Tag Archives: teaching

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.


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?

“You Don’t Speak for Me”

There’s a lot that I really love about teaching–the constant opportunity to challenge my own thinking about critical issues, the incentive to read and stay abreast of developments in social policy, the relationships with students who later become colleagues.

But my favorite part?

When students totally blow me away with their commitment to social change, creativity in pursuit of justice, and all-around awesomeness.

In all fairness, this post is not about my students. But I feel like I can claim them just a little bit, because I worked with them in my capacity as an advocate, advising them on their project and connecting them to policymakers and allies.

And because, if I’m really, really lucky, they might end up in one of my classes one day.

I’m thrilled that this group received the national Influencing State Policy award. They completely deserve it. They absolutely did influence state policy, defusing the anti-immigrant argument that, somehow, attacking immigrant kids helps other college students. Their advocacy, including this video and the petition drive that garnered support from college students around the state, shored up Senate supporters of Kansas’ current instate tuition policy and injected a new theme into the media coverage of the repeal debate, both critical to the ultimate defeat of the attempted repeal.

What I love most, though, is that these students not only made an impact on state policy (in a truly beautiful way). They also demonstrated, for other students and would-be activists, that such influence is within reach and that it can be really fun, too.

I always cry at the end of the video, when this powerful collection of students says, essentially, “Hey, when you’re hating on hard-working immigrant students, you don’t speak for me.”

I am so glad that they found their voice.

And I can’t wait to hear what they say next.

Futurecasting, My Students, and Our Sector

In this second post during “Future Week”, here at Classroom to Capitol, I’m sharing an assignment that I created for my two policy classes this semester and how it fits with our critical challenge, as a nonprofit sector, to move beyond strategic plans that assume the world will stay mostly as it is (because it won’t), to instead prepare ourselves (and our future colleagues) to prepare to thrive in a nearly unimaginable (right now) future.

In both my first-year MSW and Advanced Policy courses, students are required to investigate, analyze, and then comment on at least one macro trend expected to influence their current and future organizations, the realm of public policy in which they work, and their own practices. It’s not a research project, as such, in that no one can definitively predict these impacts, and students’ interpretations of the likely meaning of these trends are taken as valid and worthy of consideration, provided that the are based on sound reasoning and a firm grasp of the current state of their respective fields. They have some leeway to identify the trend(s) they want to study, but some that are suggested include:

  • Increasing representation of people of color in the population and among social work clients
  • Rise of mobile technologies and its impact on the digital divide
  • Declining federal financial aid for higher education and accompanying increasing tuition prices
  • Growth of nonprofit administration degrees outside of social work
  • Climate change (disaggregated in the developing and more developed economies)
  • Growth in the older adult population in the U.S., especially as compared to the working-age population
  • Demographic shifts towards the Southeast and Southwest, and away from traditional population centers in the Northeast

    The Future of Nonprofits stresses the importance of “futuring” for nonprofit organizations, as a way to outline some of the potential scenarios in which the organizations may operate, to identify opportunities and challenges embedded within them. As someone whose feelings about more traditional strategic planning are well-known (!), I really appreciated how the authors distinguish between those rather static exercises and this more freeform thinking about what could be, and what that could mean.

    For my students, once they are freed from the anxiety associated with fearing that they need to have some sort of crystal ball, the opportunity to talk with their peers and brainstorm about what could be coming (and how it might affect them) is pretty rewarding. I’m consistently impressed (and pleased!) with how often they identify the potential in these trends, not just the threats–I don’t know if it’s their youth or their innate optimism or what, but they tend to gravitate, even, towards the hidden good, while retaining a focus on vulnerable populations that could be adversely impacted in various future environments.

    I hope that, as part of our work together, my students develop and maintain a true curiosity about what the world holds, how it got this way, and where it might be headed.

    Knowing where to go, with whom to talk, what to read, and what questions to ask in order to figure out what’s going on with the people we serve, the organizations where we work, and the field in which we operate is integral to questioning the world as it is, and to imagining the world as it could be. It requires approaching life a bit more like my oldest son does–absolutely everything is questioned with a “why?” and a “why not?”–and casting a net wide enough to bring in diverse perspectives that can help us answer those most important questions.

    I think it’s more valuable, for them as professionals and for our profession as a whole, than the concrete knowledge (which will soon be outdated) or even the discrete skills I hope to pass along.

    Because, ultimately, I want my students to not just think about what the future might look like.

    I want them to help shape it, for the better. For all of us.