SOCIAL IMPACT LIVE: Global Social Work in Chile

December 2, 2019 @ 4:48 pm
By Communications Office


In the 12/11/2019 episode, host Richard Hara (bio) sits down with Professor Yamile Martí (bio) to talk about her efforts to advance international education in social work, which includes a study trip to Chile. They are joined by Chilean MSW student Sofía Cillero (MSW’20) who offers a perspective on ongoing civil protests in her homeland.



Richard Hara: Hello, I’m Richard Hara, and this is Social Impact LIVE, a weekly conversation with members of the Columbia School of Social Work Community. I’m pleased to welcome to our program today Dr. Yamile M. Martí Haidar and Ms. Sofía Cillero. Dr. Martí has taught at the Columbia School of Social Work since 2011. She holds an MA in psychology of education from Teachers College and an MSW and PhD from the Columbia School of Social Work. Her clinical experience includes working with people affected by substance abuse and mental illness, children and families in the child welfare system and in public schools, cancer patients, abused women, and abused and neglected children.

Dr. Martí has conducted research on the implementation and evaluation of teacher training interventions for empowerment, as well as a community empowerment intervention in Puerto Rico. She’s also collaborated on a five-year randomized control trial comparing the effectiveness of interpersonal therapy versus complicated grief therapy, and onresearch projects related to young women who are pregnant and in foster care and the experiences of foster care mothers.

Our focus today, however, is on Dr. Martí’s interest in the globalization of social work education. She has conducted research on intimate partner violence, contraception, and economic empowerment among Jordanian women and has worked as a social worker in Jordan and in Puerto Rico. She has also served as a consultant for UNICEF in Abkhazia and Macedonia. Dr. Martí has developed courses at CSSW that include travel to other countries during spring break for students to experience and thus better understand social work practice outside the United States.

This spring, her course focuses on Chile, and we’re happy to include in today’s program one of the students who will be participating in this course, Sofía Cillero, who is a second-year policy student in our master’s program. Ms. Cillero and Dr. Martí, welcome to Social Impact LIVE.

It’s a wonderful opportunity to talk about how our school is trying to promote a more global perspective in social work education and practice. So let’s start off with your story, Dr. Martí. How did you get into social work?

Yamile Martí: I did my first master’s in social work, and then I always knew I wanted to do a doctorate but I was considering both social work and psychology.  I decided that a second master’s would give me exposure to the topic of psychology and how it’s practiced. But I quickly realized that my heart and my mind work more as a social worker when we look at person and environment, so I decided to come back for my doctorate in social work.

Richard Hara: Where did you get your clinical and practice experience?

Yamile Martí: I worked as a social worker at a public elementary school, running a program for children who are at high risk in terms of abuse or neglect at home and in terms of attendance and compliance. I worked at the New York State Psychiatric Institute with patients who have severe mental illness and also with the parents of kids who have mental illness, helping them understand the diagnosis. And I often consult with foster care agencies in the city to help them understand the many mental health issues that children in the system have and how to cope with them.

Richard Hara: What was your entrée into international social work?

Yamile Martí: That’s a little bit of a separate interest. I grew up in a home where I was exposed to many different cultures by traveling.  I learned a lot from that experience and have lived abroad. We have an increasingly international student basis here, but students were not being interested in global work. I thought it would be a great idea to merge theory and practice and bring it home to students so they can get exposed to the culture, history, and politics of a country and then actually go there and see it for themselves. It has been a wonderful experience. My work as a consultant for UNICEF and UNDP [United Nations Development Programme] has also allowed me to do social work projects abroad.

Richard Hara: Speaking of international students, we’ve got Ms. Cillero here today, and I understand you’re from Chile.

Sofía Cillero: Yes, I am.

Richard Hara: You came last year to the School of Social Work. What was it that said to you, I need to go to Columbia School of Social Work?

Sofía Cillero: I worked in Chile for seven years in a nonprofit organization focused on poverty. That moved me to think what would happen if I try to analyze all this experience through like an academic lens. I think there are resemblances between Chile and the United States, so that was one of the main reasons to start looking for schools. Then trying to figure it out was a whole another thing. The most interesting part for me about Columbia was how there were different tracks – options to pick classes in different concentrations, so that sold me.

Richard Hara: We have the four method areas: clinical practice, advanced generalist practice, policy, and social enterprise administration. You’re particularly interested in?

Sofía Cillero: Policy.

Richard Hara: Before I move on, I want to remind our audience that we have Q&A for the last 10 minutes of this program. If you’ve got a question, please write it in and we’ll bring it up at the end to ask our guests. 

So we’ve got this international piece, You’ve developed this course. How long has it been in existence?

Yamile Martí: It started in 2011. The first iteration of it went to Cuba. The way the course is designed, it’s really about the history, politics, culture, and development of the social work profession in the particular country we’re going to look at and how all those factors influence how social work is practiced on a daily basis. There are a lot of history lessons in the beginning of the course. Then when the students and I fly to the country, we visit everything from schools, hospitals, local NGOs, to international organizations that may be present in the country, and really have a collaborative exchange. The idea of the model of the class is not to be a colonizing framework of “We go here as experts to let you know what we know,” but rather an exchange of information and learning from the country that we’re in and the people that we meet.

Richard Hara: Could you give me an example of some of the things that make an impression on our students when they visit one of these countries?

Yamile Martí: In Chile, one of the visits that I think impresses them the most is going to La Victoria, which is a community that has a long history of activism, especially during the dictatorship that Chile went through. There’s a local health clinic there, and then we go into a radio station that was hidden in the time of the dictatorship, where they try to promote the other side of what was going on, and we meet with community leaders. It’s a very tangible experience for the students to be in an exchange about how that experience was when [Chileans] were going through the military dictatorship, but also how the community reinvented itself afterwards and maintains a culture of being advocates and very outspoken.

Richard Hara: Ms. Cillero, what it’s going to be like, now that you’re looking through a different lens, to go there this spring? What are you hoping to get out of this experience?

Sofía Cillero: My experience is going to be different because I am from Chile, and I am proud to be part of sharing the different examples and experiences. But also having the opportunity to share that with people who are not from the country will give a completely different perspective for me. It’s going to be really interesting to see how students that I have been talking with, who don’t know much about Chile, are going to start talking about my country and our issues. It’s going to be really interesting. I am looking forward to it.

Richard Hara: One of the great things about this course is that, yes, it provides a learning opportunity for students, but it also allows us to tap into the wonderful strengths the students bring to the school and to incorporate that into our classes.

Yamile Martí: Yeah, it’s a course that allows students from each of the four concentrations, and that makes a very rich discussion in the classroom, because students who are policy-oriented have a different mindset than those who are clinically oriented. They share their mindset and collectively inform each other. The other part of it is that the students create a community within the class. In all of the reiterations of the class students, now as alums, have stayed in contact, have shared information, have worked together in collaborative projects post-graduation, because it’s a very intense experience. I think that also builds community within the school as well.

Richard Hara: I’m impressed by the potential for what it can achieve, both for education and particularly this integrative model. There are things like the capstone project, where students from different concentrations get together, but this is rooted in a particular place and particular issues, where students can really get a sense of how to integrate the macro with the micro and what’s happening at program levels. You mentioned forging connections with colleagues and peers both here in the United States and [elsewhere]. What do you think the possibilities are for students to go back to Chile to do work with a nonprofit, or perhaps pursue a PhD if they’re so interested?

Yamile Martí: Throughout the years, we really have good connections to the people that we work with there. One of the first classes that I took to Chile witnessed the reopening of the Social Work School at the University of Chile after more than 20 years of it being closed, because social work was always seen as too liberal of a profession to be practiced during the dictatorship. The students were able to witness the first dean of that school coming back to the ceremony to reopen the doors of the school. Some of my students have stayed in contact with the professors there, and they have offered to come for a summer or to work. I think [the program] bridges community, connections, and collaboration that doesn’t have to be always US-based. For some of our students who might be from the United States but want to do international work, it also allows them to have rooted connections in other places.

Richard Hara: As long as you have the language ability, right?

Yamile Martí: Language is important, [though] in the course itself it’s not a requirement. In the Spanish countries I translate happily, and then we have colleagues that help us with that. But language is also something that a lot of our students have the capacity for — they are bilingual or multilingual. [The program] also allows for an opportunity to practice and see the importance of social work being practiced within a cultural language component. For example, we were in Valparaiso visiting a trauma center, and we talked about intergenerational trauma, which is very prevalent due to the dictatorship in Chile. Our students in the US come with a frame of intergenerational trauma that might not be necessarily based on history. Being able to exchange what we do here versus what we do there, and the the sense of clinical skills and language is a very interesting conversation.

Richard Hara: Do you see international social work as a universal template for social work practice? So often it seems like we have to adapt our work to the specific needs of particular individuals. Sometimes it’s hard to see if you know something that really transcends those of definitions and limits. Is it your sense that there is an international or global character to social work? 

Yamile Martí: I think it’s something that it’s increasingly more present in schools of social work and in research, but not necessarily in the practice and training of our students. As a student myself, I always thought, Our professors are doing great work all over the world – why don’t I know more about that? The idea of this class was to bridge that gap of bringing that experience into the classroom, and we have had students that come from the country that we’re visiting, students that have never had a passport until this class, and students that have always traveled around the world but never with an educational lens. The profession of social work is moving [toward] a more global understanding of the world and how that influences my practice here in New York but also mimics my practice elsewhere as well. Taking into consideration the history, culture, and background of the place where you’re working, is environmentally very significant to the work that you will be doing.

Richard Hara: It’s a two-way conversation.  We’re learning from each other through these kinds of experiences. Do you think there’s something particular to American social work that needs to be translated back to Chile? Or vice versa: is there something that you can bring from Chile that helps inform our practice here?

Sofía Cillero: Social work is really different in Chile than here, because in Chile we don’t have clinical social work. Social workers are more concentrated in a macro intervention level, and it’s really politically based. It’s really important how the history and the context of the country have been modeling what we do. For me it was really challenging when I got here to learn all these things about psychology. I was surprised. I enjoyed it, and I think it’s really useful, and it’s something that we could incorporate much more in the practice in Chile. I have learned in Chile how to plan or develop programs, [which] here it’s like a tiny part or only [part of the] IPP concentration, but not something that everyone has. I feel like the emphases are a little bit different, but I appreciate the effort to make the conversation about what’s going on in social work in other parts of the world, because this is not the only class that visits other countries. I feel like sometimes that is missing in the daily basis of the school. I thought it was a great opportunity to share that.

Richard Hara: Thank you for giving me an excellent segue to one of the questions that our audience has posted. “I would love to hear more about what countries Dr. Martí has visited since the course began and what was the focus for each one.”

Yamile Martí: We had had the course in Cuba and Chile. Dr. [Mashura] Akilova has done it in Jordan, and this year is taking students to Turkey. My course is taught in a framework of understanding the culture, history,and politics of the country and the practice of social work at macro, mezzo, and micro levels, in any country that we take students to. 

Obviously I’m not going to ignore the fact that Chile is going through a situation right now of civil unrest and protesting. It’s important for us to be there and be advocates and be in solidarity with our Chilean friends. But it’s also important to bring that reality that is happening in Chile to the course so that we don’t just ignore what’s going on, but we actually see how social work is part of that process as well. I’m hoping next year to take students to Kenya.  The preparation for that usually begins a year in advance. This spring we’re getting a committee together to start exploring that opportunity as well. We will keep expanding, and we have too much world to cover, so it’s not going to stop.

Richard Hara: Comment from the audience. “Hi, my name is María Paz. I’m writing from Chile and I know Dr. Martí through Dr. Lukens. I had the opportunity of being a part of Dr. Martí’s visit to Chile in 2016. Thank you for doing this event during this difficulty of momentous time for our country nowadays, with severe and daily human rights violations.” There is a lot going on there, right?

Yamile Martí: María Paz is an excellent colleague and friend, and hopefully this year we’ll see her again. It’s a difficult time for Chileans.  I think, as somebody who has visited the country many times, seeing military personnel and violence in the street is very triggering. One of the main components will be to understand what’s going on from all sides, but also to offer our support and be partners with them in this process. Hopefully our students will learn from people who have been going through this. One of the places I would visit is the Institute of Human Rights, which is doing a lot of work in recognizing the human rights violations that are going on there right now.

Richard Hara: It must be a tricky balance, as a social work professional trying to be involved but at the same time being nonpartisan. We had Professor Abramovitz on the show recently talking about getting out the vote in the United States. We want to be involved, we’re for social justice, but at the same time we are trying to balance the needs of multiple stakeholders, in addition to our students’ learning needs.

Yamile Martí: My biggest priority is obviously the students’ safety and well-being. In the middle of a country that is going through this civil unrest, that’s a big concern. We’re making sure that if they want to participate in the protesting they can, but always within a framework of safety.

Richard Hara: It’s one week?

Yamile Martí: It’s eight days that are packed. It’s not enough. It becomes very short. We do a little bit of visiting sites so that they get to see the country. But it’s 8 in the morning to 6 o’clock, a full day of visiting different places, so they’re going to have a jam-packed schedule.

Richard Hara: Do you feel that we’re preparing students for doing global social work?

Yamile Martí: I think it’s a work-in-progress. We are starting to offer more. Now we have two courses that take students abroad. It’s one way of doing it. I’m currently working with a student fellow from the Steven Schinke Fellowship to try to do block placements abroad, which is a very different experience from the course. These students would take all their classes ahead of time, and then use their last spring semester to go to a country and work in a local organization. Also, as professors we have the obligation to make sure that we incorporate an international focus in our courses, where maybe the readings and the concepts we teach don’t have to be US based.

We integrate the voice of our international students as well, because some of the concepts of social work are not the same in their country, and so an international student can teach us what would that that concept would be in their country, if it is practiced at all. There are multiple ways that we can continue to become a global social work school and bring that to the students. Our student body is much more interested in globalization, and because of social media and access to more things, that is going to be a crucial part of their education moving forward.

Richard Hara: “Going to other countries to do social work sounds exciting, but are you afraid that students will receive only a superficial understanding of the issues, particularly if they don’t have the language skills?”

Yamile Martí: That’s something that I work really hard in battling every time that I design a course. I try to make sure that the language is not a barrier in this and that all the questions that they might have can be translated so there could be a dialogue and conversation. It is superficial – eight days is not enough – and it’s not a comprehensive, full view of everything. But I certainly try to bring into the itinerary that we design for the students, and into the readings for the class, views from all sides, so that it’s not my subjective perception or my point of view but an objective look at history and policies and the practice of social work in the country.

Richard Hara: There’s only so much that we can teach in a classroom, right? You need to go out and see and, obviously, there’s a tremendous emphasis in social work education placed on experience. Ms. Cillero was actually in one of the sections that I taught on MI [motivational interviewing] skills. I’m curious, because we didn’t have this discussion at the time, but after listening to you talk about the more psychological focus of American social work training, was it an adjustment for to do those exercises in motivational interviewing?

Sofía Cillero: It was a challenge, but it was really interesting, and I think it’s a set of skills that was really useful, even for a policy student. As María Paz said before, this is a difficult time for our country. Social work will have a lot to do not only with what are the new agreements of our society, but also how to deal with the psychological consequences of the stress that all this is going to bring to our people. It has been 60 days already, I think. There have been a lot of injuries and mutilations, so the scenario is really, really hard, and I feel like everyone is going to take some time to process it. It’s going to be difficult to heal from this, and social work will have a particular role in that. It’s going to be interesting to see in the class where we are as social workers, as a discipline.

Richard Hara: When you think about social conflict, you ask what can we do to remedy policy, and all of that is important. But at the end of the day, how are the different parties going to talk to one another? How are you going to come to a reconciliation so that people can move forward together? To put in a plug for the motivational interviewing, we do try to emphasize those communication skills in empowering ways. I hope it didn’t feel imposed upon you, that training and the kinds of exercises that we did. But I appreciate the context that you’ve provided me today for how you’ve received it. 

Another comment from the audience. “I feel it’s important to remark on what Sofía was saying on the very clinical-led social work in the US. Although it’s important to bring in parts of that clinical analysis, practitioners in the US should question why the work here is so depoliticized, which can be extrapolated to a clinical diagnosis of mental health issues, as opposed to the environmental and material factors.” I guess this is a question for both of you, from the student perspective and the instructor perspective. Are we putting too much emphasis on individual psychology and not on environmental factors?

Yamile Martí: I am truly an advanced generalist practitioner, so I look at the cross-systems perspective and how the systems intertwine with one another, and you cannot really look at individual without looking at the environment. That’s central to my social work practice. In general, if we are looking at globalization and how the world is interconnected, we have to have a lens to understand that, yes, clinical work and individual work is important, but it doesn’t come without looking at the other factors that influence it.

Sofía Cillero: I agree. In Chile at least, the past couple of years, the discussion was that our mental health is getting worse and worse, and then this situation exploded and we start seeing that [the problems] were more structural. It related to sense of abuse from the system, from the structures of how do I go to the medical center, how do I ask for the equivalent to food stamps. There is a relation there that we have to be a little bit more aware of. We talk in the school as if these were two separate things. You learn about environmental structures, and you learn about clinical skills, but sometimes that conversation with the system is not integrated or not integrated enough.

Richard Hara: “To what extent do the students do hands-on social work on these trips, or is it purely educational?” 

Yamile Martí: I have not done it as hands-on work.  We’re only there for seven days, and I don’t want to start something that we cannot finish. But we do collaboration – for example, at the University of Chile. The faculty, myself, and students present, and the students from there and their faculty present. We have an exchange of information that is informed by the practices of each of our countries and by topics, areas that are important to them to cover and for us as well. There is hands-on in the sense that it’s not just sitting there and hearing people present. But I don’t want to come in and do a project and then leave and not have continuity of that relationship.

Richard Hara: That makes a lot of sense. Last question, and it’s a question for Sofía. “Are social workers playing a major role in the current protests going on in Santiago and elsewhere?”

Sofía Cillero: This started with high school students who protested the rise in the ticket, like the subway ticket. They don’t pay their whole ticket, but they responded to the burden on their family, so that was really interesting. They were not protesting for themselves. Then I remember after the first week, I was asking on my Facebook “Where are the social workers discussing this?” and trying to figure it out. One of the things that is challenging is how to organize in terms of a national association. I have seen some interventions, but also it’s really difficult, being here [in New York], to know exactly how they are building relationships and solutions. 

But I will say that we are probably not in all the conversations that we need to be, and I think we can be a great contribution if they let us. We’re fighting for a space in general. Social workers have a lot to say. We are the ones in the field with the people all the time. When they say, oh this happened, we are like, “Yes, we have like 100 cases like that one.” We can have that knowledge from the field that is really useful.

Richard Hara: Whatever you can glean from the field with Dr. Martí on this trip, you would certainly need to bring it back here to the United States, because we can use that expertise. I want to thank you both for being on the program today, and thank our audience for tuning in, not just for today, but all semester. This concludes our fall 2019 series of Social Impact LIVE. I hope you all have a great break during December and January. We’ll be back in the spring and hope to see you all then. Bye-bye.

Yamile Martí: Thank you. Bye.

Sofía Cillero: Thank you.





RESOURCES: Social Work and Social Justice Organizations in Chile