Tag Archives: social work

Let’s not be turtles

I do yoga.

I sometimes even curl up on the couch and read. Yes, it’s usually a book about human rights or climate change or sociology, but, still.

I understand the need to turn off our compassion and to console ourselves.

But we cannot retreat, not really, from the horrors of tragedy and the mundane suffering.

We cannot.

We cannot lull ourselves into thinking that caring for ourselves requires hiding from the world, or that we are somehow entitled to ‘peace’, if peace is purchased at the price of tremendous injustice and pain.

In One Nation Under Stress, this idea of ‘stressism’, of stress as a mentality and a sort of collective infatuation, is related to our self-talk that tries to convince ourselves that what we need (and deserve) is solitude and release and ‘free time’, when what we really need is improvement in the conditions that prompt this stress response in the first place.

Because there are two ways to respond to the unimaginable and the predictably wrong: to resolve to respond with all energy and passion or to draw into our shells and hope that things will somehow go away.

Our desire to flee the discomfort of stress leads us to retreat, when what the world craves–and what, in the end, is the only thing that can bring real relief–is concerted action to address the factors that contribute to our stresses.

We cannot be turtles, withdrawing in timidity, when our age demands tigers.

We cannot.

Starting in the Classroom: Safe Spaces

One of the parts of my teaching that I take most seriously is my obligation to create a ‘safe space’ in which my students can grapple with their professional ethics and the conflicts between these ethical standards and students’ own personal values and beliefs.

This is true in most social work classes, I think, and there’s certainly a strong practice component of these concerns; students want to talk, for example, about what they’ll do if a client wants advice about getting an abortion, if they are opposed personally.

But there is an undeniable policy element here, too, as students grapple not just with how they feel about these ‘hot button’ issues, but how that needs to translate to their support or opposition for specific social policies, and, then, even for candidates.

As a professor, I struggle with the balance between making sure that students feel that they can authentically question the different venues through which to achieve given policy aims…and my desire to see the social work profession articulate a compelling, and even a commanding, commitment to policy ‘goods’, because that’s precisely what I believe our profession, and our social policy, needs.

And this means that, even within our classroom, different ethical principles can collide, particularly our desire to support the individual self-determination of all human beings (yes, including social work professionals) and our need to be a more effective voice for policies capable of delivering greater social justice, which demands a more unified front.

I don’t have the answers for this, but I hope that it’s a case of where being transparent and wrestling with these questions alongside my students gets us at least focused on the issue in a constructive way.

We have to come to terms, after all, with the messiness of trying to bring a diverse group of professionals to consensus on a variety of policy issues (and, surely, questions about taxation and criminal justice and foreign policy and public assistance are no less thorny than marriage equality or reproductive rights), but also with the real risk of our irrelevance if we conclude that we can’t deal with these divides and, so we must stay largely out of the political arena.

And that’s where I think my classroom comes in. I hope it can be a laboratory for democracy, a safe place to prepare ourselves for advocacy, which is inherently risky.

I hope that it can help my students to construct a mutual aid group, of sorts, as we navigate the policy arena together.

Because we can’t hide, within the four walls of our classrooms.

But hopefully we can sharpen our skills and focus on our values and gird ourselves for debate, here.

And then feel ready to engage. Where we need to be.

Together.

Colleague Week: Academics Making a Difference

Here’s another post for ‘Colleague Week’.

Aka ‘academic lovefest’.

Do you ever read someone’s article in an academic journal and think, “I bet she is a really nice person?”

No?

Maybe it’s just me.

Anyway, I think, by this point, that I could recognize Jennifer Mosley’s work even in a blind test. She has developed a scholarly voice that is so recognizable, and occupies such a critical place in the field, that I have come to gravitate to whatever it is she’s putting out.

I mean, with titles like “Recognizing new opportunities: Reconceptualizing policy advocacy in everyday organizational practice”, I feel like we must have been separated at birth.

There are several elements of her research and writing that I particularly appreciate, including her inclusion of the actual experiences of service providers and impacted populations, really without fail; her attention to nonprofit organizations’ real constraints in engaging in advocacy (and treatment of them as sophisticated actors making hard trade-offs, rather than novices somehow feeling their way–toward that end, I like this one a lot, “Institutionalization, privatization, and political opportunity: What tactical choices reveal about the policy advocacy of human service nonprofits”); and her inclusion of global perspectives, in recognition of how much U.S.-based charities have to learn from the activist traditions of, in particular, developing nations.

As I navigate a research and publishing agenda in my own relatively nascent academic career, I look to Jennifer’s work for a sense of where I might make contributions, and I rely heavily on her CV for readings for my classes and my literature reviews.

Part of what I value, then, most about her presence in the field is that presence itself, as a reminder that there are other social work academics who view nonprofit advocacy as a legitimate target of inquiry and a prominent dynamic in the profession.

Sometimes macro practice–and the study thereof–can be isolating, but seeing a familiar name in the e-journal citations makes it, somehow, less so.

Colleague Week: Academics Making a Difference

I could call this just ‘shout out’ week, I guess, because I don’t necessarily have a real treatise on these professionals’ work. In some cases, I’m not even sure what I could really add of tremendous value.

But I wrote an email to one of these colleagues last fall, expressing how much I appreciate her writing and her professional voice and her leadership in the field, and she responded saying that it is quite rare, really, for academics to receive this particular kind of appreciation and accolade and, well, since I don’t live close enough to make all these folks quick breads, the way I normally do to thank those to whom I owe a debt, I thought this was sort of the next best thing.

I have used some of Benjamin Shepard’s work here before, about the use of play in organizing.

But there are other pieces that I have discovered more recently and enjoy tremendously, including an article on social work and community gardening as environmental activism, a sort of case study on mixing direct services and social action, in the life of one transgendered activist, and some Huffington Post articles (on my life list!) on Occupy and direct action in New York City.

One of the coolest things about those Huff Post pieces, in my opinion, is the byline. It’s really gratifying to me to see an “Assistant Professor of Human Service at New York School of Technology/CUNY” writing about the planning for Occupy street protests, in a popular press publication.

It’s colleagues like these who I think deserve more attention and commendation. They’re demonstrating every day (in some cases, literally!) that academics don’t have to stay within the walls of the academy, that there is a role for analysis and theory in grassroots movements, and that progressives of all professional persuasions should join common cause.

I’m proud to call these folks colleagues. Hopefully our paths will cross someday, at a conference or on the streets.

Review Week: So Rich, So Poor

When I see statistics like this one in So Rich, So Poor: In 2009, there were 2 million families in the United States with only SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program/food stamp) benefits as income (it’s an entitlement, not a block grant like TANF, so it has the ability to expand with need during times of recession), I think:

We are better than this.

Because we ARE.

Americans are, truly, a pretty generous group.

Americans gave $316.2-billion to charity last year, which represents 2 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, the same as in 2011. There are reasons to be concerned about the lack of growth in giving, in light of more organizations evidencing more significant need, but, still, that’s no small exercise of altruistic expenditure.

And that contrasts, sharply, with our public policy infrastructure, where we do very little to help, in particular, those with incomes below 50% of the poverty line (even Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, TANF, really only serves to bring these folks up to ‘regular’ poverty) and working families, who suffer acutely the decline in the value of the minimum wage.

While there is room for improvement in our efforts to make people aware of the realities of poverty, certainly–I’m intrigued by the idea of labels on products that describe the quality of the jobs that produced them, for example, for the most part, we just have to face this sharp divergence between how we give privately and what we’re willing to commit to publicly.

Indeed, even on the micro level, our narrative of the American Dream leads us to individual explanations for why people struggle, and, then, individual approaches for how to help.

I think–and this is by no means an entirely original thought–that our lack of faith in government, and our failure to be captivated by the power of the collective, are at the heart of this disconnect, fueled further by our discomfort with helping people we don’t know.

And social workers are not blameless in this separation of problem and solution, and the woeful inadequacy of the response that results.

When was the last time you heard a social worker express enthusiastic support for welfare?

Why do so many of my students–all of them absolutely committed to improving people’s lives, including reducing the poverty in which people struggle–distance themselves from macro approaches to bringing this relief?

It’s not about apathy. It’s no harder to speak out against SNAP cuts or call out Congress on tax cuts, really, than it is to find $50 in your budget to support a worthwhile organization.

It’s certainly no harder to sign a petition or even visit a legislator than it is to engage people in the tremendously difficult process of working with a broken system to navigate help they need.

Instead, it’s a lack of imagination, a failure of vision, a preference for familiar, localized channels instead of the unknowns of fundamental change.

But if we’re going to craft solutions scaled to confront the crisis of poverty–and we must–we’ve got to do that together, not one check at a time.

An All-in-Nation: Equity is the Superior Growth Model

One of the products that PolicyLink has created as part of their All-in-Nation effort is an examination of the inadequacies of current economic models which pursue economic growth basically for its own sake, assuming, somehow, contrary to all observed fact, that increases in Gross Domestic Product will translate neatly into improvements in the well-being of individuals and communities, equitably shared.

They outline, instead, an economic growth model focused on fostering greater equity, successfully arguing that this approach is not only likely to bring real improvements to people’s lives but, also, stronger long-term prosperity across the economy, too.

I believe it is imperative that we garner momentum for this shift, if we are to reverse the tide of increasing inequality and restore the ladders of opportunity and mobility that are supposed to work, especially for young people.

And, so, I think it’s worth considering where there are roles for social work and for social workers, in articulating these priorities and, indeed, staffing a more inclusive economic growth strategy.

Here’s what I mean:

  • If rebuilding our public infrastructure is an essential part of literally constructing the foundation for economic growth, what should social workers be doing to push for these investments, particularly at the local and county level, where there’s often a bit of a power vacuum, and some engaged and informed leadership could shift the power dynamic and create some real change?
  • If creating new, good jobs is the starting point for a more democratic economy, what do social workers need to learn and understand about how business works, what it takes to support people in entrepreneurship, and how to foster the skills to help people survive in the jobs of tomorrow?
  • If galvanizing support for these investments will, indeed, take a movement, where are social workers actively leading movement building, fostering critical consciousness among clients and coworkers, implementing proven methods of community engagement, and looking to build alliances beyond the silos of their particular practices?

This isn’t a case where just doing more of what we’ve been doing, or making technical improvements to our programs, will get us anywhere close to where we need to be.

We need new metrics, new aims, and new strategies.

We need a new definition of economic ‘success’, and we need new people at the table.

And, I believe, social workers must be part of those solutions.

Coming out of our bunkers

Sometimes my students say things in class that just make me love them so much.

I try not to gush, because that’s a little strange; I mean, I cheerlead my own kids A LOT (“It’s a beautiful day to be these kids’ mom”, sung to the tune of the Mr. Rogers theme song, is one of my calling cards), but my students and I have a little different of a relationship.

But when they are so enthusiastic about policy practice, or so angry about an injustice they’ve witnessed at practicum, or just so curious about why things are the way they are, well, I just bubble over with affection for them.

And when they are so earnest and transparent and vulnerable, it touches my heart.

So this post is offered in that spirit, not in condemnation of the student who shared this reaction, nor, indeed, of the many who didn’t voice a similar response even if they feel it.

But in love and shared commitment to find ways to seek solace in coming together, rather than in hiding out.

It happened early in this fall semester, when I asked students to share their experiences trying to navigate information about policies and policy changes affecting their practices and their clients, and one student, somewhat hesitantly at first, shared that she really avoids paying attention to ‘anything political’, not because she doesn’t think it’s important, or doesn’t see the connection, but, really, because it just hurts too much.

She called it ‘self-preservation’ and said that, because she feels so emotionally overextended in her direct service provision, the only way that she can handle the emotional fallout of being a social worker is to focus narrowly on the immediate realm of her ‘control’ (even she acknowledged this control is elusive), closing her eyes to the world beyond her agency.

And, you know, I sort of get that.

My moments of greatest helplessness come when facing questions from my oldest son about why policies are the way they are–Why would Syria’s president hurt his own people and no one stops him? Why do so many states still ban gay marriage? Why would poor children lose preschool when the government shuts down (but Congress still gets paid)? Why is a teen mom separated from her baby so that her foster family can afford to take care of her, with the right level of reimbursement? Why do immigrants have to wait in Mexico for 10 years before they can be reunited with their families? Why?

Sometimes, when my mind is filled with regrets for the way that I spoke to his brother and mental to-do lists for work, I wish that he wouldn’t ask, “What happened in the world today, Mom, while I was at school?” Because it seems easier just to focus on dinner and our day and these four walls.

But his face, and his eagerness, and his whys, are my most poignant reminders of what’s at stake, and why hiding in a bunker isn’t safe for any of us.

Not when the world needs us out there.

So my response to my student was, in many respects, speaking to myself.

We talked about how joining with others to tackle root causes can combat burnout, and about humans’ greater ability to deal with that for which we feel prepared, rather than what blindsides us.

We talked about power, and vacuums, and about our responsibility to be at that metaphorical table when decisions are being made.

And we talked about Sam.

And about how, sometimes, when it seems like too much and I wish for the temporary solace of ignorance, I think about his wonderings.

And I take comfort in, at least, being able to tell him that I was paying attention. And that we tried. Together.

As we greet the new year, here’s to opening the door to the world, pulling the covers down, and facing our battles.