By far, my absolute favorite part of teaching is when my students come up with insights that make me think about social work, or social justice, in a different way. In those moments, it goes beyond the “I’m learning just as much as you are” (which always sounds a little false to me, honestly, even though I certainly do learn every semester) to produce these real “lightbulbs” of understanding, for which I am always truly grateful.
One of those moments happened in a discussion board interaction with a student in my community and organizational theory class. She was reacting to a post about the social work profession as somewhat uniquely, among the helping profession, focused on the person-in-environment, and relating this to the axiom that “it takes a village to raise a child.” She made the point that it is truly a bit bizarre that we can see (although we certainly don’t always live it out in policy!) how children are affected by their environments, and how crafting healthy institutions that surround kids with supports is an essential element in raising strong youth, but yet, somehow, when these young people grow up, we reflexively attribute their challenges to personal failings, and look for their internal pathologies, as though, well, grown-ups don’t need villages too.
I’ve certainly been thinking a lot about the supports on which I depend to raise my children these past few months: the grandparents whose presence in their lives is constant and nurturing, the neighbors whose friendship and presence sustain us during our days, the public spaces that provide us with a greater quality of life, the schools that are shaping their minds.
But my student’s post prompted my thinking about how our need for these kinds of supports–both formal and informal–certainly don’t end when we magically become adults, or restart only when we ourselves become parents. In truth, our entire lives are bracketed by a mutual interdependence on the environments in which we either thrive or struggle to survive. And social workers (and policymakers) misunderstand this at our collective peril.
Certainly, children’s futures are shaped by the context in which they grow up. And I think there’s a growing acceptance of that idea.
But adults’ todays and tomorrows are just as influenced by these environmental factors, and not just in a carryover sense from their own childhoods, but in a very real way as “grown-ups”: the availability of jobs, their access to health care and transportation, resources for mental health care, supportive social networks, physically strong community infrastructure.
We obviously have a long way to go in order to build “villages” that will surround our children with the opportunities they need to succeed…and the nets they need to catch them when they fall. And adults will carry the legacies of these disparities and inadequacies until we can get that right.
But then, as my student to wisely realizes, we need to apply that same understanding of shared responsibility and linked fates to how we work with other populations.
Including the grown-ups we hope those kids will become.