Justice is Every Step: How all kinds of social work can advance social justice

**Note from Melinda: I am beyond honored to bring you this blog post from my dear friend, colleague in many struggles for more than a decade, and absolutely wonderful social worker Megan Hope. I’ve read it 3 times already and I still find a new line to mentally underline. It’s pretty incredible, and I feel a bit apologetic to tell you that she’s not taking over all regular writing duties here! Thank you, Megan, for sharing this, but mainly for all you do, on so many levels, for so many.

On a typically hot El Paso day, I sat across the table from a middle-aged man and his 14-year-old son. About a month before, they’d traveled from their home in northern Mexico, crossed the border without documents, and rung the bell at our house of hospitality. Like most guests, they’d come with hopes—soon disappointed—of finding day work. Beds in the men’s dorm were always in high demand, and the pair had already stayed past the two weeks we usually offered to guests who, arguably, had more opportunities than single women or families with young children. I explained the house’s time and space pressures, and they laid out theirs: They were stuck. There were no jobs to speak of in their hometown, no way to pass the Texas or New Mexico highway checkpoints without identification, no eligibility to be or work in the U.S. with authorization even though there was, surely, demand for their cheap labor. “I know,” I blurted. “It’s the global economy!”

That was during my second stint working and living with newly-arrived immigrants, refugees, and asylum applicants at Annunciation House, a Catholic Worker-style organization started in the late 1970s when Central American refugees were fleeing civil war violence. In the eight years since my first year-long stay, I’d earned an MA in Latin American Studies, presented workshops on NAFTA, participated in foreign factory workers’ labor campaigns, organized against the Iraq War, traveled to 12 developing countries, and written grant proposals for social and legal services for farmworkers and other immigrants—all attempts to learn about and effect structural change, and all propelled by memories of my neighbors on the border. I’d also worked as a paralegal, coordinator of social services for migrant farmworkers, and tutor. On good days, I hoped the folks I was working with and I were making a dent in temporary problems or, better yet, systemic injustice. On bad days, I pondered what I preferred crying about at the end of the day: the individual I felt I couldn’t help enough, or the latest in-fighting at a coalition meeting?

When I belatedly began to consider an MSW, I was troubled to learn that many programs require students to choose one concentration: either macro/indirect/administrative/community practice, or micro/direct/clinical practice. Huh? What appealed to me about social work was precisely its person- in-environment perspective and seeming appreciation for multiple and simultaneous forms of contemplation and action.

As a student, I discovered (and undoubtedly helped perpetuate) the stereotypes, born of desperation for self-definition, that can exist between “our” type of social worker and “the other.” Community students derided their clinical counterparts as apolitical, touchy-feely, diagnosing, wanna-be psychologists. I heard less the other way around, but if pressed, could snarkily characterize community practitioners as self-righteous, intellectualizing policy wonks with questionable empathic skills. The gravitation toward specialization in social work education and practice I saw seemed to reinforce the unfortunate bifurcation of the field. Though more of a community practice person myself, I sought out my sympathetic academic dean to help me design more of a mix of classes than ordinarily prescribed under our school’s track system. I’m glad for the broadened education this allowed me.

But still, the divisions and attendant dilemmas in social work practice remain: How best to advance social justice? Is social change the purview and prerogative of only macro-level interventions? I try to remember why returning to Annunciation House when I did was appealing to me. Much of the daily work there consisted of proverbial Band-Aid activities: putting on meals, stocking a clothing bank, ushering people to a medical clinic—often providing swift relief of immediate needs, but not exactly uprooting the ills of the global economy. Yet our practice of radical hospitality felt transformative. And I have found direct work with individuals elsewhere to also be consistent with my vision of social justice.

Why? First, I think of how I learned to be with people at Annunciation House. It was based on personalism, the belief that we each have a responsibility for one another’s well-being—not as “service providers” and “clients” who dispense or receive solutions—but as people, cognizant of our various privileged and marginalized identities, who make an attempt at solidarity, communitarianism, and real relationship. In one of his Easy Essays, Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin made the common critique that social workers learn how to help people adjust to their environment, but not how to change it. “Social workers must become social-minded before they can be critics of the existing environment and free creative agents of the new environment.” In houses of hospitality, he said, social workers “can acquire the art of human contacts and the… understanding of social forces” that allow them to build with others a new society.

I think that’s what happened my first year on the border, and my return signaled that once was not enough. Certainly, houses of hospitality and other direct service settings are not the only training ground for social-mindedness. But for me, no book, course, theory, organization, or campaign has ever been as consistently informative, radicalizing, grounding, or exacting of accountability as sharing a roof with people whose experiences testify to the countless ways we say some human lives are more important than others. I think of Gaspar, Tatiana, and Concha when I act, and when I don’t.

Also, I’ve found that while it’s obvious that the personal is political—the plight of an out-of-work father and son originates in systems much larger than a single family—we sometimes overlook that the political is personal. Poverty, war, crime, lack of access to health care and education are not only policy issues, but also causes of crippling personal depression, anxiety, and trauma. Recent research indicates that microaggressions—subtle verbal, nonverbal, and environmental communications that insult and invalidate members of oppressed groups—may be more harmful than overt acts of discrimination and hate. If oppression operates at ideological, institutionalized, interpersonal, and internalized levels, shouldn’t there also be four I’s of social justice?

Consider a woman I worked with who spent nearly a year in immigration detention following a false criminal accusation. She had been sexually, physically, and psychologically abused by family members and intimate partners since she was a child. We filled out a culturagram together, an assessment tool used to explore aspects of a person’s background and identity. One square asked about experiences of abuse and trauma. To my surprise, before any mention of incest or domestic violence, the client wrote that the trauma she had was “not being free” because she was undocumented. Under experiences of oppression, she listed persecution by Immigration and said, “For this reason, we need an amnesty.” Clearly, she knew how the politics of immigration, institutionalized sexism, racism, and xenophobia, and interpersonal violence had oppressed her, and identified changes she wanted to make, from personal relationships to involvement in immigrant rights organizations. But she also dealt with a great deal of internalized shame and self-loathing. In the time I knew her, she grew to love herself more, which helped her feel personally empowered, able to secure a visa for crime victims that will allow her to legalize and bring her three sons to join her, and able—I have no doubt—to positively affect her community. Doesn’t every member of “the social” deserve that kind of justice?

Indeed, in our criticism of direct services and clinical interventions as superficial or soft, I think we inadvertently dismiss the real, felt, multilevel needs of people; wrongly assume that they don’t understand how systems work (when if fact, they’re often experts); or think micro-level work can’t be political (when, in fact, it’s often a necessary precursor to wider change). We know that unexamined privilege, among other ills, can make direct services insulting and paternalistic. But I think closing the doors and telling people to come back for a meal only after NAFTA’s been repealed or immigration policy is reformed would be no less presumptuous or demeaning. Absolutely we should ask why the poor have no food and should eliminate root causes of hunger. But justice should include the right to eat today.

And there are reasons for offering a meal beyond meeting a physical need. At the first Occupy Denver event I went to, I met a man who said he’d been homeless for a long time, moving from one state to another as he was able to. He’d recently arrived in Colorado and had started sharing a tent on the capitol lawn with other demonstrators. He believed in the multipronged movement for economic justice, but he was most excited about the newfound company of people who cared about his cause and cared about him. “I’ve had a hard time for a lot of months,” he told me. “But the last few weeks have been so much better.”

Sometimes when I imagine what the world will be like after all just revolutions, I think of what will not have changed. People will still die—not from preventable disease, human-wrought violence, or unsafe work, but they’ll die nonetheless. People will have decent homes, time off work, and material support to grieve their losses with dignity, but there will still be losses, inevitable and heartbreaking. We will still have an urgent need to belong to each other. I believe social work on any level that honors this reality has the best potential to achieve social justice.

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2 responses to “Justice is Every Step: How all kinds of social work can advance social justice

  1. Pingback: Four Years in Retrospect | Classroom to Capitol

  2. Pingback: Best in Mental Health (wk of 1/16/2012) - SocialWork.Career

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