Surface Pressure

Pressure like a drip, drip, drip, drip that will never stop.

Woah.

This line is just one of many apt descriptors in Luisa’s song (“Surface Pressure”) in Encanto, and it is what I am feeling these days. January has felt like it has had 74 days in it, minimum, and we still have the rest of this week to go.

Photo credit: Disney

Alot of times when I feel out of sorts, and stressed out, I try to look for the positive and remember my blessings and other good things. I practice gratitude, and it helps. The past couple of weeks, however, I have more often been trying to just be quiet, not harm people with my attitude, and remember that life isn’t always going to be this way. (And I am grateful I can have this perspective.)

I look at the “conversations” people have on social media and want to weep. Or curse. Or both. I am sad for my personal children who are having such critical years shaped by COVID. I am sad for my college students who are trying to navigate being away from home, with all the developmentally typical challenges of college, plus COVID. I am sad for specific people who have lost loved ones. I am sad in general for collective groups of people, and K-12 teachers and health care workers are at the top of that list. I am sad because I feel like there is nothing I can do to help in any meaningful way, beyond staying home when I can and minimizing risk of catching and spreading COVID. And I have anxiety about the things I should be doing that I don’t have the energy for after two years of pandemic related decision fatigue. In short, I feel like a hot mess of feelings mixed with a healthy dose of exhaustion, and a side of apathy.

If you have never seen Encanto, I recommend it highly. If you have seen it in the background, I encourage you to go back and listen to Surface Pressure. I played it for my senior social work majors the other day in the capstone class I teach. I told them that this song spoke to me in a big way over the winter break. Below are the existential type questions and observations Luisa asks herself in the song. How many of them do you resonate with?

I’m pretty sure I’m worthless if I can’t be of service

Who am I if I can’t run with the ball?

Who am I if I can’t carry it all?

Under the surface I hide my nerves and it worsens

Who am I if I don’t have what it takes?

It is a bundle of fun, my class is….seriously though, we had a good discussion about the weight of expectations, both our own and what others have for us. We talked about generational trauma and the roles we play out in our families. We talked about how we can terrify and harm the very people we seek to protect when we don’t know our limits and when we feel pushed beyond what we can take. And we talked about why it is we feel we have to take so much on.

But wait

If I could shake the crushing weight of expectations

Would that free up some room for joy?

Or relaxation? Or simple pleasure?

Luisa has her own aha moments, and I (occasionally) have mine, and I try to walk alongside my students as they have theirs. I am taking a little bit of time every day to free up some room for joy. Ask people in your life how they are doing that for themselves. Ask yourself what you can do to make sure you have some room freed up for joy, and relaxation, and simple pleasure. When I don’t ration out the time for my own joy, I am less likely to ration it out for others. And that is part of #belovedcommunity.

From “eh” to “ah” (and “aww” and awe)

I had limited time in the fall semester to write. I feel like I made it through the fall semester with the skin of my teeth, whatever that means. I had no desire to write over our very short break (winter graduation on Dec 17, classes began Jan 5) and then the semester started virtually and I have been very “eh” about it. Thankfully, we resume in person learning next week. (Also thankfully, we have good vaccination rates and a mask mandate on campus.)

I zoomed the first few classes, but given that today many students were making their way back to campus from various places across the country, I had my 3 classes today be asynchronous. Each of these involved a discussion board as well as an individual submission of a small assignment. I read the discussion board for one of the classes tonight and went from “eh” to “ah” to “aww” and awe in the space of an hour.

I took this picture on the campus of Queens University in Belfast, where we were when the world turned upside down in March 2020. I don’t know anything else about it, sadly, but it mirrored my feelings that day.

This is a class focused on understanding human behavior and development in the lifespan. We spend the first few weeks setting the stage talking about the effects of “big picture” things like how culture and economy and politics and other aspects of our social and physical environments affect us. We also talk about the interplay of the systems within us (biological, psychological, social and spiritual). I got through the key content in our zoom on Tuesday, so for the discussion board I asked them to respond to one of a selection of scenarios or application questions. I offered a range of choices, so that people could choose to share as much or as little about themselves as they felt comfortable doing so. And, I did not require peer responses (as I normally would if this were a fully online class).

They have until midnight tonight to respond, so I haven’t read all of them, but when I looked at the board a couple of hours ago 19 out of 24 had already responded. Their reflections/responses to the questions and what they chose to share were a whole range of things. They were processing alot of grief about the pandemic, about their first experiences with losing a loved one; they were sharing about their struggles with spirituality and faith. They shared about their fears of disappointing people. They shared about loneliness. They also shared happy moments, some big wins and some brushes with fame and the joy of seeing people that they hadn’t been able to see in awhile.

Eh: I don’t like teaching on a screen. Zoom fatigue is real.

Ah: People are often hungry for space to share. I need to remember that.

Aww: I can still be authentically surprised and encouraged, even after 15 years of teaching.

Awe: People are complicated. We are fearfully and wonderfully made and we (most of us) have issues. We also have a lot of depth for compassion. One of my students said she didn’t have faith, per se, but she believed we all had a part in “righting the universe” through our service to others.

“This joy that I have”

About a year ago I heard the Resistance Revival Chorus “This Joy”. I listened it to it multiple times a day for probably months in a row. It got me through a lot of the pandemic. I still listen to it regularly. If you have never heard this version (or have never heard the song at all), give it a listen. You will be hooked. The original is by gospel singer Shirley Caesar.

This is a season of the year where we are frequently reminded to practice gratitude, to articulate the people and things for which we are grateful. I have been working on this especially the last couple of weeks as a means of mindfulness and being aware.

Today I spent most of the day at our church retreat. Even though we have a high vaccination rate among our members, we spent most of the day outdoors. I haven’t spent so much of a day outdoors in a long time. We walked, we played Quidditch (for which my body will hate me tomorrow) and I spent some time just laying (lying? after all this education, you’d think I could remember) on the leaf-filled grass, looking up.

I did not grade policy tests, do lesson plans, create a community practice exam or make follow up phone calls for some community work. All the things on my to do list for today because they didn’t get finished over the week. I will do some of them this evening, but it will not take away from the joy I had today.

I laughed, I watched my children, and really enjoyed the sunshine. I rested.

I got into my car to come home this evening, and this song was the first I found in my playlist. What a lovely end to my day of rest. I am so grateful to have had this day. I needed it.

If you want more info on the science of practicing gratitude, check out:

https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/how_gratitude_changes_you_and_your_brain

Healing

Today has been pretty gloomy and it is only 9:20. Drove my daughter to school in the chilly rain on a few hours sleep. It is a busy season at work and home.

Even amidst the temporary gloom, reflecting on a bright spot from last week, as well as an a-ha moment, I was reminded of this micro-poem by Liezel Graham, beautifully illustrated by Kimothy Joy. (You can find the author and image here: https://liezelgraham.com/2019/01/20/every-woman-who-heals-herself/ )

It was Friday, and I was in a community space with a group of women. It was a multigenerational gathering, and people from different paths. There was diversity in race, education, income, life experience and other dimensions. One of my wonderful colleagues was sharing/leading us in an activity about what to keep and what to throw away related to family communication and other family patterns. As each woman shared, I could hear so many commonalities in what we experienced as hurtful as well as what we experienced as nurturing and loving. This in itself was helpful to see but what seemed to mean the most was just that we had some intentional space to share and to “be”. I am hopeful this will be a regular space and place where we can continue to be in community with each other. The power of being able to share and be heard, to listen, and to support should not be minimized or held lightly.

Confronted with the “fierce urgency of now”

I had conversations with two people today that were reminders that the world is full of hate and loss. I also had the chance to go to a celebration of life for someone who was 95 when he died, and who leaves a legacy of love and faith and steadfastness.

There is something about someone’s “homegoing” that makes most people, me included, reflective about how they are spending their time.

“…There is an invisible book of life that faithfully records our vigilance or our neglect. “The moving finger writes, and having writ moves on….” We still have a choice today: nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. This may well be mankind’s last chance to choose between chaos and community.”

Where Do We Go From Here? Chaos or Community? By Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
Image taken from Salvaged Faith, https://salvagedfaith.com/2016/08/07/the-beloved-community/

When I think about how I am spending my time, I think about what is most important to me in terms of my relationships. And I think about my work. And I think about my calling to be various things, including an ally and a bridge builder and restorer. When I think about what it is I am vigilant about and what it is I neglect, I (in the words of Dr. King) think about the choice between nonviolent coexistence or violent coannihilation. I also think about the choice between speaking up (however imperfectly) or being silent, and between showing up (however imperfectly) or being absent. I think about the choice to be intentional in our relationships and in my efforts to build community (however imperfectly).

In what feels like a million years ago, I read the Steven Covey books as part of a leadership program at an organization where I was working with children and families. There are some things I could take or leave in these books, but a couple of things have stuck with me. One of the things is this: to be proactive is to make choices on deeply held values.

I have been stressed lately (as usual) with more things to do than time to do them, and have felt like I am really just surviving day to day in terms of doing the work in front of me. That doesn’t feel proactive in the way I usually use that word. But. I said “yes” to work that is meaningful and to things I believe in and to things I prayed for. I value and hold dear the root of all the things I said “yes” to, and now (when it is all coming to a head at once it seems) I am trying to just do the next right thing for each of these. Pretty imperfectly, but still proactive. Still in pursuit of community. I am confronted with the “fierce urgency of now” (also from Where do we go from here?). I also know I need to rest.

What is your fierce urgency?

What we permit, promote, and prohibit

Earlier this week, when news broke about the Haitian immigrants at the border of Del Rio, I couldn’t comprehend it, just in terms of the sheer numbers of people. When I saw images of people being chased by DHS officials on horses, I couldn’t process it. Then I saw Bernice King’s tweet, pictured below, and I finally had to stop trying to cognitively run from it.

I teach a policy class each fall, and while I have set things I always talk about (TANF, Social Security, child welfare policies, etc) I also try to be responsive to the political and social issues that are unfolding throughout the semester. I do this not to be reactive, but to be intentionally responsive and show students in multiple ways that policy (and implementation of policy) affects people. Policy can constrain rights or expand them; it can facilitate access to resources and supports or it can limit them. Policy shows what we value, what we will permit, what we will promote, and what we will prohibit.

Today at the end of class I asked them to tune into this topic over the weekend, and that Tuesday we would talk about some of the policy implications of this, both current and historical.

Here are some of the sources I am using in my pondering and preparing. I kind of dread it; it will be complicated and messy…but I think it is important.

https://thehill.com/search/query/haiti

https://sojo.net/articles/want-support-haiti-prevent-western-exploitation

https://www.bbc.com/news/world-us-canada-58654351

https://immigrationforum.org/article/fact-sheet-temporary-protected-status/

Metaphorical masks and bearing each others’ burdens

Every fall semester I teach a class on macro practice where the focus is on community organizing and development, as well as organizational development. Early on, as I am trying to connect with the students, we talk about community and what it means to us. This year, I tried something different. I gave every student a large-ish sticky note and asked them to think about a community that is most special or important to them. Then, I asked them to write what their hopes or dreams were for that community if they were to come back to it after an absence of five to ten years. I told them not to put their names on them.

As students finished writing, I invited them to come put them on the dry erase board. In my mind’s eye, it was going to look like a patchwork quilt. In reality, it looked like a dry erase board with post it notes on it. BUT the content was interesting and I started reading them to myself as the students were discussing something in pairs.

The notes my students wrote with their community wishes and dreams.

I read things like “I wish that my community of Richmond will have removed every statue or memorabilia associated with the confederacy” and “I hope that my community is still small enough to show care to its members like I remember” and “I wish for every school in my community to have a social worker and enough good teachers”.

And then I got to one that said “I will wish that my community doesn’t still see me as a burden. I will wish that I will not feel so alone”. I looked around at my students and couldn’t easily identify a contender for who might have written this.

As we were moving from small group to large group discussion again, I read some of the notes out loud. I debated for a minute, and then read the one above, about feeling alone and like a burden. I said that I was sorry that someone felt like that about a community that was important to them. I said I hoped that whoever wrote this would know that I didn’t see anyone as a burden to our community and that I hoped they knew the feeling of being included. I invited them to talk to me privately after class.

People were quiet, a bit uncomfortable. These are students in a cohort who have had at least 5 classes together, but because of COVID and hybrid and online learning, some of them are just now in a room together for the first time. I thanked them all for their engagement in the work. We moved on and had a good class in terms of participation.

I noticed this week that students checked in with each other differently before class started. They moved around more, talked to people that they sometimes don’t. Maybe they were thinking about making sure someone didn’t feel like a burden.

During class, I let them do small groups outside so they could take their (literal) masks off and see each other while discussing. Watching them take their literal masks off made me think about the metaphorical masks we wear sometimes. I thought about how that morning I had cried on the way to work, not out of loneliness but out of anxiety. And even though I am fortunate to have good friends and colleagues, there was no one I felt I could tell because—wait for it—I didn’t want to be a burden. I got to work and anyone who asked me about my day heard that I was fine or even great or maybe just “hanging in there” depending on the time.

Just as I feel it is my work (purpose, calling) to work to create and nurture community for others, and to bear the burdens of others, I have to be willing to lay my burden down for someone else to bear.

And that’s a crux of community: the inherent need for reciprocity and the requirement for vulnerability. How am I bringing this combination of reciprocity and vulnerability to my teaching? How am I modeling it for my students? How am I bringing it to my work in the community?

We create the beloved community by being the beloved community, living into its vision though imperfectly.

“Minding the gap”

In London, “minding the gap” is a phrase you hear frequently when using the subway. It is a reminder to pay attention to the space between the train and the platform. It can also be a metaphor for paying attention to the space between where you are, and where you are going….or a reminder/call to action to pay attention to what is missing.

Photo by Alessio Cesario on Pexels.com

After the summer of 2020, I, like many others across the globe, committed to being anti-racist. As I prepared for the fall semester of 2020, this also meant I committed to being explicitly anti-racist in my teaching. I used Dr. Ibram Kendi’s framing of the term with my students, with respect to the idea (and I am paraphrasing) that being anti-racist is not a fixed position that I will ever achieve. Rather, it is something I will continually be working on, forever, and something that every day requires the commitment to making anti-racist choices.

Let me be clear: It is something that every day I fall short at, in some way or another. But I am working. I am trying to “mind the gap”.

Across settings, this work looks like examining my own bias, facing the ways in which I have been living in denial, being thoughtful (full of intentional thought) about things I support with time and money. It also requires enough humility to hear the feedback and face the questions when I make a choice or engage in an action that is rooted in racism rather than anti-racism. (Even as I write this I am cringing about something that happened in a community setting, related to a volunteer role that I have. My passive un-critical thinking, coupled with what is a personal trait, led to exclusion rather than inclusion and centered whiteness over other things. Yuck. But I am thankful for the friend who confronted me about it and helped me think through the right action to take.)Anyway, the point is that I committed to being anti-racist in my teaching, having some idea at the outset what that might look like but knowing I needed to keep it at the forefront of my planning each week. And so I plugged along each week, dealing with technology failures and teaching during a pandemic, and parenting 3 children in virtual school, while attempting to live out my commitment to being anti-racist in my own college teaching.

In fall and spring semesters of academic year 2020-2021, I taught 8 sections of classes altogether. Fall saw me teaching a first year seminar, a human behavior/development class, a policy class, and a macro practice class. Spring saw me teaching two sections of the human behavior class, a senior capstone class, and a class on the history of social movements. Some classes are a more logical place for laying out an explicit anti-racist framework than others, but in all I worked to revise curricula. This looked like more integration of sources from more scholars of color, asking hard questions about inequities and waiting in silence for answers/discussion, and constantly acknowledging my privilege and asking students to think about theirs as well. It meant bringing in history, and not just watered down history, and also having discussions about the ways in which our profession has not been on the right side of justice, even though we are a “helping” profession.

Classes at my university started this week, and I am again thinking through resources, questions, class discussion prompts, speakers and more to continue being anti-racist in my teaching.

I am still doing the heart work and mind work on a personal level, as that certainly shapes what I bring to the classroom and how I engage with my students. I am sharing some of the most helpful resources below.

This image below was one of the first things I saw in the summer of 2020 when I set out on this journey. It has been really helpful in thinking about which zones I might be in with respect to different contexts, and why. This image, from Andrew M. Ibrahim MD, MSc is one way to visualize the phases of becoming anti-racist.

My favorite (where “favorite” means “helpful” in making me think and ask questions) resources on social media are: Antiracist Education Now. Teach for the Culture, Teachers for Black Lives, Urban Teachers Lounge, the Equity Matters Podcast, Abolitionist Social Work.

In terms of engagement with students, the biggest thing I would say is that I have had to grow in comfort with discomfort. There were moments of palpable tension in various classes last year…and there should continue to be. I have had to become more okay with not having “closure” with respect to conversations on certain topics. We can’t wrap up discussions on racism, oppression, white supremacy and the like in tidy ways in 50 min blocks or an hour and 15 minute blocks. We have to hold space for all the emotional and intellectual places students might be in any given moment and it is challenging.

It is hard, and I am thankful for the encouragement and support I have with colleagues in person, as well as those I have connected with virtually. If I can be of encouragement or support to you as we are on this journey of growth, don’t hesitate to reach out.

Masks, Social Policy and Reconciliation

One of the principles of Dr. King’s vision of the Beloved Community is Reconciliation. One way to think about reconciliation is seeking friendship and understanding with your opponent (https://thekingcenter.org/about-tkc/the-king-philosophy/)

Aside from the discussion of vaccination or anti-vaccination, I can’t think of anything more immediately divisive right now where I live than the issue of mask wearing. My Metro school system instituted an all mask policy (students, faculty, staff, anyone in the building) a week before school started. I was thankful for it. None of the adjacent county school systems had a policy before school started and now we are a week in for most of these systems. Some are making changes and some are not, but I have (once again) fallen guilty to the reading of social media comments posted by people and cannot really fathom the vitriol that some people have for mask wearing, as well as the vitriol that some mask wearers have for non mask wearers. Good. Land. (As my grandmother would say.)

But it did make me think of a lesson from last fall. I teach an Intro to Policy class each fall semester. Rarely is anyone excited about policy from the get go but I always have a good time and a good challenge teaching them about its relevance to social work.

Here’s my basic info to them on “what is a social policy?”:

We have some discussion on the first three examples before we get to the last one, and last fall it helped people to see how to frame the issue differently. I chose the particular image with a mask and Bible verse because I happen to teach at a faith based institution and also talk about broader values that get embedded into policy, including religious values. (I spend a whole other session talking more specifically about how we see values embedded into social policies, particularly into social welfare policies, with a <if I say so myself> cool amalgamation of videos from them to see historical and current examples of this.)

Anyway, last year after we discussed social policy examples we talked more in depth about various examples of “mask mandates” at different system levels, some of the pushback we had seen, and how data could be used well and poorly in the framing of an issue. This is a good piece from Frameworks Institute to pair with that discussion: “How to Foster Solidarity While Others Fuel Division” https://www.frameworksinstitute.org/article/topic-12-how-to-foster-solidarity-while-others-fuel-division/ This is a strategic, policy focused way of saying how we work toward reconciliation. I really appreciate the focus on advancing your big ideas instead of commenting on the chaos. (Now if I can just stop reading the other people who comment on the chaos.)