50,000 Coaches and Community Resilience

Last week, at the very end of our between semester break, my family and I watched Akeelah and the Bee. I had seen it before, several years ago, but loved it just as much this time around. If you haven’t seen it, the basic plotline is that Akeelah, a middle school student, is enrolled at an inner city school in LA with caring teachers but limited resources. Akeelah is having some attendance trouble, and yet she has a gift for spelling. After she wins the school spelling bee, the principal arranges for her to get some special tutoring from Dr. Larabee, a community member who, we learn later, is going through some significant grief.

I don’t want to give too much of the plot away in case you haven’t seen it and want to, but gradually through the movie we see some family challenges for Akeelah, including some conflict with her mom. At a point in which Dr. Larabee has stopped tutoring her, Akeelah’s mother says “I bet you have 50,000 coaches around here”.

I didn’t tune into that quote the first time I saw the movie, but it was impactful for me now. I teach a lot about resilience, and about the impact that one safe, stable, nurturing relationship on a child’s life. I also teach about community resilience, and about the community level programs and services that help build resilience in children. One of the favorite resources I share is the “Tipping the Scales” game, from the Center for the Developing Child at Harvard. You can access the game here: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/resources/resilience-game/ I also encourage students to check out this list and see what resilience based work is happening in communities near them: https://www.acesconnection.com/pages/geographic-communities

I usually introduce the resources above to students after they have read this piece on the prevalence of adverse childhood experiences nationally and by state: https://www.childtrends.org/publications/prevalence-adverse-childhood-experiences-nationally-state-race-ethnicity This is a helpful piece to re-visit when we discuss community resilience. What exists in their community to address these most common areas of adversity? What additional resources are needed?

To circle back: After Akeelah’s mother tells her not to be discouraged about losing Dr. Larabee’s help and that she has potential coaches all around her, the movie shows how true this is. It is feel good Hollywood, in this case, but there is truth in it. There are potential “coaches” and supports around us, if only we put priority into developing them.

Teaching with the “Do No Harm” podcast

I finished listening to the last episode of the Do No Harm podcast today. It was a hard podcast to listen to, emotionally speaking, and I am no stranger to working in child welfare. I listened while walking around the neighborhood over the last couple of weeks, and there were a couple of portions of it in particular that were so emotional I literally had to stop and catch my breath. So, before assigning to students I would talk with them in general about what they would hear, and give some more specific trigger warnings related to the episodes of Immediate Danger and Standard Protocol.

Some years I teach a course specifically on child welfare, and when I teach that again I will likely incorporate all of this podcast throughout the semester. I plan on using portions of it this coming semester in my class that covers lifespan development. At each stage of life we discuss how trauma and experience with other adversity impacts development, and we also talk about the impact that different systems (education, health, child welfare, etc) have on development. So, this podcast is clearly a fit.

Beyond the discussion of child development and how CPS systemic involvement affects family functioning, there is also an important discussion of race-bias, and systemic racism in the child protection system. This really comes out in the episodes The Fighter and The Cost. This would be a good pairing with the TED Talk referenced in this post on addressing disproportionality in the child welfare system: https://teachingbeloved.com/2020/07/06/reflections-of-a-baby-addict-we-have-to-address-disproportionality-in-child-welfare/

There were several times during this podcast I thought about my own kids. I am fortunate/lucky/privileged/blessed to have 3 healthy children and a supportive partner in a relatively safe community. But listening to this podcast I was reminded of times we were not vigilant enough when the kids were small: when they fell off a rocking horse, when they rolled off the bed, and when one, running through the house in the unsteady way toddlers do, gashed her head. And we were lucky that no one was hurt beyond bumps and a few stitches. And we were lucky no one assumed our behavior was neglectful or abusive based on the color of our skin.

Child welfare work is hard work. I wish front line workers had better supports (supervision, training, lower caseloads, etc). We need systemic change to better support workers, so that they can be better supports and advocates for the children and families with whom they work. And, this is not addressed in Do No Harm, but we also need to be able to provide support and assistance to families who need it. We know a lot about risk factors for abuse and neglect, and yet we do so little prevention. (Maybe a post for another day, but in the meantime here is my favorite site for understanding how we can work with children and families to build resilience: https://developingchild.harvard.edu/science/key-concepts/resilience/)

In the meantime, I hope you listen to Do No Harm. If you aren’t a social worker or a teacher or a parent, I still bet you would find value in the podcast, for helping you think about how you could work to be an advocate for children and families in your community.


Today has been unsettling. Simultaneously surprising (can this really be happening here? In the US?) and yet…not surprising at all. The past 4 years and then some have been building to this moment.

I am thankful I have a few days to think before seeing a group of students. Between teaching a class on trauma, and teaching a class on social movements, there is no way I can authentically, honestly teach this semester without talking about the events of today. It isn’t possible.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

One of my favorite contemporary poets is David Whyte. In his book Consolations, he writes: “HONESTY is reached through the doorway of grief and loss. Where we cannot go in our mind, our memory, or our body is where we cannot be straight with another, with the world, or with our self”.

What are the mental and emotional places I am reluctant to go? As a parent…an “American”…a Christian…a social worker…a professor?

What is the loss I am most afraid of? Employment? Relationships with family members?

What is complicity resulting in, besides dishonesty and the perpetuation of white supremacy?

In trying to figure out how to get straight with myself, with others, and with the world, here are a few voices I have been reading recently, and today:

James Bell, III https://equitymatterspodcast.medium.com/all-it-took-was-six-days-99c789a2c696

David Dark: https://daviddark.substack.com/

Brittany Paschall, and other voices on The Salt Collective https://thesaltcollective.org/

May we walk boldly toward honesty.

Bearing witness, and the 4 witness positions

I think I first heard the phrase “bearing witness” sometime in Sunday School as a child, in the context of one of the commandments to “not bear false witness” against my neighbor. I don’t know that I heard it in any other context until I was listening to my dissertation advisor, many years later, talking about her experience in South Africa and being present during part of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Bearing witness to the atrocities and the trauma, on community and individual levels, shaped her both personally and professionally.

There is power in bearing witness in the systemic sense. We have seen that in other countries, such as in South Africa with the TRC. We saw that in increasing measure in the US in 2020 particularly in the area of racism and violence, (https://theievoice.com/bearing-witness-to-injustice-from-ron-settles-to-george-floyd-nothings-changed/) and also in the area of poverty (https://www.poorpeoplescampaign.org/) .

I have also seen in my own community the importance of bearing witness to the stories, including deaths, of people who are unhoused (https://www.nashvillescene.com/news/pith-in-the-wind/article/21145256/paying-tribute-to-those-who-passed-in-the-homeless-community)

There is also power in bearing witness in the individual therapeutic sense, such as in a formal helping relationship or an abiding and committed relationship https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/meaningful-you/201312/the-power-and-strength-bearing-witness)

We are all called to be witness bearers, especially as we work on building the “Beloved Community”. As Emmanuel Levinas wrote in God, Death and Time (2000), “Bearing witness is not expressed in or by dialogue but in the formula ‘here I am’. ” However, we may not always be prepared to bear witness, to be present for people, especially when we are witnessing pain, suffering, and the recounting of trauma.

I came across the website of The Witnessing Project last year, and was especially interested in their concept of “witness positions” (http://www.witnessingproject.org/archives/the-four-witness-positions)

As you can see if you look at the 2×2 image, a person in position 1 is both aware and empowered. This person can bear witness most effectively because they know the importance of listening, of being present and of paying attention, AND they know what resources to bring into play and/or they know how to take action to help promote healing or (at least) an end to the pain. This is the position I want my students to be in, as well as the position I want to be in. If we operate from any of the other positions, we are either going to miss opportunities to bear witness, be ignorant about what to do, or feel overwhelmed.

I plan on using this image and some scenarios as an exercise to help my students think through their own ability to bear witness, and for us to think together about how we can be better witness bearers, in both our professional work and in our personal and communal lives.

Reflections on Dr. King’s Drum Major Instinct: Looking into 2021 and beyond

I came across Dr. King’s sermon “The Drum Major Instinct” about 4 years ago. He preached this sermon at Ebenezer Baptist Church on February 4th, 1968. This is two months before he was assassinated in Memphis. In this sermon he references what he would like people to say about his life during his eulogy, which makes it especially prophetic.

If you have never read this or heard this, I hope you delve into it. There’s so much in here about servanthood, consumerism, posturing, classism, the evil of supporting oppressors, all woven together in a richly told sermon. How I have been reflecting on it in recent days has been the part about what true greatness looks like, and how that relates to what I would want said at my funeral. Like Dr. King, I’d like for someone to say that I did try to feed the hungry. I’d like for someone to say that I did try to love and serve humanity. I’d like for someone to say that I helped people get into housing, and that I met people where they were, on street corners or under bridges or wherever they were. I’d like for someone to say that I raised my kids to seek justice and to hate racism and to be anti-racist.

One of the classes I am teaching in the spring lends itself to this kind of reflective exercise. In Senior Capstone, we look at professional issues and their big project is a practice evaluation associated with their field placement. But there is also space in the course (and direction from the institution) to have students think about their mission in life, and to think about how they will live out their calling as they move toward graduation and a different phase of life. I have never had students listen to this sermon in full before, but this year I plan to, and I will ask them to use it as a foundation for writing their mission statement and thinking about what it means to have a life well lived.

And, if I want those things to be said at my eulogy, what do I need to keep doing this year? What do I need to be doing differently this year? If my students want to live out their mission fully, what do they need to be doing differently? How can we encourage and support each other in this?

You can find the sermon in its entirety in written form here https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/drum-major-instinct-sermon-delivered-ebenezer-baptist-church You can listen to it here:

Book review: Hidden Valley Road

One of my goals over the break between semesters is to read as much as possible! I have made good on that progress so far, and one book in particular has given me a number of ideas for how to use it in teaching. The book is Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family by Robert Kolker. It is a non-fiction account of the Galvin family of Colorado. The Galvin family includes 12 children, ten sons and two daughters (who are children 11 and 12). Throughout their late adolescence and adulthood, 6 of the 10 brothers get a diagnosis of schizophrenia.

The brothers with schizophrenia spend significant time bouncing between state mental hospitals, community outpatient centers, jail, group homes, and their parents’ home on Hidden Valley Road. The brothers without schizophrenia have their own journeys (geographic, educational, spiritual) and all process their family stories a bit differently. The two sisters experience sexual abuse from one of the brothers, are isolated from each other as children, provide support for each other as young adults, and then grow apart again as they two process their family stories differently, and also as they realize that “healing” looks different for each of them.

In addition to the family narrative that spans 4 generations, the book provides a decades long look at the research that has gone into trying to understand the origin of schizophrenia as well as the mechanisms of trying to develop treatments and protocols in the context of both changing culture and healthcare systems.

Woven through both the narrative and the research is the age old question of the significance of “nature” (biology, genetics, etc) versus “nurture” (environment, parenting, culture, etc).

Feminism, patriarchy, family systems and secrets: they are all in this book. Risk, early childhood trauma, finding the right therapist and resilience: also in this book. Big pharma, the length of time that research can take, ethics and dilemmas in research what “informed consent” can really look like: here as well.

For social work educators: this book could be used in a research course, in a mental health class, in a individual or family practice class or in a HBSE class.

“Our relationships can destroy us, but they can change us, too, and restore us, and without us ever seeing it happen, they define us. We are human because the people around us make us human.” –Robert Kolker, in Hidden Valley Road: Inside the Mind of an American Family

“We who believe in freedom cannot rest”: That’s what I’m professing

Between the pandemic, and the election cycle, and the general exhaustion level of…everyone…there were classes this semester that felt long and complex.

Like every semester, I wanted to end this one with integrity, and to give something for students to think about as they leave (or “leave the meeting”). For one course in particular, this ending began with me remembering something I learned (heard or read) early on in my teaching: To be a professor means I have to profess something.

Actually, to be a professor means I get to profess something. I am not just communicating facts and evaluating assignments; I also get to help students figure out who they are, what values they hold, what they are called to be about in this world, and how they are going to live it out. That’s why I love my work.

from the official Instagram of Ruby Bridges

And what I chose to profess was simple, but it felt right given the focus of the course. It was having them look again at the picture of Kamala Harris alongside a silhouette of Ruby Bridges. It was talking about Dr. King’s words, that the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice. It was showing them a picture of Ruby Bridges’ mother, Mrs. Lucille Bridges, and talking about her vision for her daughter to get an education and using that link to remind them that the personal is political and the political is personal. It was showing Ruby Bridges’ Instagram post from the week before, sharing about her mother’s passing. It was talking—again— about the fact that the moral arc of the universe is long, and it bends toward justice…and also, we are the ones who bend it. It was asking them to rest up over break and come back refreshed, because as the words of Ella Baker remind us, we who believe in freedom cannot rest until it comes.

Ella’s Song (We Who Believe in Freedom Cannot Rest) is something I have been listening to on almost constant repeat lately. It was written by Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon who was a founding member of the SNCC Freedom Singers and who also founded Sweet Honey in the Rock. Sweet Honey in the Rock has the beautiful original rendition, and the Resistance Revival Chorus released a version in 2020 for Juneteenth. They are both powerful. You can learn more about Sweet Honey in the Rock here https://www.npr.org/2018/01/16/577690049/we-who-believe-in-freedom-shall-not-rest and here https://sweethoneyintherock.org/ I will keep this on my internal playlist into 2021 and beyond, to remind me what I am professing.

We the Resistance

My semester just wrapped up; we have been on a compressed schedule due to Covid and so my exams just finished and I am in the midst of papers, presentations, and all the other good things that come from a semester done well.

This semester I have taught the First Year Seminar class. It is the first time I have ever taught a freshman required seminar. The course has a number of moving parts and I am not sure the Covid context of 2020 was the optimal time for me to teach this for the first time. Yikes! I will definitely do some things differently next time. But….one thing that I would do again is keep my theme (Yes We Can! The Power of Nonviolent Resistance) and I would keep the text I chose, and I would keep the final assignment.

Today I am going to share the text and why I love it. And then if I ever when I finish grading, I will share the final assignment and what I learned from students about who and what inspires them for being change seekers and change makers.

This book is amazing. It is a chronological history of resistance movements in the US, and actually begins with events that happened when the US was a group of colonies, including abolitionist work in 1657. The book is current, too, as the last section is about resistance work during Trump’s administration. Aside from the comprehensiveness of the book, the thing I love most is that it isn’t the work of an author who is telling us about the events but rather it is a collection of individual voices and original documents from each era. The book is a collection of letters, speeches, journal entries, organizing documents, newspaper articles, and more. There are many names and campaigns I had heard of, of course: Angelina Grimke, Mary Church Terrell, W.E.B. DuBois, the SNCC, the Freedom Rides and United Auto Workers Strike just to give a sampling.

There were names and campaigns that were new to me too: Words from an unknown slave, Chief Joseph, Women Strike for Peace, Philip Randolph, Robert Lowell, Appalachia Rising and Dulce Garcia.

I even saw a name of a former student of mine: The Human Impact of the Muslim Ban, by Dina El – Rifai. It gave me all the feels to see her name in print, and to know how her words and her work impact others.

I am excited to go through this book again next semester (as I am using it for a new elective on Social Movements and Social Change) and build more specific modules around some of the readings.

Roots and wings and (social justice) dreams

The picture of Vice President Elect Kamala Harris walking alongside the shadow of 6 year old Ruby Bridges has been giving me life the past few days.

Artist Bria Goeller worked with T-shirt company Good Trubble to create this image

I have taught three classes this week and shown the picture in 2 of them. In one of the classes (a freshman seminar focused on social change), no one new the shadow of Ruby and in the other class (a junior policy class of social work majors) only a few people did.

I talked for a bit about the women in the picture, and made the connections for them that I had hoped they would make for themselves, about the journey toward civil rights, justice and the lived out illustration of Dr. King’s quote that “the moral arc of the universe is long, but it bends toward justice”.

This realization that the students didn’t know Ruby Bridges like I thought they would made me think of a saying I heard a long time ago, that there are two gifts we should give our children. One is roots, to remind them where they are from, and the other is wings, to show them what they can become.

I don’t think of my students as children, but this principle still applies to what I wish for them. I want them to have knowledge (roots) of history, particularly the parts of history that too often get glossed over. I want them to have a vision (wings) for the gifts (work, commitment, character, seeking justice, etc) that they bring to the world.

Due to covid, my regular semester of classes actually ends this week…though there has been nothing regular about this semester! But I have decided for these two classes (freshman seminar focused on social justice, and my junior policy class where we have examined many policy issues through the lens of equity), I am going to re-visit this picture on the last day and add on a bit of the “roots and wings” discussion. I am going to invite students to do some journaling for a few minutes to think about their own roots and wings. Who has inspired them in their social justice work? What qualities do they want to grow in themselves that will help them in their journey of seeking justice? What have they learned this semester that they didn’t know before? How do they see themselves building on this knowledge? What else do they want to learn? How can they be in solidarity with others?

As I approach the end of a semester and the beginning of another: another semester, another year, a big birthday coming…I will be asking myself these questions as well.

(For more information on the artwork and the creator of the image above, check out https://www.cnet.com/news/heres-the-story-behind-that-viral-image-of-kamala-harris-and-ruby-bridges/)

(For more info on the roots and wings quote: apparently an unnamed wise woman said this: https://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/08/12/roots-wings/)

“Putting my hope in Nevada” and other student reflections on election

This semester I teach a policy class on Tues/Thurs. I have a few “in person” students but mostly they are on Zoom, and so I have been challenged all semester with how to find ways for people to participate that doesn’t depend on a camera or their willingness to unmute themselves. I knew that today I wanted to give some space for people to talk about their questions and thought related to the election. I also wanted to “use time wisely” since we are very close to the end of the semester. Conveniently, because I planned it that way, their chapter reading for today was a review on the political process in social work. Voting, yes, but also problem identification, generating solutions, enacting legislation, implementing policy and evaluating policy.

At the last minute (last half hour before class) I got an idea. I used a padlet (my favorite pandemic teaching tool) to ask them to identify questions they had about the election, what they were thinking about as we wait for the final results, and any thoughts they had about the political aspect of social work in general. (At the beginning of the semester I had taken a poll and only half of my students agreed with the statement that social work was a political profession. So, I wanted to see if their ideas had changed.)

They padlet participation was just shy of 100% and I can’t ever say the same for in person classes, so that was a win. One person said, simply, they were putting their hopes in Nevada. Some people wrote paragraphs.

We talked about some of the responses in class, and I told them that I would review them prior to the next class and we could keep discussing, and I would share resources, etc. We talked about the electoral college, about the attempt to find shared values, about our concern for human rights. I tried to hold space for the anxiety in the room, as that was named in alot of the padlet posts.

For a spur of the moment idea, it turned out pretty well.