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February doldrums

So we have been experiencing quite the winter weather this year, what with the polar vortex and all, making a day like today (19ºF, what?) feel like springtime. In my personal life, things have been pretty normal (that means great) and academically I’ve been making substantial important progress on my dissertation and am where I need to be for right now. Work wise, I continue to enjoy the work I do. So why the doldrums? Is it more than an endless winter?

Lately it seems that a fair number of people I know have been more than a little frustrated by life on a systemic, more than personal, level; in the academy (for academics and/or graduate students) or in the profession (for social workers) and in the adoption community. I am definitely no Pollyanna to begin with, so all the news I read easily makes me feel a little more pessimistic about the state of our world and my fellow humans. I inherently believe in the strengths and empathic capacities of people, but wow, do our institutions often just wear us down until it feels we are all playing a more polite, yet just as ruthless version, of the office-place hunger games. I admit I sometimes need to skip through my facebook and twitter feeds because of all the dismal and wretched news about the academic landscape. Since this is what I hope(d) to be someday when I grew up, it’s disheartening. In addition to the dismal academic stuff, there is all the frustrating news I read, hear about or witness regarding the way the system chews up and spits out social workers and clients alike – and particularly in child welfare and adoption, my areas of professional and academic interest.

Yesterday at a department meeting, a colleague I respect a lot talked about changing the paradigm of “preventing burnout” to “sustainability” and that clicked something in me. Several of my women of color friends in academia and I have discussed Audre Lorde’s “Caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of warfare” and read bell hook’s “Sisters of the Yam” as preventative measures against burnout.

In every social work class I teach, I bring up the concepts of burnout, secondary trauma, and vicarious trauma, all related but slightly different concepts (at least in the way I have conceptualized them). Because social workers are often working with clients that are or have experienced trauma (both crisis and sustained), they are susceptible over time of experiencing burnout, secondary trauma and/or vicarious trauma themselves.  It seems to me that once upon a time we talked in hushed whispers about “burn out” typically when referring to someone we knew who was crabby, mean,  sometimes overtly hostile to clients, or maybe generally unprofessional. When the shift toward viewing burnout as a symptom of vicarious and secondary trauma came, it felt more strengths based in that at least we could recognize the behaviors as being symptomatic of a larger issues and could see our colleagues as more than their symptoms (novel idea – we often forget this).

I like thinking about this in terms of sustainability. Sustainability is even more strengths focused. Social work in general, despite it’s value in strengths based perspectives, still tends to focus on symptoms to be managed instead of people and communities to grow and thrive.

sus·tain·able  (according to Merriam Webster) is:
– able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed
– involving methods that do not completely use up or destroy natural resources
– able to last or continue for a long time

How do we support each other in our personal and collective self-care, in a profession that often not just expects, but requires, us to go over and above on a regular basis? How can we look at each other’s self-care activities and think of them as being integral to long-term sustainability in the profession, rather than being selfish or disengaged?

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Taking care of yourself and each other

 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.

What motivates us?

My partner sent this to me today, knowing that it warms my social work-y heart. I think that social workers often feel that this is a no-brainer. I haven’t yet met a social worker who went into the “business” for money and financial reward. In fact, we brag about it sometimes, don’t we?

Yet, the reality is that many social workers who work in government or public social services do feel tied to “the golden handcuffs” – making more money than in the non-profit world. We are always concerned in public child welfare, for example, on how to improve worker performance. Child protection workers, due to the nature of the job, often make more money than other public social service workers, for example. Yet even with the higher salaries (compared to other social work jobs) and government benefits, there is a lot of worker turnover.

I thought this video was intriguing for a number of reasons. First, it highlights the idea (based on research) that $ tied to performance does not improve worker productivity – in fact it makes it worse in many cases. Second, I liked the idea that giving workers a sense of mastery and autonomy is huge in increasing worker productivity.

Which leads me to wonder how much this also applies to our “clients” or the people who are served by social work services. We talk a lot in this profession about autonomy, mastery and empowerment. I talk a lot about parallel processing; how much more would child protection workers be able to help families actualize these concepts if workers themselves felt it was achievable in their own lives?