Social Work and Human Rights: Report from My Study Abroad
by Kristen Hibit
Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series of posts by University of Buffalo School of Social Work MSW student Kristen Hibit, reporting on her recent human rights study abroad course in Germany.
I’m blogging about my ten-day trip with the Southern Illinois University’s Human Rights and Social Work program to Munich, Germany. In this and two future blog posts, I will share my experiences and observations as I visit social services organizations in Munich as it relates to human rights and cross-cultural social work practices. Although social work is a human rights focused discipline, (and human rights is an ideology that should be instilled in all disciplines), we have to understand the basis of human rights and be able to incorporate it into our everyday lives.
This course, “Global Seminar on Human Rights an Social Work,” is taught by Dr. Elisabeth Reichert, Professor of Social Work at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale. Much of Dr. Reichert’s research focuses on the importance and integration of human rights in social work and policy practice. Dr. Reichert is a friend to the University at Buffalo School of Social Work, as she participated in our inSocialWork Podcast Series, interviewed by Dr. Diane Elze, on “Social Work and Human Rights.” In it, she spoke about the history of human rights and how international education can foster a deeper understanding of those rights.
Reichert’s course emphasizes the importance of this understanding in order to improve and uphold human rights. The course is carried out through site visits to NGOs (non-governmental organizations), to learn how a human rights approach is utilized in their mission and service implementation. After each site visit, our group convened to process and discuss the relation to human rights and the cross-cultural service practices. There were 12 of us in our course group, all from different universities and regions of the US, studying social work and other behavioral sciences.
On the first day, our group met and discussed the general history and development of human rights through the passing of the 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights.
Our hotel is located close to the Munich City Center train station which is conveniently located to restaurants, entertainment and historic locations. Munich is an extremely walkable city making it easy to explore. I am staying in a predominantly Middle Eastern area. The influx of Middle Eastern populations over the past five years has diversified the city center area. As staying here during the month of Ramadan, the area is lively after sun down and the food is delicious!
We explored Marienplatz, a central city center square, populated with tourists, locals, entertainers, restaurants and shipping centers. We ate at the Hofbrauhaus the oldest beer garden in Munich. Beer gardens originated in the Bavaria region as a communal space to bring families, share in drink, meals, entertainment, and also to discuss politics.
We visited Bahnhofsmission and met with social worker, Jessica Wolf. The agency is uniquely located in the Munich City Center train station. Founded in 1897, the agency originally started because of the influx of women relocating to metropolitan areas and the rise of sex work.
Today the agency assists all populations in crisis, from women in domestic violence situations to travelers to the homeless. The agency offers people a safe place to rest, provides emergency supplies, counseling services and referrals to external agencies.
Bahnhofsmission assists over 300 clients daily and heavily relies on 140 volunteers. The agency has locations all over Germany in high traffic, transient areas making services accessible to people in crisis and need.
Germany is also placing social workers in airports due to the influx of migration throughout Europe to assist travelers in crisis. Organizations, like Bahnhofmission, would be critical for the US to adopt in transient areas to make services accessible for people in crisis.
Our second agency visit was Aids-hilfe, a non-profit organization that provides services to people with HIVand/or AIDS and LGBTQ community. Their services include counseling services, HIV and STD testing, prevention through education, peer support programs, employment projects and safe housing accommodations.
Aids-hilfe recognizes that people living with HIV and AIDS are vulnerable to discrimination and need social and medical support. In Germany, health care is provided to all through employment or through social services, making medication accessible and free to low cost. Aids-hilfe collaborates with government agencies, police and other prevention organizations to reduce harm and advocate for policies that protect these populations. They uniquely operate a café restaurant called Café Regenbogen which offers training and employment to their clients. The money from the restaurant goes directly back into their services. I think this is a unique business model that could be adopted by organizations, especially in the Buffalo area, as it provides employment to marginalized communities and acts as a funding source in addition to grants and government funding. I learned that the German parliament recently introduced a policy allowing people to identify as a third gender—“diverse”. Intersex or third gender people will be able to select “D” on all official documents. Our presenter informed us that the process to change one’s gender to diverse is a challenging process as a psychiatrist’s documentation and permission is necessary. Nonetheless, I think that this policy change is a step forward in accepting and including third gender identities, giving them dignity—a central tenant to human rights.
In the US we must to continue to support LGBTQ+ communities and invite them to the table in decision and policy making so that we too, can officially recognize third gender identifies.
We traveled outside the city of Munich to a quaint little town called Starnberg, about a 30-minute train ride to the city center.
Today’s focus was on the elderly. Seniorentreff Starnberg is an organization that use a human rights approach and social innovations to address elderly care and well-being. Petra Scheucher, social worker and our presenter, provided us with some insight on the operations and services of the organization. The most important aspects of Seniorentreff Starnberg is that is provides and open, welcoming community center for seniors to interact in the community so that seniors have a support system. They offer language classes, computer classes, active sport clubs, tours, repair club etc. If a community member suggests a club or service Seniorentreff will work to provide it, as it is completely community and volunteer driven! They have volunteers who will transport seniors to activities, take them grocery shopping, teach classes and offer peer support. Like in the United States, nursing home care can be quite costly. The primary goal of the community is the keep the elderly safe and comfortable in their own home. Seniorentreff offers at home counseling services and check ins. To support the senior in their environment, the government will pay for home modifications to keep the person functioning and safe in their own home.
What I was most impressed with for this organization was the power of community and the reciprocities of caring for not only the elderly but all people of their community. They have a unique program where seniors visit elementary schools to engage with students. The premise of this program is to provide a grandparent figure to children who may not have a grandparent or strong role model. This is quite different from my own experience as in elementary school we would visit nursing homes to provide them with socialization (of course still important, but their approach uses a different lens in demonstrating the importance of the elderly to the community).
This community truly socially invests in the dignity and well-being of the elderly by creating programs and spaces that encourage socialization and promote empowerment. This specific experience has made me think how powerful this approach could be in our own communities to support the elderly and uphold their dignity.
After our field visit, we walked along the water. On a clear day, there is a gorgeous view of the German Alps.
Stay tuned for more field adventures, visits to Dachau and Nuremberg, and reflection on the entire experience!
Episode 41 – Dr. Elisabeth Reichert: Social Work and Human Rights. (2010, March 8). inSocialWork® Podcast Series. [Audio Podcast] Retrieved from http://www.insocialwork.org/episode.asp?ep=41
Kristen Hibit is a full-time MSW student slated to graduate in May 2020. Kristen currently works as a Immigrant Work Specialist at the New York State Department of Labor, Division of Immigrants Policies and Affairs. She provides workers’ rights education and services to immigrant workers, and labor law compliance education to agricultural businesses. Previously, Kristen worked with refugee populations developing employment services and business partnerships to facilitate and support the hiring of refugees. Kristen recently completed her first placement at Freedom Network USA, a coalition of experts and advocates that utilize a human-rights-based approach to human trafficking. Kristen is focusing on macro social work and is particularly interested in policy work and human rights surrounding immigrant and refugee populations,and how this can be integrated into organizational structures to solve systemic issues.