I just wanted to publicly thank Relando Thompkins, one of my favorite bloggers, for including me in his 13 Compelling Social Work Blogs post. Relando’s blog, Notes from an Aspiring Humanitarian is a lovely blog full of inspirational and thoughtful posts about social work, society, culture, working for social justice and peace. Relando and I share a passion for improving the experience of students of color in higher education. Always thoughtful and thought-provoking, please add N.A.H. to your blog roll!
Yesterday I attended a conference session titled “Facilitating Genuine Dialogue on Diversity While Instructors’ Own Marginalized Identities are Evoked” with Izumi Sakamoto (University of Toronto), Lorraine Gutierrez (University of Michigan) and Billie S. Allan (University of Toronto). I attended a panel by the same presenters a few years ago on “Decolonizing social work curriculum” (I can’t recall the exact title but it was something along these lines). These women are fantastic; Billie began by thanking the ancestors of the land that we were standing on for their gifts which immediately made me feel at home, and brought to mind my first nations colleagues and friends back home.
I attended this session based on the following description:
Although there is a plethora of literature on how to teach cultural competency to students, rarely covered is how instructors with multiple marginalized identities negotiate the classroom space and engage students in genuine dialogue on marginalization and privilege. Presenters will share their experiences in navigating through tension and vulnerabilities.
The shared experiences were, at times, overwhelming and painful and for the larger-than-expected audience for this session, often times quite emotional. I watched as several accomplished and tenured professors shed tears as they described very confrontational and emotionally violent actions that privileged white students had brought to their classrooms. It is experiences like this when I struggle with whether I want to, or have the energy to, continue to hold ground and/or push on within the institutional and social systems that oppress marginalized communities – and that includes schools of social work and social service agencies.
I am fortunate that I have some amazing women of color friends walking with me on our doctoral education journeys but I have to admit that I wish there were more of us in my field. I am concerned that there is a lot of talk about social justice and anti-oppression in social work but in the daily business of social work practice, education, and research there is a surprising silence about confronting the arc towards the status quo. I go to these conferences and have very different experiences that seem to be so dichotomous as to be splitting; on the one hand I can have amazing conversations with radical social workers who speak of decolonizing social work practice while only hours later I’m questioned about my race and ethnicity by a white social worker who thought it was her right to know where I was *really* from (and then proceeded to “guess” based on her ideas about my name).
A few weeks ago at the Adoption Initiative conference in New York, I had the luxury of spending several days with deeply thoughtful and intellectually and socially grounded professors, doctoral students, artists and practitioners with whom I could speak deeply and emotionally about the challenges of being in academia as someone who challenges the current operating paradigms. One of the themes that came up was how important it is to take care of ourselves so that we don’t burn out, self-destruct, or lose ourselves in this difficult work. One of my new friends suggested reading Sisters of the Yam by bell hooks. My copy arrived the day before I left for this conference and I had been sneaking in little moments to read over the past couple of days. So when the group presenter asked each of us to say something about how we move forward, I pulled out this book from my bag, and promised that I would finish reading Sisters of the Yam.
I mentioned on this blog the other day how privileged I am to be facing these choices; but attending this session also increased my sensitivity to the ways in which people of color or people from other marginalized communities make these choices with much greater stakes than those from more privileged backgrounds. This isn’t necessarily a matter of just making choices; rather if people don’t stay and fight hard to claim a space in the academy (or in the profession) it becomes more difficult for those coming up after to see themselves, as well as perpetuates the hierarchies and gatekeeping that exist. One of the participants of this session I attended mentioned that she carries with her the spirit of her mother, grandmother, aunts and all the other women in her family who came before her who never had the opportunities because they were denied access.
I left this session with more questions than answers and more sadness than hope. And this thought: we already know we are strong and capable because we made it this far, even with the many obstacles in our way; the question is, are our institutions, professions and colleagues with privilege strong enough to change the status quo? Perhaps we’ve been asking the wrong people to shoulder the burden of inclusivity and social change.
Last night after a full day of conference sessions and dinner with my colleagues, a friend and I decided to take an evening visit to the MLK memorial. This is my 6th visit to DC in the past few years and the last three times I’ve walked the MLK memorial at night. There is something quite profound about the starkness of the sculpture of MLK and the simple, clean lines of the walls of quotes.
My favorite quote from this memorial always makes me think about social work, because I believe what is expressed through these words exactly sums up what I think social work is all about.
Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly affects all indirectly.
- MLK, Alabama, 1963
I’m sitting in my hotel room desk, preparing for the first of my two presentations at the Council on Social Work Education’s (CSWE) Annual Program Meeting conference. It has been very interesting to observe this conference (or, as they prefer to call it, Annual Program Meeting, or APM) as a doctoral candidate. When I attended the APM a few years ago I was a graduate student who hadn’t completed all my exams or dissertation proposal, and I was pretty starry-eyed and overwhelmed. Perhaps it’s because of all the traveling I have done since then, the many conferences I’ve attended and presented, but this time feels very different.
Several of my good friends and members of my doctoral cohort are on the job market this year, and they are busy rushing from interview to interview. I’m exhausted just watching them and of course it makes me very reflective about my own job search in a few years. I am learning a lot from my friends, most importantly that thinking strategically and thoughtfully about what I want to do in a couple of years needs to be figured out fairly soon. I could go in many different directions right now.
However, no matter how confusing it seems right now thinking about all the things I want to do in the future and what might be the best direction(s) for me I am not for a second forgetting how privileged I am to have this “problem.”
I was never supposed to be here in the first place. Given my disadvantaged early childhood, thrown away like trash – although I was given the opportunity to have better than my humble beginnings would have allowed, expectations were fairly low. I was not the “smart one” in my family. It wasn’t until my mid-30s that I first realized I had the capacity to do well academically and that in fact, I loved learning. People can rise to expectations if they’re given both the opportunity and the support. I had both thanks to a very supportive partner in life who encouraged me to take the first step. Then I had some amazing professors who wouldn’t let me self-sabotage my trajectory as a non-traditional student trying to finish her undergraduate degree. They even encouraged me to pursue a master’s degree, which I first found ludicrous. Ten years ago it would have seemed incomprehensible that today I’d be embarking on a research study for my doctoral dissertation and considering which schools I’d like to apply to when I am finished with my program.
These are the things I remember when feeling overwhelmed with all the “choices” I have before me. What a luxury to have them. Not everyone is as fortunate.
In my first year of my doctoral program I was fortunate to meet a colleague who had as much online/social media experience as me – few of my fellow social work colleagues and faculty in our school used (even now) online social media much beyond LinkedIn for professional contacts and maybe Facebook for personal connections – forget about blogging, Tumblr, Twitter or the like.
When I began graduate school my department did not use social media sites to promote and market their activities and programs. I asked if I could create and maintain a Twitter site for the Center and now I share Twitter duties with other graduate students. I enjoy working with others in the Center to think about how to effectively use social media to promote the Center’s activities.
One of the things I make sure to emphasize when I talk about using Twitter or other social media (our Center also has a Facebook page and a blog) is the reciprocal nature of social media. A lot of professionals use Twitter and Facebook in a one-way direction to share their organization’s (or professional) activities/news/etc. But I often remind others who are starting to use Twitter professionally that it’s not just about a mass news blast to the “Twitterverse” but that social media done best is done relationally. That means paying attention to who else is out there that is similar to you or your organization and “following” or “liking” their social media page. It means thanking new followers on Twitter for following you. It means when someone you follow or like posts, a news story link or message that you “re-tweet” or “share” rather than posting it as your own. It means commenting on other blogs and linking other blogs on your blog as well. It means making connections between fellow online relationships that you think would benefit from knowing each other.To me this is what social work is all about!
Anyone who knows me knows that one of my mantras in almost all social work (and beyond) situations is parallel processing. So in the same ways that we social workers tend to think about social media as a client (practice) issue, I want to encourage our profession to see it as a professional and organizational issue as well, beyond the issue of just client concerns (i.e. clients engaging in problematic behaviors on social media sites) which is where most of the emphasis on social media is currently situated.
I was recently part of a discussion that focused around disabilities and social inclusion and since then I’ve had a bunch of thought rattling around in my mind about how we as social workers determine what is in someone’s “best interests.”
The basis of all of these thoughts comes down to this: at what point is a person considered so vulnerable and unable to “speak for themselves” that it is appropriate for the service professional or social worker to act against their own code of ethic (advocating for self-determination) and take away the option of choice because it was determined to be against that person’s “self-interest?”
We must negotiate that line or continuum, not just a daily basis, but multiple times in our interactions with, and decisions regarding, vulnerable persons. Our professions are pretty good at giving lip service to “empowerment” and “advocacy” and “self-determination” until we decide that the “client” is not acting in their “best interest” (according to OUR standards, of course) and then we step in to “protect” them.
Maybe this subjectivity is less ethically “sticky” if the client is causing harm either to him/herself or to someone else; but what about those areas in which harm isn’t exactly evident or in which the harm to self or others is much more subtle? For example, this discussion centered around social inclusion and persons with disabilities. More specifically, the conversation began with ways in which direct support staff or professionals working with clients who exhibit these characteristics can “encourage” social inclusion in the greater community. Someone in this group stated they thought that some of the examples given were more coercive than “an encouragement” and that the people in question (clients) did not appear to have given consent to enter these “friendships” with community members (in fact, it seemed more about the community members who volunteered/mentored the person with the disability than an equal relationship).
Several years ago I worked in a residential group home for persons with disabilities. One of my duties was to take the residents out into the community – for example, to movies, the mall, the library, to parks, etc. Our job was not to “help” the residents “make” friends, our job was to facilitate their interactions in the community. Some of the residents did not want to have friends, in the community or otherwise. They would tell you directly that they had all their social needs met by family members who visited and occasional (and rare) conversations with staff. Part of the lack of interest in socialization had to do with their disabilities, and other parts may have been due to personality or temperament. After the discussion from last week, now I wonder what I would have done if part of my job duties had been to “find” friends for the residents. There seems to be no guidelines for this – helping our vulnerable clients “make friends.” What is the power dynamic in these relationships, when we are basically encouraging volunteer mentors from the community and asking them to befriend persons who are vulnerable?
Either way, if forcing residents who have low thresholds for social interaction and engagement makes them feel bad, do we make them anyway? Could one argue that a client is self-harming [emotionally] if it is determined that a person needs social interaction and s/he refuses?
How do we facilitate choices for clients while also determining what’s in their best interests and subtly (or not so subtly) imposing our views on them? I’m not talking about social exclusion here – I am not advocating that we do not consider the social needs of the people we work with. I am asking about those clients who have low thresholds for social interaction and how much we force it upon them, because we think it is in their best interests?
- otherwise known as the post in which I ruminate on the “other” and whether inclusion or exclusion is the answer.**
We (those of us who fit in to a dominant group) like to tell people who don’t (the other) how they should live. And then we often expect gratitude from them for our generosity in thinking about their “best interests.”
One of the books I’m currently reading is “Developmental Disabilities and Child Welfare.” by Ronald Hughes and Judith Rycus. This book, published in 1998, is a good primer for anyone looking to become more informed about how child welfare professionals need to understand and respond to children in the child welfare system with disabilities. While reading this book earlier today, I was struck by the author’s discussion about the importance of the inclusion of children with disabilities into mainstream settings (here I believe they mostly are referring to educational settings, but could definitely be expanded to all settings in which typically developing children interact).
The authors stress that segregation is a disservice to both individuals with disabilities as well as to society in large, because for the individual it 1) denies the person the opportunity to be part of the same world as anyone else, 2) it sends a message that they inherently can’t participate in the same activities as the rest of society, and 3) singles them out for special treatment rather than treating them as their typically-abled peers.
The disadvantage to society at large is that segregation perpetuates the stereotypes and myths about persons with disabilities, and that society will not recognize the many contributions that are made to society by persons with disabilities . The authors write, “An extension of this myth is that people with disabilities prefer life and activities with ‘their own kind.’ It is true that years of segregation can contribute to feelings of anxiety and fear when a person with a disability is confronted with an integrated environment…This myth is often a rationalization to cover and reinforce our own discomfort in the presence of persons with disabilities” (p.23). Continue reading
This past month I’ve had a few conversations with fellow social work graduate students of color. I have wanted to write an honest post for some time now about what it is like on a daily basis to be a social worker of color and navigating through this profession that professes to be about equality, empowerment and social justice but often continues to perpetuate oppression for any of us who are not White, straight, cis-gendered, able-bodied, middle-class, native-born, English-speaking, non-Christian and/or highly educated (and woe to any who claim more than one of these identities or statuses).
I wrote a lengthy post today, but ended up erasing it all. See, I realize that I might just come across as whiny. Inevitably, as I’ve had these conversations more often than I care to, I’ll just be called “angry” or “reverse racist,” that I only see the negative side of things and that I’m ignoring all the good that has been done in the name of social work and social workers. That I’m not recognizing that they just want to HELP PEOPLE.
In my experience,there are two kinds of social workers. Those who want to “help people” and those who want to “work for social justice.”
My fear is that this is actually the future of social work.
[if video does not play, click here.]