This article is based on an interview with Katie, a social worker with a passion for justice.
Tell us about the work you’re doing with Partners in Thailand and Burma.
Currently I’m settling into my role at Partners and figuring out what it is going to look like. At the moment, a lot of my time will be spent compiling a mental health curriculum for fourth year medic students working in Burma. So far this has included pulling together resources, making connections with people in Chiang Mai, and looking into how people in Burma see mental health/illness. Alongside this I am working with staff at a migrant centre in Chiang Mai, testing out some of the mental health teaching and joining in with a few of their community development activities. Recently I’ve had the Headspace team visit, as well as a youth team from Palmerston North Central Baptist. It was a privilege to see the youth learning about some of the projects which Partners supports. I’ve also been into communities in Burma to learn more about the existing projects and the mental health needs.
You’ve waited till you were qualified and registered before heading back to Thailand. What have been the benefits of that?
As much as it was frustrating at times, getting qualified and registered before heading out has had a number of benefits. I have gained good experience in mental health, paid off my student loan, and become part of a professional body which provides safety for me and the people I work with. Just taking the time to learn and gain experience has given me a deeper sense of confidence in my ability to empower the people I walk with through the use of a professional knowledge base. While social work here can look quite different to New Zealand, that base knowledge of approaches that I have learnt are still useful, as are different tools that I can access such as supervision.
What’s it like having studied this in a New Zealand context and now using it in a different context?
It can be difficult! Translating what I’ve learnt into a different cultural context can take quite a bit of work. I believe that it’s important to find out about the culture and the way they do things to be able to understand what might work for them and what could be helpful. There are two basic social work principles that transcend cultural context – one is connecting with people and the other is empowerment. The basis of social work has taught me that the people we work with know themselves better than we do and that to empower them we can’t just dump solutions on them. The same principle applies to working with communities in a missions context. I don’t need to give communities and individuals solutions. It is better to empower them to find their own answers. I think really the difference (and the difficulty!) is in the details. The principles of working alongside people are useful across cultures.
As you’ve headed back to Thailand and Burma, what have you found difficult?
The difference between a dream and reality has been a challenge for me. I had an almost romanticised vision of what it would look like to fulfil this goal which I had been working towards for so long. I thought that if I was doing my ‘dream job’ that I would always feel passionate about my work. However, the reality of moving to a new country is that I’m experiencing and processing so many new cultural situations and am more tired at the end of the day. On top of the new cultural situations, I am constantly learning about the vastness of the issues with drugs, alcohol, and mental health in Burma which can be overwhelming! As well as the new, it’s also been hard to leave behind my established life and community. I’ve found that staying in touch with my community at home and being intentional about finding a good church community here has been helpful as I face these challenges.
Do you have any advice for people looking at doing some study to later use in an overseas context?
Find what fits you! I felt social work would be something that would fit well for me to use in a cross-cultural context. If possible, find other people who are doing what you want to do or have done it, to guide and encourage you. It is especially helpful if you can find someone currently practicing in that profession overseas. Remember that there are increasingly more possible professions to use in a cross-cultural context so don’t feel that you have to stick to the traditional ones. Don’t forget to do the ‘little’ things either. Make friends with people from different cultures, get involved with a supportive church, and of course, pray!
What have been some personal highlights since you’ve been back in Thailand?
Seeing the community workers starting to understand some of the mental health contexts has been a highlight – it’s been a great testing ground for the curriculum. It’s also been lovely just getting to know the staff better, especially getting to hear the stories of local staff. I love hearing how people have been empowered by projects which Partners has supported. Trips are also a highlight for me, just getting to hear more of these stories, meet new people and see more of the country. I met a mother of four who has spent her life working as a community health worker and has had a significant impact on her community through establishing clinics and facilitating the provision of healthcare services such as immunisation and minor eye surgery. It’s also been a great chance to connect with like-minded people who want to see change for those around them.
And finally, how do you see God’s kingdom being built through the work of Partners?
I remember hearing a speaker say that God is a God of order, but that sin brought disorder to His perfect ‘order’. God has given us the privilege of helping him restore that perfect order. In Isaiah 58, God asks us to “Loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke”, to “share your food with the hungry and provide the poor wanderer with shelter – when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood”. These are some of my favourite verses because it describes how social work fits so well with what God is asking us to do. Social work is all about supporting people to live well and empowering them to live full lives. Being new to this work – particularly in Thailand – I haven’t quite figured out what it looks like to be building God’s kingdom in a Buddhist context, but I hope that through the teaching and showing God’s love in action that some of God’s original perfect order might be restored and that people would come to know healing through knowing God. Being a Christian is so helpful as a social worker as it gives me hope when it feels hopeless and encourages me as I know that I am part of something bigger to bring God’s creation back to order.
Interview by Melanie Crosbie | GC3 Youth Director Assistant