One of the challenges, for me at least, in teaching social policy to social work students, is finding ways to make it…real.
Compared to clients who sit across the table from us, crying or smiling (or both!), with kids hanging on their legs and hands that warmly clasp ours, policy can seem quite stale, removed, dull.
When, of course, it’s very much alive, intricately connected to everything that social workers do and, even, to the lives of those very same, very real clients.
But sometimes, even the paperwork that plagues social workers’ existences can seem more vibrant than HRsomethingorother, with abbreviations and cross-referenced statutes and presumptions galore.
And, so, I have my work cut out for me.
One of the techniques that I use, which I certainly didn’t exist, is the introduction of narratives that highlight social problems and their intrusions into people’s lives. It’s a way of bringing clients into the classroom, so that I can walk students through the root causes of the situations that entrap and stifle individuals, families, and communities. It’s especially useful in the courses I teach in the BSW program, where most of my students are not yet in practice and, so, I’m competing for attention not even against actual direct practice but against the idea of it.
A book that I’ve used pretty successfully in this venture is All Souls: A Family Story from Southie. It’s a really compelling story–I read it until early in the morning one Halloween when I was first contemplating using it in class–and the students really like it.
And, eventually, we get to the structural issues that underlie the South Boston community in which the story takes place–how poverty and unemployment make self-sufficiency out of reach, how fervent ethnic identity is forged through discrimination, and how low-income communities are exploited by those on the outside and made dumping grounds for drugs and guns that destroy those without anywhere else to go.
Reading and discussing the book puts us in another place, and sort of in someone else’s shoes, and that fosters understanding about how people react to the constraints that policies force on their lives. Which brings us to the nexus between clinical and macro practice, and to the realization that we cannot do one well without integrating the values and skills we borrow from the other. Which is exactly where I want us to be.
But it’s not always an easy journey.
Because what I’ve learned through the past 4 years of teaching is that my students are not immune to the tendency–partly human and partly a unique relic of the American orientation to the individual–to begin and end our investigation into pathology with the person living it. So when we read about Michael Patrick MacDonald’s family tragedies, my students often focus on what his mother could have done differently…or should have, instead of how much what happened to them was a product of the impact of the environment in which they were rooted–and how much that environment was shaped by the much larger economic, social, and political factors that were (are) perpetuated by those with a vested interest in their sustenance.
So, while we never ignore that individuals and families play a significant role in charting their own futures–it’s called the Person-in-Environment perspective because both parts matter–the class includes a sort of consciousness-raising process to dig towards root causes even while we also think about how we could help this particular family, if faced with them across our desks.
It’s always an experiment, how to manage class discussion and ask questions (lots and lots and lots of questions–I try not to say anything during these class sessions without a question mark!) that help my students connect what they know about the MacDonald family with what they’re learning about the macro conditions at work. I’ve also found some tactics that seem to help a bit:
In direct practice, we start with stories–the stories our clients tell about themselves and their lives, and the stories that others tell about them (which are always incomplete and at least partially inaccurate). That’s where we should begin.
But we can’t end there. To really honor their stories–anyone’s stories–we must move from the individual to the societal. We must identify the ways in which context makes a difference, for better and for worse, and we must center our interventions not just on those experiencing the problems but on those responsible for them, too, however large and powerful they may be.
In doing so, we’ll create more stories, worth telling over and over again.