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Theme for 2014

In December, a friend and colleague of mine retired. Before she left our center, however, she gifted each of us with a lovely homemade present. In a little tin, nestled amongst multi-colored pebbles, was a metal circle etched with a word specially chosen for each of us. My friend picked out a word that she felt had meaning for us and in addition to the charm was a quote that gave additional context and meaning.

The word chosen for me was “empathy” and the quote that went along with the word: “There is no need for temples, no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart, is our temple, the philosophy is kindness.” — Dalai Lama

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How strikingly simple and beautiful.

What a way to think about the new year.

I don’t do resolutions, but I do have goals and this year is no different. Of course I’d like to be more healthy and eat better, and exercise more, and get better sleep and write more productively and manage my time better. But these are aspirations that won’t make or break me – the kind of baby step improvements that for me would be nice but are not critical as I try to be mindful of these things anyway.

For the past several years I’ve gone the “word for the year” route. Many others do this as well. What I like about choosing a word for the year is that it helps me focus on my inner state – it’s more of an exercise for mindfulness if you will. In general, the word I choose provides a framework for how I make decisions in my life. The word I choose should fit into this sentence: “Am I doing this [choice, activity, task, project] with __________?” If, in fact, I am/was not doing said choice, activity, task, or project with _________ then I was prompted to reconsider if it was worth participating in that choice, activity, task or project.

Past words have included: intention, compassion, and integrity.

It is with gratitude for my friend and former colleague that I’ve chosen empathy as my word for 2014.

Empathy is a core skill that the social work profession, and social workers themselves, must have. Unfortunately I know far too many people who are more skilled in sympathy than empathy. There is no room in social work for sympathy. Sympathy is pity; it’s feeling sorry for someone else and trying to “help” them stop having those feelings. Empathy is not about feeling sorry for someone but being willing to try to understand what that person is going through — walking in someone else’s shoes, not trying to eliminate the pain per se, but sitting with them as they work through the painful or difficult time or situation. It is difficult to have empathy, because other people’s pain is scary and difficult – we often want to “fix it” out of them. And, sometimes people behave in ways that can be hurtful to others. In addition, if we are only capable of sympathy, it’s hard to deal with anger and depression and other such behaviors. We see those behaviors as being about us – we get offended, we feel victimized by other people’s actions and feelings toward us. Empathy allows us to look at the person underneath those behaviors, recognize that it’s the pain talking, their trauma, or loss – not the person.

There is a time for fixing and there is a time to just be with someone and share in their grief or pain or difficulty. This year, I am going to try and remember to ask myself, “Am I doing this [choice, activity, task, project] with empathy?”

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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.

Thank you!

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!

We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality

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

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Photo © Will Marlow

Great quote

“Those who define the questions to be asked define the parameters of the answers, and it is the parameters of the questions and the ensuing answers that function as the lens by which people view reality.”

Karger, H.J. (1983). Science, research and social work: Who controls the profession? Social Work, 28, 200-205.

Childhood exposure to domestic violence

On my drive home from work today, I heard this story about the impact on children of witnessing domestic violence. I appreciated that this Minnesota Public Radio Youth Radio Series story was written and reported by a youth who lived the experience. So often we get the Interviewer, who relies on the “Expert Opinion” with a little bit of a personal story to provide the emotional content. For this story the opposite happened, the story was told first-hand; the reporter interviewed the Expert and reflected on the expert’s opinion and how it related to her own experience. I appreciate when the person affected is considered an authority in their own right.

I also appreciate that Ms. McMurray chose to interview an expert I know and respect, my advisor Jeff Edelson, Director of the Minnesota Center Against Violence and Abuse (MINCAVA). The story is important and Ms. McMurray did a thoughtful, and I’m sure difficult, job sharing how witnessing domestic violence as a child has impacted her life. Being a “poster child” for an issue can be a cathartic and healing endeavor; it can also be exploitative and filled with pressure. I hope that for Ms. McMurray, it was the former. I hope that when she tells her story, she is allowed to control how much she shares and to whom she shares. Young people who are asked to speak about their experiences with trauma or violence are easily exploited by adults for a “cause.” Ms. McMurray has a strong voice of her own, and I appreciate that she was willing to share it so publicly.


You can listen to the story through the player here, http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2011/02/28/valencia-mcmurray-youth-radio-domestic-violence
or for the transcript and audio, click here for the Youth Radio website.

I like this quote

The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function. One should, for example, be able to see that things are hopeless and yet be determined to make them otherwise.

– F. Scott Fitzgerald.