As a child, I was driven from home to a weekly piano lesson at a music school. The trip took us through what was termed the ghetto—a section of our city filled with rundown housing, dilapidated storefronts, and no green space.
I saw children my age, playing on barren pieces of concrete with broken play equipment. In my young mind, I wondered why the parents didn’t just make parks and playgrounds for their kids; I wondered why they didn’t just fix up their homes and make them look nice, like mine.
It wasn’t until high school that I developed true awareness of poverty in America. Textbooks addressed it in a “textbookish” way, of course. But I joined a service club, and, in that experiential environment, my eyes were opened—very wide. We went into that “hood” that I only drove through as a child. We tutored children in run-down schools; we fed the homeless in soup kitchens, and we babysat children in a church to give single mothers some time off or to look for work. We saw the effects of abuse and neglect, of domestic violence, of addiction, and of hopelessness.
Still, in my mind, I couldn’t understand why people in these situations just couldn’t work to better themselves, get jobs that would get them out of their situations, and, as my father used to say, “pull themselves up by their own bootstraps.” I couldn’t understand why they lived in horrible homes and drove Lincolns; why they had phones that were far better than I had. As much as I loved the volunteer work, I was pretty judgmental.
Making the decision to major in social work was sort of by default. I didn’t want to be a teacher; my STEM skills were terrible, and I was not a fine arts person, despite years of piano lessons. And I must admit, people told me it was an easy major, and if I could get a position with a government agency, I would have pretty good job security, even though I would never be wealthy. My goal was to enjoy college as much as possible, meet my life partner, and live in the suburbs with 2.4 kids and a nice house.
Let me make one thing pretty clear now. Social work is not an easy major unless you have a very cold heart and the toughest skin possible. The coursework can be a bit challenging at times, but it is the field experience requirements that give you amazing highs and horrible lows and put you on an emotional roller coaster. They also give you a complete understanding of the “underbelly” of society and an empathy for that demographic that no lecture, paper, or textbook can provide.
If I ruled the world, every college student, no matter what his/her major, should be required to take a social work class that involves field experience, shadowing a social worker. Maybe then we could get to a point in this country where we stop condemning people and work for real solutions. Blaming the victim hasn’t worked so far; it’s time for a new approach. And that approach begins with real understanding.
What Social Work Students Know that Others Don’t
If everyone could do a “rotation” in social work experience, they would learn one or more of the following things that social work students all learn:
1. Most people don’t set out to live in the conditions they do.
Parents in poverty have the same dreams for their children that middle-class parents have. They don’t plan to be poor, homeless, addicted, or the victim of others. And they want their kids to have better lives. But somehow things go wrong—for many reasons. And they do have a down-deep desire to change—but there is often too much to overcome and no skills to manage themselves and their families. This is the job of social workers, if there were just enough of us and enough money to fight this rather than wars.
2. Everyone is Unique
People who are the clients of social workers cannot be placed into the same box and served the same way. Every person and every situation are unique. And every person must be heard and known. In truth, there is not a stereotypical identity, as much as our politicians and media would have us believe.
3. Listening, not Lecturing, is the Answer
It’s so easy for those of us who have had a pleasant and normal middle-class upbringing to get into lecture mode about people who are dependent upon government for help. We hear in every legislature across the country. We hear it from news pundits; we heard from Ronald Reagan with his famous “welfare queen” speech. It’s so easy to tell people what to do. Get rid of that cell phone; sell that Lincoln; get your laundry done; go get a job; stop drinking or worse; stop yelling at each other and your children. When we learn to listen to these individuals in an emotionally safe environment for them, they will speak. And we have the opportunity to listen to their stories and to their pain. Once that trust is established, the real help can begin—a cooperative effort, a collaboration, not a power trip.
4. People Will Treat You as They Have Been Treated
Social work students toughen up quickly. They are cursed, yelled at, blamed and scourged. Why? Because this is all that people in these horrible situations know. In most instances it is what they grew up with. That has to be the beginning of the understanding that social workers must have. They are angry, scared, frustrated and feel helpless. And all of that gets directed at us. Only by staying calm and coming back over and over again, along with some initial concrete help, will they begin to change how they relate with us. But first, we must understand that the poor treatment we receive is not personal.
5. People do the Best They Can at the Moment
This is something that most not in social work do not get. They have no compassion and no empathy for people who are in horrible circumstances. It is their fault, they should know better, and shame on them. One semester of serious work in these neighborhoods and with these families will change that attitude very quickly. People who grow up in bad situations and who live in them now have never started the race at the same place as we have. We begin at the 50-yard line; they begin at the 1-yard line. And we don’t want to give them any handicap the way we do in golf. So they must run 99 yards all by themselves while we only run 50.
The beauty of social work is not just what is done for others; the beauty is what is done for us. We become tolerant, non-judgmental, and empathetic. Most of all we understand the depth of our differences but the sameness of our dreams.
Author: Jonathan Emmen
Editor: Travis May
Photo: Flickr/Dennis van Zuijlekom