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Remembering 911 and Social Workers on the Frontlines of Disaster

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Another year has passed since the two jets crashed into the Twin Towers of the World Trade Center on September 11, 2001. As a longtime New York City resident, I was devastated by what I saw on television from my Washington, DC apartment. I watched in utter dismay and hopelessness as the buildings burned. I prayed for the people who were inside—that they would somehow find a way out of those buildings.

Many were rescued, but many died. Nearly 3,000 people lost their lives in the single greatest terrorist attack on American soil. There were innumerous acts of bravery and self-sacrifice. Thousands of photographs captured police officers, firefighters, and emergency medical personnel sifting through smoldering rubble, carrying people and bodies, comforting the grieving.

There were many social workers on the scene but they were mostly unidentifiable. They wore no badges or uniforms. They went about their grim tasks, virtually unnoticed. They were there doing what they always do during disasters—helping children find parents, helping wives, husbands and loved ones find each other, dealing with the shock, grief and trauma that are the byproducts of catastrophe.

They were rarely, if ever, mentioned in speeches and media accounts of September 11, 2001. Like many social workers who meet the needs of people in distress daily, they went about their work without fanfare—not looking for reward or recognition. They were faceless angels among the hordes of volunteers I watched on my television miles away in Washington, DC.

I had just moved to DC a year before and had not long been in one of the towers visiting my daughter Cyndia who was employed on one of the top floors of the Twin Towers. Riding the elevator on my way to see her, I marveled at the engineering feat that created these two gigantic steel monoliths. Views of New York City from that height are breathtaking. I had no worries then about the Twin Towers. They were built to withstand anything—well, almost anything. They were not able to withstand the shock and heat from the burning fuel that eventually caused them to crumble into a pile of debris of flesh and metal. They were not indestructible after all.

I think back to 1968 or 1969 when as a teenager I worked in the post office in Greenwich Village. One of my coworkers had a buddy guarding the construction site as the towers were nearly being completed. One night, we rode a wooden elevator to the top of one of the buildings that was still under construction. There were no panes in the window frames and there were holes in the floor, so we had to be very careful where we walked. I did not walk far but got to see New York City from the sky that night. It was an amazing feeling of awe and fright and I always felt I had a special relationship with those buildings after that experience.

I remember countless trips from New York City to destination south and back. Whether I was driving or riding the Amtrak, it was always a relief when I first saw those towers—sometimes peeking through the clouds—but always standing tall and magnificent. I knew home was just minutes away when I saw those towers.

If I was driving and fighting fatigue, I would get a second wind because I knew that it not be long before I would be back in the comfort of familiar surroundings and the warmth of my bed. The first trip back to New York City after 9/11 was a shocker when I saw the hole in the skyline. It seemed so bizarre and it saddened me to be reminded of the deaths, pain and suffering caused by the removal of those towers. I had lost my comforting signpost that home was just around the bend.

Today we commemorate another anniversary of that tragic and historical event. Much has transpired since that day—some of which we can be proud, some of which we want to forget. Many of the survivors and first responders on September 11, 2001 had to wait nearly a decade for the passage of the James Zadroga 9/11 Health and Compensation Act of 2010 that provided resources for the ailments they incurred during and in the aftermath of the tragedy.

A bill to extend those benefits waits among the many pieces of legislation needing action by Congress while the House leadership deems debating the defunding of Planned Parenthood to be more urgent. Without the reauthorization of the Zadroga Act, thousands may go without the medical care they need. Let’s not forget, many of them are social workers.

Dr. Charles E. Lewis, Jr. is President the Congressional Research Institute for Social Work and Policy. He has served as deputy chief of staff and communications director for former Congressman Edolphus “Ed” Towns and was the staff coordinator for the Congressional Social Work Caucus.

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Change Never Ages

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As the second-oldest state in the nation, West Virginia is in dire need for professionals who can work with its aging population.

To meet this need, the School of Social Work at West Virginia University has launched a new undergraduate gerontology minor.

The minor is an interdisciplinary program geared toward understanding the biological, social and spiritual aspects associated with the aging process.

“The biggest thing the minor will do for students is set them apart from other applicants in their job search, making them more marketable and helping them receive higher consideration for jobs,” said Kristina Hash, professor and director of the gerontology certificate program and minor.

There are several courses in the diverse program, including online options and a General Education Foundation course that can count toward a student’s major or another minor.

Kristin Hash

“Usually people come to gerontology from a personal place,” Hash said. “Students might take a course or complete an entire minor just to learn about their aging loved ones. “We have something for everyone, regardless of career goal or major.”

As the baby boomer generation comes of age in the United States, it brings with it the “Floridization” phenomenon. By 2020, the population distribution of the United States will be comparable to that of the state of Florida.

Because of the shifting population, there is a shortage of trained professionals working with older adults. The shortage includes not only physicians and nurses, but the entire helping health profession.

“It’s a crisis at both the national and state levels, and it’s only going to get worse,” Hash said. “That’s where the jobs are going to be.”

This cohort of older adults is different than previous generations because they are healthier and seek more opportunities for recreation and learning. As a result, nursing homes and senior centers are beginning to change by adding new features like coffee bars and Wi-Fi to meet the evolving needs of the cohort. This is opening more employment opportunities than ever before in new markets, such as insurance, marketing, and tourism.

“This particular cohort are people who march for equal rights, who stand up for their beliefs, who question—they are not going to be passive. The baby boomers are pushing the envelope,” Hash said. “In response, many other fields are also changing to prepare for the aging population, leaving a lot of entry points into the sensation that is aging adults. It’s not just social workers and nurses and physicians and pharmacists—it’s economists, marketers, interior designers and urban planners, too.”

The gerontology minor is available now. Students interested in studying gerontology or working with older adults are encouraged to contact their academic adviser to learn more or visit http://eberly.wvu.edu/students/majors/gerontology.

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Offhand Comments Can Expose Underlying Racism, UW Study Finds

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Blatant racism is easy to identify — a shouted racial slur, a white supremacist rally, or the open discrimination, segregation and violence of the pre-civil rights era.

But more subtle forms of bias, called microaggressions, emerge in the everyday exchanges among friends and strangers alike and can offend racial and ethnic minorities.

Such statements, uttered intentionally or inadvertently, draw upon stereotypes and are linked with racism and prejudice, according to a University of Washington-led study. The research is believed to be the first of its kind to explore microaggressions from the perspective of those who commit them, and suggests that whites who are more likely to deliver microaggressions are also more likely to harbor some degree of negative feeling toward blacks, whether they know it or not.

The concept of microaggressions has garnered greater attention in today’s political environment, explained lead author Jonathan Kanter, a UW research associate professor of psychology.

“Our study results offer validation to people of color when they experience microaggressions. Their reactions can’t simply be dismissed as crazy, unreasonable or too sensitive,” Kanter said. “According to our data, the reaction of a person of color — being confused, upset or offended in some way — makes sense, because they have experienced what our data show: that people who are more likely to make these comments also are more racist in other ways.”

The study appears online in the journal Race and Social Problems.

For this study, the team, with the help of focus groups of students of color from three universities, devised the Cultural Cognitions and Actions Survey (CCAS) and administered it to a small group of students — 33 black, 118 white — at a large public university in the Midwest. The 56-item questionnaire asks the white respondent to imagine him- or herself in five different everyday scenarios involving interactions with black people, such as talking about current events, attending a diversity workshop, or listening to music. The respondent then considers how likely he or she is to think or say specific statements. For black respondents, the wording of the scenarios and questions was revised slightly to assess whether they would experience racism. Each of the statements included in the survey was deemed at least somewhat, if not significantly, offensive by black students.

In the “current events” scenario — the one that yielded the highest percentage of “likely” responses from whites — respondents were to imagine talking about topics in the news, such as police brutality and unemployment. More than half of white respondents said they would think or say, “All lives matter, not just black lives,” while 30 percent said they might say, “I don’t think of black people as black,” and 26 percent said they were likely to think or say, “The police have a tough job. It is not their fault if they occasionally make a mistake.” More than half of black respondents identified each of those statements as racist.

Responses on the CCAS were then related to several validated measures of racism and prejudice, to determine if one’s likelihood of making microaggressive statements was related to these other measures. An additional scale controlled for social desirability — the idea that respondents might answer in ways that put themselves in the best possible light.

Results indicated that white students who said they were more likely to make microaggressive statements were also significantly more likely to score higher on all the other measures of racism and prejudice, and results were not affected by social desirability.

The statement that yielded the highest statistical relation to other measures of racism among white respondents came from the “diversity workshop” scenario, in which a class discusses white privilege. Though only about 14 percent of white respondents said they were likely to think or say, “A lot of minorities are too sensitive,” the statement had the highest correlation with negative feelings toward blacks. Nearly 94 percent of black respondents said the statement was racist.

The correlations between statements and attitudes are averages from the study sample, Kanter said, and so the results do not address the intentions or feelings of any one person.

“It doesn’t mean that on a case-by-case basis, if you or I engaged in microaggressions, that we have cold or racist feelings toward blacks,” he said. “But the study says that regardless of the intention behind a microaggression or the feelings of the specific person who uttered it, it’s reasonable for a black person to be offended. On average, if you engage in a microaggression, it’s more likely that you have cooler feelings toward black people, and that whether you intended it or not, you’ve participated in an experience of racism for a black person.”

In many ways, overt racism has declined gradually since the civil rights movement, Kanter said, and white people often assume that because they do not utter racial slurs, or perhaps are well-versed in and value social justice, that they do not have to worry about engaging in racist behavior themselves.

“It can come as a bit of a shock to a lot of white people that their behavior and attitudes are under scrutiny,” said Kanter, who pointed out that as a white male, he has had to confront realizations about his own behavior over time. “The nature of how we’re looking at racism is changing. We’re now able to look at and root out more subtle forms of bias that weren’t focused on before because explicit racism was taking a lot of the attention.”

Taken in isolation, the size and location of the study sample limit the generalizations that can be made, Kanter said. But the idea behind the CCAS is to use it elsewhere and adapt it to focus on other racial and ethnic minorities so as to better understand racism and develop educational tools to combat it. The survey has since been used at the University of Washington, he added, where early results are very similar to those reported in the published article.

Kanter said he’s heard from critics who say the study has a liberal bias, or that the research should examine offenses against white people. But he says the point is to address racism targeted at oppressed and stigmatized groups.

“We’re interested in developing interventions to help people interact with each other better, to develop trusting, nonoffensive, interracial relationships among people. If we want to decrease racism, then we need to try to decrease microaggressions,” he said.

Other authors of the study were UW graduate students Adam Kuczynski and Katherine ManbeckMonnica Williams of the University of Connecticut, Marlena Debreaux of the University of Kentucky; and Daniel Rosen of Bastyr University.

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How New Digital Technologies Make It Possible to Privatize Censorship and Manipulate Citizen-Users

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Photo Credit: @NewYorkDailyNews

For most Americans, protecting free expression means countering threats from government. Private corporations are not usually seen as threatening free speech. But as private technology companies increasingly mediate access to information and services, the distinction between governmental and private censorship becomes less clear. Concepts of free speech and freedom of expression may need to be revised and enlarged to take account of new threats in the age of digital communications – and policies to protect freedom of expression may need to counter threats, often subtle, from the private sector as well as government.

New Censorship Technologies and Practices

Since the invention of writing, heavy handed governmental forms of censorship targeted ideas or words deemed dangerous by authorities, but at the risk of drawing more attention and public debate to the ideas or words targeted for suppression. Contemporary threats, barely recognizable as censorship, more often come from steering or soft censorship. Using new communications technologies, corporations – and government agencies operating indirectly through corporations – are able to intervene in expressions before they happen. Search engines, auto-predictive keyboards, machine learning algorithms and filters originally designed to keep children safe on the Web have become tools for modifying citizen behavior and altering communications. A few examples help to illustrate these worrisome practices:

  • A recent update from Apple to the iPhone keyboard made it difficult for users to enter the words abortion or suicide into their smartphones. Whatever the intentions, this can make it difficult for iPhone users to take perfectly legal or constructive actions such as searching for abortion clinics or finding information about suicide prevention.
  • The source code of a recent Android handset update made by Google contains a dictionary of over 165,000 words users would not get help to complete from the auto predict or spell-check functions built into their devices – including terms like preggers, intercourse, lovemaking, butt, geek, thud, pizzle, and other supposedly dirty words.
  • In mainland China, searches for “human rights” on Google often return the question “Did you mean hunan rice?” and a series of rice-based recipes.
  • Edward Snowden’s revelations about digital surveillance by the National Security Agency suggest that U.S. technology companies have been surprisingly amenable to surrendering user data to intelligence authorities, with companies like Microsoft providing government easier access to its services through Skype, Outlook email, and SkyDrive cloud storage.
  • Blocking or tracking taboo words or language is a particularly useful way for understanding next-generation censorship. Many of these soft censorship technologies interfere with people’s use of certain words or expressions – or enable surveillance actors to track ideas or communications defined as threatening or undesirable.

Tracking and Steering Citizen-Users

Digital communications technology has also proven to be useful for collecting information about users in order to predict their needs and desires and steer their behavior. Unlike media manipulation or propaganda, which focuses on changing popular beliefs and social behaviors on a large scale, digital approaches aim to track, predict, and manipulate the behavior of individual users. For instance, Facebook’s “News Feed” has long tried to shape users’ choices by algorithmically predicting which content is most likely to keep people on the site and automatically removing content that users might find uninteresting or objectionable. For this company and many others, there is little need to challenge or change user beliefs in overt ways when more subtle forms of steering are possible given the ease of collecting and analyzing digital data on what individuals are doing or what they might find attractive or unappealing.

Protecting Free Expression in a New Era

Given the subtlety of contemporary forms of censorship and steering often practiced by private corporations, freedom of expression and choice can no longer be construed simply in terms of protection against governmental infringements. By better understanding the newest mechanisms for regulating language and steering citizens, we become better able to make informed policy decisions. Several new ways to protect free expression should be considered for the digital age.

  • Independent auditors may need to review search engines and algorithms, given their enormous power to shape what can be found on the Internet and how findings are ranked. Private companies have a legitimate interest in protecting their private intellectual property, but it should be possible for auditors to certify that search engines are not biased or designed to be coercive without divulging any details that amount to true trade secrets.
  • Users should not be regarded as disinterested in the possible biases of steering devices. Terms of service agreements could be simplified and rewritten so as not to discourage users from peering into the operations of the services they use.
  • New public technology services may also be needed. Instead of a proprietary search algorithms like Google, open-source search engines could be created along the same lines as Wikipedia, with users contributing to the creation and operation of searches. Algorithmic gatekeepers could be opened up and made intelligible to people with little technical knowledge. Universities might be best equipped to administer public knowledge platforms, because they are present in many countries and regions, enjoy academic freedom in many parts of the world, and have access to advanced research resources and technical experts not dependent on corporations for employment.

Well-designed new policies and institutions could help democratic nations – and peoples aspiring to freedom – to parry manipulative uses of digital technologies. Optimal policies must be future-oriented and able to accommodate rapidly changing technologies. Of course, new technologies and the companies that devise and deploy them deserve to prosper in coming decades – but only in ways that protect vital public interests in transparency and full freedom of expression.

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