Tag Archives: students

Flipping Frames

My students’ favorite class period, usually, in the Advanced Advocacy and Community Practice course, is when we talk about framing.

Everybody loves reading Lakoff, right?

The fun part for me is watching their realization develop, as they consider the roots of what they have always held to be ‘true’, as, instead, socially constructed and shaped by the language we use to talk about the concepts the words represent.

We talk about how often we find ourselves slipping into language, and buying into frames, that do not fit our values. Even though we can’t afford to shore up a competing frame.

We talk about ‘tax relief’, and about how it makes no sense to talk like that.

And, as they get it, they peel away the frames that shape our thinking. They reject frames that clash with the visions we hold.

Together, we reclaim language, refuse to accept language that misrepresents or demonizes vulnerable populations, and assert new ways of talking about issues.

We talk about how talking differently can lead to thinking differently, and about how we can lead the way to new potential solutions by changing the mental cues that our words evoke.

This isn’t about blaming the media for spin, or pretending that there are magic phrases that can galvanize the public around our way of seeing the world. Instead, it’s about understanding the cognitive link between language and beliefs, and using that brain science to our advantage, in the literal war over words.

In small groups, students practice ‘flipping’ frames. They analyze how a particular policy or problem is framed today–like tax policy, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP), unemployment, homelessness, or the Affordable Care Act–in policy discourse/public media, and generate alternative ways that they could be framed.

Then we assess what it would take to assert this alternative way of thinking about these issues. We talk about how we might begin this process of transition. I use examples from advocacy debates today, like the work DREAM Act youth have done around pushing media outlets to abandon use of the word ‘illegal’ to describe undocumented immigrants, about how language can drive policy.

For many of them, it’s the first time that they have really thought about how what we say, together, shapes what we think, and about the insidious ways in which language determines what is seen as a ‘problem’ and which solutions are seen as ‘feasible’.

It’s satisfying, then, when they send me media clips, by email or through social media, even years later, pointing out how language around gay rights has shifted, or questioning why we’re all talking about a ‘fiscal cliff’.

We know, from research about the powerful intersection between language and thought, that we are what we say, to a great extent.

So we have some frames that need to be flipped.

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Advocates’ Autobiographies

My favorite assignment, from all of my classes, is one that I use for the Advanced Advocacy and Community Practice course.

Students write their ‘advocates’ autobiographies’, narrating their own stories about how they came to their commitment to social justice. Social work students, in my experience, are often asked why they decided to study social work (a question, and a subsequent conversation, that sometimes bothers me, because it can come across as part of the ‘why would anyone want to be a social worker?’ lament, which just feeds the narrative of powerlessness that social workers should repudiate. But we much less commonly trace the multiple influences that take us towards an identity as ‘advocates’, only some of which may overlap our professional journeys.

In past years, my students have shared stories about raiding their pantries for canned goods in grade school and learning that we must want more than leftovers for those who are in need; about witnessing injustice and, even at a young age, startling those around them with their passionate and informed responses; and about becoming frustrated with 1:1 interventions and craving more systemic change.

Some of them have come to be advocates from a place of relative privilege, others, after having suffered considerable injustice themselves. Some, of course–given the overlapping inequities and multiple oppressions that make up our society–have known both paths.

I share some of my own advocate autobiography, which includes dressing up like Mother Theresa in first grade, even though my Dad tried to convince me that the other kids wouldn’t be in costume, and filling an entire composition book with my ‘lists of worries about what’s wrong in the world’ when I was about 9. I tell them about a coincidence found me proficient in Spanish when I was in graduate school, at the same time that the immigrant community was growing in size and prominence in St. Louis, Missouri, and about how my Protestant guilt, I guess, provoked me towards immigrant justice instead of the work I thought I would do, with older adults.

We talk about how there is no one ‘right’ or ‘true’ path to advocacy; it’s one of those things where, I believe, the end matters more than the means.

But it’s important to know your story, to claim it–not to romanticize it; this isn’t about turning ourselves into martyrs, but about understanding that who and where we have been will shape the lens through which we see the world, and the struggles in which we engage.

So, in the interest of expanding their world and growing their circle, will you share a snippet of your own ‘advocate’s autobiography’? Is there a moment that shaped your journey? How do you trace your progression from ‘then’ to ‘now’? And what do you imagine, for how the rest of your narrative will unfold?

Can advocacy be taught? We try.

This semester, I am back teaching a class that has, over the years, been one of the most rewarding experiences in my academic career: Advanced Advocacy and Community Practice.

It’s controversial, I know, this idea that advocacy can be ‘taught’. I view social work practice the same way, though. Can we really ‘teach’ practice? Absent the context in which to apply the skills and the knowledge?

I view this class, then, as part building blocks–exposing students to some of the components of advocacy practice and, perhaps even more importantly, the resources to which they can turn when they need guidance and assistance in navigating advocacy–and part semester-long pep talk, since I see reluctance to tackle advocacy as, itself, one of the biggest reasons that more social workers haven’t successfully integrated advocacy into their work.

What I love about this course is the moment–maybe as part of practicum, maybe as part of a class assignment, maybe in the course of a class discussion or online discussion board–when students begin to identify as advocates.

Their language begins to change, often, as advocacy becomes ‘something that I do, as part of being a social worker’, instead of something vague and foreign and threatening.

To get there, we do fairly traditional academic exercises: readings, discussions, guest speakers, written assignments.

But I also do a lot of mentoring, even more than I do in my policy courses, and certainly more than students would normally see, as part of graduate study. It is my hope that, as a result of the semester, they not only have a better sense of what needs to go into an advocacy practice, and how to do those things, but also at least one real example of what trying to be an advocate, as a social worker, looks like…as part of their journey to figure out what it could, and should, look like for them.

My plan for this semester is:

  • Help students craft their own definition of ‘advocacy’, so that they can begin to articulate where and how it fits into their social work practice. There’s a real benefit in having these conversations at this point in their nascent careers, when their overall practice is, itself, an evolving work in progress.
  • Critically examine the realities of nonprofit social service agencies as locations for advocacy, so that students have as few illusions as possible about the advantages and disadvantages of their organizations as venues for social change.
  • Encourage self-awareness, one of an organizer’s greatest tools in the long slog that is working for justice.
  • Articulate how being a ‘social work advocate’ is different than other professions’ pursuit of social change, with particular emphasis on helping students navigate the ethical dilemmas that often arise for macro practitioners.
  • Sharpen students’ skills in social problem analysis and, especially, ‘cutting’ issues–while we teach problem analysis from an academic perspective in other courses, students usually have little experience translating their concerns into issues that have a real chance of making it onto the public agenda. This is certainly as much art as science, but we need to help them see that problems aren’t necessarily ‘problems’, just because we think they are bad.
  • Confront power–our own, our clients’, systems’, our targets’…I spend time in just about every class I teach helping my students become more comfortable with power, and power analyses, because no one wins when we pretend that our power doesn’t exist…or, conversely, that it is sufficient.
  • Expose students to real examples of what community organizing and mobilization looks like, which, admittedly, is the hardest piece to replicate in an artificial classroom environment. I try through using readings that bring in different perspectives, copious use of very generous guest speakers, and some film representations.
  • Build frames, because so much of advocacy rests in how we communicate about what our communities need, and why it is in our collective interest to deliver it. This is usually students’ favorite part of the semester, because it’s fascinating to learn new things about how we think about what we think we know…and why.
  • Prepare students for participation in coalitions, often their first opportunity to experience community efforts in action and, unfortunately, often a rather disappointing one.
  • Engage in legislative advocacy, which I intentionally put towards the end of the course, because it’s often the first (and sometimes only) way that students think about ‘advocacy’, and I want to break them out of that more narrow conception of the forms social change can take.
  • Discuss and experience electronic advocacy and the influence of the rise of social media on how people identify as ‘community’ and how they organize themselves.
  • Make plans for integrating advocacy into practice, including (new this semester) assessing students’ current organizations’ advocacy capacity.

Ultimately, the proof is in the pudding, so to speak. While most of the students I’ve taught in this course in the past 5 years have not gone on to be full-time advocates, I believe that they are more politically and macro-engaged than most, although that certainly cannot be causally inferred from their time in my class, since they have to identify as interested in advocacy in order to opt in (and they’re awesome, it should be said, especially since many of them are regular readers!). At some point, it would be cool to do some research about the impact of academic offerings like this. For now, it’s a bit of a walk of faith; I build the best experience I can, promise to walk beside them, and hope that the journey is a fruitful one.

From the outline above, what do you think is missing? What do you wish you had known as you had embarked on your advocacy career, that could have been taught in class? What kinds of experiences are most important for new social workers who hope to have a macro impact? Where would you like to see instructors build these in?

It’s all about the orange. Really.


Image credit, Center on Budget and Policy Priorities

My students and former students know this graph well.

One of my former students joked that he was going to create t-shirts for me with the figure on the back and “It’s all about the orange” on the front.

Yes, I have really great students.

I have shown this chart every semester for the past three years (thanks to the folks at CBPP for updating it and permitting me to share it!), and my students often comment about how it makes them think differently about how we got in the mess we’re in today.

This post is about how I struggle, sometimes, to engage my students in discussing issues and realities that are, often, pretty new to them: the deficit, congressional gridlock, Kansas’ bleak fiscal future, the looming entitlement crises…

Without engendering a “it’s all hopeless and politicians are corrupt so I’m just going to focus on helping this client” reaction.

How do I spark anger, instead of cynicism?

How do I cultivate hope, even while alarming them to the point of action?

Because, the truth is, I believe these are solvable problems.

They are hard decisions, obviously–a cursory reading of the news underscores that people of good will have real differences of opinion about the best way to ‘bend the cost curve’ on entitlements, for example.

They are both technical and adaptive challenges, then: those that we don’t exactly know how to solve, and those for which we struggle to generate adequate political will to solve.

But the worst thing we can do, of course, is throw up our hands and abdicate the discussion to those who don’t share our social work values. Especially when some of the problems reveal stark choices about different paths, and we know that taking a given course would have significant implications for the individuals and communities we are called to serve.

So, I return to my dilemma of sorts.

A few weeks ago, after class, one of my students told me that “everyone should have to take this class” (I couldn’t agree more!) about budget policy and its impact on nonprofit organizations. But so often, I can see their fear, and disdain, and panic, and, in a blink, resignation.

What keeps you from turning away in disgust? Where is the line between alarm and alarmist? How do I balance outrage and uplift?

How do I light a fire without watching their commitment to engage in policy change go up in flames?

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.

Did you hear the one about the social worker and the WTO?

This week, I’m starting my class on poverty in the global economy (it’s tons of fun–a month-long crash course in global economics with BSW students!) and reflecting on a book that my husband actually recommended I read, The Tyranny of Dead Ideas.

One of the ‘dead ideas’ that the author contends is hindering our search for policy solutions to the real challenges we face is the belief that ‘free trade’ is always an economic good and, indeed, the equation of our current model of corporate-driven globalization with a free trade system.

The truth is, of course, that our global economic structures today, with free trade zones where labor laws are sparse and enforcement even rarer, and with nearly unfettered travel of capital around the globe, without corresponding movement of people, and with very little corporate accountability to any national–or even international–good, is bound to create winners and losers.

That means that it’s a good for some, and a threat to others, and that we need not only an economic system but a public commons that recognizes that and accounts for it.

For many of my students, this class is their first exposure to, well, almost everything we talk about in class: the connection between NAFTA and Mexican immigration rates, the linkage between pharmaceutical patents and the high lethality of HIV in the developing world, International Monetary Fund-imposed austerity packages and the privatization trend that has swept the world (including the U.S.).

The purpose of the class, the way I teach it, is to help social work students, who will spend most of their practice focused on social problems within a U.S. context, understand how small our planet really is today, and why, then, the way that multinational corporations behave, or that multinational economic agreements are structured, matter to, say, Kansans.

The challenge, sometimes, and the book talks about this some, too, is not not fall into a reactionary protectionism, which would simply replace one dead idea (all globalism=progress) with another (we can seal off our own economy).

Instead, the answer is justice.

What’s good for one can really be good for all, if we choose the right goods.

If we build real protections into our economy–a solid safety net, meaningful access to retraining for displaced workers, strong labor unions that make work pay–then we won’t be tempted by protectionism.

If we build alliances across national divisions, we can create people power sufficient to check the excesses of global capital.

If we open our minds to new ways of structuring economies, we can resist the pull of a dead idea.

And it starts, at least for me, with 5 1/2 hours of connecting the dots on a June afternoon.