Social Work Month: Alex, MSW student

Wednesday, March 27, 2024
Alex standing in front of a tree. They are wearing a short sleeve button up shirt and glasses.

March is Social Work Month, and to mark this month, we spoke with School of Social Work Students at Renison about their field work placements, which are are an important part of Social Work education. Today, we introduce Alex (they/them), a Renison MSW student who’s currently working at Qmunity a non-profit organization focused on improving the lives of 2SLGBTQIA+ individuals.

Please note: The following article contains comments that may be potentially upsetting for some readers; the statements do not necessarily reflect the opinion of Renison University College or the University of Waterloo. Please reach out to if you experience instances of hate.

Tell us a little bit about yourself:

I’m originally from Ktaqmkuk (colonially known as Newfoundland), the unceded and traditional lands of the Beothuk and Mi’kmaq peoples; however, I am currently residing and practicing as an uninvited guest on the occupied unceded territory of the xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh Úxwumixw (Squamish), and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) peoples (colonially known as Vancouver, BC). To socially situate myself, I am a white-presenting, trans, queer, neurodivergent, and multi-disabled person. I graduated with my Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) in 2019 from Memorial University of Newfoundland and Labrador and I am currently a Master of Social Work (MSW) candidate with Renison.

What brought you to Renison?

I was drawn to Renison’s program due to its health-focused and self-directed format. My areas of practice experience and interest include the intersection of neurodivergency, Madness, and trans-identities, as well as, harm reduction, trauma-informed practice, gender-affirming care, disability justice, and abolition-based social work practice. Given my interests and future career goals, a health-focused program was a natural fit for me!

Tell us a bit about your placement position at Qmunity:

For folks unfamiliar with QMUNITY (also known as Q), they are a non-profit organization that is based in Vancouver, BC with the mission to improve queer, trans, and Two-Spirit lives throughout the province of BC through services, connection, and leadership.

In terms of my placement experiences at Q, it has been a bit all over the place but in the best way! I have been fortunate to be involved in several different projects, such as co-facilitating community workshops, creating crisis response guides for volunteers, and developing the second edition of Q’s ‘I <3 My Chest’ resource. This resource is a guidebook for trans and gender-diverse folks to learn more about chest health including information on binding, breast forms, hormones, surgical interventions, mental health, and more. The second edition has not yet been released; however, the process of working on this necessary resource allowed me to incorporate my living experiences and knowledge as a trans person and as a social worker, while also providing me with the opportunity to learn more about trans perspectives that are different from my own, such as chest health information for transwomen and transfeminine folks. I have also been involved in the facilitation of Q’s Trans ID Clinic where a group of dedicated lawyers, volunteers, Q staff, and myself help trans and gender-diverse folks to legally change their name and/or gender marker.

Most recently I have been involved with the expansion of harm reduction services at Q. When I first started my placement in September 2023, Q did offer some sterile substance use supplies; however, given my experience in and passion for harm reduction along with the reality that the 2SLGBTQIA+ community is disproportionately impacted by trauma, mental health difficulties, and substance use, I recognized this as an area for growth within the organization. Thankfully both Q leadership and staff were on board with this idea, and I assisted leadership with becoming an official distribution site for sterile supplies. I developed guidelines for the creation of harm reduction ‘kits’ at Q, and I am excited to note that Q now has injection kits, two different pipe kits, snorting kits, foil kits, and hormone injection kits (both intramuscular and subcutaneous)!

How have you applied the knowledge you have learned in class into the field?

Given that most course assignments and content are open to allow students to focus on their area of interest and/or expertise, I feel the application of knowledge gained in class flows naturally into my field experiences. For example, during my first semester, I completed a course titled ‘Clinical Practice in Mental Health and Addictions’ whereby one of the main assignments tasked students to write a paper that reflects on how different paradigms view a particular mental health condition. I decided to focus mine on the controversial diagnosis of Gender Dysphoria and spoke to both the benefits and harm that come with this diagnostic classification. Completing this paper and critically assessing Gender Dysphoria in this way actively assisted me in the development of a balanced perspective during the writing of the second edition of the ‘I <3 My Chest’ resource.

What are some of your favourite things about working for Qmunity?

There are so many things I enjoy about working for Q but one of my favourite things is working alongside the amazing staff. As I mentioned before, I am a new resident of BC (I moved here in mid-July 2023) and being someone who is neurodivergent, the move from the East Coast to West Coast amid starting a graduate program was a lot to process (and still is in many ways). At the start of my placement, my nervous system was quite dysregulated as I was faced with a new province, a new school, a new healthcare system to navigate (both professionally and personally as a multi-disabled person), a new organization, and A LOT of new people. It was overwhelming; however, the staff at Q were so warm, welcoming, and dedicated to being neurodiversity-affirming that it eased many of my fears. This is also my first time working for an organization that primarily employs 2SLGBTQIA+ staff and is focused on supporting the 2SLGBTQIA+ community. I cannot understate how incredible it is to be in a space where I can authentically embrace my intersectional identities and have them be valued and deeply understood by the folks around me. I feel very privileged to work with so many diverse but united queer people!

Given that one of my career goals is to focus on gender-affirming care, another favourite of working at Q is that it has provided me with the opportunity to network with different gender-affirming care providers and to learn more about gender-affirming care within BC. In NL, there are currently zero surgeons performing gender-affirming surgeries, extremely limited certified assessors to complete hormone and surgical readiness assessments, and, to date, no individual has ever been approved for provincial coverage of breast augmentation surgery due to policy insufficiencies. In BC, although there are many gaps and barriers in coverage, there is a dedicated gender surgery clinic and trans specialty care, and provincial coverage is much more current & accessible (in some ways). This opportunity to witness and learn about the provincial differences in care, along with the relationships I am developing with providers in the province is a key highlight for me.

How do you think that the work you’ve been doing helps open doors to health, mental health and wellness for the people you serve?

With the rise in anti-trans legislation across Canada (and globally), all gender-affirming spaces and services within the country are crucial to the health, mental health, and wellness of trans and gender-diverse folks. There is a big need for more of these spaces and services to be available. I think of the work I’ve done, assisting Q in becoming a registered distribution site for harm reduction supplies and supporting trans and gender-diverse folks update their legal name and/or gender marker are two very important activities that benefit the health, mental health, and wellness, of the community we serve at Q.

What does Social Work Month mean to you?

Social Work Month has several meanings to me but, most importantly right now, I think it serves as a perfect reminder for all social workers (and social service workers broadly) to reflect on the code of ethics for the profession and how we (individually and collectively) are translating our ethics into action. While I truly believe that most social workers go into the profession with the best of intentions, as someone who walks that dual role of being a social worker AND a member of various chronically disenfranchised communities, all too often I have witnessed folks in the profession act as the oppressor, upholding and abiding harmful practices and policies, and/or remaining silent when injustices are occurring. A concept/phrase that has stuck with me from one of my favorite books entitled Inflamed: Deep Medicine and the Anatomy of Injustice by Rupa Marya and Raj Patel, is “the violent act of looking away.” In the book they address how this concept speaks to the tendency for folks to look away and remain silent when injustices occur and how this inaction is an action and a tacit agreement that things should remain as they are, which serves to further disconnect us from our humanity.

All over the world, there are folks impacted by violence, injustice, and oppression. I recommend folks look into the Global Humanitarian 2024 Overview by OCHA for further information; however, specifically this Social Work Month, to me, means uplifting the voices of those most directly impacted by harm, such as the ongoing genocide against Palestinians by the Israeli government. Every day the humanitarian crisis worsens in Palestine and I encourage everyone to educate themselves on the history of Palestine, speak up where possible, demand our government to call for an immediate and permanent ceasefire and to dissolve ties with the Israeli government, carefully consider where you are spending your money, and donate to relief funds where feasible. I recommend checking out Islamic Relief Canada, the Canadian BDS Coalition, the World Food Program, and UNICEF.

What are some tips you’d like to provide to current/prospective students who may be considering a career in social work?

For current and prospective social work students, I encourage folks to first critically reflect on why they want to be social workers, what types of activities/roles they envision themselves occupying, and the history of harm and complicity within the social work profession. Social work often positions itself as a career where you care for the ‘most vulnerable’ in society and can be quick to gloss over the very real harm that social workers have been complicit or directly involved in, both historically and presently. Understanding the history of harm in social work, alongside the positives, will hopefully provide folks with insight into why some individuals or populations are hesitant or avoid working with social workers and how we should actively support and respect this right to self-determination.

My second tip is to prioritize your wellness and establish boundaries within your career. The sad reality is that, under white settler colonial capitalism, many employers will exploit your time and labour to make ends meet regardless of the impact on the health of the employee or folks accessing services. Whenever possible, protect your health and wellness and actively seek positions/employers that support employee wellness, provide you with a space that you feel brave to be your authentic self, and build communities of care.

Finally, I encourage folks to be critical of any research, framework, or information that does not center or give space to those with lived/living experience.