Tag Archives: radical practice

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.

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Justice is Every Step: How all kinds of social work can advance social justice

**Note from Melinda: I am beyond honored to bring you this blog post from my dear friend, colleague in many struggles for more than a decade, and absolutely wonderful social worker Megan Hope. I’ve read it 3 times already and I still find a new line to mentally underline. It’s pretty incredible, and I feel a bit apologetic to tell you that she’s not taking over all regular writing duties here! Thank you, Megan, for sharing this, but mainly for all you do, on so many levels, for so many.

On a typically hot El Paso day, I sat across the table from a middle-aged man and his 14-year-old son. About a month before, they’d traveled from their home in northern Mexico, crossed the border without documents, and rung the bell at our house of hospitality. Like most guests, they’d come with hopes—soon disappointed—of finding day work. Beds in the men’s dorm were always in high demand, and the pair had already stayed past the two weeks we usually offered to guests who, arguably, had more opportunities than single women or families with young children. I explained the house’s time and space pressures, and they laid out theirs: They were stuck. There were no jobs to speak of in their hometown, no way to pass the Texas or New Mexico highway checkpoints without identification, no eligibility to be or work in the U.S. with authorization even though there was, surely, demand for their cheap labor. “I know,” I blurted. “It’s the global economy!”

That was during my second stint working and living with newly-arrived immigrants, refugees, and asylum applicants at Annunciation House, a Catholic Worker-style organization started in the late 1970s when Central American refugees were fleeing civil war violence. In the eight years since my first year-long stay, I’d earned an MA in Latin American Studies, presented workshops on NAFTA, participated in foreign factory workers’ labor campaigns, organized against the Iraq War, traveled to 12 developing countries, and written grant proposals for social and legal services for farmworkers and other immigrants—all attempts to learn about and effect structural change, and all propelled by memories of my neighbors on the border. I’d also worked as a paralegal, coordinator of social services for migrant farmworkers, and tutor. On good days, I hoped the folks I was working with and I were making a dent in temporary problems or, better yet, systemic injustice. On bad days, I pondered what I preferred crying about at the end of the day: the individual I felt I couldn’t help enough, or the latest in-fighting at a coalition meeting?

When I belatedly began to consider an MSW, I was troubled to learn that many programs require students to choose one concentration: either macro/indirect/administrative/community practice, or micro/direct/clinical practice. Huh? What appealed to me about social work was precisely its person- in-environment perspective and seeming appreciation for multiple and simultaneous forms of contemplation and action.

As a student, I discovered (and undoubtedly helped perpetuate) the stereotypes, born of desperation for self-definition, that can exist between “our” type of social worker and “the other.” Community students derided their clinical counterparts as apolitical, touchy-feely, diagnosing, wanna-be psychologists. I heard less the other way around, but if pressed, could snarkily characterize community practitioners as self-righteous, intellectualizing policy wonks with questionable empathic skills. The gravitation toward specialization in social work education and practice I saw seemed to reinforce the unfortunate bifurcation of the field. Though more of a community practice person myself, I sought out my sympathetic academic dean to help me design more of a mix of classes than ordinarily prescribed under our school’s track system. I’m glad for the broadened education this allowed me.

But still, the divisions and attendant dilemmas in social work practice remain: How best to advance social justice? Is social change the purview and prerogative of only macro-level interventions? I try to remember why returning to Annunciation House when I did was appealing to me. Much of the daily work there consisted of proverbial Band-Aid activities: putting on meals, stocking a clothing bank, ushering people to a medical clinic—often providing swift relief of immediate needs, but not exactly uprooting the ills of the global economy. Yet our practice of radical hospitality felt transformative. And I have found direct work with individuals elsewhere to also be consistent with my vision of social justice.

Why? First, I think of how I learned to be with people at Annunciation House. It was based on personalism, the belief that we each have a responsibility for one another’s well-being—not as “service providers” and “clients” who dispense or receive solutions—but as people, cognizant of our various privileged and marginalized identities, who make an attempt at solidarity, communitarianism, and real relationship. In one of his Easy Essays, Catholic Worker co-founder Peter Maurin made the common critique that social workers learn how to help people adjust to their environment, but not how to change it. “Social workers must become social-minded before they can be critics of the existing environment and free creative agents of the new environment.” In houses of hospitality, he said, social workers “can acquire the art of human contacts and the… understanding of social forces” that allow them to build with others a new society.

I think that’s what happened my first year on the border, and my return signaled that once was not enough. Certainly, houses of hospitality and other direct service settings are not the only training ground for social-mindedness. But for me, no book, course, theory, organization, or campaign has ever been as consistently informative, radicalizing, grounding, or exacting of accountability as sharing a roof with people whose experiences testify to the countless ways we say some human lives are more important than others. I think of Gaspar, Tatiana, and Concha when I act, and when I don’t.

Also, I’ve found that while it’s obvious that the personal is political—the plight of an out-of-work father and son originates in systems much larger than a single family—we sometimes overlook that the political is personal. Poverty, war, crime, lack of access to health care and education are not only policy issues, but also causes of crippling personal depression, anxiety, and trauma. Recent research indicates that microaggressions—subtle verbal, nonverbal, and environmental communications that insult and invalidate members of oppressed groups—may be more harmful than overt acts of discrimination and hate. If oppression operates at ideological, institutionalized, interpersonal, and internalized levels, shouldn’t there also be four I’s of social justice?

Consider a woman I worked with who spent nearly a year in immigration detention following a false criminal accusation. She had been sexually, physically, and psychologically abused by family members and intimate partners since she was a child. We filled out a culturagram together, an assessment tool used to explore aspects of a person’s background and identity. One square asked about experiences of abuse and trauma. To my surprise, before any mention of incest or domestic violence, the client wrote that the trauma she had was “not being free” because she was undocumented. Under experiences of oppression, she listed persecution by Immigration and said, “For this reason, we need an amnesty.” Clearly, she knew how the politics of immigration, institutionalized sexism, racism, and xenophobia, and interpersonal violence had oppressed her, and identified changes she wanted to make, from personal relationships to involvement in immigrant rights organizations. But she also dealt with a great deal of internalized shame and self-loathing. In the time I knew her, she grew to love herself more, which helped her feel personally empowered, able to secure a visa for crime victims that will allow her to legalize and bring her three sons to join her, and able—I have no doubt—to positively affect her community. Doesn’t every member of “the social” deserve that kind of justice?

Indeed, in our criticism of direct services and clinical interventions as superficial or soft, I think we inadvertently dismiss the real, felt, multilevel needs of people; wrongly assume that they don’t understand how systems work (when if fact, they’re often experts); or think micro-level work can’t be political (when, in fact, it’s often a necessary precursor to wider change). We know that unexamined privilege, among other ills, can make direct services insulting and paternalistic. But I think closing the doors and telling people to come back for a meal only after NAFTA’s been repealed or immigration policy is reformed would be no less presumptuous or demeaning. Absolutely we should ask why the poor have no food and should eliminate root causes of hunger. But justice should include the right to eat today.

And there are reasons for offering a meal beyond meeting a physical need. At the first Occupy Denver event I went to, I met a man who said he’d been homeless for a long time, moving from one state to another as he was able to. He’d recently arrived in Colorado and had started sharing a tent on the capitol lawn with other demonstrators. He believed in the multipronged movement for economic justice, but he was most excited about the newfound company of people who cared about his cause and cared about him. “I’ve had a hard time for a lot of months,” he told me. “But the last few weeks have been so much better.”

Sometimes when I imagine what the world will be like after all just revolutions, I think of what will not have changed. People will still die—not from preventable disease, human-wrought violence, or unsafe work, but they’ll die nonetheless. People will have decent homes, time off work, and material support to grieve their losses with dignity, but there will still be losses, inevitable and heartbreaking. We will still have an urgent need to belong to each other. I believe social work on any level that honors this reality has the best potential to achieve social justice.

These kids need to eat: Why the connection between advocacy and direct services matters so much

On October 1, 2011, our state agency charged with administering SNAP benefits (what we used to call Food Stamps) in Kansas announced a new rule that changed the way that they calculate income for mixed-status households (where some in the household are U.S. citizens and some are ineligible nonapplicants (a technical term for immigrants who can’t receive benefits and, so, are not applying for them).

It’s kind of complicated, and it was only through the incredible patience of my good friends at the National Immigration Law Center (whose expertise and willingness to pick up the phone has saved me dozens of times over the past decade) that I understood exactly how it works, but, in essence, it’s this:

Kansas now pretends that undocumented parents don’t need to eat, so we count all of the household’s income, but only count the number of family members who are eligible for food assistance. This makes it much harder for these families to qualify for SNAP, since the eligibility thresholds are based on income per size of household. None of that was really comprehensible from the initial announcement, which had some vaguely patriotic language about restoring equity and fairness to SNAP, a reference to the term “pro-rata share”, which we’d never heard before, and all kinds of assurances that there would be ample training before the new rules went into effect.

And, then, on October 4, 2011, an extremely distraught single mother of 5 children, who had recently built a safe life for her family after years of domestic violence, showed up at El Centro, Inc. with a notice that her children’s SNAP case had been closed due to “non-citizen status.” She had no idea how she was going to feed her kids without that assistance, especially so soon after leaving her abusive husband.

The good news, in this tragic mess?

She knew where to go, not just to receive some immediate assistance–connection to a food pantry, and help getting her kids signed up for school breakfast, and information about congregate meal sites–but also for some answers about why this was happening to her, and for an ally in what she knew needed to be a fight.

And, because it’s an organization that weaves advocacy into its direct services, the social worker with whom she met that day did things a bit differently, perhaps, than would some in a similar situation.

  • She made copies of the letter, because she knew from her advocacy training that USDA prohibits adverse action against eligible beneficiaries because of a nonapplicant’s immigration status, so, at the least, the title of that letter was unacceptable.
  • She asked questions, not just about what the mother intended to do now, but about what the SNAP case worker said (and didn’t), because she knew that USDA also requires disclosure about the voluntary nature of nonapplicants’ immigration information.
  • She got permission to share the mother’s story, not just with agencies for referral purposes, but with Office of Civil Rights investigators, with the organization’s public policy consultant, and with the media. She helped the mother write out her own story and explained how sharing her struggle would connect to future advocacy efforts.
  • She organized a meeting, where mothers who had had the same experience came together, learned about the new policy, and worked together to strategize about what could be done. They made posters to tell immigrants that they are not required to disclose their status if they’re not applying for benefits, and they wrote out their own testimonies, together.
  • She asked for help, reaching out to advocates with connections to national organizations, USDA officials, U.S. senators, influential community leaders. Together, they made a plan, which now includes not only the civil rights investigations but advocacy campaigns with members of Congress, an organized media push, and exploration of possible lawsuits.
  • She utilized radical practice skills to help that first mother, and the ones who poured into her office in the days to follow, understand that, just because the new rule is allowable doesn’t make it acceptable policy. She held their hands and looked into their eyes and said that it’s wrong for our country to allow children to go hungry because we don’t like their parents, and she vowed to work alongside them to make it right.

    It’s an advocacy effort that is far from resolved; indeed, Kansas is just one of the first states to use this allowable option to apply more restrictive income-counting rules to mixed-status families, and they most certainly won’t be the last. It’s a struggle with an uncertain resolution and, in the meantime, children are hungry and mothers are desperate.

    But there are real, concrete ways in which this whole scenario is unfolding in a far more hopeful way than it could have, and it’s because of the existence of an organization that believes that direct services make advocacy more authentic and more effective, and that only advocacy and organizing can provide a context in which direct services can succeed. One serves as a vehicle through which to collect the stories, document the evidence, and mobilize those affected. The other deploys those considerable resources in a strategy designed to bring lasting change.

    Their coexistence ensures that direct services never become about placating an oppressed community, and that advocacy never forgets its reason for being.

    These kids need to eat.