Friday, February 3, 2017

The bravery of community organizing

I can't recall a time in my life where I was calm, quiet, patient when witnessing and experiencing hatred, oppression, and pain. I am, and always have been, an instigator, agitator, and rebel-rouser. Given where we are at today (politically, socially...) I am actually surprised at how quiet I have been. 

Last semester, I taught a class on youth organizing. I assigned vignettes from the text Rebel Girls and asked the students to visually draw the girl's toolbox. In a Master's level social work class, at first I got confused looks - I was asking them to draw; to literally color with crayons. It took a few minutes to get going, but then they didn't want to stop! After about  15 minutes, we regrouped. Each group shared what they drew and explained why - bright eyes symbolizing passion, clasped hands for camaraderie, hearts representing kindness, prison bars demonstrating protest. 

"Would you like a heart? We're handing out kindness today."
I asked what was similar between each of the vignettes - "courage and willingness to engage in a cause that the girls identified with and felt passionate about". Then I asked, what makes their tool box different than yours? 


"What do you mean?" I asked. "Well, they were willing to talk to strangers, to take time away from studies and work, to even risk being arrested! I'm not." 

Bravery they all agreed. 

These students ARE passionate, compassionate, dedicated, creative, and in my opinion, brave. They are macro practice social work students. They are learning how to organize their community to create sustainable change for the better. 

The difference I see - we are on information overload. We have so many, too many, causes to care about all at once. Too much to do every minute or every day. How are they/we supposed to choose between Black Lives Matter, North Dakota Access Pipe Line, reproductive rights, LGBT equality, community-police relations, our overarching political system...? We have not decided how to bring our causes together - so yes, I argue that it is a choice. Furthermore, when we "choose" one cause to support, there is an implicit and explicit tension about "neglecting" everyone and everything else. And, in this case (and including myself), we are students. We have reading, papers, assignments, and lectures to attend and be present for. Very often, there is also a job to add into the equation.

Couple this with the inundation from facebook, email alerts, Instagram, blog posts (yes, I know), and there is just too much information to digest. The girls in the text that I assigned did not have this level of information to contend with - this is a first in history. Case in point - we had the Women's March**, rather than continuing that conversation, we are on to protests at the airports. It is not wrong to do so, but we are running too fast and too hard at every cause that burnout and compassion fatigue are inevitable. 

Women's March in Cleveland 
To further this potentially contentious concoction of time-management gone awry, institutions and employers are quick, if not also explicit, about avoiding political engagement - yes, sadly this includes many schools of social work programs* too. These guidelines for what engagement should and may entail often leaves activists one step behind. Let's be very clear, this is not an "opt-out" for lack of engagement. Rather, I am offering a space for a very real conversation: 
Where is the balance? Can social causes be conjoined to create social movements (again)?
Can social causes be conjoined to create social movements (again)?

I have come to realize that this is why I have been more quiet than usual. I am at a loss for how to engage.  The students were right too - the risk of getting arrested is lofty. I had to think and consider the ramifications if I did get arrested at the Women's March. It was more than a fleeting thought... I went, but that does not make me brave. As a community organizer and an educator of community organizing, it is incredibly important to state this in an open access platform. The models of organizing that I was taught do not account for our level of hyper activity. So I am quiet because as I engage in my community** I am thinking, I am challenging the system that taught me how to instigate, agitate, and rebel-rouse others. I refuse to burnout, I refuse to fatigue. I am brave and so are you.  

*Over the past two weeks, multiple schools of social work have come forward expressing their option again the political administration, and specifically the ban. However, as I argued to the NASW-Ohio chapter, this should have been an issue taken on months BEFORE the election.  The president's platform has not changed. If the schools were waiting for NASW's queue to stand against the then candidate, then changes must be with our representing organization AND schools (more to come on that). NASW has since made it clear that words and actions are against our Code of Ethics (specifically 6.05), then they were nearly six months ago as well. We missed an opportunity to stop injustice and oppression. 

**Actively thinking about how to engage is not synonymous with note engaging. 

In front of Cleveland City Hall

Marching through downtown Cleveland 

Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Made in America: The Labels that Made Us

"I don't want to be labeled 'gay,'I want to be labeled 'a human who loves humans.'"
"I'm tired of being labeled. I'm an American. I'm not an African-American; I'm an American."

              I came across a poster with a plain white t-shirt at a LGBT youth center in my early 20's that had the tagline "labels are for cloths not people".  It would always catch me off kilter when I would walk in and see gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender affirming language plastered elsewhere in the facility.  I remember at the time thinking... "Well, yeah...that makes sense..." in my own closeted little world of fear and internalized homophobia.  I, much like Raven-Symoné, wished for an identity that was mine and couldn't be claimed by anyone else.  Because it was safer. As a white, middle class, able bodied, protestant male I could make that claim fairly seamlessly if I chose to. Over time I got tired of the false sense of security that having a white-washed identity provided.  
            Indeed, Raven states that too she is "tired of being labeled",  though she wasn't speaking generically in this interview. Clearly here she is tired of being labeled "Gay" and "African American".   Her word choice seems odd to me as she made no opinion about her gender and is perfectly happy to repeat that she is an American. Yet, these two identities; they are essential and inseparable parts of who she is, who she is created from, and who she is created to be.  These two identities carry significant history and a collective responsibility to remember the past and collectively act to balance the inequities our forefathers created. 
            Most importantly however, GAY WOMEN of COLOR NEVER  have a platform to speak about their experience and not only their experience but the experience of people who have similar stories but, who have to fight to be heard amongst the throngs and the masses.  She had a profound opportunity to tell the world that she is a proud Black Gay Woman who is in love and maybe, some kid in some youth center could have heard her story.  Instead, she chose to use her time to talk about how label-less she is. Meanwhile, gay kids are ending their lives, trans men and women are being killed, and black men and women are being gunned down by police and "do gooder" white folks".  
            Also, I think it is important to understand that to say you are an American, is not an innocuous statement.  American is, perhaps, the most loaded of all the identities because it is to say that I am willing to own that I acknowledge not only the indescribable beauty of our collective history, but the annuls of horrors as well.  
           We are who we are. We cannot change our genetic history nor can we change our heritage despite the sound bites we provide through social media or through the inner workings of our minds.  When we embrace our identity, especially those disenfranchised and oppressed, we turn our burdens into our greatest blessings.  It is our duty as social workers, to encourage all to be proud of who they are and where they come from and to truly honor what it means to be human.

Thursday, July 24, 2014

Who is ALICE? Are you ALICE?

Sounds like a child’s book –right? 


ALICE is no child’s play.

ALICE is not a young lady I’d like to ask for a date, but rather the one I wish I never met. ALICE is not a pleasure to be with but rather a negative state of being.

ALICE is making the decision between which bills to pay, when to pay them, who to call for the favor, or what (small or large) sacrifice needs to be made during this paycheck to ensure there are enough funds to make it to the next.

Specifically: Asset Limited Income Constrained Employed.

In 2012 United Way of Northern New Jersey released the first ALICE report in partnership with Rutgers University, London School of Economic. On Labor Day, United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut will be releasing the 2014 Connecticut Report.
 To read more about ALICE and attend the teaser to the ALICE Report release come to MetroHartford Alliance and United Way of Central and Northeastern Connecticut in on Fri., Aug. 1 for the Rising Star Breakfast: ALICE: A Long Way from Wonderland, which will feature a panel moderated by CNBC’s Ron Insana. 

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Mentorship is not bound by the confines of the classroom

In 2009 I was accepted and attended the UConn School of Social Work for Community Organizing. I walked in the door thinking I would carry-on through obtaining my PhD. Quickly, I was informed that I would have to complete two years post-MSW before being eligible for PhD per CSWE recommendation. More than two years have gone by since I completed my MSW and as a member of the alumni board, I have been asked several times "when are you coming back?" When I reflect on my MSW and think about what I would need in a program to consider entering a PhD program there is one thing that stands out above the rest- mentorship. 

 When I reflect on my MSW program, it was the mentorship of my professors who supported my learning both in and out of the classroom. Mentorship was not handed to me, in fact, I am not certain if those who I consider a mentor understand the impact that they have had. The school offered personnel to help guide course choices and field placements. What I am referring to though is above and beyond that. 

I consider mentorship to be an individual who dedicates their time and energy to 'push back' on an individuals trajectory based on their desires to ensure a heightened level of understand for where they intend to go and what they intend to do. This can be conscious or unconscious, but clearly best when conscious and intentional. 

My strongest mentorship was in the hands of my work-study professor. She set high standards, pushed back on my presumptions, and provided opportunities to help me move forward. As a result of her time, I engaged in a field of study that was different than where I started when I began school - but absolutely where I was supposed to be. I am now working in the field, in a position, directly relevant to the content she introduced me to.  

This is the point where I find myself perplexed -  if mentorship was so vital to me in my MSW program (and I know if I enter a PhD program, it would be equally as important), why then do I not have a mentor now? 

To add irony, I am a member of the SSW alumni board on mentorship committee responsible for mentee/mentor matches. (However, to my credit, all of the potential mentors are currently matched with mentees). 

Furthermore, I am certain that I am not alone in this:
- Did you have an individual who help support your path to where you are today?
- Do you plan to move up and forward in your career (same field, different field - doesn't matter)?
- Do you value bouncing ideas off another, potentially elder and wiser, individual? 
- Do you value constructive criticism and support when you are considering new or different ideas?

Then doesn't everyone deserve a mentor? Wouldn't everyone benefit from a mentor?

Mentorship is not bound by the confines of the classroom

Conversely, anyone can BE a mentor. We all have life experiences and insight that can help support conversation and thought in others. If you have lived through experiences, have time to give and space to listen - you too can mentor. 

I encourage you to reach out to someone you are comfortable with (really genuinely, let your guard down, feel comfortable in insecurity, and trust answering honestly) to see if they can be a mentor to you. It may be uncomfortable, it is asking for help, which is hard to do. The benefits out-way the risk - take the leap. 

(If you want pointers on "how to ask" feel free to reach out!) 

Thursday, June 5, 2014

An Elevator Speech Fit For the President


     Several weeks ago, a radio-host asked listeners to call in if they had ever met a president. I was only half listening but thought “how often does that really happen?” Fast forward a few days Wednesday March 5th,  2014 President Obama is scheduled to speak at Central Connecticut State University to give a speech about raising the minimum wage. Tickets were free but between work and not wanting to waste a beautiful day standing in line (after work); I decided I’d listen over the radio.

     On the 5th I had a scheduled meeting with co-workers at the YWCA in New Britain. Before heading to the YWCA, I had agreed to meet a colleague for a work/lunch. We went to Café Beauregard – a new café across from the Courthouse. My colleague and I got our lunch and settled down. There was a young couple who kept looking back at us, about 10 minutes after we sat down a gentleman came up and said: “As you know, the President is in town. He will be here for lunch in ten minutes. You have two options, you can leave now, or you can stay. If you stay, you cannot call, text, or email while here and you cannot leave until he does.” Clearly, we stayed.

    We were about to have an impromptu lunch with the President. Mind you, the entire restaurant is six small tables. In addition to President of the United States and the Governors of Connecticut, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Vermont came to lunch as well.  Our ability to work was gone - we decided we'd meet again a different day. Shortly, we saw the cars roll up outside and suddenly heard the President and New England Governors order their lunches. My colleague and I were the only patrons in the restaurant (the other two were the owners daughter and boyfriend – count them if you wish). Before sitting down to his lunch, President Obama made rounds to each of us to shake our hand and say hello. This is where everyone needs to have an elevator speech ready. You never know who you are going to meet or when, but when you have a clear understanding of who you are and what you do (in work, life, love…) you can articulate relevance and importance at the drop of a hat. President Obama walked over, shook my hand and asked "So what brings you to this Cafe?" In 30 seconds or less I explained who I was, where I worked, the importance of the work I am doing, and how it related to the work he is doing. I thanked him for coming to town. He offered to take a picture which of course we gladly accepted and then he sat down with the Governors for lunch.

    During this time, each of the Governor’s said hello and shook our hands as well. I was able to extend a personal invitation to Governor Dannel Malloy to attend an upcoming event which was an added bonus for the day.

   During lunch, the media came in for an interview. Because we were sitting behind, I was in the background of all pictures. Note to self: when there is media present, don’t be on social media, even if it is texting a colleague at the local paper to come down, or posting the experience in real-time. The gentleman spoke with the media, ate their lunch, talked about family and got ready to embark. When they had finished lunch, there were final photos and waves to the cheering crowds before heading off to Central Connecticut State University

   For days (weeks, months really) people kept asking me “how was it to meet the President?” and were in awe of the coincidence. It took me a few days to fully process the interaction and importance of the event. Frankly, meeting the Governors was just as important if not more so than the President. They are part of our local government, creating change here with and for us. I was called out months later at a peer exchange as a case example for “why it is important to have your elevator speech ready”. What we learned collectively is that not many people know what an elevator speech is, let alone have one at the ready. If you are in the mix, here is your opportunity to create yours:
Creating your elevator speech:
  •           In less than 30 seconds – approximately 90 words or 8 sentences
  •           Who are you (name, place of work, position, relevance for being THERE)
  •           Give a very specific purpose or reason for your efforts
  •          Provide a solution, advantages for working with you, support you can provide…
  •           Insert a small vignette of a specific example
  •          Give a call for action (the “ask”)
  •           Smile!

Do not:
  •           Use jargon or acronyms
  •           Assume knowledge or understanding
  •           Ramble on

  •           Smile
  •           Practice, rehearse, try it out on friends and strangers
  •           Create different versions for various situations
  •           Be creative – be memorable
  •           Be prepared for questions, be prepared to be brushed off
  •           Smile

 To this day, I am still extremely appreciative and thankful for the rare and accidental opportunity that was afforded to me; and I have my elevator speech in my pocket ready to go (figuratively of course!).

   (p.s. The Korean Beef Sandwich at Cafe Beauregard is that good)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Standing Guard Over Saraswati: The Freedom of Dissent

"In every age it has been the tyrant, the oppressor, and the exploiter who has wrapped himself in the cloak of patriotism, or religion, or both to deceive and overawe the People."
                                                                       -Eugene V. Debs, 1918
"My mother said I broke her heart...but it was my integrity that was important. Is that so selfish? It sells for so little, but it's all we have left in this place.  It is the very last inch of us...but within that inch we are free"
                                                                       -Alan Moore, V for Vendetta

  Today Egypt was drowned in violence.  It's army turned on it's civilians with arms and slaughtered hundreds of Morsi supporters simply because they wanted to be heard.  Alternately, when the Muslim Brotherhood was in power, they willfully ignored violence inflicted on the Coptic minority because they are different and are seen as a threat to power.
  In every age, in every part of the world, there are underground movements that seek the opportunity to climb out of the trenches and stand with their voices heard, without fear of ruin.  Enterprise and government (large and small) throughout history have made attempts to curb, stifle and snuff out those voices.  With righteous rage, ideas turn into movements and with collective action comes power.  Humans really aren't so different when faced with a wall of dissent. Whether in 17th century France, early 20th century Russia, or in 21st century America, people in power have supported corrupt government policies that continue to alienate and intimidate minority opinion and minority rights.  Governments, however democratically elected, do not act alone but with the silent approval of the masses who keep their hands on the wheel, eyes forward.
  Not unlike governments, corporations have the capacity and will to stifle any opinion or threat to their bottom line.  During the height of European expansion, large businesses expanded to the New and parts of the Old World to obtain goods not previously available to the masses of the Continent.  Whether in the Americas, India, the South Pacific or Africa, these new industries toppled local governments and often installed puppet institutions to continue to feed the expanding empires. More recently in parts of the developing world; gas, coffee, water and the like drive conglomerates to continue to suppress dissent in countries who's annual GDP are fractions of their annual profits.  Not unlike the factory conditions during the early 20th century, farm and factory workers are forced to slave from sun up to sun down for less than $1 per day so that we in the developed world can spend less on the items we desire.  In Bangladesh for example, textile exports continue to surge despite over 1,000 deaths in a factory collapse in April.  Calls for reform have trumpeted from all corners of the globe and yet tangible change in the country to protect it's workers have stalled as some corporations like Walmart and Gap refuse to allow collective bargaining agreements with their workers thus disallowing real progress.
  In the US and in many democratic nations, we hold virtuous principles in our hearts and lack the integrity to follow through with them because they interfere with our ends.  Dissent in any form outside of violence must be tolerated and at best celebrated because it demonstrates a truly free society.
  As a Social Worker, wherever you are in the world, whatever you do to change your part of the world. We are the voice for the voiceless and we are the embodiment of dissent.  We are the call to justice and the rallying cry of freedom.  Where we see opinions and beliefs stifled, even if we disagree with them, we must stand with their right to say it.  That is how we maintain our integrity within our profession.  

Monday, January 21, 2013

Out of the Blue and into the Black: The Global Incarceration of the Mentally Ill.

"I proceed, gentlemen, briefly to call your attention to the present state of insane persons confined within this Commonwealth, in cages, closets, cellars, stalls, pens!  Chained, naked, beaten with rods, and lashed into obedience."
      -Dorothea Dix, Memorial to the  legislature of Massachusetts, 1843

               The red, sun baked earth crunches under the boots of a security guard outside a ward of the Enugu Prison, in the southeastern portion of Nigeria.  Unlike other sections of this prison, this portion of the prison has been set aside for people the government has listed as "civil lunatics".  According to the BBC, thanks to legislation from British era administration, the government can incarcerate individuals based on their perceived mental illness, often indefinitely.  In similar ways to asylums and hospitals in 1960's America, both family members and police can request an individual be sent to the ward without sufficient evidence of a crime or dangerous behavior.  More often than not, the request is granted.

              On January 7th, Idaho Governor, C.L (Butch) Otter gave his State of the State address to the Idaho legislature.  Otter, who is an outspoken critic of the Affordable Care Act, provided an extensive outline of his ideas to bring quality health care to the residents of the state.  One such recommendation, stemming from a request from the Department of Corrections was to build a $70 million, 579 bed, secure "mental health facility".  This is the Governor's second attempt to create such an institution for the incarcerated mentally ill.  The Department of Corrections and the contracted Corrections Corporation of America came under fire in 2010 with an ACLU exposé on prison conditions that foster extreme prisoner to prisoner violence. "Marlin Riggs, one of six named plaintiffs in the lawsuit, entered ICC in May 2008 and was targeted by a group of prisoners he believed were associated with a gang that prison officials knew had a history of threatening and extorting money from other prisoners. Despite his pleas, prison officials refused to move Riggs to a safer living area and he was violently assaulted and left lying in a pool of his own blood with a broken nose and a crushed cheekbone." 
                In 2003, the Hartford Courant published a story about the mentally ill in Connecticut's prisons.  They report that at Garner Correctional Institution in Newtown (the same town that a young man living with mental illness opened fire on an elementary school) "a schizophrenic man with a long history of severe psychiatric illness was intentionally deprived of his medication, became agitated and was fatally asphyxiated while being shackled by guards." The article goes on to state that "one inmate at this state's maximum-security facility was intentionally denied anti-psychotic medication that had been ordered by his psychiatrist and then tied to a steel bed frame for 22 hours. Another young schizophrenic man at the Hartford Correctional Center was asphyxiated by guards and then- while unconscious and dying- injected with powerful sedatives, shackled to a bed and left in a cell, naked and alone. He was discovered dead several hours later."
              From Canada to the United Kingdom, Japan to South Africa individuals living with mental illness are warehoused in prisons that are overcrowded, isolated from social supports, and a lack of evidenced based treatments.  According to the World Health Organization, an estimated 450 million people are living with mental illness at any given time.  In prisons however, individuals with mental illness are disproportionally represented compared to the general population in the countries where they live.  The WHO has identified that prison environments are in fact an impediment for the treatment of psychiatric disorders, even for those who committed serious crimes while ill.  Despite the availability, knowledge and resources of effective treatments, governments around the world continue to penalize the mentally ill whether they committed a crime or not.
              Most countries around the world carry puritanical ideologies regarding individuals who break the social contract of the culture that they find themselves. Even in countries that guarantee freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, conditions in prisons and jails lack basic structures to maintain the dignity and worth of the individuals housed there.  However, for individuals who are living with severe and persistent mental illness, they are often not only deprived of their civil rights, but their ability to connect to others as they are forced into isolation in solitary confinement despite evidence that this in fact worsens or creates mental illness.  The stigma of having mental illness and committing a crime are often compounded by racism, anti-gay, anti-transgender, and anti-poor sentiment.
             Social workers can utilize the strategies outlined by the World Health Organization to improve the lives of individuals living with mental illness as well as their families.  Regardless of the abundance of resources, each country has mental health systems in place that can be utilized and expanded to prevent the incidents that cause the incarceration of the mentally ill.  If in prison or jail, providing immediate, comprehensive, evidence based treatment in lieu of punishment would shorten the time an individual is locked up and save valuable tax dollars.  Providing adequate training for all staff on mental illness and treatment would reduce stigma and increase positive outcomes for prisoners.  Lastly, the WHO recommends that all legislation take a human rights perspective when directing legislative agendas for the mentally ill.
            The quote at the beginning of this post is taken from testimony from Dorothea Dix, a nurse and social reformer who sought to improve the lives of individuals living with mental illness from the squalor and penal environments that they lived.  More than 150 years since she spoke in the Massachusetts General Court, individuals around the world and here in America continue to live in the same conditions she sought to correct.  As social work professionals we can honor her memory to finish the fight she started so long ago.  Indeed, we must to stay true to our commitment to the dignity and worth of all peoples.