The Prato moment: thinking about leadership in social work education

Mary Baginsky, Senior Research Fellow at the Social Care Workforce Research Unit, introduces an invited post by Professor Charlotte Williams:

I was fortunate to have attended the second colloquium held at Monash University’s Prato centre. This is the second year that the group has come together to explore social work education. Prior to a more formal summary of proceeding, Professor Charlotte Williams, Professor and Deputy Dean of RMIT’s Social Work in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies, reflects on the context and culture within which the discussions took place. In so doing she made me realise how much I miss the intensity of the discussions, the opportunity to learn from the experiences of others and the time to talk and disagree.—Mary Baginsky

Professor Charlotte Williams writes:


Professor Charlotte Williams

There’s a special magic about Prato that is so conducive to commune. The ambition of the Prato Group, a collaboration of Social Work educators, reflects many of the attributes of this ancient and vital textile producing city in which it was inaugurated. The Prato textile enterprise with its yarns, designs, collective and innovative technologies has approached its futures over an 800-year history with enormous creativity, energy and pragmatism in an effort to remain relevant, stable and future-oriented. Through epochs of profound social, economic, political and technological change the ability to anticipate, capture and engage judiciously with disruptive forces and to lead through change has meant a threatened industry thrived largely through the efforts of small and distributed artisans working with common purpose.

This year the Prato Group took as its focus Leadership in social work education, also critically exploring issues of relevance, stability and the ways in which our future is shaped by our collective ideas and responses. We considered questions such as: What do we want leadership to mean in the context of social work education? Who are our leaders and who will our leaders need to be to ensure a vibrant and sustainable future? What is the vision for 21st century social work education and how can we make this a reality? In the style of the Prato collective the answers to these questions were not pre-empted by formal papers but subject to deep deliberation and critical exploration in an effort to co-produce the emergent Prato papers—a series of commentary essays to be released across 2018 that we hope will provide enduring reportorial insights into the future of social work education far beyond these events.

In the generous spirit cultivated in the gathering of academics from across the world there were three days in which to drive forward an agenda focused on transformative change. The notion of honouring important legacies of the past without being tied by them was promulgated. Time perhaps to imagine something new. Time for new leadership. Time for change.

There were yarns, exclamations and an occasional yawn (a consequence of the splendid hospitality of the Prato Monash Centre). Plenty was digested—new ideas, as well as fine Italian cuisine—it was all good stuff. This is the Mecca of the slow food movement after all. A mission statement for the Prato Group emerged and was quickly adopted. We tussled with the disruptive agendas confronting higher education, with diversity in leadership and leading diversity, with notions of ‘leading from behind’ and with engaging ‘first followers’, we discussed how to engage new partners, new allies and sponsor a new leadership relevant to 21st century challenges and conditions. In considering leadership for social change we argued ‘advocacy alone is not enough’ and we learned to consider disruptions as the status quo and think about disruption as ‘hello’ rather than ‘goodbye’. We imagined the opportunities inherent in the meeting of East and West, of indigenous knowledges and how our collective international wisdoms could strengthen our collective aims and goals. It can be a tough call waking at seven with the town bells, concentrating with intensity (and for some in a second language) and then trying to stay asleep all night after a bottle of Chianti. This wasn’t about the well-worn critique of neo-liberal managerialism. It wasn’t about ideological tussles. It was about moving beyond our common dialogue, toward meaningful engagement with the who, what and how we will lead social work education in the 21st century.

There was a strong momentum towards supporting a new cadre of leadership—a vanguard…as the old guard gradually release the reins and trust in new generation ideas. And there were strong messages about how to make this transition sustainable. What we found exciting, was a construct of the 21st century social work graduate that will be crafted through this collaborative effort—our graduates adopting a whole repertoire of new skills and competencies to optimistically navigate increasingly complex situations of flux and change and equipped with new partners in broad, exciting and innovative change efforts…our researchers pushing boundaries and developing insights that will foster change and influence the way we think and respond to future challenges and opportunities.

Outside, Europe’s new challenges had a visible reference in the Duomo square with the Africans, Roma, the homeless and those scratching a living at the margins of this glorious experience. We couldn’t but be reminded of our purpose and responsibilities.

Prato, a place where grown men eat ice cream together at 4pm in the absence of any children, where children play together long into the evening, and where the communal spaces of the city’s numerous squares and the clatter of conviviality bounce unpredictably around the city walls defying Putnam’s thesis, and where the view from a hundred windows looks outward over the terracotta rooftops. You could almost be forgiven for thinking you might just stay forever, the cheese is so good. We are nevertheless ready, and have clearly moved from the Prato moment to momentum…—22 September 2017

Professor Charlotte Williams is Professor and Deputy Dean of RMIT’s Social Work in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies.