How is working to provide individual help different from working toward community/system change? How do these efforts relate? What are some steps you can take to address individual help and community change when working with clients?

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Working to provide individual help is different from working toward community or systemic change largely because of the scope of the focus and what the desired end result is likely to be. With regard to the scope of the focus, individual help has a very narrow focus. The main purpose of individual help is to understand the problems that are specific to an individual and to help them overcome these obstacles. For example, an individual help approach for a recovering drug addict is likely to look at the individual's former drug of choice, the impact of any convictions and/or prison sentences, vocational challenges, and the ability to find safe and affordable housing. A community/systemic change approach may look at some of the same things, but the scope will be broader. For example, the community/systemic change approach is likely to look at criminal justice reform, increasing access to counseling, and decreasing the demand for drugs.

The second difference is the desired end result. For individual help plans, the desired end result is for the individual to be able to operate fully within the society in which they live. The community/systemic change approach would instead look at ways to change larger contexts in order to better serve individuals.

Essentially, the individual approach focuses on helping the individual moderate their own behavior to conform to society, while a community/system change approach focuses on changing societal aspects in order to better serve individuals.

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Helping individuals as a therapist or social worker does not always involve helping the community as a whole. For example, a social worker might help a person from an underprivileged background who has not graduated from high school obtain a GED and start a degree program at a local community college. These actions would benefit the individual. However, community change would involve removing the barriers that keep people from underprivileged backgrounds from graduating from high school and attending college.

When working with an individual client, a social worker can also consider the structural or systemic barriers that have kept that person from achieving his or her full potential. To help the person and the community, a social worker's interventions can address these barriers. For example, in the case above, a social worker might implement college readiness programs in the local high school to help students graduate and go to college.

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Working to provide assistance to individuals is generally limited in social scope. For instance, your client has specific needs and goals that may not benefit the community. Working to provide assistance to the community, in order to create positive change, benefits everyone, including the individual.

For example, helping an individual client with a real estate purchase for personal use is different from developing housing for low-income families. Think of it as micro (individual) and macro (community). Generally, helping on a macro level, such as bringing change to the community, automatically benefits the individual, if they are a part of the community or system.

When working with clients, it is best to understand the requirements and then set the agenda toward meeting their goals. Discern whether your work will be on a micro or macro level. If the client is a community, organization, or other entity with a systemic structure, the approach will be different than working with an individual client. On a macro level, resources, budgets and manpower will all be larger, so it is important to address these elements with your client.

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