Winners, losers, and nuances

I was in the car a good bit this weekend, shuttling kids from various points to other various points. I was in my husband’s car, which meant I could actually use the radio. (My car radio has been broken for….awhile.) As a result of this car change, I got to listen to the TED Radio hour. I heard two pieces that were especially good: Susan Cain: The glorious complexity of being human and Hrishikesh Hirway: Finding balance through deconstructing music The first one was about the challenge of binary thinking about people, like “introverts and extroverts”, “winners and losers”, “happy people and sad people”, and that while we do have tendencies/orientations toward certain ways of being, the fact is that we are wonderfully complicated and we contain multitudes. The second piece featured the host and producer of the podcast Song Exploder (which sounds cool too), but in the interview Hirway talked about his dreams as a musician in the context of his success with the podcast interviewing other (more famous) musicians. He had the ultimate realization that his music was important because it was important to him, even if it didn’t serve the world in some greater way. It was his work interviewing other musicians who helped him understand this, because he heard them reveal their own insecurities about their work and what it might mean, or not, to others.

These two pieces together made me think of my own life, the way I see myself, the way others see me, and the art I want to be a part of (writing). It made me think of my students, who want to do the right things in the world and in their work. This desire to do right is harder than it feels like it should be sometimes, as we know we work in an imperfect world where there are sometimes unintended consequences of actions that we take with “right” reasoning.

It made me think of, among these other things, the death this week of Queen Elizabeth. The monarchy is something I don’t really understand and have never really followed. The Twitter threads, since her passing, seem to paint her as either an overwhelming winner (determined, gracious, focused on integrity, full of wit, etc) or an oppressive loser (which I know is a weird way to phrase it) where she was at best a passive symbol of colonial history and at worst, an active participant in political and social violence.

This idea of nuance and of each human containing multitudes applies to all of us, including royalty I guess. It is hard (for me at least) to know how to hold the tension point when the stage that a person occupies is so big. Teaching that, and discussing that with students, is so much harder than talking about principles of systems theory, and social welfare policy.

Poet Lesle Honore says it so much better than I can (taken from her facebook page https://www.facebook.com/leslehonorepoetry/) on September 8:

May our memory and nostalgia

Never cloud the truth

May we hold in tension

Our entertainment

Our fascination

Our indoctrinated fairy tale culture

With the legacy

Of colonization

Imperialism

The transatlantic slave trade

The sun that never set

On oppression

May we separate the crown

And the woman

And as we bury an era

May we never bury

History

Truth

Freedoms and reparations yet to be received

God Save The Queen

The policy class challenge + The 1619 Project

I love teaching policy. I have taught it at the BSW level for close to 20 years, whether the foundation class (an overview of key social welfare policies) or the policy practice class. The one I have taught most frequently is the former, which includes a fair amount of history (to set the stage for the policies we have now) as well as a staggering amount of content in order to give a general “big picture” look at key policy issues. I love teaching it, but most students come into the semester not knowing what to expect of it, or even (as they admit later) dreading it. In every cohort there are a couple of students who come in with a mindset of loving policy, but they are in the minority to their peers.

Knowing I have an uphill climb to get students interested and engaged in policy is one part of the challenge. The other challenge I have faced consistently is the choice of a text. I have never found any text that I felt covered all that needed to be covered, was worth the price point for students, was organized in a way that made sense, and was updated frequently enough. Every year this has been a frustration point for me as the textbook selector and teacher, and for students as the readers/learners.

For this year, I have decided to use a non-traditional text and supplement with a number of article readings. Most weeks find us reading a chapter or two from The 1619 Project along with peer reviewed articles on everything from TANF, the Every Student Succeeds Act, The Farm Bill, the Violence Against Women Act, and more….aligned with whatever is our major content focus for the week.

We are in week 3 of the semester, and I am loving our class discussions so far. They are intense, and highly participatory with almost 100% “out loud” student participation. From The 1619 Project they have read the Preface, Chapter 1, Chapter 2 and Chapter 13. From these sections alone we have had rich discussion on all the things we didn’t learn in our K-12 education, history and current issues of women’s rights, and the role of churches in social issues. Students have come with passion, with other suggested readings, with questions about what they can do to make a difference in everything from “book bans” in certain states to healthcare access, and with the stated desire to learn more. My class is a MWF class and by Friday at the end of class I was exhausted with trying to pay attention to all the nuance of the responses.

While I know there will be points at which people will question what they read, will experience resistance, will have some cognitive dissonance (which has already happened) and more, I think the value of this book in getting them to read and think critically about ways history shapes our current policy landscape is invaluable. I will try to remember to do a summary at the end of the semester of highs and lows of using this book, but feel free to reach out with questions, a syllabus copy, etc. I shape it every year and know it isn’t perfect, but I love teaching the topic and love to talk with other policy teachers.

Laying a foundation for community in a class with (emotionally) tough content

I am teaching a child welfare class for the first time since spring of 2020, which as we know is a semester that went upside down and sidewise due to the onset of COVID. And, we haven’t had a truly “regular” semester since then. Even in the summer I feel like there has been a heaviness in faculty and staff and students I have talked to about the fall. So, when I was renewing my syllabus for this semester, I wanted to be intentional about using some “check ins” in each class, that would both be relevant to the class content and also helpful in building community. As we get into other topics, these check ins will be central in making sure people are experiencing community and safety in the context of learning about child welfare issues, including childhood trauma.

The course outline for the class includes some really emotionally heavy content, as you would expect. We talk in depth about abuse and neglect and other experiences of childhood trauma. We talk about disproportionality in child welfare and we talk about burnout. (We also talk about well being and strengths and resilience and positive things too, but the hard “stuff” can take a toll regardless.) I build the semester so that we have a few sessions of less intensive topics before we get into the content that can be more distressing and so that we can have some different types of discussions as we are getting to know each other.

On the first day we used a “mood board” which was voluntary, but all of the students (25 of them) participated. They could choose how they felt about the first day of the semester, and for many of them—my 9 am class— this was their first class of the semester. Their choices were “Great!”, “Fine-ish”, “Meh”, “Don’t want to talk about it” and “Don’t know yet”. We had 1 “meh”, 7 for “Fine-ish” and 17 who were manifesting “Great!” We talked a little bit about the value of helping children identify their feelings about something, and the value for us as adults in doing it too. It was a good lead in to the discussion about the concepts of safety, permanency and wellbeing in child welfare and the related concepts of safety and trust and relationship we want to build in our learning community.

We also shared a book, movie or TV character that we found comfort or strength or inspiration in as a child. I loved their answers: everything from Violet and Sunny Baudelaire (sisters who were strong!) in the Lemony Snicket series, to the Penderwick sisters (they look out for each other), to Clifford the Big Red Dog (just because), Luna Lovegood (its okay to be weird), and more.

Here’s a good list of questions you can use for check-ins for yourself and your adult learners. https://myquestionlife.com/check-in-questions/

And again, I always tell my students that they don’t have to do the check in and also I always respond to the question myself, since I am not going to ask them to share something I am not willing to share.

I also plan to use some music on occasion. Here’s a piece I used last week and it was a fun way to kick off a class, and then we had a brief discussion about the lyrics they remember from this song in childhood versus this updated version.

Hopefully by the time we hit the harder topics of discussion (after a couple more sessions) we will know each other’s names and have a sense of community in the classroom.

Being kinder to yourself: Strategies for self-compassionate talk.

In the swirl of prepping syllabi and other things to get ready for the semester, I am feeling exhausted and scattered. Trying to remember that I don’t have to do everything (or even anything) perfectly. This piece from the Harvard Business Review was very helpful, which I found surprising because I don’t think of the HBR as speaking to the soul of a social worker, but there you have it. I love these specific strategies for self compassionate talk, and I plan to share them with students. And maybe post them all around my office and living room for my own benefit! https://hbr.org/2021/01/be-kinder-to-yourself

(I am also going to strive to remember moments of peace, like working puzzles at the farm and seeing some livestock casually strolling around. )

Blank space

We listen to a lot of Taylor Swift in my house, as I am the parent of three “Swifties”. Some of the lyrics get into my head whether I want them to or not (though I am a moderate Swiftie myself). “Blank Space” is one of those songs I like even though I am sure I am not the target audience for it, but her blank space is different than the one I have been experiencing this summer.

I have not been able to write, and haven’t really wanted to write. I have wanted to want to write, but that is about as close as it gets. Part of not wanting to write has been time, but the big part of not wanting to write has been about feeling like it doesn’t matter what is said. I don’t mean this piteously, like, “no one listens to my words, poor me” but rather I feel like I don’t see much evidence in the current world that people are swayed into thinking or acting differently about something because of someone’s written words.

The closer we get to the start of the semester (hello, next week!) I have felt the pull to organize my thoughts into writing more, which seems promising for my teaching if nothing else. I have been developing syllabi and am excited about some of the readings and discussions we will be having. I am hoping to approach my classes with more curiosity and creativity this semester, leaning into that with the comfort of the fact that I have a million semesters (maybe a few less) of solid foundational teaching to support some curiosity and creativity.

At the end of the spring 2022 semester, our seniors gave each faculty a book. They did a great job matching books to people, and the picture below is the one I was lovingly gifted. Love the Fur You’re In: Monster Wit and Wisdom from Sesame Street is going to be a guiding force for this semester, I can feel it.

Here’s to embracing the blank spaces as periods of rest….as something that comes “before”, and as something yet to be determined. Pressing on in the creation of the beloved community!

Teach me, but stay close by

I was giving a presentation today, on the second of two “dead days”, which is the space in between the end of the semester and the beginning of exam period. I have been running non-stop for the past few days especially, with all good things but also just too many things. A running joke during the meeting as we changed speakers was the tech trouble; we were always having the same trouble and the assistant kept coming up from the back of the room to come to our aid. It had happened to the two speakers before me, and as he was making his second trip to the podium during my presentation I said “can you teach me?” (he showed me quickly what I was doing wrong) and then as he walked away I said “but also can you stay close by?”

And I realized this is a metaphor for a lot: parenting, teaching, some of the community work I am doing. And I named that out loud, in the moment.

Tomorrow is the last day I will see “my” seniors in the collective sense. We have an exam period (we will be doing presentations) and then we will be doing celebrations: pizza, ice cream, pictures, and more. It is a tradition in our department that we have a senior send off right after the Capstone exam session, where all the faculty and our staff come and join. The next time we see them in a big group is on graduation day.

This group has had a twisty journey. They had a “normal” freshman year, their sophomore spring semester was interrupted by COVID, junior year was spent very hybrid for some and fully online for others; senior year has been a little more normal, but since it was mostly masked and with a couple of short periods online, even it has not been ideal for them.

I love these people. Obviously there are some I know better than others, but individually and collectively they have so much strength. I am excited to see what they bring to the future, the good work they will do in the world, and the ways they will live into their calling.

At the end of our presentations and before pizza (a critical moment, ha ha), I will be sharing this poem with them: Everything is Waiting For You (by David Whyte). https://onbeing.org/poetry/everything-is-waiting-for-you/

And I will remind them that while I won’t be their teacher anymore, I will always be close by.

My Grandmother’s Hands

Each spring I teach a capstone course for social work seniors, and there is a good bit of flexibility in terms of what I assign to read and what we discuss. This spring, my students and I have been reading Resmaa Menakem’s My Grandmother’s Hands: Racialized Trauma and the Pathway to Mending Our Hearts and Bodies. We just finished it two weeks ago and I have already given my copy of the book to a former student who dropped by last week; I was sad to let it go but it was more important to me that she reads it, based on a conversation we were having about her work and life. I plan to pick up another copy this summer in order to read it and practice some of the exercises more intentionally.

I assigned three discussion leaders each week, and most weeks we read three chapters. Students were so engaged with this book. They said frequently that every person should read this book, or at least every social worker or every student in a capstone class across campus. One of my colleagues, who teaches a seminar class that corresponds with students’ field placements, said that students often related the book content to their class and their processing of field. That is the biggest “win” for me, that students could immediately apply it to their work/field placement life and that it was challenging them to think about racism and racialized trauma on a near daily basis.

Below is a small sampling of some of the quotes or questions that were submitted by students on the week they were discussion leaders. Their questions and observations were so sincere and thought provoking. Even though it was a hard topic to discuss, spending time with the students in this discussion was a gift each week for me, to have the space to unpack it. (I was reading it for the first time along with them.)

What is an area of your life that you have become more aware of since reading this book? For me, I have become more in tune with the feelings I get in my body and the immediate thoughts that come with that – I give myself freedom to feel those feelings and then find the logic in them if any logic is present.

How can we, as helping professionals, hold empathy and accountability simultaneously?

What are your thoughts on this? (Note: referring to a section on page 205). I think we as a majority white group in this room need to be able to have an open conversation about this. About trauma, about whiteness not being something we chose, but the construct of whiteness being something we can change… An awareness needs to be more present and talked about.

On page 258, he talks about the importance of history. He says, “History lives in and through our bodies right now, and in every movement.” He also says that there are many white Americans who say things like, “Let’s focus on the here and now—or, better yet, on the future.” I think this is pretty evident in the ongoing debates (especially in the south) over critical race theory. I also think it’s super ironic that a lot of people who are so strongly opposed to the teaching of ALL of history, not just the whitewashed version of it are also the same kind of people who are “heritage, not hate” types. I don’t really have a direct question, but I’m curious what people think about the importance of history, and not just teaching it, but how we can use it to inform our present and future?

I will definitely use this book again, and have recommended it to several people both in the field of social work and outside of it. For me personally, on the first read through, the biggest thing that stuck with me and has shaped me already is the concept of “dirty pain” and “clean pain”. That has been useful as I have been thinking and praying my way through a particular situation. On my second read through, as I mentioned above, I want to be more intentional about some of the body practices as I think about healing personally and being part of collective healing as an activist. Lest you think you aren’t an activist, check out this one last quote, highlighted as a favorite by a student: “At its best, activism is a form of healing. Activism is not just about what we do; it is also about who we are and how we show up in the world. It is about learning and expressing regard, compassion, and love—for ourselves and for our fellow human beings” (p.244).

Loaves and Fishes

A few weeks ago, on a sunny day, I put my students in pairs and told them to go for a 15 minute walk and check in on each other, and to specifically ask “What are the words you need to hear right now?” When they got back from their (much appreciated) walks, I asked them if anyone wanted to share what they had said they needed to hear. The answers were not that surprising, because we are all sharing space in the same bonkers world, but the honesty with which some of them answer always takes me by surprise. I heard things like “I wish someone would tell me the world doesn’t have to sit on my shoulders” and “I wish someone would tell me it is okay not to have things figured out” and “I wish someone would tell me anything, that they would just be there for me”.

I thought then of the poem “Loaves and Fishes” by David Whyte. It goes like this:

This is not
the age of information.

This is not
the age of information.

Forget the news,
and the radio,
and the blurred screen.

This is the time of loaves
and fishes.

People are hungry,
and one good word is bread
for a thousand.

People are hungry for good words, for people who will speak life around them and to them and into them.

I came into my office today in between classes and saw some cards left by students in honor of social work month. It was the highlight of my workday (and maybe my whole day, minus seeing my kids), to feel seen and appreciated and loved.

In terms of what it would take to build the Beloved Community, Dr. King wrote about agape love. He described it as “understanding, redeeming goodwill for all,” an “overflowing love which is purely spontaneous, unmotivated, groundless and creative” (from The King Center https://thekingcenter.org/about-tkc/the-king-philosophy/) He went on to say that agape love didn’t discriminate between unworthy and worthy people, and made no distinction between a friend and an enemy. Finally, he said, this kind of agape love is the foundation for community.

This is what I want to have flow out of me when there are stressful meetings at work. This is what I want to flow out of me when the food server gets my order wrong. This is what I want to flow out of me when students ask the question I. Have. Just. Answered.

This is what I want to flow out of me when it seems easier to keep the mask on, either literally or figuratively.

I want agape love to flow out of me and I want to speak words of light and truth. And, like the parable, I hope that though my words are simple “loaves and fishes”, that they have a reach beyond what I can imagine or plan.

Remembering DeEbony

It was April 2018, a Sunday afternoon, and I was driving back from a volleyball tournament in East Tennessee with my three daughters in the car. They were all asleep when I took a call from my Dean while coming through a mountain pass. While it was unusual for her to call on a weekend, it wasn’t completely abnormal, especially at the end of a semester where there are so many moving parts. So, I answered the phone while driving, not thinking that anything would be wrong. She asked me first if I had some time to talk, and I told her I was driving and had plenty of time. She asked if my husband were in the car. Upon hearing he was not, she asked if I could pull over and talk with her for a few minutes. There wasn’t a place I could pull over then, but I told her I would be fine, again, not imagining what she was about to tell me.

She told me one of my students, DeEbony Groves, had been killed in the early morning at Waffle House. She had just learned this from university officials, and wanted to let me know before I heard it on the news. I just kept saying “no!” over and over again, so emphatically and increasingly louder, and my children woke up confused and frightened. I did find a place to safely pull over, and I called the faculty in our department as well as our program assistant. (I was the Chair at the time, and wanted to let our faculty and staff know before they heard it from others.) I also talked with the director of our university counseling program, to put some preliminary plans in place for meeting the needs of our students.

These are pics from her friends and social media, collected in Spring , 2018 after her death.

The days and weeks that followed to the end of the semester passed in a blur. Reaching out to DeEbony’s family to offer comfort and what support that we could, plus meeting the needs of all our students, took priority. (Mourn with those who mourn).

Gradually I heard and read more details of the shooting, and of the shooter. I learned of his background of mental illness and his previous threats to others. I learned of the laws that both removed his guns and yet didn’t keep his father from giving his guns back to him. I visited the local offices of our senators and pleaded with their assistants about the need for gun reform/control. I told them about DeEbony and how hard of a worker she was, how she perpetually ran late but made up for it with her colorful entrances to class. I told them how she had taken an interest in policy that was surprising to her. I told them if that were my children, I couldn’t imagine what I would do, but I would be angry, angry, angry. (Pray for the dead, and fight like hell for the living.)

Fast forward to early 2022. There has been very little progress at the federal level in gun violence prevention, and where I live (Tennessee) is definitely not a leader in state reform and prevention efforts. I keep teaching my policy classes, and asking students to think about how the broader social environment (including witnessing and experiencing violence) affects us all. I keep voting. I keep writing letters. (I keep wondering if it makes any difference.)

I keep remembering DeEbony. Just yesterday, her killer was found guilty on all counts, not only for DeEbony’s death but for the death of the other victims (Joe, Taurean, Akilah) as well as the injuries sustained by others. The finding of guilty is something. I can imagine it brings a measure of peace (maybe?) to their families. But it doesn’t bring their loved ones back. It doesn’t change the trajectory of time for the families, it doesn’t change the outcome for them in the loss of their loved ones. (What is the origin of the phrase “justice has been served? anyway”)

Has justice been served? What does it look like, moving forward? Does it hold the shooter’s father accountable? Most of all, what I hope justice looks like as we move forward is strengthening local, state, and federal policies around preventing gun violence. (There are so many facets to this issue; so many ways to do the work.)

Here are some resources to help with your own thinking, your advocacy, and your teaching if you teach these topics: https://everytownresearch.org/rankings/ and https://momsdemandaction.org/resources/ and https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/statements-releases/2021/06/23/fact-sheet-biden-harris-administration-announces-comprehensive-strategy-to-prevent-and-respond-to-gun-crime-and-ensure-public-safety/

On a different note, I also share this as a way of honoring DeEbony: a link to Maya Angelou’s “Still I Rise”. There are some verses in here that make me think of her: she was rising, she was strong, she was dancing, she was sassing. (And I believe that somewhere, she still is.)

Still I Rise: https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poems/46446/still-i-rise

“A writer’s heart is always breaking…It is through that broken window that we see the world” (Alice Walker)

One of my laments in life these days is that I don’t have time to read as much as I would like to do. I know a number of people who feel the same way. On the eve of the beginning of Black History month, I wanted to share 5 of my favorite authors, voices of Black women who have shaped me in various ways and at various times in my life. Their voices, and their courage in writing, have changed the way I see the world. Sneaking in an Alice Walker quote at the beginning means I am actually sharing six of the voices who have shaped me most.

bell hooks. How can I even begin to think of all the ways her words have shaped me? Pick any of her books, and keep going. I probably learned (and was challenged to think more about) intersectionality from her than any other author. I was in my late 20’s or early 30’s before learning about bell hooks, and I love to introduce students to her work. You can also learn more about her at the bell hooks center @ Berea College: https://www.berea.edu/bhc/about-bell/

Photo credit: Oprah Daily (Ten Essentia bell hooks books)

Roxane Gay. Bad Feminist is my favorite of hers, but everything I have read is good: https://roxanegay.com/ I got to know her work through seeing the title Bad Feminist at the library,and the rest is history.

Rachel Cargle. https://rachelcargle.com/ I first got to know her work through a TED Talk, have read several of her short pieces, and last year in 2021 followed her daily prompts to learn about Black history. I shared these prompts every day in class (for whatever group of students I had that day) and loved learning together with them.

Toni Cade Bambara, author of much, but what I love most is the very first short story I remember reading and re-reading and loving. I love Raymond’s Run even now, 40 something years after first reading it. I actually want to find it now and read it again, this story of a determined sister and her relationship with her brother. It was probably my first time reading a story that included a character with disabilities.

Natasha Trethewey. I have come to appreciate her poetry (she was a two term US Poet Laureate) but learned of her first via her memoir Memorial Drive in which she talks about the murder of her mother. She talks about this tragedy in the context of intimate partner violence, her mother’s coming of age in the Jim Crow south, and more. She decided to write the memoir after seeing her mother’s murder referenced in a story about her (NT), and she decided she didn’t want her mother’s life to be just the equivalent of a footnote in her own.