Tag Archives: direct practice

“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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We have to start by claiming our failures

There is growing recognition, I think, of the importance of owning our failures—in advocacy and in life—so that we can learn from failings (ours, which is a sort of eternal life lesson, and, increasingly, those of others, too, through shared learning opportunities that have taken some of the ‘sting’ out of failure). We should celebrate the liberating power of being comfortable with failure, of even rushing to it, in pursuit of the victories that we know can and often do follow in its wake.

Certainly nonprofit advocates are not immune from this imperative to acknowledge, analyze, and even disseminate our failures; we can do more, certainly, through the deployment of systematic advocacy evaluation efforts, but I see a trend of reducing stigma around failure, and it’s one that I think will benefit us in the future.

But there’s an extension of this idea that is harder, I believe, for nonprofit advocates to embrace. It’s even more central to our advocacy success. And we’ve got to put it out there together, because it’s too much to ask any one organization, or even any one sector, to go out on a limb.

So here it is.

To fully transform our nonprofit social service organizations into effective advocacy forces, and to make the strongest case possible for the policy changes that those we serve so desperately need, we have to admit the truth:

Our services, our programs, our intense direct services, are failing.

Yes, I know; that sounds brutal.

And of course I don’t mean that there isn’t tremendous value in what nonprofit social service organizations do every day—feeding people who are hungry, mentoring kids at risk, helping people free themselves from addictions, training people for better-paying jobs. There obviously is.

That work meets people where they are, provides hope, helps people survive to fight the larger structures that create and perpetuate need. It is noble work, and it lifts my own soul and has the potential to transform individual lives.

But, measured against the scope and scale of the problems we face, it’s failing.

We’re working smarter, and working harder, and bringing more and more bright and talented individuals around to the ‘social sector’, and yet we haven’t moved the needle on very many of the most critical challenges that face our world. And the answer isn’t more services, or even more money for those services.

It’s changing the systems that create the problems in the first place. It’s addressing the root causes that make poverty and oppression and tragedy routine and predictable and crushingly continual. It’s removing the fuel instead of always putting out fires.
And it means that we have to acknowledge that, on its own, our services aren’t going to win the day. Which is a tough lift for nonprofit organizations that are, now more than ever (and not unrelated, obviously, to these structural issues) competing with each other for funding and trying to prove to donors that they have the answer. We absolutely should be measuring the impact of our services, because they’re certainly not all created equal. And goals of program accountability are not at all incompatible with this larger need to give up the charade of adequacy—we have to stop pretending that we can ever program our way to justice.

We have to stop for ourselves, because there’s no easier way to drive oneself crazy within a social service system. We have to stop for our clients, because how disempowering is it to think that you must be the only one whose problems aren’t being eradicated by this excellent case management or fantastic after-school program.

And we have to stop for our public policies, because we can’t be our best advocates if we’re simultaneously trying to convince policymakers that we’ve got everything taken care of.

I think we can start small, really. What if, in our annual reports where we highlight our programmatic successes, we included a column dedicated to the policy changes that would make next year’s annual report radically different? What if we added language about “ending homelessness” or “eliminating racism” to our mission statements, the way some organizations have done? What if we added “but our services can’t solve all these problems” to our agency brochures, or added an appeal to advocacy in every volunteer orientation?

It won’t be easy, but we can win.

We just have to first acknowledge that we’re losing.

Ethical Practice Amidst Retrenchment

My very favorite thing about writing this blog is that it forces me to think about questions and issues that matter a great deal to me–how nonprofit organizations can be powerful voices for social change, how weaving grassroots principles into organizational development helps us to practice what we preach, how social work education can be part of a movement for justice–that I might not sit down to ponder if not for the imperative to write at least a few posts a week. And the fact that some of my favorite people, in both the online and offline worlds, regularly engage in these questions with me, adding a great deal to my undertanding and challenging me in ways that my “regular” life does not, is nothing short of awesome.

And one of the greatest delights in this whole endeavor has been finding so many others, including quite a few social workers, who blog for many of the same reasons, and whose insights I value tremendously. One of the best resources I’ve found is Fighting Monsters, a blog written by a social worker in the United Kingdom whom I’m sure I’d like a ton in person, and whose approach to the profession, despite different areas of practice and obviously different contexts, dovetails with mine in some significant ways. Several months ago, Fighting Monsters had a post about ethical practice amidst budget cuts that I’ve been thinking about a lot, particularly in recent weeks as we deal in this country with the reality of a constricted federal budget and ongoing state cutbacks.

The post is written from a direct practice perspective, and it raises critical questions about how social workers should respond when budget cuts force us into patterns of practice that fly in the face of practice wisdom and even our Code of Ethics–when we have to terminate too soon, or deny services to those who should be eligible, or ration programs that we know could make a real difference in people’s lives. Those of you who are direct practitioners, in this national economic context, how are you dealing with the same vexing “no good alternatives” situations that the social work blogger grapples with in the UK?

And there’s a macro practice dimension to that quandry, too, when administrators make decisions to cut programs that abandon certain populations or problems, or when organizations aren’t paying their employees a truly fair wage, or when costs are passed onto consumers in ways that practically limit access to services. For policy practitioners, there are ethical questions involved in agreeing to some cuts in order to salvage investments in other areas, or being party to negotiations that pit different populations in need against each other.

The Fighting Monsters post focuses on the age-old dilemma in social work: Can we simultaneously be part of the system AND part of the solution? Can we ethically defend our participation in decisions that harm? Can the advocacy from within in which we engage serve as a salve for the wounds that we unwillingly, but undeniably, inflict?

Those are questions that should plague us whether we’re working in direct service or organizational administration or policy practice.

They are questions that cross sectors and obviously cross continents.

They are questions that should keep us up at night, and questions that should be foremost in our minds when we read news coverage of federal budget cuts or proposed state tax cuts or agency closures.

How do you answer those questions, for yourself, in this budget context? How does the Code of Ethics guide you? And how should our profession respond, as individual practitioners and as a collective voice, to the anguish of a social worker forced to make impossible decisions every day?

Why I volunteer

Gifts awaiting sorting and disbursement at the Johnson County Christmas Bureau

From a distance, my life might look a little, well, unmanageable.

I mostly take care of my kids all day, and then work in the evenings–communicating with students, planning lessons, reading about nonprofits and about social policy, working for some of my nonprofit clients, writing.

And, whenever I can (which, in the past couple of months, hasn’t been as often as I would like), I volunteer.

I was thinking about these volunteer roles recently when talking with some students, some of whom were sharing that their volunteer experiences were the only occasions on which they had really had a chance to feel a little bit like social workers, and some of whom were claiming that their lives didn’t leave them any time to volunteer, although they lamented that this left them feeling pretty disengaged, at this point in their careers, from social work organizations.

Time constraints are valid. Social workers (and social work students) need to recharge and renew, if we are to effectively and sustainability serve those with whom we work.

And I’d never argue that my schedule would make sense for everyone.

So, this is not a “I should, and you should, too” post. Now, wouldn’t THAT be annoying?

Instead, since that conversation, I’ve been thinking about why I volunteer, and what I look for when I do, and why, right now, I’m missing my volunteer engagements as a pretty essential part of my life. I’d love to hear from those of you who volunteer in some capacity, about why you do and where you do and how you make it work, and I’d be grateful if you’d share your own volunteering reflections and advice, as my students and I continue to think through how volunteer activities fit at this point in their careers.

  • Sometimes, I volunteer as a way to share my values and my vision of the world with my own family. I volunteer at our church because I want our kids to grow up in a faith community that approaches discipleship from the same perspective, and that requires that I work to help build that faith community. I volunteer places where I can take my oldest son, sometimes, so that he can find roles that are meaningful and allow him to make connections beyond his narrower world.
  • I volunteer to shape organizations that I care about–not just our church, but on Boards of Directors of organizations that work on issues like school finance that are very close to my heart (and my family), and I volunteer as a pro bono consultant for some organizations working on immigration policy and other critical justice issues.
  • I volunteer to stay connected to the realities of social policies on the ground. It’s one thing for me to believe very strongly that good social policy should be crafted by those who understand its implications; it’s another for me to make sure that I’m investing the time necessary to maintain those linkages, too. I don’t want to be someone who just talks about how wrong poverty is, although I believe that talking is, indeed, one of the ways that I contribute to the quest for justice. I need authenticity, and struggle, and pain as constant parts of my connection to the social problems that are inherently painful, and volunteering is a way for me to sit down face-to-face with what social policy looks like in real life.
  • I volunteer because it allows me to work on skills that no one should really pay me for. I’m certainly not the world’s greatest direct social work practitioner. And I’m way worse at construction and meal preparation and some of the other ways in which I like to be able to dive into tangible help–the kind where you can look at the end of the day and see some impact, rather than waiting for three legislative cycles. There’s a real satisfaction in that work, but the only way that I have any business engaging in those activities is as a volunteer with pretty limited authority and little organizational investment.
  • And that relates to my final reason for volunteering–sometimes it’s wonderful to be a part of supporting others’ efforts, rather than the one convening. It’s a beautiful thing to show up and follow orders and feel part of a larger effort pursuing social justice, without having to do all of the preparation or replay the whole event in your mind later. Volunteering usually doesn’t feel like something else added to my list of responsibilities; it’s a sort of different kind of play, and it really is renewing. For me.

    So, volunteers–what are your favorite experiences to share, and what motivates your volunteering? And, those who want to volunteer but aren’t, what stands in your way, and how might we organize voluntarism so that it would work for your life?

  • Where do we stand? Social services and social change

    Oh, to spend an entire day pondering the question: What shifts in practice, organizational structure, relationships, and ways of thinking would need to occur for social change work to become a standard part of existing models of nonprofit service delivery?

    That was the task of the attendees at the Building Movement Project convening, where partners engaged in the work of transforming social service organizations into successful engines for social change reflected on the past few years of work and discussed how to turn this nascent field into, well, a movement.

    The reflection on that convening was shared in a recent Building Movement Project communication, and there are some key points that, to me, suggest some of the ways that those of us committed to this evolution might move forward.

    One of the challenges here is to orient our social service organizations towards root causes of social problems, a focus on structural barriers that would, almost automatically, make even our direct service provision more “radical”. This, of course, isn’t easy, because it requires not only reaching some consensus on those roots of the problems, but also disentangling them, at least to some extent, or, more ideally, reaching beyond our organizational silos to work on multiple system levels simultaneously.

    For the most part, these participants found relatively little resistance among constituents/clients and direct service practitioners to this idea of integrating social change work into services, which quite honestly runs contrary to some of my own experiences (and, so, gives me new hopes!); being close to the experienced problems motivated people to make this leap, but finding tangible ways to embed social change activities into organizational structure (especially given limited resources) is predictably more difficult.

    Related to this, the convening found support for focusing resources on those nonprofit organizations ideologically committed to systems change and ready to take these steps, rather than trying to convince others to “come along.” There’s growing energy around these ideas, and some momentum happening, and so donors and intermediaries and others in a position to shepherd some of these entities can afford to prioritize investment in those already started down this road. My hope, of course, is that this provides more pressure for organizations that are still reluctant (“That’s not our job.” “We just focus on quality services.”) to figure out ways to play so that they’re not left behind.

    One of the most poignant pieces in the reflection, for me, is the observation that, while the current economic recession has focused attention on the structural inequities in our economic and political systems, a focus that increases the opportunities for fundamental transformation of those same systems, it has also heightened demand for immediate relief, such that organizations (and, then, social workers!) find themselves having to simultaneously lay this long-term foundation AND address dire crises. That’s not totally new, of course, and I’d argue that social workers are particularly well-positioned to pull off such a balance, with a simultaneous focus on person-in-environment and our profession’s long history of attention to both individual needs and societal reform. Still, for a practitioner confronted with long lines of people in need and an inherent desire to organize for a better tomorrow, it’s hard to figure out how to tackle both.

    I REALLY hope that someone(s) pick up the list of ways to advance the field, at the end of the report. Some of the items are fairly predictable, albeit still important, but some are super exciting:

  • Conduct rigorous assessments of the outcomes of integrating social change work into direct services (If we could show, as I really believe, that they strengthen each other!!)
  • Provide ongoing support to organizations engaged in social services as social change (Because this work is hard enough without feeling alone)
  • Engage funders explicitly, so that they understand the synergy organizations are seeking here, and what the possibilities are (if foundations, at some point in the future, would see social change work as integral to direct service provision!)
  • Map the field, so that we have a better sense of who’s really doing this work, and what it looks like (I’ve found in working with nonprofit organizations on advocacy that, when we have an inclusive definition of what “advocacy” is, many more organizations are doing it than think they are!)

    What do you see as the next steps for introducing a social change orientation to your own social service work? To your organization? What resources would most help you to make this shift?

  • This is how you do it: Building Movement Case Studies

    One of the things that I appreciate the most about the work of the Building Movement Project is that they don’t just give nonprofit social service organizations advice (and exhortation) about integrating direct services and advocacy. They also provide true inspiration, in the form of case studies of organizations, all of them imperfect and just as stretched as any other, that are finding ways to make this dual mission work and, in the process, are transforming their engagement with clients and attacking injustices in their communities.

    The case studies that accompany the Catalysts for Change report are particularly instructive, I think, because they include a wide range of nonprofit organizations (from relatively large health care centers to indigenous community centers to very grassroots groups working on domestic violence, for example), have strong representation from the poorest communities in California (where the studies are located), directly discuss barriers encountered by organizations and how to overcome them, and highlight the individual leaders that personalize and personify this commitment to advocacy through services.

    Each case study highlights lessons learned: don’t panic if staff leave because they’re not comfortable with the activist direction (you’ll attract new staff who are!); break down silos between advocacy and direct services (they have to be integrated to be sustainable and effective); make sure your funding strategy and your Board selection align with your emphasis on advocacy (otherwise, you’ll be fighting those who should be your allies!); be prepared for backlash (center on your mission and stay true to your values); give your clients real power within the organizational structure; partner with organizations that can enhance your work without trying to co-op your community; and invest in client and staff capacity for advocacy leadership.

    My favorite case studies draw out how radical direct service provision is, in itself, a powerful force for social change, which captures what I believe about working with clients for transformation and points the way to integration of clinical and macro practice.

    Imagine selecting one of these case studies for a Board retreat where you’re discussing a new strategic vision and how you can involve clients more fully in your work. Or sitting down with your direct service providers to brainstorm how you could transform your programming so that it’s more integrated with your advocacy priorities. Or just curling up on those days when it seems like everything you want to see in the world is elusive, to be reminded that there are good and courageous people, and that they’re sharing their own experiences to be a light unto your path. And then imagine that the next Building Movement Project case studies feature…you!