Community Practice, Fostering Participation, and Human Rights

© The Author(s) 2015
Kathryn R. Libal and Scott HardingHuman Rights-Based Community Practice in the United StatesSpringerBriefs in Rights-Based Approaches to Social Work10.1007/978-3-319-08210-3_5

5. Community Practice, Fostering Participation, and Human Rights

Kathryn R. Libal  and Scott Harding 

School of Social Work, University of Connecticut, West Hartford, CT, USA



Kathryn R. Libal (Corresponding author)


Scott Harding

Dorothy Thomas, long-time human rights activist and lawyer, recently wrote about the challenges of fostering a rights-based approach to economic justice work in the United States.

In the face of such entrenched inequality and the large scale of American denial that it even exists, adopting a human rights approach to U.S. economic justice work requires a profound degree of moral courage. The conviction that we are all born equal in dignity and rights not only prompts us to denounce abusive practices by extremely powerful actors, but also requires us to examine our own conduct. Are we, for example, constructing barriers between people that do not need to exist and do not reflect our values? The human rights frame encourages us to confront our own as well as others’ biases and offers us a wider scope of possibility for novel forms of political solidarity, grounded in our common humanity, than those that are available within the narrower if more familiar framework of us versus them (Thomas, 2012, p. 350).

This book has urged community social workers to consider the consonance of social work values with human rights. It illustrates the potential of community-based social work to contribute to the realization of human rights in the United States. We focused on health care, housing, and food as human rights concerns that are central to contemporary social work practice, though they are more often framed as human needs rather than rights. We emphasized that making human rights claims requires having an in-depth understanding of international legal principles central to human rights (as well as an awareness of the status of US support for key human rights treaties). These include the following: respect for dignity, autonomy, and agency; non-discrimination and equality; transparency and access to information; accountability; and empowerment (United Nations Special Rapporteur on Extreme Poverty and Human Rights, 2013).

Efforts to realize human rights require grassroots mobilization and engaged community-level practice (Onazi, 2013; Tyler, 2013). As we have suggested, knowledge about human rights does not belong solely to lawyers, policy-makers, or other professionals groups; rather, it must also be fostered among the citizenry at large, especially those directly affected by key social problems. Community practitioners can serve as important intermediaries between those who have typically been involved in human rights advocacy and monitoring—political elites and professional advocates—and the broader public. Indeed, in a country like the United States, which claims an “exceptional” stance by failing to recognize economic and social rights as human rights, community-based practice is a necessity. Social mobilization and participation of a broad group of stakeholders, especially those directly affected by the lack of human rights frameworks for health care, housing, and food, are needed to promote social justice and human rights claims. Without the judicial and legal means to enforce norms for the right to health care, housing, or food, community mobilization becomes a critical tool to foster policy change.

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