Tag Archives: social workers

When do boundaries become excuses?

This is one of those posts with no real “lesson” to communicate.

Because it relates to a challenge with which I continue to struggle, pretty much daily.

Sorry for the disappointment.

I read Autobiography of an Execution in one stretch, until about 2AM, awhile ago.

I’m lucky that my husband can sleep with a light on.

And while the whole book was pretty gripping, there’s one phrase in particular that I haven’t been able to get out of my head.

The author calls, “there was nothing I could do” the most immoral phrase in history. He makes the further point that, in the realm of capital punishment, “you don’t want your life depending on someone with dinner plans.”

And that got me.

Because, while maybe few of us as social workers are frantically filing paperwork to literally keep our clients alive, well, sometimes our work does involve life and death. Or, at least, something just as important, in the lives of the people we serve.

And, so, does that mean that we’re acting in a morally indefensible way when we put limits on our commitments to our clients, draw boundaries around our work lives, and say, sometimes, that there’s “nothing more we can do”?

Our Code of Ethics would say no.

But what do our consciences say?

What does yours?

What does mine?

I once kept my (now) husband waiting to propose for more than an hour because I was on a crisis phone call. And I interrupted my wedding dress fitting and our engagement dinner to take calls from clients. (You’re sensing a pattern here, no doubt; at least he knew what he was getting into!)

I have an admittedly hard time carving out “me” time.

And, yet, while I can recognize the unhealthiness, at times, of such focus on our work, I can also think of more than a couple examples, as you likely can too, of social workers (and others) who have used the defense of “professional boundaries” to avoid having to do what they really should have, in order to make a difference.

And that’s what I think the author was getting at–I mean, even he took time to play catch with his son and have dinner with his wife: how can we protect ourselves against the reality that “there’s always something that needs done?” without abdicating what is our actual (professional) AND moral responsibility?

When are our boundaries just that–boundaries there to protect ourselves, and our clients, from the destruction that an enmeshed and overworked social worker can wreak–and when are they excuses we hide behind when the messiness of our work intrudes on the rest of our lives?

The Morning After: what it means for social workers

This is NOT a conclusive analysis of every race from yesterday’s midterm election. It’s not even a post with links to the commentary flooding the Internet (although, if you’re in Kansas or Missouri, you can find it here.)

Honestly, after working the polls for 13 hours, I couldn’t stay up late enough to see all of the returns, and I think my brain is still wrapping around some of the results I have seen, anyway.

But I have seen enough to have some thoughts about what this election means for social workers, though, and I’d love to start a discussion with other politics watchers about what you think this all means, or will mean in the future, to the profession, to the causes we care about, and, most importantly, to those we have the honor to work alongside–our clients.

  • Much has been made of how the “Obama effect” that turned out so many young, ‘disaffected’ voters, including people of color, has “evaporated” in 2010. To that, I guess I’d say…of course it has. We’ve known for a long time that when the focus is on short-term Get Out the Vote, instead of building long-term relationships that help people who have previously been marginalized by society to weave political engagement into the fabric of their daily lives, through connection to organizations and issues that matter to them…that engagement evaporates. Social workers know how to do it better, and we have an obligation to make politics meaningful for those others only remember every two years.
  • People want change. And so do we. We know that framing is more than half the battle, and when it comes to talking about a vision for our country, social workers can tap into a growing desire for a new direction to talk about the problems we see in our communities, the types of strategies that could address them, and what working collectively to implement them would look like. After all, exit polls suggest that this was, more than anything, an election about people’s insecurities, about their fears that this economy won’t deliver the life they envision for their families. And social workers deal with fear and insecurity, and the injustice that creates them, all the time.
  • There is a hostility to government intervention in social problems that, to social workers who have seen what utter abdication of collective responsibility looks like, seems not only unwise but cruel. At the same time, those same polls I referenced above show a convergence of opinion about the greatest challenges facing our nation, some of the very challenges that we know only a powerful, wealthy entity is capable of taking on. What that dichotomy means to me, really, is the dynamic that I’ve seen dozens of times in advocacy and what, for me, is the central story of the past two years: we can mostly agree when it’s time to name problems, but the consensus falls apart when it’s time to choose solutions. I don’t have any words of wisdom to make the prospect of dealing with a Congress decidedly more hostile to social spending than the one we’ve had for the past four years. I wish I did. But I do believe that, if we can center on a discussion about the values that motivate us and the problems that plague us, then maybe we have a chance to take another running shot at this problem-solving exercise we call governance.
  • And, finally, in what is the ultimate glass-half-full assessment by someone who’s decidedly not that Pollyanna-ish, my 13 hours in the polling place reminded me that, really, this is a system that mostly works. I don’t mean that it works on the level of money in politics, which I continue to believe is a huge problem, or even the mechanics of how we do voter registration or how people learn about the issues. But I mean that, really, I think that last night’s results mostly reflect how people are really feeling right now, or at least a majority of the American public, and there’s something reassuring, in my democracy-loving soul, about seeing that reflected, even when I wish I wasn’t, personally, in the minority this time.

    So, social workers, are you spending a day doing self-care? How do you feel about last night’s results? More importantly, how do you feel about tomorrow?

  • Hey! You! It’s Election Day!

    I’ll be working the polls this Election Day (6AM-8PM, for the whopping sum of $120!), so I’m writing this up the week before.

    I had a lot of ideas about what I wanted to write about on Election Day, from a preview of the races most critical to social justice causes to a discussion about voter protection to ideas for addressing the critical shortage of poll workers in much of the country.

    But, then, what I really want to say is:

    via Flickr Creative Commons

    If you had a really great (or really bad) Election Day experience, please leave a comment. I’d also be interested in any predictions about the outcomes, and their impact.

    Happy Election Day!

    Off limits? Social work ethics and negative campaigns

    The author of The Political Brain alleges, in regards to negative campaigns, or those that are primarily based on personal appeals rather than calculated facts:

    “There is no relation between the extent to which an appeal is rational or emotional and the extent to which it is ethical or unethical. Every appeal is ultimately an emotional appeal to voters’ interests–what’s good for them and their families–or their values–what matters to them morally” (p. 14).

    I think this whole question is important, not just at election time, but in terms of the ethics of social work advocacy, too, because, really, the kinds of claims that candidates lodge at each other during campaign season are not often that dissimilar than those lobbied (or, in some cases not) by opposing camps in a policy debate.

    And it’s not a question that’s easily resolved, at least not for social workers, who have to wrestle with this even a little more than others who adhere to an ethic of honesty and integrity, but not necessarily to the strictures of the NASW Code of Ethics.

    But, after spending quite a bit of time reading through our Code, and grappling with the literature (such that it is) on ethics and integrity in social work, I come back to the same place where I started, not too far from this author:

    Negative campaigns are not necessarily unethical. They certainly can be, but so can “positive” ones, to the extent to which they are misleading, or unfair, which is certainly not the exclusive purview of “attack” tactics.

    Our Code of Ethics requires more than just the factual honesty that is the key dividing line for many, though: we have a responsibility to respect the dignity and worth of every person, including the candidate (or elected official, or opposing advocate) in question, whose denigration might advance our cause.

    But because we know that eliciting strong emotions is key to influencing opinion, and because of the stakes involved in the electoral and policy campaigns in which we’re involved, failing to use the most effective tools at our disposal could, in fact, be seen as even more ethically ‘suspect’ than an attack which is carefully constructed so as to be persuasive but not manipulative, powerful but not vindictive, and compelling but not “truthy”.

    Obviously, in the electoral and policy arenas, social workers will have to make our own judgment calls about how to make these ethical decisions. But it’s clear that our Code of Ethics doesn’t mean to tie our hands so that we can’t, for example, expose the inconsistencies between a candidate’s voting record and stump speech, or label as racist the stereotypes emanating from the debate over Arizona’s anti-immigrant profiling bill.

    There are certainly ample examples of unethical campaigning–unethical by anyone’s standards.

    And then there are those, which, while technically true, would not meet social work’s standards, which require us to take into account the humanity of those who would be our adversaries.

    And, then, there is the failure of some social workers to boldly speak truth to power, using the Code of Ethics almost as a shield, to save us from the uncomfortable work of going after those who seek to harm the populations our profession has called us to defend.

    Now that’s unethical.

    Guest post: A Case for Advocating from Within

    **Note from Melinda: This guest post is from a blog reader who has generously agreed to share her story of advocating from within her employing organization. For obvious reasons, she remains anonymous in this forum, but she is willing to engage in conversation if other readers have questions or comments about her work.

    Working within a movement to create social change is something I have wanted to be a part of since childhood. Always rooting for the underdog, cheering for the kid in fourth place or sitting at the table with the classmate by themselves seem to have been a theme in my life. I also love to challenge authority. It has left me with multiple time-outs, probably a good year lost to groundings and supervisors waiting in their office with a stack of write-ups titled “Insubordination’.

    It was not a huge surprise when I wound up working for a women’s organization straight out of college. It felt comforting to look around and see other people dedicated to improving the lives of women and children. The realization came that the violence women are enduring are not random or isolated acts, but rather sustained by a framework developed by systems that maintain power and control over her life. It is easy to see the abuse women survive from their partner, sometimes, but not so easy to see the abuse they endure due to sexism, racism and classism. Diagnoses such as PTSD, depression and anxiety are commonly used in my world. The effect of these seems to remove “providers” further from the “consumers”. Diagnostics don’t seem to accurately reflect the experience of millions of women nor prevent the larger issues of violence against women. In my line of work we talk about how it is our responsibility to help her craft, draft and tell her story for her healing. Why not help her craft her story to connect and correct the larger injustices?

    Working for a self-touted client-centered organization it seemed natural for this type of a program to be created, shaped and implemented. My organization is part of a state-wide coalition that claims to be part of a social change movement. Implementing a survivor-designed and led advocacy group seemed like an easy fit, right? That’s what I thought. What I have found are the people, organizations or systems that are “supposed” to be on our side can actually provide more challenges than who we think our natural opponents to be.

    Internally, administrators balked at legislative advocacy because they believe that it’s our coalition’s responsibility (not our organization’s), they’re misinformed about the parameters of how nonprofits can lobby, and they’re concerned about the time/energy for adding another project to the organization. The project was not allowed to be added into my new job description as my supervisor did not feel “the project was developed enough.” Concern for burnout and shifting priorities from my primary responsibilities are other stated reasons from my supervisor to pull me off the project. The current barrier is her concern that the grants that pay my salary all specifically state ‘no lobbying’. Contacting the grantors is in the plans; however I have been barred from participating in the conversations.

    Participating in our Coalition’s Legislative Advocacy Day has been an activity that our organization traditionally does. Bringing survivors to this day is something that I thought seemed logical. The welcome was lukewarm and ill-prepared, as they had never invited survivors to this event. After women told their stories to State Legislators and a representative responded empathetically, the Coalition reacted and I was told they strategically build relationships and plan out legislation. They were alarmed at the survivor’s “uncontrolled message” and told me that they never want a “story like that ever getting back to the capital”. The effect of this statement is unfortunate in several dimensions. Violence against women can involve substance abuse, mental health, poverty and sometimes suicide and homicide. Instead of seizing the opportunity to educate people in power about the complexities of the lives of their constituents, the Coalition sent a message to my organization and the survivor that shamed her (what had happened was her fault) and attempted to take her power away by controlling her story.

    Why do I keep pushing for a survivor-led advocacy group? Because what I hear time and time again is that system action or inaction has a direct impact on people’s lives. Survivors look to systems for basic needs, protection and justice. When systems fail, women feel violated, and sometimes the “beat down from the system is worse than a man’s.” Women have been affected by the problem of violence and have a stake in the issue. They are the experts in how systems fail and re-victimize. They have a strong desire to end the re-victimization by changing the way people think about violence against women, responses to survivors and holding these systems accountable for their actions. They want a social change group that is a combination of education, policy change and legislation. If we want true change, then the people who are most affected by the problem must be at the center of righting the wrongs.

    Translating what we know into what they’ll trust

    photo credit, victius, via Flickr, Plinth Telephone System

    So this week I’ve been thinking a lot about social workers, and our particular skills, and how those can come into play in the advocacy that we know our clients deserve and our world desperately needs. I’ve argued that we know enough, already, to make a significant contribution.

    I believe that. I’ve seen both effects at work, and I know that they make social workers a force with which to be reckoned, when we turn ourselves loose on the injustices that plague our communities.

    And yet.

    I also know, and have seen, how social workers can be so frustrated in policy, when they feel that their clients’ voices are not heard, that their practice wisdom is ignored, and that they are marginalized in the policy process.

    I’ve heard on more than one occasion from social workers who lament, when policymakers are talking deficit reduction and cost containment and we’re talking kids having a chance to succeed and focus on families, that it’s as though we’re speaking a different language.

    And, so, when I was reading in Blink about how “our world requires that decisions be sourced and footnoted, and if we say how we feel, we must also be prepared to elaborate on why we feel that way” (p. 52), when the reality is that sometimes we can’t articulate that very well, or at least not to the satisfaction of those who are hostile to or at least suspicious of our profession and our orientation to begin with, which is state of the relationship between social workers and some policymakers today, it kind of struck me:

    we ARE.

    Speaking different languages, that is.

    And the consequences can be grave, because they (policymakers) need to hear what we (social workers and those with whom we work) have to say.

    So, then, it strikes me that one of our core challenges, in thinking about social workers and advocacy, is how to share what we know in ways that will be viewed as legitimate and, ultimately, gain credence in the battle over how to define social problems and how to frame how we solve them.

    This means learning how to give effective testimony, so that we fit the form enough for our substance to shine. It means weaving compelling stories into our policy arguments, and knowing how to reinforce those stories with the kinds of evidence (including, yes, statistics!) that people are more familiar with (all the while introducing the personal case as another type of valuable information). It means understanding what policymakers mean when they talk about deficits and bending the cost curve, not so that we acquiesce to their priorities, but so that we can integrate some of their language into our own rationales for change.

    And it means, of course, building the kinds of relationships to power that will, eventually, mean that we can influence the language of policy deliberation, and, in the meantime, that people will care enough about what we’re saying to ask for an interpreter.

    Why mentors matter: the woman behind the woman behind

    Florence Kelley, photo with permission of History Link

    One of the themes from The Woman Behind the New Deal that has lingered with me since I read it last month relates to the role that other women, in particular other women social workers, played in shaping the social conscience, feminist identity, and, ultimately, career choices of Frances Perkins.

    Florence Kelley, for example, provided Frances with a vision of a working, politically-active woman in an age with a very different dominant view of women’s roles. So did Jane Addams. And, perhaps even more important than these inspirations was the real interest that these women and others took in cultivating Frances, finding places for her within social movements, sharing books and exposing her to alternative thoughts about family, economics, and just society.

    One of the things that struck me was how interconnected these women were. In Chicago, Washington, DC, New York, and points in between, they pop up in each others’ lives, organizations, and campaigns. They shared not just passion for social justice but real affinity for one another, and a solidarity born out of fighting tough struggles as an overlooked and often marginalized gender.

    And they made a difference, not just in the legislative environment that improved the lives of generations of Americans (consumer protection, regulation of child labor, development of mothers’ pensions, worker safety…), but also in the capacity of other women activists to weather their own difficult battles, at home and in the public sphere.

    And reading the excerpts from their letters to each other, and the interweaving of their lives over the course of decades, has made me think more about how much my students today (and, really, me too!) could benefit from such a strong network of social work “justice fighters”–people with whom to share not just tips and web links, but also tears and celebrations, people who share not just our causes but also our stories, our values, and our professional identity.

    I don’t mean to suggest that there’s none of this kind of mentoring among social work advocates today; certainly I try to provide it for some of my students, and I have definitely benefited from the investment made by other women advocates in my own life and work. There are institutions like the Social Welfare Action Alliance that try to formalize some of this convening, and there is the existence of the field instruction experience which, at least theoretically, seeks to provide some mentoring in the foundation of a new social worker’s career.

    But we need more.

    Because, while it may not be as revolutionary to work and mother at the same time as it was in Frances Perkins (or Florence Kelley)’s day, it’s still not easy to be a social worker seeking to integrate clinical skill with radical social change. And I know that there are holes in the networks that support new social work activists, because my students often tell me that they feel alone when they launch their careers. This blog, really, is in part an attempt to fill some of that void.

    Speaking truth to power is always somewhat lonely. Frances Perkins’ story offers many insights for social workers today, but perhaps chief among them is that she probably never would have become what she did, and therefore never won for us what she did, if not for the women social workers who guided her, lifted her up, surrounded her with wisdom and encouragement and, when necessary, chastised her into using her hard-won power for the least among us.

    We’d all do better with friends like that.

    Where do you find support for your social work advocacy? Who are your mentors? What are your recommendations for social workers starting out on a social change path? And what are you willing to do to bring up (and bring out) the next Frances Perkins?

    How we got the New Deal, and why we always need a list

    List, via Flickr Commons

    My favorite scene from the book The Woman Behind the New Deal is in the prologue, when Frances Perkins comes to her meeting with Franklin Roosevelt with a handwritten list of all of the initiatives she wanted to push, if she would agree to become his Secretary of Labor.

    It was a list which, for her, represented the only things worth taking on such a monumental job, so exposed to public scrutiny. For him, then, it was a sort of litmus test–if he wouldn’t agree to back her policy vision, he wouldn’t have her as his Labor Secretary.

    For us, the list was nation-changing.

    A 40-hour workweek, minimum wage, workers’ compensation, unemployment insurance, a federal ban on child labor, Social Security…all radical ideas then that have since become core aspects of our social policy structure and defining components of the modern social contract.

    There are two fundamental lessons to come from this almost-apocryphal story:

  • We need a list.
    Sometimes we advocates for social justice are so sure that the world is against us, so convinced that our causes are hopeless, so enamored of fighting uphill battles, that we fail to ask ourselves what we’d want if someone really offered us the chance. What seems impossible today, that we’d really like to have by tomorrow? What’s our list of our top 3 priorities, or even top 5 or 10, towards which all of our work, every day, should be focused? What would we do with tons of power, if we got it?

    Stop for a minute. Write your list, if you don’t already have one. Carry it around. And be ready–you never know who might want to see it.

  • Lists aren’t enough.
    In the completion of that same vignette later in the book, Roosevelt says to Frances as she leaves, “I suppose you’ll nag me about this forever.” (p. 124) Frances realizes that he hopes that it will be so; he knows that the country needs and deserves the changes she’s outlined, but he lacks the political courage or strength of conviction to insist on them. He has chosen her not just for the vision represented in that list, but also for the knowledge that she will force him to live up to his promises.

    The lesson for us in that is that, if we’re spending all of our time thinking through what changes we want to see in the world, we may not be cultivating the relationships and the power that we’ll need to see them realized.

    Imagine if all she’d had with her was a reminder to pick up milk!

  • Al Smith was right: why we need an inside game

    In The Woman Behind the New Deal, the author reveals a conversation between Frances Perkins and long-time Tammany Hall politician, Al Smith.

    Frances is trying to decide whether to accept a government position on the Industrial Commission. It would allow her to reform working conditions through the vehicle of a government entity with authority to force changes, he asserts. She demurs, not convinced that being a part of an admittedly imperfect (even corrupt) government is the best place for a social work reformer.

    “Smith chided her. ‘If you girls are going to get what you want through legislation, there better not be any separation between social workers and the government.'” (p. 77)

    When Frances relates the offer to her friend and mentor, social worker Florence Kelley, Kelley’s response was, “‘Glory be to God…I never though I would live to see the day when someone that we had trained and who knew industrial conditions, cared about women, cared to have things right, would have the chance to be an administrative officer!” (p. 77)

    Frances, obviously, took the job, which helped to launch a lifetime of service to workers through the medium of government service.

    With the benefit of history, it’s so clear that, for her, working within the government was the best place from which to enact the reforms so important to her and, ultimately, to the country.

    And that’s why this anecdote about her ambivalence is so important, and so instructive.

    What is it about social workers that makes us, often, so reluctant to enter this “inner sanctum”–the halls of government where so many of the policies that influence so much of our work, and our world, are made?

    Is it our noted discomfort with power? A concern that getting too close will compromise our ethics? Unfamiliarity with the policymaking process, that makes us feel incapable of rendering excellent service in that realm? Preference for the less formal work settings of nonprofit organizations? Inadequate guidance to steer us towards government service as a career path? All of the above?

    There’s certainly a case to be made for the outside agitator: no social movement was ever fomented exclusively by government employees, and none is likely to ever be.

    But when we think about all of the policymaking that happens through regulations, which are largely controlled by unelected bureaucrats, and when we think further about the access and influence that these bureaucrats have with elected officials, and about the media platform that those well-positioned within administrations have, to shape discussion of issues and establishment of the social policy agenda, then it seems obvious that we need some of “our people” on the inside, too.

    And what better way to get “our people” there, than by having at least some of us (read: social workers committed to social justice) go, ourselves?

    If you’re a social worker in government service now, what obstacles do you encounter in your quest for social justice? If you’re considering government work as a part of your career, what considerations are you weighing? If you’re a committed “outsider”, why? And what should social work education be doing to prepare social work advocates for successful reform work both within and without government institutions?

    Social Work Blog Awards 2010

    Drumroll, please…..

    announcing the…

    Active Social Work has created an award for the best social work blogs in a variety of categories, as described below:

  • Adoption/Fostering: this category should include blogs written under the topic of adoption or fostering services.
  • Children and Families: this category should include blogs written under the topic of Children and Families social services.
  • Diary/Personal: this category should include blogs written by social workers or social work students who maintain a journal about their activities.
  • Educational: this category should include blogs written for or by social workers with educational value.
  • Informative/Policies: this category should include blogs of informative nature about social work policies, news, etc.
  • Adult Social Services: this category should include blogs written under the topic of Adult Social Services and includes palliative social work .
  • Mental Health: this category should include blogs written under the topic of mental health services.

    The contest actually started at the beginning of the year, but, since nominations are requestd until September 1, 2010, I thought that was a bit too long for my attention span. Voting on the nominees will be between September 1-December 31, 2010, with the results announced on the 1st of January 2011.

    Many of my favorite social work blogs, including Fighting Monsters, Pittsburgh Perambulations, and Eyes Opened Wider have already been nominated.

    I found a few new ones through the site, too, because people are leaving their votes in the comments on this permanent page. I especially enjoy finding ways to connect with social workers in direct practice about the ways in which social policy impacts their practice and their clients and, since I interact online mostly with non-social workers, it’s good to find a community of folks with pretty similar values and approaches.

    Social workers, check it out. You might find some new blogs to follow.

    And, of course, if you can think of any really fabulous social work policy blogs to nominate (ahem…), well, you can do that, too! Happy voting!