“I have not forgotten”: little so humbling as time with direct-service staff

In one of the focus groups that I conducted with consumers at a community mental health center a few weeks ago, a client referred to her prior career as a product engineer in offering her assessment of the greatest problem in social policy development today:

“When I was an engineer, I had to go down to the factory floor, to actually see how my designs were working, and the problems that people were having on the machines. I learned a lot there, that changed how I designed, and I kept those workers in my mind when I was at my computer. I wish that the politicians had to see how their policies are actually working, on the ‘factory floor’, and that they would keep that in mind when they’re designing laws, too.”

Pretty compelling, no?

And I had that testimony in mind recently, when I sat down with a group of staff members who work with individuals experiencing homelessness. I was going to facilitate a focus group trying to help prioritize the advocacy agenda for the organization; I think of it like a funnel, with the organizational leaders needing help figuring out which of the items added to the top of the funnel should emerge at the end.

And, before I got started, several of the staff members were talking about how they routinely give clients money from their own pockets to wash their clothes, in part because of fear of a bedbug infestation, otherwise.

And it occurred to me, then and especially in many moments since, how far my professional life is now removed, in some ways, from the strains and sorrows of direct practice.

I don’t have to use my own money to buy clients toilet paper or shower curtains anymore.

No one calls me, crying, at 2am, having just found out her husband was detained by ICE.

I haven’t had to call the police on anyone in years, and I don’t usually work on Sundays anymore.

When I set out to work in the morning, I have a pretty good idea what’s going to happen that day, and a ‘bad’ day doesn’t include attempted suicides or evictions or tragic deaths.

All of this makes me committed to trying to ensure that what I bring to the organizations–and the staff–with which I work adds real value, and is rooted in their actual experiences.

I have been there, at least in parallel worlds at different times, and I know that I have knowledge and skills that can provide new context for their work, equip them with some additional tools, and connect them to resources.

And, yet, I leave these conversations, always, struck by how very insignificant my contributions feel, compared to the forces against which we are arrayed, and in light of the battles they wage on the front lines every day.

Because I care, about the divide in our profession between macro and micro, about the inanities of public policy when felt in practice, and about the strains that are placed on staff we expect to be capable of miracles. And I know that I can’t make real progress there if I’m too comfortable.

Yes, I believe in social change on a big scale, and I think that my talents are particularly well-suited for systems reform.

And, yet, I’m not sure that I understand well enough anymore.

Maybe it’s time for me to get back to the factory floor, at least in some more sustained ways, to be sure that my designs–for organizational effectiveness and advocacy engagement and policy impact–match the realities of production.

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2 responses to ““I have not forgotten”: little so humbling as time with direct-service staff

  1. Wow, this article really hit the nail on the head. I agree w/the client who wished politicians could visit the “factory floor”. I do think they get caught up in their own reality of the world and lose sight of the daily activities and realities of the impact of policies. I’m not saying that they are all thoughtless or uncaring. More like disconnected.

    The question is how do we get them to the ‘factory floor’. Often times when politicians visit w/voters back home, they go on specially designed tours. So they visit w/voters who are engaged and vocal enough to get their school or organization on the tour. It is usually brief and a photo opp. Don’t know if it really adds their knowledge of what’s happening back home.

    And how does that relates to us working in the macro side of policy? I, too, don’t have daily emergencies of suicide or evictions. But I do have friends who do, so I hear their stories and keep myself reminded. But is it enough to engage in discussions how new policies are impacting their clients? I have so much admiration for my colleagues who counsel victims of abuse or mental health clients. But my journey has taken me to work in policy, something that they do not enjoy but can offer great input. So perhaps we just need to stay connected with each other.

    • Yes, Lesa, that’s a big part of the reason why I am so intent on helping to bridge the divides between ‘micro’ and ‘macro’ social work–too often, we stop really working as colleagues in our first year of the MSW program, and those chasms don’t serve anyone’s interests, including our clients! Your journey is a unique one, really, in that you studied clinical social work but have found your way to macro impact, too…I wish that there were more of us straddling those two approaches.

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