When I was in the second grade, my mother and I moved from an older, established neighborhood to a dusty suburban development of new constructions. We chose the model home we wanted, and were able to choose the finishes. I selected a window seat for my bedroom. The house, of course, was immaculate for our move-in. We were the only people to have ever lived in it. It smelled new for years. Yet when I perched on my window seat and looks out onto our cul de sac of shiny new homes, I also noticed a dearth of greenery. For at least a year, no grass was planted as it would just become trampled by the ongoing construction. The trees that did go in were tiny, spindly things with few leaves. It was my first lesson in the psychological effects of nature. I missed it.
That was 1995. More than twenty years later, I have moved back to my hometown and I often drive past old haunts. One of my first stops after moving back to this city was the home I left for college, the home that had been so shiny and new. I had lived there ten years by the time college came around. There was grass by 2005, but the trees were still pretty pathetic. But now, another thirteen years have passed. And now, there are trees.
My mother told me in 1995 that one day, the trees in our neighborhood would be as tall as the ones we left at the first home I had ever known. I couldn't imagine those dusty streets edged in green grass, or the bright new homes shaded by leaves. And yet.
For much of my professional life, I have worked with my clients briefly and at the beginning of a journey. In my first job out of graduate school, I worked in refugee resettlement. Together, my clients and I navigated the immigration process. We did seemingly rote but hugely important tasks together like applying for Social Security cards, enrolling children in school, applying for SNAP and Medicaid benefits. My last “official” interaction with them occurred on their 90th day upon which I complete a home visit where I ensured that their apartments are still safe, that they have been referred to the appropriate next steps, and we sign some papers. As you might imagine, most refugees are not completely self-sufficient after three months in a new country. And a lot of times, it feels like the past three months of intensive case management and frantic late night phone calls and endlessly trying to pin down interpreters did not amount to much.
But then I would look around.
At the resettlement office, half of our staff was made up of people who came to the US as refugees. Five, ten, twenty years later they were fluent in English, held degrees, and do important work for their communities. Their children do not know the same terror and deprivation that they fled. And I remember those new little trees and how discouraging they sometimes looked. And how, twenty years later, they are lush. They've made it through blazing hot summers and blistering cold winters. And now, they anchor everything around them.
I didn't plant any of those trees in 1995. And the clients I have been honored to work with in my career could have been assigned to any other case manager and been just fine. They overcame trauma to grow in ways that I'm not sure I could. I watched them begin to lay down their roots and start over. And because of the refugees I knew as friends and coworkers who were further along in their journeys, I knew that great things were coming.
Often, social workers do not get the opportunity to take that scenic drive twenty years down the road. Im fact, our Code of Ethics forbids it in most cases. We lay awake at night worrying about what more we could have done for our clients, and at some point, usually too soon, we have to say goodbye, and hope for the best. We hope that if we haven't helped, dear God, that at least we didn't hurt. We take solace in knowing that we are all like those trees, if only just a couple people prop us up and give us extra water when we're new.
Dear Billy Joel,
First of all, long-time listener, first time caller...er, blogger. Whatever. I wanted to address something with you that I hope gives you hope. In your infinite wisdom, your work has taught us many life lessons. One that sticks out to me, from your song "Honesty" is that "honesty is such a lonely word, everyone is so untrue." It sure feels like that sometimes, Billy. I'm deeply vibing with you, friend. But have you ever met a social worker? Like, a real one?
What even is a "real social worker," you may be asking? What kind of elitist nonsense is that? Well, the technical answer is that a social worker is someone who holds a degree in the field: a Bachelor of Social Work (BSW) or a Master of Social Work (MSW). Many of us are licensed with the state in which we work, but the degree alone qualifies us for this great title--and awesome responsibility.
Social workers, whether licensed or not, and I would argue, no matter who signs their paychecks, are expected to behave according to our professions' Code of Ethics. It's lengthy, Billy, so settle in if you plan on reading. But I know you're a busy man, so I will break it down here a little bit, and because I'm an only child, I'll use myself as the case example. Because I'm special. My parents told me so.
So Billy, here's how the Code of Ethics impacts my day-to-day. I run a training and consulting business. I have the privilege of training folks, mostly social service professionals, on issues that they face in their daily practice. I help non-profits problem solve. I also teach yoga, which seems secondary but is really all the same thing. I partner with folks who are seekers, and help them summon their own inner teacher while providing my expertise along the way. And I run my business in alignment with the Code of Ethics.
The code has 6 core values: service, social justice, dignity and worth of the person, importance of human relationships, integrity, and competence. It might be obvious how a therapist or case manager enacts these in their practice. But I believe that we are all held to them, and it must be the foundation from which we work. You, Billy, have to know chords, and the differences between black and white keys on the piano, and about those...foot peddles (???) to begin to compose the soundtrack to American life. Samesies. It's for sure definitely the same as what I do.
So, here are my chords and keys. Or, how I do my training and consulting work as governed by my profession.
Service the role of a social worker is to help people in need. That takes many forms. In my business, I see that as a community in need of training on the topics I have spent my entire adult life studying. I promise to bring you my best. I also promise you that cost should not be the only barrier to us working together, although I feel like you're in a position to swing it Billy. But if your budget falls outside of my standard pricing, we will work together to find a solution.
Social Justice I once heard a social worker say that our work is really to work ourselves out of a job. I would love if everyone knew about childhood trauma, and how to best effectively change the course for our youth. I would love if everyone had medically accurate sex education. But we aren't there yet, and so I'm working toward a socially just world where that is the norm, among other things. Along the way I'll do that by using my privilege to amplify the work of those with less privilege, always confront issues of oppression in my work, and ensure that cost is not the barrier to working with me toward a more socially just world. Did I mention that already? It's really important to me.
Dignity and worth of the person social workers usually talk about this in relation to their clients being able to make their own decisions and returning as much agency and autonomy to them as possible. Same for me. My pedagogical approach to training is influenced by Paulo Friere and bell hooks, who worked to decentralize information and authority in the classroom. We are partners in this work, Billy. I bring what I know and I'll ask you to do the same as an attendee in my workshops.I learn something new every time we're together. You, me, and the waitress practicing politics.
Importance of human relationships I have trainings built, packaged, and ready to go. But each time you book me, I'll work with you to customize it for your unique needs. It's part of working with me. And as a former case manager, I love networking. Each training includes a list of resources and I am always glad to connect you to further research and folks in the field.
Integrity I've built my business model around this word. And, to nerd out on ya: the word "integrity' sure is interesting, Billy. You get how important language is. Aside from being about honesty and morality, it also means the state of being whole or undivided. Integrated. Helping you move closer to an integrated self is also a big part of what I do.
Competence I know what my expertise is. I spent a lot of time training in it. If the training you request is outside of my areas of knowledge, I won't work with you. Sure, I'll be sad because you seem great, Billy, and wow what a testimonial for my website! We can still be friends. But I won't pretend to know more than I do. I will refer you to a facilitator who is an expert in your requested topic. And, to make sure I remain an expert in my fields of study, I set my Google calendar to revisit all of my trainings every three months. I check for emerging research, new books and documentaries on the topic, and changing best practices.
So there it is Bill. Can I call you that? I hope I've changed your mind about honesty. No need to rewrite the song, though. I'm fine waiting for a brand new one.