Tag Archives: social work

‘Balance’ and urgency

In a couple of places in Creating Room to Read, the founder/author emphasizes the need for urgent action.

“Every day we lose is a day we can’t get back” (p. 7).

It’s a feeling I share, a compulsion, really, that has prompted more than one person to tell me that I have a ‘savior complex’.

And it can be a very good thing, this urgency, if it pushes us to evaluate every organizational decision in light of the questions:

How can we reach more people, in more places, with more needs, more quickly? (p. 201)

How can we fill the vacuum around this issue before someone else–with a different agenda and different impacts on those we serve–does?

How can we do what needs to be done, as cheaply and quickly and well as is humanly possible, since the world really needed it metaphorically ‘yesterday’?

This almost-manic urgency applies, of course, to so many of the social problems on which we are working, not just to global literacy. Really, I would argue that everything worth fixing in today’s broken world is worth fixing now, and there’s always more work to be done than we can possibly clear off our desks before the end of the day.


How can we justify taking a break, even when we need one, when the need is already outpacing our abilities?

How can we care for ourselves, without using ‘self-care’ as an excuse to retreat from the desperately urgent work that needs us?

How can we prevent falling for the savior thing, when the truth is that the people we serve and assist aren’t waiting for us to swoop in and rescue anyone.

How can we approach that elusive ‘balance’ that seems to be so important for preventing burnout and sustaining our commitment–and our effectiveness–when every day that we take off is a day that we’re not getting closer to the world as it should be?

How do you answer these questions, in your own field, and in your own practice? How do you calibrate the pace of your life, given the urgency with which problems press? How do you surround yourself with a team, to prevent the temptation of thinking that we are one-person shows? How do you harness the passion and energy that comes with urgency, without slipping into the ‘busier-than-thou’ martyrdom that turns people off? How do you reflect strengths and possibility while convincing people that they need to be part of our cause–today?


Close knowledge makes a difference

There was another part from The Ghost Map that made me think about social work, and about you all, which means that it ends up here.

So, yes, just a little more cholera.

See, the doctor who ended up tracing the spread of the disease, and documenting the outbreak in a way that gave needed credibility to germ theory and ultimately brought down the idea of ‘miasma’ (smell=disease), was from the neighborhood.

He lived near Broad Street, where the pump contaminated with cholera was located, and that intimate knowledge was essential to helping him untangle the truth.

At the time, remember, most people thought that, since smell brought disease, dirty houses (read: poor people) would have the most illness, because they would smell bad. There were many low-income households in and around the area infected with cholera, and, so, most of the ‘outside experts’ were quick to conclude that it was their poverty, and the smells associated with it, that were quite literally killing them.

But John Snow knew better.

He knew of wealthier households living next to poorer ones, where both fell ill. He knew of very poor households that nonetheless maintained immaculately clean homes. He knew that most of the stereotypes were flawed. He knew that people were dying–real people, with grieving families–because he knew many of those afflicted.

This knowledge meant that he couldn’t fall back on the prevailing wisdom or the platitudes about poverty and disease. He could see facts more clearly, and his inquiry had an urgency stemming from his investment in the community and its suffering people.

And that, I believe, has lessons for social work advocates, too.

I believe that we can work effectively across communities, and that skills and relationships and real empathy are just as important as ‘matching’ membership on specific criteria.

But I also believe that it might be easier to miss things, nuances that really matter, if we see a community more as monolithic, which we’re more likely to do if we’re not embedded in it. I believe that too much distance can render us less effective, less committed, and, ultimately, less likely to succeed.

That’s one of the reasons that social workers make great organizers, and great advocates–we’re on the ground and we know how these issues work and we tend to notice details. We know and care about our work, and that matters for how we engage with it.

In history and still today, being close to the truth makes it more likely we find it.

Inspiration for the Journey

On this last day of February, this is my last post (for now) about my plans for the Advanced Advocacy and Community Practice course.

I’m ending the semester with a sort of ‘sending off’.

One of the hardest parts of advocacy practice–in my life, and, I believe, in the lives of many social work practitioners–is sustaining oneself for the journey.

It’s not just about preventing burnout, although that is, of course, important. It’s also about finding a sort of group of colleagues–a team–even when, in many organizations and fields of practice, there are relatively few social workers and/or relatively few practitioners engaged in advocacy practice in a concerted way.

It’s about finding sources of inspiration to give perspective during difficult fights. It requires the ability to center oneself on an animating vision–the world as it should be–without giving up in despair when we fall so short of that ideal. It requires taking care of oneself without retreating to the exclusively private sphere.

It is, of course, a very tall order for a 2.75-hour class period.

I’m going to show some film clips and share some poetry and have them do some journaling. We’re going to utilize some online forums to connect ourselves. I will, as I do every year, offer myself as a mentor and cheerleader.

There may be tears.

And, I’m hoping to crowd-source it a bit.

What sustains you?

What examples are inspiring to you? What do you do to take care of yourself? How do you stay connected with peers? How do you keep going during difficult times?

What advice would you offer to my students, as they begin their own advocacy careers?

What lights would you offer for their journey?

Elections in the rearview mirror, through a social work lens

Like most people, I still have a lot of jumbled-up thoughts about Election Day on Tuesday.

I mean, mainly there is some relief–I had a 6-year-old whose world would have been shattered if Ohio had gone for Obama. And I really, really like that six-year-old.

But I also have the conversations–in this space and in my classroom and with social work colleagues–reverberating in my head, about whether the fiscal cliff means that big cuts in important social programs are coming no matter what, and about whether spending an estimated $6 billion to end up with the same basic political balance of power is, really a good investment.

I wonder about the dangers of equating activism with casting a ballot, and how that constrains our vision of ourselves as civic beings.

And I worry, a lot, about this call for Americans to ‘come together’, since I think this election exposes that we have very, very different ideas about a vision of our country’s future.

What does compromise mean, when people’s views about who should lead us broke down, to a large extent, along demographic lines? What will it take for a President Obama to come to an agreement on tax policy with Speaker Boehner, and what does it mean if he can’t, on any terms that we as social workers would want to accept?

What does it mean, for our future–that of our profession, and the policies that govern us, and the people we dedicate our careers to serve–that about 50% of the country prefers very different policies in almost all of areas where social workers practice (health care, welfare, education) than the other 50%?

If no one has a ‘mandate’, how do we move forward? Can standing at an impasse be a strategy, to hold the line?

What does ‘having a voice’, as so many people talked about in my social media feeds yesterday, referring to their votes, look like on November 8, 2012, instead of the 6th? How do we make our votes just the beginning, instead of the culmination?

Instead of getting back to normal, now that the ads that TV watchers see are done, how do we dedicate ourselves to a civic life that could result in a coming together that looks more like progress and less like capitulation?

I have more unanswered questions than I did two days ago, I think. And they are of more profound variety than, say, “what will turnout look like in Cuyahoga County?”

Anyone want to share some answers?

Can a ‘good’ social worker vote for [fill in the blank]?

As you know, I don’t see any possibly defensible argument for social workers to not vote.

We signed a Code of Ethics that includes a requirement to “engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice.”

Voting seems like a pretty low threshold for living up to that obligation.

There’s no excuse for not showing up.

But what about FOR WHOM to vote?

Our Code of Ethics also includes mandates to:

  • “act to expand choice and opportunity for all people, with special regard for vulnerable, disadvantaged, oppressed, and exploited people and groups” AND
  • “promote conditions that encourage respect for cultural and social diversity within the United States and globally. Social workers should promote policies and practices that demonstrate respect for difference, support the expansion of cultural knowledge and resources, advocate for programs and institutions that demonstrate cultural competence, and promote policies that safeguard the rights of and confirm equity and social justice for all people” AND
  • “act to prevent and eliminate domination of, exploitation of, and discrimination against any person, group, or class on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, or mental or physical disability.”

Do those strictures tell us for whom to vote?

Are certain candidates unacceptable, across the board, to social workers, because of the statements they make or the stances they espouse?

Or is our only obligation to engage in the process, using our own ethical lens to determine which party(ies), or which candidate, best lives up to our ethical ideals?

Can you be a “good” (read: ethical, embodying social work values) social worker and vote for a candidate who supports strict voter ID laws that many civil rights leaders believe will erode these constitutional rights? Or one who opposes equal marriage rights for GLBT couples? Or one who opposes equal pay policies for women?

I don’t believe that our Code of Ethics tells us precisely how to respond to all of the dilemmas that can come up in practice, or in policy.

We are professionals, bound to a Code, but we are not robots.

I believe that ethical social workers can have legitimate disagreements about the policies to best support families living in poverty, or end child hunger, or help people who are unemployed, or protect our natural environment.

But my question, as we approach this critical election, is whether there are some candidates, and some issues, that really should be beyond the pale for social workers, even if, in some instances, the Code of Ethics runs contrary to our own personal beliefs, or what would benefit us as private individuals.

I know what the answer is for me, and for how I interpret our Code and live as a social worker.

But, for you, as you look at our profession, what do you think? Can ‘good’ social workers vote for anyone on Tuesday, as long as they’re voting?

Or does our Code point the way?

You know plenty. Just vote

This fall, several of my students have (separately) voiced that they have stayed away from politics because they “didn’t feel informed enough” to get involved.

And, I mean, I guess I sort of get that, after my initial recoil.

Social workers have an ethical obligation to competence, after all, and it is hard to keep up with all of the different races, and the different candidates’ positions, and what the fact-checkers uncovered this week.

And, for all of the talk about one vote not really mattering, no one wants to wake up the next morning and realized you cast a ballot for THAT candidate, without really understanding the ramifications.

But, really?

You know plenty.

So just vote.

What I tell my students, and what we need to remember, is that our ethical obligation to engage in advocacy in pursuit of social justice means that we have no excuse for non-participation. It is essentially not an option.

So if we feel paralyzed by lack of information, we have to find some way over, around, under, or through that particular obstacle.

Some suggestions?

  • Recognize that failing to vote is, in essence, the same net effect as voting for the candidate you didn’t want to win. So you’re not exactly ‘off-the-hook’, in terms of not voting in ignorance, even if you don’t vote. You’re there, you’re eligible, and so you figure into the equation one way or another.
  • Remember that there’s no absolute standard for intellect or even political engagement for voting. If we hold ourselves to a higher standard, as a ‘cost of entry’ than the general polity, we’re self-selecting out of the political process. We’re not raising the bar universally.
  • Educate yourself. Forget trying to understand every issue or analyze every speech. Find some issues that matter to you, a lot, and use them as a guide. I don’t necessarily object to the ‘single-issue voter’, as long as you understand that that narrow a lens will, necessarily, lead you to support some candidates whose positions on a wide range of other issues run directly contrary to your interests. But, still, if what you really care about, more than anything, is public education, then just spend energy figuring out where the candidates stand on that.

Election day is next Tuesday. If you don’t already have your absentee ballot, make plans now to fit voting into your daily schedule.

Hopefully you’ll have to wait a while, because turnout will be high and lines long.

You can stand next to all of the other people, who don’t know every nuance of every race, either, but who are there to make their preferences felt.

Just like yours will be.

When you vote.

We can all use a little inspiration.

It was a long, hot summer.

And it’s going to be a rough few years, at least here in Kansas.

So, if you’re like me, you can use a little inspiration.

Think of this post as a sort of ‘chicken soup for the advocate’s soul’…if I was that sentimental.

And, please, add your inspirations.

We can all use some more.

  • Bill Clinton’s nomination speech at the Democratic National Convention: No, not really anything that he said, although I was fairly dumbstruck, listening to it from my phone the next day, at how he really can make complicated policy issues seem so easy. Can he teach my policy class? Or do my eulogy? But, no, what I think I was most inspired by was the redemptive story of his presence. How, really, we can make mistakes–even really significant ones, on a major world stage–and, if we hang in there and do enough good, we can come back. There is hope for all of us.
  • Awesome direct practitioners making social change happen: There are many examples of this, I know, but my favorite is probably my friend Vanessa, wife of my friend Jake, and all-around terrific person. She used to be a medical assistant at Planned Parenthood, and when, because of the perennial funding cuts and legislative attacks leveled against Planned Parenthood, prices for procedures and exams would increase, Vanessa would answer the frustrated patients’ angry questions with something like, “The valuable services you just received are threatened by politics. If you want to have a voice in that, I’ll register you to vote, right now.” One day, she registered 12 patients. She rarely averaged fewer than 6. She rocks.
  • Amazing students moving mountains in order to dedicate themselves to our profession: I have not one, but TWO mothers whose husbands are deployed in my foundation policy course. They’re raising children on their own, worrying about their partners, and still studying social work with all their dedication. One is also trying to get her Parents-as-Teachers chapter to engage in more advocacy, too. Wow.
  • Zach Wahls: My friend Melanie knows Zach and posted a picture on her blog of them playing piano together. For me, it’s better than a celebrity sighting. Can you imagine being the moms who raised this tremendous young man? Also inspiring: my own kids, who, when told that their nanny was marrying her partner, paused just a minute before nodding and asking if they could have Sprite at the wedding. Love knows no boundary, as long as there is special-treat drink.

Please share: what inspires you?

Voting, and “our interests”

In class a few weeks ago, I acknowledged, in a discussion about the massive tax cuts enacted in Kansas this year, that my family’s own tax bill will be reduced–probably pretty considerably–under the new legislation. Combined, we make enough to be in an upper-income bracket, and what we pay each April will drop.

One of my students, then, asked, “So why don’t you support the tax change, if it’s going to mean more money for your family?”

I started to answer my student with a somewhat reflexive response about the importance of the infrastructure, and why I am ideologically committed to public education, and even what the erosion of public support for higher education would mean for a sizable piece of my employment.

But then I stopped.

And thought.

About economic ‘self-interest’. And social work values. And why I vote the way I do.

And, really, it’s about this:

“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life” (Jane Addams).

I chose it as the header for this blog for a reason.

I don’t believe in a ‘last one in shut the door behind you mentality”.

I don’t think that providing a ‘good quality-of-life’ for my kids is just about making sure they have money in the bank. Or even food on the table.

It’s about what we stand for together, what we consider ‘ours’, and who we consider to be part of our ‘we’.

It’s about what we’re willing to give up, in order to help others get what they need.

Not because we want to be ‘nice’ or generous, not really.

But because I believe that’s where real security and comfort and health come from.

Even if it costs me.

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.


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.

Is social work an anachronistic profession?

In this final post taken from the ideas of The Spirit Level, I’ve been thinking about the evidence from past societies about greater equality, and about how social work values are often in tension, if not outright conflict, with societal ones, and, I guess, about what that says about our profession, and where we fit.

See, if societies grow progressively (no pun intended) less egalitarian as they develop, and if social work’s collective beliefs about the distribution of resources more closely mirror those of the past than today, then what’s the future for our profession? And, of course, for society too?

Evidence suggests that hunter/gatherer societies were more cooperative and less hierarchical because of a clearer sense of interdependence; as natural resources are depleted, will we regain an understanding of just how much we need each other? Will social work values, then, that are obviously more well-suited to ‘flatter’ societal power structures, come back in style?

Or are social workers destined to cope within a dominant value structure that doesn’t reflect our understanding about the way that wealth should be distributed or, perhaps more importantly, about the negative consequences of tremendous inequality?

If that’s the case, then how will we, as social workers, respond? Will we cave to societal norms that devalue redistribution? Will we seek status in order to thrive within that power dynamic, rather than resisting it? Will we spend increasing professional energy dealing with the symptoms of inequality?

Or will we rise to the challenge of turning the tide?

Does it matter, I guess, if we’re ‘out of touch’, if we are true to our value code? Do we, in fact, gain some maneuvering room if we’re operating a bit outside the system? Is there some advantage in being seen, in fact, as distinct, because it helps us to attract social workers who are not only clear about the mandates of the profession with which they are affiliating, but also obviously comfortable with the idea of standing apart?

Will history come around to us, again?

Will we concede?

Or are we content to be anachronistic, since we believe it to be right?