Tag Archives: empowerment

I’ve never really bought Maslow

In the interest of full disclosure, I’ll cop to it right from the start: I was that student (in the front of the class, usually, which is probably even worse) rolling my eyes at some of the human development content in every practice/human behavior/child development class in my undergraduate social work education. My fellow instructors, you probably know the type–member of the Democratic Socialist Party, organizing a protest for just about everything, not totally grasping the intense privilege she enjoys in higher education?

I came, relatively quickly, to appreciate much of the clinical wisdom that seemed not-quite-radical-enough to me in those heady days before I actually did any practicing. Certainly I am glad that I had to learn how to listen actively, how to reframe, how to tap into people’s inherent motivations, how to identify hurt and accompany people through it.

In other words, I was (mostly) totally wrong, inexcusably impatient, and terribly naive.

However.

I never really bought into Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and, unlike most of the rest of what I was so eager to gloss over, my skepticism when it comes to Maslow has only increased.

Because, really, I just don’t believe that we need shelter or employment, or even health or food, more than we need to feel that we belong, that we are respected, and that our lives have meaning.

My work, especially that which happens alongside people who are experiencing tremendous need in those first 2 or 3 tiers of the hierarchy, has only confirmed my sense that the pyramid is fairly paternalistic, and that people’s real search for ‘quality of life’ proceeds in a far different manner than this ladder would have us believe.

I see it in the individuals with severe mental illness who, despite insecurity in their housing and distance from their family members, root themselves in the community created at their community mental health center and find ways to creatively tell their stories in pursuit of greater justice.

I see it in the individuals experiencing homelessness, who, major needs in that bottom tier notwithstanding, tell me that their primary advocacy objective is to address stigma, because what hurts even more than being homeless is being hated for being homeless.

And I see it, and have seen it, over and over again in the individuals with significant challenges–big gaps, sometimes, in their ‘hierarchy of needs’, who only need to be asked to join with their peers and fight for their rights.

They aren’t waiting until they have enough to eat and a good place to live and a decent job.

They are craving, just like we all crave, an opportunity to earn respect and build community and experience purpose…

knowing that, in our society, those ‘higher order’ tiers can be the foundation from which the initial levels of the hierarchy are secured.

We–our profession, our society, our organizations–do ourselves and those we serve (none of whom, including myself, I’d really consider at Maslow’s ‘self-actualization’ level!) a great disservice when we assume that the best that we can collectively accomplish (empowerment and respect and purpose and community) is, quite visually, ‘beyond’ those to whom structures have denied the basics of life.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that food and shelter and clothing aren’t important. Or that we can pretend as such when we’re getting folks engaged in collective action. That’s a mistake, and it’s alienating and harmful and offensive.

But life doesn’t happen in neat stages. And we could do with quite a bit less hierarchy, I think.

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They’re not apathetic; we’re off-base

It’s almost an axiom among those of us who consider ourselves activists, right?

They (read: those who didn’t come to our meeting, or won’t share our links on Facebook, or don’t have a sign in their yard) just don’t care.

They’re apathetic. Or ignorant. Or confused.

Except, most probably, they’re not.

I’ve long believed that the real answer to getting people engaged with social change struggles is to find an issue that really connects with them. You can’t tell me that people who will take a day of work with no pay to stand in the snow for 5 hours, because they’re so mad that the law changed and they can’t get driver’s licenses are apathetic. I won’t believe you.

So, when people don’t show up to whatever we, in good faith, organize, I argue that it’s probably our fault.

Maybe we’re the ones who really wanted to have that meeting, and there wasn’t an authentic demand for action from people. Maybe we haven’t made a clear connection between the action we want people to take and the change that they can expect to result. Maybe we haven’t helped them to claim their own power, so they have a hard time understanding why it makes any difference if they show up or not. Maybe the issues that we think matter the most aren’t those that most immediately resonate.

Or maybe all of the above.

That’s why I love this story from iconic organizer Shel Trapp, co-founded of the National Training and Information Center (that’s old-school Chicago-style organizing, for us social work types). You should read the excerpt, because I doubt I can do it justice, but the essence is this:

An organizer goes door-to-door in a neighborhood trying to get people excited about working on school reform, because the local school was woefully overcrowded and neglected. No one was anything more than polite, and he was discouraged. He switched tactics, then, and started asking people what their greatest concerns were. It took awhile, but, finally, one woman expressed her frustration with the shopping carts that people took from the local supermarket and left all around the neighborhood. She felt they were a blight and a nuisance. The organizer was perplexed, at first, then incredulous–with everything going on around them, how could they identify the shopping carts as the greatest priority?

Still, a growing number of people kept coming to the meetings to talk about what to do about the shopping carts, and an action at the grocery store resulted in a victory: poles in front of the store to keep the carts from leaving the property.

At the celebration, a woman turned the conversation to the overcrowding at the school. Emboldened, empowered, and heard for the first time, they were ready to tackle the next fight.

So low turnout, or lack of enthusiasm among those we are seeking to organize, should cause us to look in the mirror. Could it be that we’re trying to sell issues that they’re not interested in buying, at least not right now? Could it be that we’re guilty of the same sins of which we accuse our targets–taking our communities for granted, expecting them to acquiesce to someone else’s agenda, and blaming them for acting in completely understandable ways?

Does anyone have a “shopping cart story” of their own to share? A moment when shifting your perspective helped you to connect more meaningfully with those with whom you were working? An anecdote of when apathy was revealed to be something else entirely?

When we fall into the same old traps…

In this second post for Organizational Transformation week, here at Classroom to Capitol, I’m tackling an ugly reality of nonprofit social service work and, in the interest of full disclosure, my parenting, sometimes, too.

Because the truth is, sometimes the ways in which we interact with those we serve (or parent) serve to replicate the same power imbalances against which we rail, when we view them on the “outside”.

You’ve seen it, no doubt:

  • Eligibility rules that are ambiguous and seemingly arbitrary, the sort of institutional equivalent of “because I said so”
  • Organizational cultures that afford greater prestige to men, and to those higher in the hierarchy (like when we refer to the Executive Director as Mr. SoandSo but the receptionist as “Maria”)
  • Programmatic requirements that force everyone to attend the same classes, fill out the same paperwork, not because those activities actually contribute to the amelioration of the social problems that prompted a particular individual to seek services, but because that’s how people prove that they “deserve” help

    We fall into these patterns of power and oppression not because we’re bad people, of course, but because we’re people, and people tend to seek comfort in regularity and predictability and status, and those pursuits are not necessarily compatible with the promotion of maximum empowerment for those who have historically been marginalized and oppressed.

    But I promised you that this wasn’t just a post about how you should change what you do in your organizations, right? I understand that changing the way we view those with whom we work, in every way from using language like “constituents” instead of “patients” to authentically making room on decision-making bodies for the full participation of those we serve, isn’t easy.

    I understand not just because I’ve been there, as a nonprofit leader and as a consultant to the same.

    I understand because I fight the same internal battles at home, too, where parenting offers opportunities every day to choose to live power imbalances that put me purportedly on top, versus a challenge to figure out how to make our family a sort of laboratory for empowered living.
    On a daily basis, that means that I can’t change the rules without accountability, even though I’m the mom. It means that the kids’ preferences on little things matter just as much as mine, and that, even on the big stuff, I can’t disregard their views without an honest discussion and a full examination of my own rationale.

    It’s not a democracy, exactly, any more than a nonprofit organization is. That’s what people often fear when we talk about transparency and participatory governance in nonprofit organizations, but it’s more like an excuse to duck our obligations to social justice than a valid concern.

    We’re not a 1-person-1-vote family.

    We’re something more, and better, just like our organizations need to be, too.

    Because avoiding the temptation to fall into the same old bad patterns means starting from the premise that power is only as valid as the way in which we wield it, that we can’t decry the abuse of authority in others without being willing to own it in ourselves, and that our relationships will be stronger when they are based on a presumption of equity than when reinforced through hierarchy alone.

    Ultimately, turning our organizations inside out like this should make us stronger advocates externally, too, because we’ll gain an empathy for those targets against whom we’re arrayed when we understand the universality of the temptation to oppress, at least in subtle ways. It also restores some of our moral authority and reduces our vulnerability to charges that “you do it, too.”

    But, more immediately and much more importantly, it will turn our organizations into places where people learn how to relate fully and equally, as agents in their own rights.

    And that’s what I remind myself every time I so want to say, “because I’m the Mom.”

  • Parenting Resolutions and Social Justice

    I have 3-year-old twins.

    So, yeah, I hear “I do it!” dozens of times a day.

    While my gut reaction, at 6:45AM when I’m just really, really wishing I could sit down with a glass of iced tea (no one wants to see me on coffee-strength caffeine!) and scan the headlines, is often, “Seriously, let me spread the butter on your pancake, sweetheart,” this year I’m vowing to think differently about this.

    Because, really, if I’m going to live empowerment, it needs to even start first thing in the morning.

    What is “I do it myself!” anyway, if not an expression of our universal need to demonstrate our abilities, and to control our own worlds, and to define our own interactions? What else explains the look of utter triumph on my daughter’s face when she gets her own shoes on, or my son’s glee when he tells his father that he put his own underwear on?

    Small victories become not so small when we’re conquering helplessness and overcoming others’ limited expectations of us.

    In 2012, I promise to offer my kids more chances to do for themselves, and more understanding of why that matters so much. The same way that, as an organizer, I try to default to others’ own efforts on their own behalf, to accept and celebrate their attempts to do for themselves, rather than taking the easy way out–making breakfast before the kids get up, or just getting the agenda done on my own, or striking a deal with the city councilmember when we see each other at a committee meeting.

    When we’re building capacity and helping people to claim their own power, “easy” isn’t what matters. There’s no extra credit for shortcuts. Instead, people should authentically own their own experiences and have room to try on their own.

    Whether they’re 3 or 43.

    Resolved.

    POWER. What are we afraid of?

    *Almost two years later, I’m still talking about power, and I’m still confronted with social workers who are really uncomfortable with it. Colleagues, our world needs us powerful more than ever. We have to claim the power we have, so that we can wield it responsibly, and we have to see the power we need, so that we can be the force for change that those with whom we work deserve.

    In every class I teach, I find myself talking a lot about power, not just what it is and why it’s important but also why social workers often have such a negative idea about it. Because that last piece is key, I really believe; as long as social workers are so convinced that power is a bad thing, that we shouldn’t want it, and that we don’t, in fact (we promise!) have any, then there’s no way that we can do real empowerment and little chance that we can bring about the kinds of social changes that our profession, our society, and, most importantly, those we serve, really need.

    Being bilingual helps me a lot when it comes to defining power. The Spanish word for the noun “power” is the same as for the verb “to be able to” (poder), so I talk with my students about how power, essentially, gives one the ability to do what it is that one wants to be able to do and, really, to make someone else do what it is that one wants that other to do. Some of the definitions I like include “the ability to recognize one’s will even against the resistance of others” (Weber, in Gerth and Mills, 1946); “possession of control, authority, or influence over others” or “ability to act or produce an effect” (Merriam Webster Dictionary); and “capacity to influence the forces which affect one’s life space for one’s own benefit” (Pinderhughes, 1987). When we start from that understanding, power doesn’t sound quite so dark.

    One of my big emphases, too, is a distinction between actual power and the feeling of being powerful. As social workers, sometimes we’re so afraid of real power that we just talk in “squishy” terms about it, which can lead to so much confusion about what power is that we abandon the real thing in favor of something that just sounds good. I’ll never forget, when I was assisting in a power analysis with some Latino youth and the lead organizer asked, “who has power in your community?” One young woman answered, “we do, because we’re the future…” It was obviously something that she’d heard, maybe from a teacher or maybe from a social worker, and, while we like the way that feels, the truth is that such a misconception kept her from being fully powerful, because she couldn’t analyze who held power and what power she and her peers might hold over those power players. We do ourselves and our clients no favors when we lead them to believe that they are more powerful than they are—what they (and we) really need is the ability to analyze power relations and to engage in collective action designed to enhance individual and group power.

    We talk about sources of power–character, position, reputation, knowledge, authority–and we talk especially about relationships as a source of power, because that helps us to see, as social workers, how the assumption of power (double meaning intended) is integral to the practice of social work; if we didn’t have any power with/over those with whom we work, what possible influence could we expect to have over their lives?

    And then we get to the core issue, for me: social workers’ fear of power. I have to admit, I don’t totally, innately get this reluctance to admit and claim power. I often tell students that my dream job would be Chief Justice of the Supreme Court, and it’s because of the authority that comes with that position. I love power for what it can enable me to do in pursuit of social justice, and I’d love a whole lot more so that I could be a whole lot more effective.

    But I have to understand social workers’ fears about power to be a part of helping our profession get over them, and I think that my discussions with students and those in the field over the past several years have given me some insights. There’s a universal concern that power corrupts, because it certainly can. And there’s also a reluctance, I believe, to give up social workers’ martyrdom, this idea that our profession is noble precisely because it is relatively powerless. Many social workers also have negative experience with powerful interests opposed to their own or their clients’ well-being, and, absent more just conceptions of what power looks like, it takes on a ‘bad name’.

    The reality is clients want to work with powerful workers. Power can only be shared by those who have it, so a powerless social worker cannot, by definition, practice empowering social work. Those social workers who are more powerful, both within their own organizational contexts and in the community arena, are also more successful. And that’s what we should be in this business for, after all, not the satisfaction that comes with feeling that we’re sacrificing for some futile aim. And if that doesn’t convince us to pursue power, we must recognize that abdicating our claim to power abandons the field to those who don’t share our values and aims. Power vacuums are always filled, and we can’t afford them.

    So, tell me, what gives you power as a social worker? When do you feel powerful? When do you feel powerless? What are your fears about power? Where do those fears come from? How could you gain power within your organization? What would it take for you to commit yourself to that this year?

    A Bloody Brilliant Idea

    *Honestly, I had kind of forgotten about this until I went through the archives to find posts to use during this last week of my maternity leave. In the intervening years, I’ve seen more of my colleagues bringing clients into the classroom, so that students can gain their perspectives on agencies and social workers, and, almost without exception, students find that extremely valuable. It still falls short, though, of this idea that those who use our services should have some real authority over who and how we deliver them, not just have to volunteer their expertise to try to educate us out of our own worst tendencies. I haven’t done anything to move in this direction, either, but it’s on my list as I head back out into the world.

    When I was pregnant with the twins, I was so exhausted that I really couldn’t move much, but I also couldn’t handle any of my normal, rather heavy reading, so I read a lot of British novels. And, much to my husband’s amusement, he soon had a very large wife who was sprinkling her speech with phrases like peevish and knackered and bollocks. They are just such appealing words!

    Well, consider this Anglophile “mad keen” about what I’ve just discovered: England’s social work degree qualification, adopted in May 2002 and first implemented for the 2003-2004 academic year, requires involvement of what they call “service users” (we’d call them “clients” or “consumers”) in all aspects of social work education (which they call “training”–those crazy Brits!). Yes, ALL ASPECTS. As in, selecting candidates for social work schools, consulting on curriculum, participating in curriculum delivery, evaluating students in the classroom and the field, and design of the overall degree.

    The Department of Health funds the Social Care Institute for Excellence in order to develop a national forum for service users involved in social work education, to promote best practices, and to identify barriers. SCIE’s reports are candid about the fact that there are gaps between the stated ideals and the practice. Service users and their organizations cite lack of training and support, condescending attitudes on the part of academic faculty (No!), questions of access, and concerns about stipends’ impact on benefit eligibility as some of the most vexing concerns, and SCIE and some grassroots groups in the country are working hard to try to overcome these.

    Still, even acknowledging some of the limitations, this is pretty awesome.

    Hey, Council on Social Work Education, we need a similar mandate for social work education in the United States. We need a strategy for how to fully integrate the perspectives of our clients into preparation of students. We need requirements that universities actively solicit clients’ involvement in deciding which students to admit, how to structure education, and who deserves to have the degree that will entitle them to so much authority over the lives of those we serve. We need resources to invest in the organizational capacity of client-driven organizations, both because of how that would prepare them to better participate in social work training, and because our profession should be doing more to invest in the capacity for self-help of those we aim to, well, help.

    Individual programs around the country, are, undoubtedly, doing good work in terms of client involvement–starting community collaborations, building alliances with local social service organizations, sending dozens or even hundreds of great students out to work in practice placements–I don’t mean to discount these efforts. But we need a far greater infusion of energy and resources, and a more strategic and concerted collective effort, if we’re going to fill in the gaps, transcend tokenism, and build real partnerships with our most valuable asset–those who legitimize our profession by allowing us to work with them.

    Ten years from now, I’d like to see us grappling with the problems outlined by SCIE and their service-user organization partner, Shaping Our Lives: how can we ensure that all clients have equitable access to decisionmaking authority within social work education? How can we quantify the types and magnitude of impacts that clients have on social work education? How can we build on the gains made so far in bringing clients into social work education as instructors, students, and ‘expert consultants’?

    Let’s face it, the people who brought us the trifecta of the pub, gravity, and DNA have done it again–shown us the way to the people we are meant to become. I mean, what’s more “American” than the idea of empowering individuals, bringing in diverse perspectives, and highlighting the wisdom of hard-earned experience? We can do this. And we’ll be better for it, as teachers, and students, and as a profession. Thanks, Britain. We owe you one.

    But we’re NOT sorry for that whole Boston tea party thing…