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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.

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The racialized classroom

Yesterday I attended a round table at my university titled, “Teaching and Learning in the Racialized Classroom.” From the program’s description: the “engaging roundtable discussion seeks to provide students, teaching assistants, instructors and faculty with a candid discussion about the myriad ways in which race impacts the teaching and learning experience — especially in classes in which women are teaching about racialized identities, power, and communities.Questions up for discussion include: How are instructors’ and students’ bodies and identities being read? How do instructors and students respond to one another given this reading of identities? What are some multiple strategies of addressing identity in the classroom?”

I was interested in this discussion because it intersects with two aspects of my life right now. I’m currently teaching a course that could be called a “diversity” class for a local undergraduate social work program. This class is actually the second in a series, the first of which honestly was more in-depth and substantial than the diversity course I took in my Master’s program. I have taught the first course in the series twice, and was happy to be asked to teach the second course, which delves much further than just learning about different racial/ethnic populations to explore social work practice. So, as a woman of color teaching a class on issues of diversity for a professional program dominated by white practitioners, I was very interested in hearing what others had to say about the ways I, as a female teacher of color, read and are read by the students in my class.

In addition, over the past month, this topic has come up in a couple of conversations amongst a group of friends who regularly get together. However, we are not only discussing the educator of color in the classroom but including the reverse situation of white educators teaching in a diverse classroom of K-12 students. This group of friends includes several educators, three of whom are white women and three of whom are women of color (myself included). One of the things that happened was that comments made by the educators of color were viewed negatively by the white educators, the white educators attempted to “educate” the educators of color based on a White, liberal framework that did not account for the differences and nuances with teachers and students of color, and feelings were hurt on both sides.

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Whose voice is telling the story?

Last week I finished reading The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. I first heard about the book when I saw Skloot on the Colbert Report and what intrigued me most was not the science behind the story but that the cells that had gone on to impact medical science in such immeasurable ways had been taken without Lack’s knowledge and the development of ethical standards for conducting research.
Without giving away too much of the story (although most of it is now widely known) here are my thoughts. For the most part, the story is told in a compelling way, starting with the author’s imagined scenario of Henrietta’s visit to Johns Hopkins to have a”knot” checked out. Skloot tells the story of Henrietta and the impact of her cells on medical science while alternating between her history, her children’s stories, and those who played a key role in how her cells were used in medical research.

Several pages into the section of the story where author Skloot delves into Lacks’ history, I began to feel uncomfortable. Skloot discusses her methodology for creating imagined scenes based on interviews with those who knew Henrietta and extensive research but I was still uneasy about how Lacks was characterized. While I imagine that Skloot was attempting to bring Henrietta out of the shadows, so to speak, and humanize the person whose cells had been unacknowledged for so long, it seemed contrived and – exactly what Skloot didn’t want to do – exploitative.

To me, the real gem of this book is that Skloot makes public the way research involving humans has often been unethical. I took a fascinating course about moral and ethical dilemmas in family decision making a few years ago, and many of the issues Skloot brings to the surface in her book we discussed in this class; questions about who owns human tissue once it’s no longer attached to the person? When does an individual’s concerns about biomedical ethics supersede the greater good for all? Should important decisions be made by others if a person is deemed not competent or knowledgeable enough to make that decision when it comes to their health and medical procedures?Continue Reading →

Determining “best interests?”

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?

Re/view: Choosing ethnicity, negotiating race

When you are part of a small and specific population, you tend to be hyper-aware of representations of “your group.” So when I heard about Mia Tuan and Jiannbin Lee Shiao’s book, Choosing Ethnicity, Negotiating Race: Korean Adoptees in America, I immediately put out a query to my Korean American friends to see if anyone had heard of the authors or this book.

Since 2006, I have been keeping track of the “call for participants” for research on Korean adoptees that I’ve come across through different venues (most often list-serves and organization newsletters). Since I’ve started counting, there have been 23 calls specifically involving Korean adoptees and another five for transracial adoptees (ETA: that have put out widespread calls for participants- there have been several others I have been aware of that did not advertise or use the internet to find their sample).

Of those, 11 studies specifically involved looking at racial identity; 9 studies sought to understand the Korean adoptee “experience” and 4 were what I call “well-being” or “adjustment” studies. While I get that racial identity is a huge part of understanding the transracial/international/Korean-adoptee experience, I’m waiting for research that stops pathologizing us and am hopeful that more research like Eleana Kim’s work will come out that centers the adoptee as the agent of change and action, not merely a passive subject of study.

There are many aspects of the Korean adoptee experience that are not being studied or researched. I swing between feeling that “my community” is saturated with research while at the same time acknowledging that there is so much more to be learned and understood. Continue Reading →

Treating difference

– 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 →