The Prato Moment

imageProfessor Charlotte Williams OBE reports from Prato, Italy, on an international colloquium organised by the Deans of Social Work Education in Australia on 12-13 September 2016, at which Jill Manthorpe and Mary Baginsky participated. (570 words)

There are few opportunities to bring together a group of individuals in leading roles in social work education cross-nationally; particularly so in providing them with the thinking space to reflect critically and strategically over a two day ‘lock in’. This gathering could never be representative; it could never be comprehensive in the scope of issues, perspectives or topics it engaged with, nor could it be conclusive. Those ambitions are best left to the International Association of Schools of Social Work. But it did bring together a group of ‘thought leaders’, people who happened to hold significant positions across social work education East to West, in a catalytic moment. There was, we all hoped, an opportunity with some potential to reimagine social work education, present and future.

People worked well. They invested in relationships, in contributing to discussions, in exploring ideas with no fixed or predetermined notion of where things might take us. Conversations flowed easily across recognised ground. In our collective reading of the runes we managed to move beyond the usual preoccupations with the impact of neo-liberal policy trends, austerity and resource scarcity to try to reach those critical questions about change-making, political strategy, the potentials of international collaboration, succession planning, new directions in research assessment and to questioning the frontiers of pedagogic practice in an era of rapid technological advance. The agenda was in freeflow. This was about clout, power, presence, connection and ‘collective impact’. It was about change and development, capacity and sustainability, where we are headed and why. We would only be as good as the conversations we could summon and the products we could conceive. If we got to look out of the window the shadow of the parlous status of social work education in Italy reminded us of our relative advantage and privilege.

It’s a truism that critical moments aren’t always appreciated as they unfold. Sometimes we don’t recognise the potential of what we have until after the moment has passed. There was talk of writing a letter to the Minister, of making a statement—the Prato manifesto, a blog perhaps, of sharing a repository of resources, of writing for publication—even some research collaborations appeared in embryo form. I could feel the anxiety rise as we wallowed in the morass of our exploration and facilitators refused to pre-empt the outcomes. What could our creative collective produce? What might we report back to our staff groups, to students, to our respective organisations?

We had a good go. The catalytic potential of the moment seemed to require time out. More of an experiment than a moment I wondered. Realising ourselves as a collective was not as easy as it may have seemed. How best to use our elite status and realise our elite responsibility, clout and impact? There were deep lessons for me here about deliberative democracy, readings in the etiquette of international relations, lessons in how global power plays out in microcosm and lessons about just being in place. All the while difference and diversity made us rich. The moment is of course what we make it, what we will make it. We had gone some way to addressing the ambitions of the colloquium. We had been able to work together from our diverse perspectives and identify opportunities for taking our ideas forward through writing collaborations, further research and broadening the networks the colloquium had put in place…and some of us had learned to blog…

Professor Charlotte Williams OBE is Deputy Dean Social Work at RMIT University, Melbourne.

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