s carried on being with me throughout my training and will continue to be, going forward.

Mary.jpg  Mary - Car.jpg

              Mary                              Car

Mary – My object would be my old and beat up car … it carries me to my professional self, to support to the children that I work with … worry over … the place where my uncertainty is articulated, my emotions and frustrations overflow and where I can stop, take deep breaths and try to make sense of what I am doing as a student social worker. As my beat up car breaks down regularly so I see this as a metaphor for myself … being taken in for repair, being fixed and renewed by those that know more, have vision and the tools to know how to make me work as a social worker again. The physical and emotional journey I take with my car and in my car maps my social work journey to qualification ….

Debbie.jpg  Debbie - juggling balls.jpg

         Debbie       Juggling balls / bottle of medicine

Debbie – My starting object was juggling balls and I talked about the task ahead and juggling placement, uni and life how I would manage it and the challenge. It was very much about the practical issues and how I would manage them. My finishing object is this bottle of medicine. I really like Harry Ferguson’s work on professional touch. I have tried to use this theory in my social work placement. Making sure I am present with children in their situation. However, this resulted in me having to take some medicine before Christmas. I feel my journey has moved to and fro from the practical to the personal.

Kimberley.jpg  Kimberley - paper tool.jpg

  Kimberley                         Paper tool

Kimberley – I made a paper tool incorporating the skills I thought I brought, the skills I thought I needed to develop, and the things I thought made a good social worker. I have used this multi-dimensional tool in direct work with children as a way of separating how they feel, why they feel this and the impact this has on them. I have not named this tool, instead I ask each child to name it and so far it has been called things such as ‘beak’, a ‘fortune teller’ and a ‘play mouth’ – each name signifies the ability this tool has for the child to have a voice. My tool, therefore, depicts my voice and the voice of the child.

Katie.jpg  Katie - to do list.jpg

                 Katie                   ‘To Do’ lists

Katie – Prior to this journey I used ‘To Do’ lists in all areas of my life. Having dyslexia this method of being organised enabled me to highlight and tick off each task – and almost became like a security blanket. However … I came to realise that life in social work is not that easy, it always seems there is a never-ending TO-DO LIST which can cause stress and feelings of anxiousness. My social work journey has taught me that I am not superwoman and that as much as I want and aspire to tick off and complete all my tasks it’s not always possible. Learning to prioritise has been key to me completing tasks.




Social Work in 42 Objects (and more)

I’m very pleased to announce that the book from this Social Work in 40 Objects project has been published and is ready for sale:

Order your copy of ‘SOCIAL WORK IN 42 OBJECTS (AND MORE)’ for £10 (+postage) from Kirwin Maclean Associates at:

The 127 objects in the book are a gift to social work from all those who have proposed them. The book is also a gift: when you buy it, be aware that all royalties and profits from sales will go to NGO TARA Homes for Children in Delhi, India, to support work with street children.

I hope you enjoy the book. Please let your friends and colleagues know about it.