Seeking transformational solutions in a transactional world

I had the opportunity to hear dr. john powell (sic) of the Kirwan Institute speak at a Communities Creating Opportunity event in Kansas City a few months ago.

There’s something so life-affirming about sitting in a multiracial crowd, struggling together with the reality of “structural racialization” (his term, and my new favorite) in our society, in our organizations, and in our individual lives.

It was a really challenging and tremendously invigorating afternoon, and those ideas have continued to swirl in my mind. This week, I’ve written 3 posts related to aspects of what he spoke about, and how I’ve tried to apply it to my life and to my social work in the weeks since.

One of the parts of the afternoon that struck me the most was the story he related about a mother sentenced to jail for lying about her residence in order to get her kids into a better school. There was a great deal of sympathy, in the room, for her plight, but what dr. powell pushed us to think about was how frequently we take such actions, in our own efforts to cope with systems which are inherently unjust.

And how, in so doing, we’re seeking to change the terms of those unjust transactions, rather than transforming the system.

And that got me thinking about advocacy, and about how often our advocacy revolves around trying to improve a client’s (or clients’) outcomes in a given transaction–advocacy to get someone in a decent apartment, or to make sure that a school district meets a child’s IEP parameters, or to get an employer to give a second chance to an ex-offender.

That advocacy is important. Securing more favorable transactions for those marginalized within oppressive systems can change people’s individual lives, opening doors that were closed and allowing them to access an entirely new plane of opportunities.

And it’s often how we engage with the systems that impact us personally, too; just as the mom highlighted in the story did, we look for ways over, around, and through the obstacles we confront, because, quite honestly, it’s often just too much to try to figure out how to dismantle those barriers entirely.

But, as dr. powell reminded us, only such transformational approaches–those that ask not how can we find a way out of this trap, but who keeps setting traps in the first place?–can reshape the landscape for ourselves and for those who will follow.

It’s a harder lift, obviously.

And, in a world of such structural racialization, with so many injustices woven right into the fabric of the systems, it’s heaping oppression onto oppression to say that this mom, or any individual, is to be blamed for seeking a better transaction rather than a radical transformation.

Because, like the fault in the first place, that’s a responsibility we all share.

Transforming our society by rethinking the systems that govern our lives–asking why and why and why and why–falls to all of us. It’s not enough for me as a mother to want the best for my kid, when I know that I can do something to make “best” within the reach of other kids, too. It’s not enough for me as a social worker to be skilled at getting more for my clients, when I know that more is owed to many.

The best deal isn’t nearly enough.

We need a whole new game.

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2 responses to “Seeking transformational solutions in a transactional world

  1. You hit on it right there when you say “we need a whole new game”. I couldn’t agree more Melinda. Its not that we simply need to change the rules and redesigning our systems. In some cases (in a lot, actually) we simply need new systems. Ones that are fit to accommodate all of us rather than custom fit for the dominant culture and leaving the rest of us to adjust. This “new game” must be co-created by us and not just ‘for us’.

    • I love the phrase ‘co-created by us and not just for us’. Thanks for your comment, Jerry. You know that you all hit it out of the park when people are still thinking about your keynote speaker 5 months later! 🙂

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