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London Conference Shifts Social Work Focus to Human Rights


When one thinks of people involved with human rights, a United Nations policymaker might come to mind before a city social worker.

But a June 11 conference held by the Graduate School of Social Services (GSS) in London reframed social workers’ traditional focus from helping the needy to one of fighting for basic human rights.

The conference took place at the University of London and brought together an international collection of agency representatives, advocates, legislators, and academics.

Organized in partnership with the Human Rights Consortium, Associate Professor Sandy Turner, PhD, and Associate Professor Shirley Gatenio-Gabel,PhD, presented at the conference with panel discussions in the morning and workshops in the afternoon.

GSS Dean Debra McPhee said that social services’ departmental budgets don’t usually allow for extra time or money to attend conferences, let alone one with an international focus. Thus, the afternoon workshops proved to be a very valuable component to those participants who came.

“People doing this work are overtaxed and don’t have the opportunity to exchange best practices on subjects that range from human trafficking to dealing with a disaster,” she said. “So getting the chance to talk was very important. Otherwise, it’s just another conference.”

Gatenio-Gabel agreed that the breakouts also allowed practitioners and policymakers to boil down the morning’s academic presentations.

“If you look at human rights principles, international laws, conventions, and treaties, they all sound wonderful, but how to make them come alive is the challenge,” she said.

McPhee said there is real need for the conversation to be had across professional, academic, and policy making platforms because if the social workers begin to function from a human right perspective, it shifts the burden from clients having to prove need to governments having to provide basic services that are a human right.


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