Writing Water for Social Justice in Social Work



Dear Reader,


It is mid-March and the time of the ice break in Helsinki when I begin to write this letter. It is a time when I often walk to the seafront; listening to the clashing of ice blocks; the seeping sound of the ice-slush; the slowness of water movements. I perceive water during these moments as a source of spiritual recovery; this sea also has meaning for me on a personal level for Swedish-Finnish connectivity and (be)longing; and at the same time, it is a political and economic space for fishing, shipping, trading, and travelling.

Am I floating, 

in the sun beams, 

of the spring sea, 

the surface of ice and open water; 

Am I floating, towards open sea, 

slow water movements, 

the heartbeat of ice-blocks,

asking me to listen; 

Am I floating, 

in this moment, 

of intense sunlight, 

with the sea of the Gulf of Botnia, 

connecting and separating, 

Finland and Sweden.

When I was a child, I learned to swim in the cold water of a creek. The forest around it and the small beach where I used to warm my feet on sunny days was part of a landscape that shaped ways of knowing. Learning to swim was also about learning how to float, and floating was an art because it required relaxation, breathing and trust. There were also situations of discomfort at the beach. There were leeches in the water. The changing room had no locks and boys would use their entitlement to force themselves into the room when I was struggling to remove my wet bathing suit. We were all white children as I remember it on this small beach. While my gendered body was exposed to sexual harassment, my white body was a privilege I took for granted. 

Several years ago, I wrote the academic novella ‘Writing Water’ when I wanted to think with water to better understand the disciplinary boundaries and possible transgressions in social work (Livholts 2013). I wrote about water as part of our embodied selves and the earth and how water can visualise the complexity of understanding social change through memories and stories. Waters provide the possibility of seeing and listening to life beyond the human self, to raise awareness of different histories and everyday realities from perspectives of social injustice, exclusion and inclusion, fear, and safety. It can visualise personal, political, economic, and ecological, and social layers, and promote changing structures of social injustice in social work. In my forthcoming book I continue to write stories of water as geopolitical spaces of knowledge. One example is how colonialism and invasion become visible in the entanglements between bodies, excluding black and privileging white bodies, such as travelling and migrating across water, swimming, prohibition, fear, and safety at the beach. This has been visualised by the South African poet Kholeka Putuma in the poem ‘Water’:




At the same time as Putuma use poetry to engage in personal, political, and social movements and relations of power through water, they become a site for creative resistance and social change. As I write the last words of this chronicle the ice blocks have melted, and I listen to the waves of the open sea. I hope that you who reads my chronicle is inspired to take on writing water by uses of life writing genres such as letters, diaries, poetry, and photography to write water as a situated, place based, embodied and more than human practice in social work (see also Livholts 2019). What are your memories and stories of water? How can they be written and used to promote empowerment and agency for social change and social justice? 


Mona Livholts

Professor, University of Helsinki



Livholts, Mona (2013) Writing Water. An Untimely Academic Novella. In Stanley L (Ed) Documents of Life Revisited. Narrative and Biographical Methodology for the 21st Century Critical Humanism. Farnham: Ashgate: 177-192.

Livholts, Mona (2019) Situated Writing as Theory and Method. The Untimely Academic Novella. London: Routledge.

See also interview in English, Swedish and Finnish 2021: https://www.helsinki.fi/en/news/good-society/professor-social-work-prefers-creative-methods-capture-lived-experiences

See also interview in Swedish in the Finnish-Swedish radio Yle 2022: https://areena.yle.fi/audio/1-61293073

This chronicle draws on the ongoing project: The Glocal Turn in Social Work. Theories, Practices and Writings, which can be found here: https://researchportal.helsinki.fi/fi/projects/the-glocal-turn-in-social-work-theories-practices-and-writings-in



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