Tag Archives: macro practice

It doesn’t have to be ‘macro’ to be huge

My friend and inspiration, Robert Egger, wrote a blog post several years ago that I found serendipitously by following other links on his site, about how we define ‘power and influence’ and what makes an organization really poised for significant impact.

Here’s what I think is so important about what he says, and, more significantly, the way that he lives and the way that he has built an organization, the DC Central Kitchen, as a testament to these ideas:

We will only ‘move the needle’ on the problems that plague us when we start to use ALL of the tools we have at our disposal. That means advocacy, yes–we should take every opportunity to bring others into our work and push for policy changes, and we should make every opportunity that we can to do the same–and also direct services, especially when they’re done in ways that bring new attention and new energy to our collective causes.

It’s not either/or.

It’s both/and.

And, so, social work students, you don’t have to choose between working with people or changing the world.

You can, and should, do both.

That means that we have to build organizations that are always thinking about how to leverage their reputations for policy impact, how to engage their clients in social change, and how to innovate their services so that they change the conversations around their issues.

And it means that we need to cultivate cultures that embrace the idea of ripple effects, so that we understand how change in one program, or one community, or even one life can (does not always–this is not ‘starfish’, but, instead, change theory) plant seeds for larger changes.

And it means that we need to train practitioners who can walk between these two worlds, of individual care and concern and broad-scale movement building. Indeed, who don’t even see them as two separate worlds, but, instead, as different scales of engagement in our shared world.

As Robert said in his post, “Listen…change is a mush of ideas. It’s not about one group advocating while another group “feeds the poor.” It’s about using media, money, volunteers, laws, votes, the power of the pen and the miracles that come from caring…and using them TOGETHER. Divided we are weak. We ALL need to tilt our heads a tad and start to see the gold that lies at our feet. Direct service programs like the Kitchen–we’re cool, and we know that we are not the answer. BUT…we sure as hell can lead a lot of thirsty horses to water if you give us the opportunity.”

“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.

Ethics and Advocacy, de nuevo

We're held to the same Code of Ethics, even with the "holes"

It’s “update” week at Classroom to Capitol.

As I read through previous posts for my summer maternity break hiatus, I found a few that I really wanted to revisit, rather than repost. This is the first of the three that I have chosen for this week, with new thoughts and, of course, new questions.

One of the first twenty or so posts that I wrote for this blog, back in June 2009, dealt with the ethical challenges faced by advocates, organizers, and other macro practitioners. I outlined some of the biggest holes, as I see them, in the NASW Code of Ethics, and how vague, contradictory, or rather unworkable guidance there can cause problems for those of us whose social work practice doesn’t really conform to the traditional, agency-based, more direct interaction model.

I continue to weave content on ethics into all of my classes, and I continue to struggle, at times, with some doubt about whether what feels like natural and “good” community or advocacy practice is really the most defensible, based on my social work Code of Ethics. And I continue to be frustrated by the relative paucity of dialogue about those gaps in our ethical guidance, and especially about the self-doubt that creeps into my practice, and, I know, into the minds of my students, too.

So, I’m revisiting this topic in the hopes of enlisting other social workers in not only offering some of their consultation, but also joining in the conversation about what may need to be added to our NASW Code of Ethics, or perhaps tweaked a bit, for we macro social workers, who, after all, deserve clear ethical guidance just as much as our clinical colleagues–just as our clients deserve just as clear an understanding of the ethical rules that shape us.

In class, I raise a lot of different questions about ethics in advocacy and organizing: means v. ends, informed consent, competency, loyalty to employing agency…but below I’ve tried to distill those thorniest areas that truly vex me, with some examples of how these issues manifest themselves in practice. I’d really appreciate other macro social workers willing to share some of their own ethical dilemmas, or any social work professionals willing to offer some insights from their perspective as people committed to living our Code. Ethics are, after all, about protecting those we serve and the reputation of our profession, both causes of critical importance to me as an advocate. So we have to get this right.

  • The dual relationship thing always gets me: So, our Code of Ethics doesn’t have an absolute prohibition on dual relationships, but we are instructed to avoid dual relationships where they could harm the client. Sounds reasonable. Except, in community practice, this is often pretty tough. Do I keep someone out of a community organizing effort because we also go to church together? I can’t. Yet when they get somewhat confused about how I relate to them differently as an organizer than as a fellow parishioner, is that introducing the potential for harm? What about when someone I’ve been developing as a leader asks me to come to her high school graduation. To not go would seem to deny the power that that diploma has for her, but, when I do go, I’m inevitably asked to come to dinner at her parents’ house, and they want to talk about my kids, and…where do you draw those lines?
  • Boundaries v. “whole person” organizing: I can talk on and on about how we need to integrate organizing into this full sense of self, and I totally believe that, but then, I have to live it, too. I mean, my own children are a big part of the reason that I work for the social justice causes I do, and, yet, if I’m supposed to maintain boundaries around a professional relationship, I have to be careful about how much I divulge. It feels awkward, and it is awkward, and sometimes a little disingenous. But I don’t want to be responsible for someone being confused about whether we’re “friends” or not.
  • Dignity of every person in nasty advocacy fights: So I do immigration advocacy, right? And I know that my Code of Ethics means that truly underhanded tactics are off the table, then–I wouldn’t want to be that kind of lobbyist, anyway. But to what extent do I need to uphold the dignity and worth of those who would seek to, say, shoot members of my community from helicopters like feral pigs?
  • Informed consent and compromise: I struggle with this one a lot; we can never truly say that we “represent” any community (which is why I’m a proponent of advocacy with instead of advocacy on behalf of), but, even when we’re practicing empowerment and maximum participation, there are going to be those who would be affected by the policies we promote (or oppose) who haven’t been consulted in any meaningful way. And, when it comes to the inevitable compromises, coalitions can fall apart and even those with whom you have been working closely can feel that their interests were not well-represented by those who were at the table. How can I ethically work as their “social worker” knowing that I can’t get their informed consent for every possible outcome of the policy change process?

    There are other issues that have cropped up–Can I work ethically in coalition with organizations whose values are not perfectly aligned with social work’s? Can I advance the interests of one group of clients over another, in pursuit of incremental policy change? Can I represent an issue as being worse than I can prove it is (if I really believe it to be so)? The list above, though, represents my kind of perennial ethical challenges, the ones that I feel really torn about, and the ones where I feel that I’ve probably made some missteps, in both directions–sometimes not practicing great social work out of an abundance of caution, and sometimes walking in a gray ethical area.

    A favorite social work instructor of mine once said that some of what we call ethical dilemmas are really just crises of conscience–where we know what to do and just need to muster the courage to do it. And that’s the case, sometimes, with advocacy: we know when we should stand up and speak out, and, in fact, our Code of Ethics demands it.

    I’m glad every day that I belong to a profession that expects people to take real risks in order to bring about a more just society.

    But I do wish that I had a Code that defined “client” more the way it is in my practice, that offered more guidance for my greatest dilemmas, and that created a more standard and workable ethical framework so that my macro practitioners would feel as compelled as our clinical colleagues to follow it.

    Our clients, whether they make a 50-minute appointment and sit down across a desk from us, or march side-by-side on the institutions of power that shape our lives, deserve no less.

  • My best career advice

    Because there are comparatively few macro practitioners in social work education, and because I make it part of my job to mentor students with an orientation towards community organizing, advocacy, and organizational practice, I am often asked for career advice for students headed in that direction.

    I’m quick to say that there really are jobs out there for social workers who don’t want to do clinical work, and that they can really make a living at social change, and that their skills (of policy analysis, and administration, and systems change) will transfer to this work.

    Helping students sustain their dreams of a macro social work career is part of my mission, and, in today’s economy, it can be harder to keep that faith alive.

    But when a student asks for help making a decision about what job to accept, or how to begin a career in a way that is likely to lead to a rewarding role in organizing or advocacy practice, I really have one main piece of advice, which has, to my knowledge, not yet failed them:

    Choose an organization that you’re excited about, not a job description that sounds good.

    Some students are reluctant to take a job with a dynamic organization working in their field of interest because it involves too much case management, or too much fundraising, or too little advocacy. Or, conversely, they are drawn to an organization with a poor reputation because the idea of being “Director of Public Policy” is just so appealing.

    The reality, confirmed by my own first twelve years of macro social work practice and by the origins of the careers I’ve watched in my students, is that, while there are certainly positions that are poor fits for given social workers, a less-than-perfect job description at an organization you can really believe in is always preferable to the reverse.

    Part of this stems from my belief that there are multiple ways to integrate macro practice into one’s social work career, if the organizational support for a radical orientation is there: case managers can get their clients involved in advocacy to address root causes, fundraisers can go after money to support community initiatives, and administrators can weave advocacy into the organizational culture.

    Part of it, too, is connected to my own experience working at an organization in a position that, initially, was anything but ideal: me, the person who still can’t read a balance sheet (and, okay, honestly, doesn’t even balance her checkbook), was supposed to create a financial literacy program from scratch? But I believed in the organization’s work, and in the vision of the leadership, and I was allowed, in pretty short order, to create the job I wanted and, in the process, to transform our advocacy work with clients.

    I wish I could tell this year’s graduating class that the perfect job description at the perfect organization working in the perfect “niche” is waiting for you (oh, and it comes with full benefits and a company car!).

    But your job search to date has belied that.

    So, instead, when you’re weighing a job description that sounds kind of “eh” at an organization you keep hearing great things about versus one that sounds textbook (that could be because it is!) at a mediocre agency, choose the former. Be as honest as you can with your supervisor about where you see your career headed, and look for opportunities within the organization to chart that course. Learn valuable skills while you’re there, and make connections with people who have great reputations, and take advantage of the opportunities that come with association with a stellar entity.

    That’s my best career advice. What’s yours?