When I first created Social Work Helper, I was surprise at the number of emails that I started receiving. Maybe, the name gives the impression that I have the power to help the oppressed and the distressed from a social work perspective. However, what troubles me most are the emails/messages I receive from students and practitioners who feel distressed and oppressed in their own social work environments.
When I first started receiving them, I was fresh out of graduate school as a non-traditional, single parent student. At the time, I was experiencing my own bitterness towards graduate school and the profession. I reached out to another well established social work print publication asking for advice on what to do with these letters and messages I was receiving from students and new practitioners. Unfortunately, I received the response that I have experienced many times while working in the profession which was “none”.
I tried to be empathetic and provide a sounding board as best as I could during this period of time, but at the same time I was also looking for an escape plan from my chosen profession. Having both my bachelors and masters degree in social work, it did not provide me with many options. My options after graduate school was equating to licensure and doing therapy. However, after my first internship in grad school, I needed therapy and wanted nothing to do with social work. Having to quit a full-time job as a social worker to work for free full-time as a social worker/student intern hurt me emotionally, physically, and financially. I went back to school because I wanted a promotion, and I didn’t think it was possible with a BSW.
Through Social Work Helper, I try to tell people stories and create awareness on issues because sometime we tend to evaluate and analyze policies/issues using only the lens of our own experience or people we know. The oppressed are suffering in silence and fearing retaliation for speaking out against their oppressors. Some might say why didn’t you complain, and my answer is complain to who? I worked over a 1000 free hours within a year while earning my advance standing macro degree. A failing grade for field practicum means you don’t graduate or may have to leave the program, so I suffered in silence until I earned my freedom. Essentially, I feel like I went in debt in order to pay someone to abuse me, and I was told by my field placement instructor that students couldn’t learn unless it was painful.
A couple of days ago in response to the petition I created requesting internship reform, a student sent me an email asking that I share their story, but asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. It’s important for me to note that I would have never shared this story without being asked to do so. Here it is as follows:
I saw your petition online and wanted to take the time to thank you most sincerely for your efforts. I wrote a comment to attach with my signature, but it was too long for the section to submit in full. I’m sending it now from my old high school email address as I do not wish to be singled out by my current university.
I will be the first person in my entire family to attend and graduate from a four year college. While my parents were scrimping and saving to afford tuition, I have worked tirelessly to attain and retain admission to my state’s most prestigious public liberal arts college. When I learned earlier this year that I would be paying several thousand dollars of my parent’s hard earned money to work an internship not of my choosing, comfort level, or skill set, I was devastated; I feel as though I’m being forced to pay to change fields. My internship is at a privately owned nursing home conglomerate where I have the barest minimum of face time with residents and have absolutely no role in contributing to the helping process; I’m an un-glorified pencil pusher. I feel stuck, and have regularly asked to complete my internship somewhere else, anywhere else; unfortunately, my requests have always been denied due to a scarcity of qualifying internship sites.
Thus, I’m left feeling out of touch and disenfranchised; my experiences are never relevant to my classes’ discussions, and I’m frustrated that I’m lining the pockets of a corporation instead of meeting the needs of clients through a non-profit agency setting. I feel angry with the School of Social Work, and have come to resent my decision to purse a life in the field of social work at all. I always knew that such a degree would entitle me to the potential for poor pay and emotional hardship, but I expected to be rewarded with a sense of self and purpose that I’ve yet to find in my senior year in the field. Instead, I feel taken advantage of, cheated, manipulated, ignored, and lied to. I’ve been told not to complain and that my feelings will only help me to better empathize with future marginalized clients. I disagree; any potential for empathy has turned to resentment and my passion to repulsion in the face of their subterfuge.
At the beginning of the year, 2/3 of my classmates (about 40 people) were preparing to take the GRE and begin scouting for graduate schools. Now, though? We have maybe 8 people still intending to pursue going straight through to get their MSWs. Most people too aren’t even looking at jobs in the helping professions for after graduation; almost everyone I’ve talked to about career plans has spoken of taking a year or two off and working minimum wage jobs at restaurants and retail stores just to get away from the stress that our internships have taught is all that we have to look forward to as professional social workers.
I hope my story can be helpful in substantiating the need for reforming social work internship requirements.
Join us tonight at 9PM EST for the #Macrosw chat which is a collaboration made up of community practice organizations and individual macro social workers. We will be discussing internship reform and the public commenting period for the Council for Social Work Education. The collaboration consists of ACOSA @acosaorg by(Rachel West @polisw), Network for Social Work Management, Deona Hooper (Founder of Social Work Helper @deonahooper), Karen Zgoda (PhD Candidate at Boston College), The University at Buffalo School of Social Work and the University of Southern California School of Social Work. Each member of the collaboration will take turns moderating the #MacroSW chats. The #MacroSW twitter chats occur on the 2nd and 4th Thursday of each month. The full archive of this chat can be viewed at https://storify.com/SWUnited/internship-reform-and-macro-practice.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Mary Kay Victims
A Student Perspective: Social Work and First Responders
It may be rare for a social work student to reflect on an assignment as something inspirational rather than a stressful experience with a deadline, but at the end of 3rd year of my social work degree, one assignment was a challenge filled with hope. The assignment allowed me to contribute to a program that will give insight to other helping professionals about the mental health of first responders: police, firefighters, paramedics and others who respond to emergencies on the frontline.
The University of Newcastle has a particularly effective way of integrating workplace experience based learning with academic learning throughout the degree. The program options offered in third year which allow students to develop a program for a real agency was the most useful for me. To know your work might form a foundation for a real program in the community was a great honour and challenge to work on.
In the beginning, I was unsure of what to expect from the program development project. I was apprehensive about working with a professional capacity with a real agency, but I was excited also to learn more and try something new. There were diverse programs offered- from gardening programs to developing group projects designed for children and developing a program for professionals working with first responders.
The university gave us a chance to preference our interests and I was fortunate enough, with some other amazing women to be selected for the first responders team. The aim of our project was to put together a draft training package for helping professionals to enhance understanding of first responder mental health.
This topic drew my interest as it was beyond my scope of knowledge and I have a keen interest in mental health, so it was intriguing to me on both a personal and professional level. On starting, I very quickly became aware that I had actually put very little thought into the work first responders do in our communities to keep us all safer.
I learned just how complex the actual work of first responders can be, I learned the challenges that first responders face as a consequence of their work, the most traumatic of which is often invisible to the communities that they protect. I learned how repetitive exposure to trauma can complicate all aspects of first responder’s lives if they don’t or can’t seek or obtain support. I learned how much awareness is lacking within the multiple levels of the community, which is needed to enact change for first responders and their families.
Also, I learned the difficulties that can be faced by first responders and their families when attempting to access help. Whilst organisational supports are in place for some of the services, the stigma, shame and potential for the loss of their profession is very real. I heard stories about those medically discharged dealing with the grief and loss of their profession and identity.
My part in the group was to examine the supports already in place for first responders. I was concerned at the limited avenues for assistance and the extent of the difficulties for first responders to seek help. Besides limited services, stigma and organisational culture are barriers to effective help seeking. I found attempting to identify potential services to be frustrating, especially when looking for options within communities rather than those which are employer organisation based. My mind quickly went to how this frustration might feel for someone who was attempting the same whilst being unwell.
Gaining insight and recognition into the role first responders play, the impacts on their mental health, their relationships and all aspects of their lives and the flow on effect to their wider social ecology, I realised just how large the scale of first responder post-traumatic stress and other mental health consequences have on our community overall.
The hardest part of this learning experience was seeing the end of the project. The topic is so significant, it is hard to not to explore the topic further. To me, this feels like a core social work and social justice issue, yet one which is invisible much of the time. My learning from this project has given me a totally new perspective. I have a renewed respect and a much deeper understanding of the issues faced by police, firefighters, paramedics and all others who work on the frontline in emergencies.
I know I’ve only scratched the surface of the knowledge it takes to work with first responders and enact positive change in their lives. I hope more research is completed and potentially more opportunities for training and professional development come up for social workers, whether it be integrated into core teaching within university programs or externally in workplaces.
Engaging Individuals Entrenched With Power and Privilege
Like many Macro students trying to obtain their MSW, I have gone through many trials and tribulations trying to pave my own path of what I can do with my degree. From the countless lectures spent being forced fed how to conduct Motivational Interviewing and Cognitive Behavior Therapy (I do not want to be a counselor) to being placed as an elementary school counselor (once again, I do not want to be a counselor). I honestly began to question if I would ever break free from the stereotypes of what position I could fill and achieve as a social worker.
Oftentimes, when a macro social worker states they do not like clinical work they are often met with the counter argument: “Clinical work is the foundation of our profession and every social worker must know how to engage their clients.” However, the clients we work with as macro social workers are not the same clients as a micro social worker. Macro social workers are working with clients entrenched with power and privilege.
Macro social workers are working with clients entrenched with power and privilege
In my opinion, we are working with the most difficult populations and we must develop a different type of skillset. Skills that allow us to navigate through the bureaucracies and change the public’s perception on what they deem underserving or the bottom of their priority list.
I have been in two different social work programs and each time as a macro social worker, I feel my education is not tailored to fit me. It wasn’t until I had to opportunity to apply for University Southern California’s Community Organizing Business Innovation (COBI) Fellowship, a program with a mission to create professionals trained to tackle organizational problems and social worker’s grand challenges by introducing, developing, and facilitating social innovation in local, national, and global settings. This mission resonated with me, and it fits my definition of what social work can be.
Over the summer, USC’s COBI Fellowship gave me the opportunity to learn and practice my macro skills. I was able to engage with individuals from 16 different agencies who are bringing innovation into the public sector and learn the tricks of the trade on how they bring positive change in resistant spaces.
There were many takeaways from the trip but here are a few:
- The OPM Innovation Lab emphasized the importance of navigating through bureaucracy and to inspire public sectors to take risk. We also learned the concept of human-centered design.
- We discovered the concept of developmental evaluation with Tanya Beer at the Center for Evaluation Innovation.
- Congresswoman Karen Bass discussed how to engage individuals with privilege in the workplace. She further discussed her Shadow Day, where a foster youth is paired with a U.S. Representative and how it is not only a transformational experience for the foster youth but also, the U.S. Rep. Once a U.S. Rep spends a day with a foster youth teaching them, it becomes personal, and they think twice before saying no against a bill in the favor of foster youth. THIS IS INNOVATION!!!
- SAMHSA discussed how to engage agencies on the importance of evaluations and message tailoring.
- Ashoka with Changemaker Executive Partner Sachin Malhan identified the difference between addressing a need and changing the system.
- Society for the Psychological Study of Social Issues (SPSSI) discussed looking for ways to weigh in as professionals in policies.
- NASW consultant, Joan Levy Zlotnik discussed being at the table and articulating both facts and story.
It was inspiring to be among leaders who are experimenting with different models and methods to tackle societal problem. I gained a sense of empowerment and agency being able to sit among them and exchange ideas. Most importantly, I not only first handedly experienced the importance of having a seat at the table, but I saw my place as a social worker. After this experience, I wished more macro social work students could have an experience like this.
Like many social workers, I chose social work because I want to bring positive change in the world. Although we need social worker helping the immediate needs of individuals and their families, we also need social workers looking at the bigger picture and changing the system.
Until we invest in more macro initiatives where social work students can engage with leaders and learn the skills to navigate and collaborate with individuals who possess power and privilege, our profession will not be in the frontier of innovative change in the public sector.
Indiana State Social Work Students to Help Young Mothers
INDIANA — The Indiana State University social work department has received a grant from the Office of Juvenile Justice and Delinquency Prevention to launch a mentoring program for young mothers re-entering society after incarceration called Next Step 2 Healthy Families.
Robyn Lugar, associate professor of social work, is the project director for this first-of-its-kind grant that creates a university-community partnership to address the needs of young mothers through the Second Chance Act of 2007, which was enacted to break the cycle of criminal recidivism. The $341,000 grant is the first issued through the act and is focused on helping young mothers.
Without proper guidance, the women could return to the criminal justice system for any number of reasons especially with the inability to find resources to adapt to life post-incarceration, Lugar said. “These situations usually happen because of something silly, like they didn’t make an appointment with a probation officer or because they didn’t have childcare or transportation. They couldn’t get there, and they end up getting sent back because they missed that appointment,” Lugar said. “The mentoring and strengthening of young fathers has proven to be a successful model, so we are adopting a similar model for this project.”
The sub-awardee on the grant is the Next Step Foundation Inc, which is a local faith-based non-profit that provides services and programs for those in recovery from addiction. Dana Simons, an Indiana State graduate student who directs Next Step, helped design the programs necessary to fulfill the grant requirements and help to train those that want to volunteer as mentors.
The incarcerated women will require a special kind of mentor. People who are interested in becoming a mentor for Next Step will have to attend training to ensure that they are approaching mentorship from a place of respect and understanding — not judgment. “A mentor is anybody who has a heart for this work and says, ‘Hey, I can give an hour of my time weekly to meet with and walk with a woman who is trying to re-enter society and become a better parent.’ It does require a 12-month commitment, so it is not a small task,” Lugar said. “There are so many barriers that these women have to overcome that it takes a village to help them. It takes the university and the community to come together and do this.”
The Next Step organization was started five years ago and has local support from churches, individual donors and volunteers. Next Step will use its network to reach out to people who might be interested in becoming mentors for this grant program. Mentors will then be matched through special software to assure mentors and mentees have shared interests.
“The university has been so supportive of this. I really appreciate ISU stepping up and contributing the resources to be able to make this thing happen,” Lugar said. The social work department and Next Step will work with Rockville Correctional Facility in west-central Indiana, providing mentorship for women nearing release.
“It’s the social work department reaching out to the community and asking, ‘How can we do social work here, in the Wabash valley?’” Lugar said. The cycle of drug use, incarceration and poverty is generational and difficult to escape, said Simons. “So they go to prison and they get some (basic skills) there, but they coming out — where do they go? How do they live? How do they parent? How do they get a job? How do they manage on the top of that they have a felony? It’s hard,” Simons said.
Next Step will work with re-entry coordinators at the prison to begin mentoring women up to three months before they are released. This year, the program wants to help as many as 50 women with the goal to help 75 in following years, as the program hopefully expands to Vigo and surrounding counties.
Simons says many people’s hearts are in the right place when they become a mentor, but to effectively coach these recently incarcerated women, mentors must understand the world through the eyes of someone who did not think graduating high school was a choice because they have never witnessed it, or someone whose parents never held a job. “We’ll have to train them to understand where some of these women are coming from, how to guide them, and hopefully these women then see that they have choices,” Simons said.
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