Skip to content

An open letter to my students

Dear students,

The campaigns leading up to the elections last night were divisive and revealed some ugly truths about how some in our country view many of the very populations we, as social workers, are working so hard for. Regardless of your own personal political views about issues such as the role of government, taxes, and constitutional rights and privileges, we have to acknowledge that this election has shown us that despite the advances in civil rights, many in our country blame people of color, LGBTQ people, women, those with disabilities, and those who do not practice Christianity as “taking away” and disenfranchising White Americans, or for causing the challenges our country has faced over the past several years. Of course, not all who voted for the President-elect hold these views, but this election has shown us that far too many do. I know many of you, both white and from communities of color, are disheartened about this knowledge.

Some of you are feeling scared and frightened. Already we are hearing reports of children of color being told to “sit in the back of the bus” by their white peers and KKK marches and demonstrations meant to intimidate. I fear there will be more of this to come in the next months and perhaps even years. If you are feeling scared or intimidated and need to exercise self-care for yourself or your loved ones, I understand if you feel you cannot attend class this week.

However, I hope you do attend class if you can because as MSW students and social work professionals, you will feel the impact of this new president-elect and his office even more than the average citizen – you will feel it professionally as well as personally. This is a time when more than ever your commitment to advocating for social justice for your communities and clients is at the forefront. You will be practicing in an overall society that might push back on our profession’s core values and core ethics and attempt to make our work in our communities more difficult. Our profession was founded on the premise that it is our responsibility as citizens to advocate on behalf of those whose voices have been silenced. You will have clients who will express their fear and concerns about safety for themselves and their loved ones. What are you going to say to your clients? How do we go on to support them in this uncertain time? Let us use this time to support each other in how we move forward from here.

Despite the challenges we face in the upcoming future, remember that we are a community that values the dignity and worth of each person; we believe in the potential for personal and societal change; we have a core professional value for fighting for social justice. My office is always open for those who need a safe place. Let’s roll up our sleeves and work even harder to ensure a just society for all our citizens.

Dr. Kim

Advertisements

Recommended readings to get that hamster wheel spinning

My lack of blogging has nothing to do with having little to write about, rather too much to write about! As an avid social media user, I find terrific, challenging, mind-blowing, thought-provoking articles written by people so much smarter than me every day, and if I had all the time in the world, after spending the time needed to thoroughly digest these words of wisdom, I would ideally be able to craft a reflective response. There is just so much great stuff out there that I am mulling over – everything I’m reading and making connections makes it difficult to even begin putting together my own thoughts on these coherently.

So instead, let me direct you to some things I’ve read that are occupying my thoughts lately.

You can probably see from these links that much of what I’m really thinking about lately has to do with race, privilege, and what allyship is really about.

To end, I’m linking a video that a friend showed me this morning highlighting all the ways one can think they are being an ally but really are not.

In looking for answers, we ignore the forest for the trees

America is in mourning.

On Friday morning, I first saw the news on my facebook page. Shooter at an elementary school in Connecticut. Soon after, more posts on social media sites and online news outlets. The facts of the event continued to become more and more terrifying. For most of the weekend, I, like so many others, shed many tears and continued to ask, “why?”

People are hurting and outraged and angry and are looking for answers as to why anyone would commit such an atrocious crime. So in watching and reading the news, and in online discussions, people are sending petitions to strengthen gun control laws, calling for a ban assault weapons, saying this horrible event was because we “took God out of the schools,” and writing blog posts about the serious lack of services for those with mental illness.

But this post is not about any of those things. I will save my critiques about how the news and media outlets responded in the early hours of the aftermath of the event for another day. I will discuss the issue how difficult it is to get quality mental health services on another post. But I do want to talk about violence.

From the time the shooter was named* people have begun to attempt to put together a profile that might explain the person that committed this heinous act:

  • People are speculating that the shooter’s mother was cold and demanding
  • They wonder if his supposed diagnosis of Asperger’s Syndrome played a role
  • They insist that of course he was mentally ill
  • They blame his mother for keeping guns in the house
  • He was a “loner”
  • His parents were divorced and he took it hard
  • He was very intelligent but socially awkward

We will never know if individually, or in combination, any of these factors may have contributed toward making this person into the kind of person that would kill so many people. In attempting de-facto to put together the elements we believe must provide us with the answers to our question, we are missing a much larger conversation about violence – who commits it, what it looks like, why it happens, and how we as a society handle it.

By focusing on the individual elements of this person we accomplish two things. First, we further stigmatize everyone that has any of those traits because now we are establishing a correlation between factor and violence, even if we can’t truly establish a cause and effect relationship.But stigmatizing people does the opposite of helping prevent violence from happening because it makes it more unlikely people will ask for help given the increased negative perception. Secondly, we further look for individual reasons that violence is committed rather than looking at larger cultural values around violence that are not being addressed. We tell ourselves that if we, or our loved ones, don’t have any of these stigmatizing factors then we can be absolved from violence prevention because we are not the cause.

In talking about these events with family and friends this weekend, I was struck by the way our society tends to deal with these incidents of mass shootings – at schools, at the Aurora, CO theater, and recently at the mall in Oregon – by looking at the individual profiles of the perpetrators; yet violence occurs on a daily basis in our neighborhoods, on national level and on a global level every day, and we seem to be inured to it. Are we conditioned to only respond to one kind of violence – the kind in which a lone perpetrator sprays bullets into a mass of unknown victims – but not care as much about intimate partner violence, violence against children, wars, and other forms of violence that happen on a daily, if not hourly basis?

On Saturday while watching the news (for a full 10 minutes before I had to shut it off because I was so disturbed by the reporting), I said to my partner, “this must be what it feels like for both the Israelis and Palestinians – this kind of assault, this kind of violence, this mass murder of its citizens. Imagine if we had a Sandy Hook every few weeks, what would we be like as a nation?”

As a parent, I tell my children that bullying and violence is about control and power; and that those who commit violence do so because they want to have control over someone or something and exert their power. I believe that violence is about getting what you want when you can’t get it through other means. It’s about having a sense of entitlement, that someone took something away that was supposed to be yours, whether it’s something tangible and material or whether it’s an ideal or behavior. It’s the fist in the partner’s face because they don’t respect you; it’s the assault of a child because you can; it’s the war over land because you want it and you don’t want them to have it.

What’s missing is an honest dialogue about violence – about the kind we individually and collectively condone or promote. And what else is missing is how we handle our feelings of anger, entitlement, desire to control and disempower others, jealousy. And also, why we are not talking more about how we teach compassion and reconciliation?

I am devastated by Friday’s events. As a parent, I can’t begin to fathom the grief and loss that the parents, siblings, friends and community of the victims are feeling. That such an act of violence happened is overwhelming. The acts of kindness – in particular the story of the therapy dogs comforting grief-stricken children and parents, and the news that out-of-town volunteers helped fill in at local businesses so employees could attend the funerals for the first two victims – were especially touching.

Violence is about making someone else feel disempowered, out of control and powerless. It’s about the perpetrator establishing their dominance. And so it’s not about the size of the weapon (fist, knife, gun, tank), it’s about the underlying motive to disempower someone else, to take it out on someone less powerful than you. The choice of weapon merely allows someone with the intent to harm the tools to harm more people, more cruelly.

*I’m not linking or naming the shooter because I want to avoid search engines, etc.

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.

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.

Continue Reading →

Article about racial identity in transracial adoption

Happy new years to everyone. It’s a good thing I didn’t “resolve” to blog more frequently as that would have been one resolution (like many others) that would have been broken right from the start!

To gently ease back into blogging, I’ll begin by sharing an article about transracial adoption and racial identity by journalist Hope Rurik, who interviewed me in December for this article, Research, experts say racial identity important after adoption.

JaeRan Kim, who was adopted from South Korea at age 3, said culture camps, cultural festivals and even restaurant outings all became popular after her generation of adoptees, which includes Trenka, had grown. She said giving children the tools they need to grow into an adult of color in the U.S. requires more than a restaurant visit.

She said the wide disconnect from language and culture often makes it more difficult for intercountry transracial adoptees to connect with ethnic communities in the U.S. than it is for American transracial adoptees.

“Anyone can go out and buy food or costumes from another country,” she said, “but it’s the feeling like you’re part of an ethnic community as a person of an ethnic background that you don’t necessarily get.”

Read the article in full here.

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 →

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 →

The future of social work?

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.

Vodpod videos no longer available.
[if video does not play, click here.]
Or this

Vodpod videos no longer available.

Could you make it?

In the past twenty-plus years that I have been a working adult, there have only been two short periods of time in which I had full-time, above minimum-wage, benefits-earning employment. There are a number of reasons for this – the major one being that I did not have a college degree until I was 35 years old. I worked a lot of retail jobs or jobs where I took care of other people, often those who were vulnerable, such as adults in a group home or day care settings. My first full-time with benefits job was as a tailor for a major department store, so although I had benefits I still made only slightly above minimum wage and a huge portion of my earnings went to daycare expenses. Employment at most of my jobs meant working nights and/or weekends.  I remember when I first started my first full-time, post-MSW job in a child welfare organization and had weekends off and finally realized what everyone else meant by looking forward to the weekend.

Last night I had an appointment with a tax accountant. Last year was the first time I used a professional to complete my taxes. Just the idea of having the privilege of paying someone to do my taxes made me reflect on my employment history and what it means to be a middle-class person.

This past week, my friend and colleague Ericka tweeted about this website, a joint effort between McKinney and Urban Ministries of Durham called SPENT.

The aim of this interactive activity is to get people to think about homelessness and poverty and how, even trying to do the “right” things, a person can find themselves spiraling into poverty. Through SPENT, players are asked to make choices with their opportunities and money should they find themselves suddenly unemployed with only $1000 in the bank. Will they make it through the month with any money left?

I’ve been lucky – I had a partner who has always had stable employment and that helped. In addition, with the exception of when our daughter was born and we didn’t have enough insurance to cover the hospital bills which meant we were paying off hospital bills for years, for the most part since then we have been fairly healthy and have not had significant out of pocket health care bills. Somehow we always managed. There were times when between the two of us we worked four to five full and part-time jobs at one time in order to make ends meet; when we were hoped the $50 after paying our bills was enough to cover our expenses until next payday – like gas for our shared car (considering ourselves lucky if it didn’t break down); when I learned how to stretch our groceries, and only bought thrift-store clothing – and not because it was the “fashion” but because we had no other option.

I often wonder, when I encounter new MSW students, how many of them have personally known poverty. I wonder if they know what it is like be poor. I have been poor, but I have never been in poverty.

I love this interactive game, and I think it’s a brilliant combination of social media technology and social justice education. I think every BSW and MSW student should play this game and it should be required in social work programs.

To try SPENT for yourself, click here.

Does the benefit of an exposé outweigh ethical problems?

I’m taking a class this semester called Disability Policy and Services. In last week’s first session we saw the documentary, Willowbrook: The Last Great Disgrace, an expose of the dehumanizing treatment of institutionalized persons with disabilities.

We were asked to write a summary response to the documentary. While the film precipitated the world’s attention to the plight of those who were institutionalized, I couldn’t help feeling really uncomfortable about watching the documentary.

The words I wrote in my notebook immediately after the film include: exploited, victimized, re-victimized, hopeless, helpless, sensationalized.

As much as I understand that Geraldo Rivera’s expose did SO much to bring attention to the disgraceful treatment of those institutionalized at Willowbrook and other institutions, the first thought that ran through my mind as the cameras panned on the naked, dirty residents was whether the film was exploiting these residents once again, for the purpose of journalism. Did they have consent? Could they even have elicited consent? Would I want my family member, naked and dirty and running through an institution be filmed for the whole nation and world to see? I understand that the purpose was to highlight how awful the living conditions (if you can call it that) were, but I felt viscerally that they were still portrayed as inhuman.

I am all for the use of journalism to highlight inequity; I just wish it didn’t also sometimes exploit the very persons they are claiming to respect. One more thought – I guess what I’m asking is, to what extent is it justifiable to exploit the vulnerable? We might say the ends justified the means…but that makes me really uncomfortable…I’d love other people’s thoughts about this.

Below is the trailer for the documentary.

Thinking about privilege

I have a pink copy of this t-shirt that I wear regularly. As you can imagine when I wear it at school, I get smiles and comments such as, “I should get one of those!” When I wear it out in the community, I don’t get such unabashed love but neither do I get the kinds of reactions others have received. Then again, that’s largely because my community is not homogeneous (I’m avoiding the “D” word, as I explain later). I often find that people are resistant to talking about privilege, especially those who have it and don’t like feeling guilty at real or imagined finger-pointing by those of us who talk a lot about privilege.

My son attends a charter school and I am on their “diversity” committee. I put “diversity” in quotes because I find the term so over-used and loaded in meaning. Despite how I feel about the terminology, though, I am passionate about helping the school become a compassionate and inclusive school for everyone, students and staff – and not just referring to the typical markers of race, ethnicity and gender but the many ways that we “other” others because “they” are different from “us.”

During our last meeting, I was given a copy of this list of privileges that many of us have. I’m a big fan of Peggy Macintosh and her well-known Knapsack of Privilege, but in many ways I like this one even better. This list created by author John Scalzi really highlights how many privileges we have – even those of us who are not white, male, or middle class. I’m a Korean American woman, and I have many of the privileges so eloquently stated in Scalzi’s blog post. I encourage you to read it for yourself.

I’m excited that the white privilege conference is going to be in my home town this year.