*This is one of my all-time favorite stories, and favorite messages, too, so I’m republishing it in these final days of my maternity leave, as an inspiration to me and, I hope, to you, too.
Fairly often, when I talk with social workers about involving their clients in advocacy and organizing, encouraging them to find their own voices and to create social change for themselves, I hear some variation on “yes, but our clients are too poor/overwhelmed/scared/uneducated to play that role. We have to advocate for them.”
And that always prompts a discussion about how we are often the biggest barriers to our clients’ full empowerment, that we project our own fears and limitations onto their lives, or lack the relationship with them that would create a context for real risk taking. We need to get over ourselves, so to speak, and figure out ways, hand-in-hand with our clients, over, around, and through every obstacle that we might imagine (and many are, in fact, imagined) to their self-advocacy. But we have to figure out how to do that authentically and respectfully and honestly.
As I’m sure you’re not surprised, there was something in Half the Sky (have you read it yet? Go get it!) that spoke to this, too. Chapter Three was probably the most stunning part of the whole book for me, because it basically tells the story of a slum in India where women rose up against a violent criminal warlord who was raping, stealing, and murdering. Galvanized by his threats to a prominent woman from their own community, the women overcame their fears and, collectively, stabbed him to death, each one cutting him once.
No, I’m not saying that we start encouraging our clients to take this kind of direct action; we have a Code of Ethics, and I’ve written before about what that compels regarding appropriate means and ends.
But what got to me, and to the authors, was this: these were women who not only had generalized fears about taking action that is contrary to cultural and social ideas about women’s roles but was also in direct contradiction to the political powers in the area (all of whom also feared this guy)–they also had abundant evidence that their lives were directly at risk; he had, in fact, tortured and killed many of their neighbors.
And yet they did it anyway. And their lives, and their community, were transformed as a result. And the lessons that the authors take from this utterly dramatic tale are ones that carry tremendous significance for social workers and all who work with vulnerable people who must find their own voices and their own emancipation, too:
I used to answer those social workers who would give me excuses for why their clients couldn’t be their own advocates with something like, “if limited English proficient immigrants who aren’t even legally supposed to be in this country can be their own spokespeople, and can get out in the street and protest and testify in the legislature and organize unions, then so can [fill in the blank].” Now I’ve got a better answer: “if Indian women of the lowest caste, living in a slum ruled by a sadistic gangster, can rise up together and rid their community of his violent barbarism, then [fill in the blank]…”
If we can lose our hesitations, the possibilities are endless.