Social Work and Connection

I have a social work crush. A few years back, when I was first starting out as a social worker, I discovered this TED Talk:

[ted id=1042 lang=en]

Not only did I completely connect with Brené Brown’s ideas, I found a role model for the type of social worker I wanted to be, the kind that could create/discover an idea that everyone could benefit from. Brené talks about wanting to study connection and vulnerability as an attempt to solve her own struggles with those things. I think most social workers come to the profession with a secret goal to fix something in themselves, in their families, in their neighborhoods, or in their communities. They come to social work because they see themselves in the populations they serve, and they want to make a difference.

The longer I do this work, the more I fully embrace Brené’s ideas about vulnerability, shame, and the need for connection. In fact, the biggest problem I see most of my families face is isolation — they lack the natural supports that other people have, the proverbial village that helps raise a child. Without a natural village, a village of professionals and systems come in to support the family. Instead of extended family that can help provide child care, there are child care vouchers for day-care centers. Instead of a relative staying with the family to help with the kids or the house, homemaking services come in to offer support to overwhelmed parents. These families don’t have a lot of reliable friends. They tend not to be active in religious communities. They mostly don’t work so there aren’t supportive co-workers to help pick up any slack either. Sometimes they live in shelters, a housing system that forces isolation on families as a way to ensure that they don’t get too comfortable.

I spend most of my time with families trying to connect them to systems and seeing if they can possibly find a way to connect, or reconnect with those supports they do have, build on the connections they already have in their families, friends, and communities. The heart of family therapy is about strengthening the connections within the family to help the family function, as a whole, better.

Then there is this article on drug addiction:

Professor Peter Cohen argues that human beings have a deep need to bond and form connections. It’s how we get our satisfaction. If we can’t connect with each other, we will connect with anything we can find — the whirr of a roulette wheel or the prick of a syringe. He says we should stop talking about ‘addiction’ altogether, and instead call it ‘bonding.’ A heroin addict has bonded with heroin because she couldn’t bond as fully with anything else.

So the opposite of addiction is not sobriety. It is human connection.

Connection, again, is key. But the inherent struggle of connection is that it presupposes that you are worthy of it. Many of the individuals and families I encounter don’t feel worthy of connection. It’s part of what keeps them isolated (I strongly recommend you watch the above video in its entirety).

Next week, for social worker month, my co-workers and I will be participating in Secret Social Worker (even though among us we also have Marriage and Family Counselors and Mental Health Counselors – a collective of clinical helping professionals). We will draw names and randomly get assigned someone to do little things for every day for a week, before revealing our identities. We do these things not just because they are fun (and trust me, they are), but because it helps us all connect a little more to each other. As those whose job it is to help others connect, it is vitally important that we too stay connected to whatever supports we can muster.

This month is also the month I lost two vital members of my personal village, my grandmother and my mother, and so I would like to take a moment to recognize all my other connections, my friends, family, and especially those friends who have become family. These are the people I can be vulnerable with, who tell me I am a worthy person. While I do this work to help other people connect, I only CAN do this work because of the connections that sustain me.

So I will close of National Social Work Month with big huge thank you! Thank you Brené Brown for helping inspire my working philosophy, and thank you to all the connections in my life that keep me grounded and cared for. I literally couldn’t do this without you!

 

For All the Amazing Women in My Life

This month is National Social Work Month, which is something that probably only social workers and people who work with social workers know about, let alone celebrate. It is also Women’s History Month. Not so coincidentally, the social work profession is dominated by women — 82% according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. There are a lot of different explanations for this, from the fact that women were instrumental in creating social work as a field, to the idea that social work is women’s work (which some men want to change). All I know is that I happen to be surrounded by women most of the time in my daily work and this month I get to celebrate them twice.

I also happen to be part of an all-female writing group. This wasn’t by design — this was just the writing group that I ended up in after years of being part of various other writing groups. But one of the things that all the women in my group have in common is the desire to read and write about smart, capable, and complex female characters. And that is in part because we wanted to read characters that felt more like the women we actually know. Okay, so maybe the women in our day-to-day lives weren’t involved in secret all-women spy agencies, other world conflict surrounding a teen girl, or San Juan Island murder mysteries, but they are all smart, capable, and complex.

The other thing that this month holds for me, personally, is the reminder of some of the amazing women I have lost along the way, including my grandmother and mother, both who died in March (though in different years). There may be more blog entries this month than I normally would schedule just to try to get a chance to talk about everything that March holds for me: celebration, community, grief, and legacy.

I am very grateful to be a part of these communities, and to be surrounded by amazing women as a social worker, a writer, and a friend. The women in my life have shaped who I am in ways I am still discovering. They have taught me to be kind to myself, to take risks, to push boundaries. They have lead by example, and made me want to be an example as well.

So to each and everyone of them I say: thank you. I wouldn’t be here without you.

More Than a Day Job

I didn’t start out life wanting to be a social worker. Honestly, I had no idea what a social worker did, and certainly never had any aspirations to pursue a career in the field. I had graduated with a dual degree in English (creative writing) and Journalism, and was convinced that I was on the Jack London/Hemingway journalist-to-novelist path.

Life, of course, had other plans, and where I eventually ended up was public relations. I am sure there are people for whom public relations is the right career. I am not that person. I was searching for something more than the long list of crappy day jobs I’d held throughout my twenties, something different than the marketing-focused writing I was doing, and someone suggested that social work might be the right way for me to go. It was a two-year professional masters degree. There were licenses to earn that would eventually put me at the “can have a private practice” level, and all my experience working in various types of jobs over the years would be an asset in the field.

So I did my research and discovered that social work was actually a very interesting and varied field, with clinical work, community organizing work, and even jobs in the for-profit sector. There were tons of different populations I could work with, in a huge range of job titles, but it was the clinical parts that appealed to me. Social work has been described as psychology meets sociology, or possibly, applied psychology. Clinical social workers are less interested in how people got to where they are than helping them make the changes they need to make for a successful future. Most social workers want to put themselves out of work. That is, the goal is to get our clients to a point where they no longer need our services because whatever goal they came to us with has been achieved.

For me it ended up being the ultimate day job, because it doesn’t feel like a day job. I currently work for an agency that serves families who are at risk of having their children placed into foster care. I do family therapy; it is the most challenging work I have ever done. And yes, it is rewarding, but not in the way most people think of. Like being a writer, the moments that make it all worth it are more sporadic than people want to admit. But they are there, and they are amazing.

Whenever I told people I was a freelance writer, they would sort of nod along and ask me how it was going with a tone that suggested that it probably wasn’t going very well. To be fair, in my case they were probably right. Now, when I tell people I am a social worker, those who have a sense of the field usually make some sort of comment along the lines of “I don’t know how you do it.” There is usually a sense of oh, you’re one of those really socially minded people who like, helps other people. Well,  yes. I am. And yes, it is hard. But also, it’s a job. I’m not a saint. I collect a paycheck, too.

But if it sounds impressive, I’ll take it. 😉