International Journal of Appreciative Inquiry


AI and Strengths-based Social Work: Perfect Partners – Petra van Leeuwen

I had just turned 20 when I started working with homeless women who faced psychiatric and addiction problems. These 25 women lived together in a shelter for homeless women in Amsterdam in the Netherlands, where they secured a safe place with “bed, bath and bread”, the “3-B’s” policy at that time for the homeless sector. As a student at the Social Work Academy, I observed that assistance focused on damage control in order to keep everyone safe and prevent fights.

We provided more attention around women’s personal well-being.

Together with the team, I developed a strengths-based approach to support these women within the limited time and resources we had: the Eight Steps Model (ESM). We provided more attention around women’s personal well-being by using individual support plans. I was awarded first prize for our dissertation project and that gave me the confidence to scale up to national level. Policy changed at that time acknowledged that people who faced homelessness needed more guidance during their rehabilitation process. The fourth ‘policy B’ was introduced: that of guidance (Begeleiding in Dutch). These new policy ambitions, in combination with the practice-based origin, led to a great success for the ESM. In 2008, about 75% of all homeless shelters in the Netherlands used the model. Later we embraced the opportunity to test the model abroad in Ukraine, the Czech Republic and Portugal.

One important aspect of the ESM is to analyse a person’s strengths and challenges in all important areas of life. It was normal to report about difficulties and weaknesses, but strengths-based questions were hardly ever asked. Interests, hopes, dreams, relations and meaningfulness were not addressed. For me, the basic aim of the model is to see human beings again instead of problems. It is wonderful to see what happens when social workers experience the impact of this change in their work. They get to know their clients as complete persons.

The way AI works with teams is exactly how social workers work with their clients in ESM.

As the work continued, I found that some shelters that said they used the model did not share the basic principles of strengths-based work. They implemented the model according to the steps described in the handbook, but the soul was missing. It made me wonder. The handbook, although valuable, did not invite teams to use their own ideas, strengths and power. In 2013, I learned about AI. It felt – and still feels – like the perfect match for the implementation of ESM. The models share the same principles and processes are similar. The way AI works with teams is exactly how social workers work with their clients in ESM. It is about asking the right questions, involving others and building on strengths. In 2014 I was given the chance to implement ESM at two Salvation Army locations and this time I used AI. It was an exciting experience, leading to fundamental changes in the team. It really touched people’s hearts; it was the only right place to start strengths-based work. It all fell in place.

Almost 20 years from the beginning of my work with the homeless women, it feels like I am still graduating… It has been a privilege to be part of such wonderful changes and chances. With my new implementation partner, AI, I hope to be involved in much more strengths-based social work. It is wonderful to see what happens in social work and care if we actually look at people as complete persons and build on their strengths.



  1. Adrienne Ayres says:

    Very inspiring thank you x

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