*I’m still on maternity leave, and, so, reposting some of my favorite posts from the last two years of Classroom to Capitol. I’ve tried to pick out a mix of those that attracted a lot of attention at the time and those that are just personally meaningful to me (and, I hope, to some of you!), and I’ve also updated them, in some cases, with some new questions and information. Thank you for your patience as I dedicate myself to full-time motherhood for a few more weeks!
When I was in graduate school at Washington University (the one in St. Louis), I had the amazing opportunity to take a class from Ernesto Cortes, lead organizer with the Industrial Areas Foundation in the Southwest. He came to teach two long weekend seminars on institution-based organizing that Wash U offered as a regular 3-credit course. It was so intimidating that some of the class is still a blur to me, but some snippets of what we talked about still stand out (along with a memory of my mortification when he chose me to model a 1:1 with him in front of the entire class–scary).
One of the things that really hit me as a social worker was his explanation of the ‘golden rule’ of organizing: Never do for someone else what he/she can do for him/herself. Not should do for herself, but can do for herself. Not ‘rarely’ or ‘seldom’, but ‘never’.
I like this rule because, when you first hear it, it sounds so totally common-sense. Of course we should never do things for other people that they can do for themselves, right? Um, except that we do it all the time. As social workers, and, indeed, as people, how often do we take shortcuts, making the phone call ourselves because we’re afraid our client will forget, or answering for a client in a meeting because we’re afraid he doesn’t understand, or staying late to finish a report for a colleague because we’re really good at that.
And, at first, it doesn’t seem like a bad thing. I mean, we’re social workers. We’re supposed to help people, right? And that means doing helpful things for people, right?
I struggled with this quite a bit in my community and advocacy practice. How is an organizer supposed to know what someone can do for herself? Do we let them try and fail? What if such failure has implications for the whole community, or the whole organization? Where do we draw the line between empowering people and abandoning them? Between paternalistic ‘overdoing’ for people and supportive modeling and guidance? How do we ensure that our interactions with people change as they change and grow? And how do we deal with the fact that sometimes not doing for other people is harder and slower than just getting it done, when our lives and our organizing are so busy?
It was when my oldest son was struggling with his carseat buckle that I made the connection: the same challenges that parents of toddlers face apply to this age-old organizing connundrum. He wants to learn how to unfasten his carseat because he knows that, once he can do it independently, he’ll get to move to the back of the van with his brother or sister. He hates sitting in the middle row by himself, so he’s really motivated to get this figured out (you might say that he has a good sense of his self-interest). As you can imagine, his initial attempts at this have been less than satisfactory. As I’m trying to get the other kids loaded up to get to wherever we’re headed (inevitably late), I find myself facing the same dilemma as when I wondered whether it was fair to ask an undocumented client to speak to the media or someone who spoke limited English to give the introduction…what can he do for himself? What must I do for him? How do we negotiate this in a way that builds his skills and his confidence and, most importantly to an emerging leader and a toddler, enhances his real power?
I don’t have all of the answers for this, in organizing or in parenting. But I know that, when I hit on the right approach as an organizer, people did extraordinary things that they (and, honestly I) were quite unsure they could do. And, as a mom, when my son got the chest strap on his carseat off all by himself and said, “Mom, I’m getting really close to sitting in the backseat!” I know that Ernie Cortes is right. It’s not easy to sit on our hands and do less, but, if we can stand it, we really are doing more.