I struggled with the title of this post, a lot. I certainly don’t mean to trivialize the panic, or the grinding discouragement, wrought by our nation’s current epidemic of unemployment. It’s a crisis. It deserves our attention. And its victims deserve justice, and jobs.
I want to convey my frustration, though, with a mentality that is unfortunately pervasive in much of social services, perhaps especially right now–a kind of “the poor are always with us”, “at least we have job security”, gallows humor that underlines a systemic problem in our profession, and in our sector:
We keep forgetting that we’re supposed to be working ourselves out of jobs.
As I was doing a literature review for the instructors’ resources for a policy textbook on which I’m assisting, I came across the line, “workers and their supervisors will struggle with new issues such as, does the agency (or position) exist for the worker or the client?” Um, seriously? That’s a question at all? And a “new” one, at that?
There is a passage in Robert Egger’s book that reinforced this point for me. He frames it first in terms of asking who is really being served by a program that serves food to people experiencing homelessness–is it more about ending hunger, or more about providing an opportunity for fellowship and service for the volunteers? And, while he and Dan Pallotta certainly don’t agree on much, that question reminded me of Pallotta’s exhortation that we never allow nonprofit work to be about making us feel noble, or sacrificial, or superior.
Because, when we do, or even when we start thinking in terms of job security rather than fundamental social change, we stop keeping those we serve, and, more importantly their RIGHT NOT TO NEED US, from being foremost in their minds.
I mean, I’m sure that many of your clients like you. And that’s good. But they shouldn’t have to keep being your clients. We shouldn’t, as Egger relates, say “see you tomorrow” every day to people coming to receive meals for the homeless. We should be asking ourselves every day, every month, every year what we did to address the core problems that create the need that our services address, so that we’re sure that we’re always moving towards our own irrelevance. We need to have a strategy, and a vision–a roadmap of sorts that tells us what victory looks like and how we’re going to get there. We need to do more than just stay busy at work every day (because that’s the easy part); we need to stop being content to throw starfish back into the ocean when the whole beach needs to be cleaned up (I was so relieved to find that I’m not the only person who finds that story more dismaying than uplifting; at least there are two of us heartless folks in this business!). We need to have a vision of what we’ll do for a living when we don’t need foster care workers or welfare case managers or oncological social workers or anti-poverty organizers anymore.
Because if you’re not hoping for that, you don’t really believe that what you and your clients are doing together can change the world. You’re settling for the status quo, when what they deserve is a radical change. He starts the book with a quote that has become my new favorite: “they teach you to fix what needs to be broke,” Paul Westerberg (p. 1–see why I like him so much?). To me, that quote forces social workers to come to terms with the dual mission of our profession: social justice and social control, and to locate ourselves firmly on the side of justice, even when (especially when!) it means reshaping society in such a way that our services are no longer required, thank you very much.
Me, personally, in the wonderful world of tomorrow, I think I’d like to bake scones or grow cut flowers for profit. Or make beautiful cakes. Or run elections…or be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. That would still be good.