Friday, November 25, 2011

White Ribbon Day: Violence against women, disabilities and where to begin

I’m taking a break from writing about a client for a final to writing about a client for my blog. So, it’s kind of like I’m not procrastinating, right?

This is what social work school does to me...
turns me into a 5 year old blonde boy.
Anyway, this paper I am writing which is basically a quick overview of the client and then a discussion of different theories and interventions is depressing me. I’m writing about an African-American woman, around 40 years old, who has become one of my favorite clients (shh, don’t tell). We’ll call her Darla. She is completely blind and was born blind. Because of her disability, her parents neglected her. Her parents left her in her crib sometimes for days. It’s a miracle she survived past infancy.

Because of this neglect, Darla was developmentally delayed and is extremely quiet. She’ll speak ever so often in groups, and it makes me so happy when she does. However, Darla has been severely taken advantage of in his life. The neglectful parents aside, she was frequently molested and beaten in her foster homes. She didn’t know how to tell anyone. She probably didn’t even know it was wrong.

On Twitter earlier today, S.E. Smith posted an article about the increased risk of violence faced by women with disabilities. I am fairly certain that almost every woman in our program has experienced violence and sexual violence. I know for a fact they have all faced emotional violence. They’ve been taken advantage of because of their vulnerabilities. The article posted said some research suggests that nine out of ten developmentally disabled women will experience a sexual assault, and it is universally agreed that most will have to face unwanted sexual contact eventually.

I’ve written previously about rape culture in our society. This kind of abuse and neglect is particularly difficult for me to process because Darla and other clients are so vulnerable. They will always have to depend on people. And most of them, at least in my agency, still have the ability to trust. I am amazed at how Darla, while silent, is so expressive. When we listen to music in group, she is often the first one up dancing. She loves dancing.

Also known as "White Ribbon Day"
Today is the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women. I appreciate the sentiment and all of the hard work behind it, but I am still so angry that we only have one day a year designated for this. Darla, however, is an anchor for me. It’s inspiring to know that someone so beautiful can be born from such ugliness.

I am kind of annoyed with how I’ve been writing about things that are upsetting and leaving the post closed on a negative note. I am a person of action; what are some things we can do now to make the world safer for women and for Darla?

Clarisse Thorn for wrote some great suggestions. I suggest you check out her list, as it encompasses everything I have and then some.
Chris Brown

  • Speak up if you have the voice. It’s not easy. Maggie Kuhn put it best when she said, “Stand before the people you fear and speak your mind—even if your voice shakes.”
  • A spade is a spade, rape is rape and assault is assault. It doesn’t matter if the rape occurred while the person was making one of your favorite movies, or exposing Bank of America for the crooks that they are, or writing your favorite pop song.
  • Recognize sexist images. Challenge them.
  • Engage people in discussions about rape culture. Do not fear being “uppity.”
  • Practice radical self-care. Fighting toxic rape culture is a part of that of course, but you cannot be an instrument of change if you allow yourself to burn out.
  • And finally, if you can, offer supportive, healing, caring touch. This sounds bizarre, but Darla cannot get enough touch. I know some folks consider touching clients inappropriate, but a hand on the shoulder or a grip of the hand can go a long way. Of course, with consent. 

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

How social work has made me bah humbug-y about Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving. It's a holiday that is near and dear to my heart in terms of the memories I have surrounding it--and I think any opportunity to reflect on what we are thankful for is valuable. From a social justice stand point, Thanksgiving is, well, complicated.

Today at my placement, we discussed facts about Thanksgiving. The facts were generally simple, and honestly, no different than what is taught in most schools. Pilgrims came to Plymouth Rock, made friends with some Natives, and they had a potluck, right? Everything was copacetic. 

One client (we'll call him Ken) is prone to angry outbursts. Most of the time they are completely unprovoked, but it was interesting what he spoke up about today in group. Ken was really upset about some of the facts being shared. He spoke about Thanksgiving as a holiday that celebrates the slaughter of an entire people. This upset some other members of the group who haven't learned anything about Thanksgiving beyond the folklore we tend to pass around as truth in schools and in our families. It got other clients riled up in agreement with him. 

It's also become very clear to me while speaking with clients about their weekend plans how difficult Thanksgiving can be for the chronically poor and mentally ill. Many of these folks are alienated from family. When we go around the room to talk about what we're thankful for, some people can't think of one thing. I don't think Ken's outburst was unprovoked this time around. I am thankful that he spoke his mind. I admire that. 

Another issue I have with Thanksgiving? I'm working in retail these days part-time at a popular store that sells personal care items. I say care loosely because most of the lotions in the store are made of the nastiest chemicals you can imagine and will probably ruin your skin or cause cancer in the long run--but I digress. My schedule on Black Friday is from midnight to 6 am. We open at midnight. Who in the hell needs to buy some vanilla scented lotion at midnight? Absolutely no one. Thanksgiving these days is less about sharing a meal as a way to build community than it is about consuming. Consuming the food, and consuming the sales the next day. The intuitive eater in me looks around and sees people enjoying their food, but not really enjoying their food. We don't savor so much as eat until we feel like we could burst. 

We are so thankful for this Pinot Grigio
While doing a little research on the history of Thanksgiving, I found an article that really brought the point home about Thanksgiving for me. The article is titled Thanksgiving: A Native American View. Let's face it; the Pilgrims were no survivalists. The Native folks saved the white folks' asses, and continued to save their asses, even when Native people were being killed and their land was being destroyed. And thus, the Pilgrims lived. Thus, we have a great White nation, and thus we have a great Capitalist society that means buying stupid candles at 3am is something that is really, really important to some people, and we are so lucky to have that privilege. 

Many Native Americans have lost their lives, their families and their land so that I can sit here, on my comfy mattress in Queens, surrounded by pillows, drinking fresh water, etc. etc. etc. and write this article. I am not so sure celebrating my privilege is exactly how I want to to look at the holiday, but isn't that what it is? Being thankful for privilege? Who am I thanking for this privilege if it's come at the expense of oppressing others? 

So, what is it that all of these random points about how Thanksgiving should suck have to do with one another? Well, nothing. It's just a list of reasons why it's difficult for me to appreciate Thanksgiving these days. Truth be told, I really do love holidays and celebrations, and I think they're important and valuable to everyone. I will probably have plenty of fun tomorrow. And I hope y'all do too, but I also hope that everyone is not only thankful for what they have, but understands how what they have shapes their lives and impacts others.

Sorry for being a Debbie downer, y'all. I'll do my best to be more uplifting about Christmas maybe New Years. 

Thursday, November 17, 2011

On Occupy Wall Street's general strike and social work

Today is a call for a General Strike in solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement. I've seen flyers all around campus at NYU, and folks all over Facebook are posting about it. I, however, will not be in attendance.

Thing is, I am in solidarity with the movement. I find the movement inspiring, and I've participated in their marches and all that. And there's been a couple of calls for general strikes over the past year or so while I've been in social work school, and these calls usually fall on days where I'm at my placement. It has made me realize that working with the "poor and needy"* doesn't really allow for the freedom to go on strike since they can't go on strike from being "poor and needy."

Unfortunately, it's the people I serve at my placement who I believe are most profoundly affected by our income gap and are experiencing the brunt of the cutting of services in preference to not taxing the rich. As long as I work in social work, I don't think I can ever walk away from the work I do with my clients in the name of solidarity or organizing because, for better or for worse, they rely on me.

I feel a sense of guilt over this. Participating in a movement that fights this toxic system we're living in is in effect advocating for these clients. It's something I'm passionate about. I wonder though if I can flip that way of thinking around. Is working with these clients fighting this toxic system? Is advocating for them on a daily basis, empowering them, supporting them, a part of the same fabric as the Occupy Wall Street movement?

I'd like to think so. So while I won't be in attendance at any marches today, and while I will be working all day, I am still participating in the General Strike. I encourage all of you to join.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

Work hard, party harder

Lately, I've been getting up at, what feels like to me, the ass crack of dawn (pardon my French). Yesterday I had class (on a Saturday! my BFF made a joke about it, "What, do social workers consider all days equal or something?"). Today I have training for my part-time, terrible, depressing, seasonal retail job.

I've also been spending my weekend evenings out with friends, being social, and even imbibing a bit. This makes waking up at a decent hour like 7am today or 8am yesterday seem like a huge effort. And admittedly, I probably shouldn't be out so late (5am on Friday night, 2:30am last night). It's just difficult to find the right balance--I don't get a straight up 9 to 5 schedule (or even a straight up 2 to 11 schedule). Things are unpredictable and it's hard to plan for a good time out if I want to conserve sleep. 

And I know how important sleep is. In fact, I am struggling getting these very words out this morning, and I'm sure someone is going to read this and assume I am drunk, because I am questioning that possibility myself right now. It's just something I've felt okay about sacrificing the past couple of days in exchange for fun. I can't wait for the days when I don't have to choose. Those days do eventually show up, right? Right?

This is just one example of how crappy my notes from class were yesterday. Pretty sure I was falling asleep as I was trying to write them. I tried to pull the whole "face-away-from-professor-and-pretend-you're-looking-down-at-your-notes-when-your-eyes-are-closed-but-then-your-whole-body-jolts-when-you-actually-fall-asleep-making-it-obvious-that-you-were-sleeping" thing. If you actually know what hypoprolacti...mema? means, please advise.

Friday, November 11, 2011

Penn State protests: Who are the real victims?

One of the primary reasons I decided to go into social work was to find an outlet for my unwavering, sometimes inappropriate empathy. I have the ability to empathize with the “worst” of individuals—I won’t make a list of who, but there’s something about people doing terrible things that pulls at my heartstrings. How did they get to that point? How much hurt must they be experiencing to want to hurt others so badly?

But sometimes my empathy is tested. This tends to happen most often when you throw privilege into the mix. Enter Penn State and the protests against the firing of Joe Paterno. Deadspin posted aslideshow of the “bros” long faces, highlighting that these kids are taking this seriously. Try as I might, I cannot take them seriously in return. A quick look through of the slideshow features, as a friend pointed out, primarily cis gendered white men. I’m assuming, and this is certainly an assumption, most of them are heterosexual. This is the battle they choose to fight. Nevermind the fact that there is actual Occupy Penn State action being organized, these kids decided the best thing to do was to protest against the justified firing of someone who turned a blind eye to children being abused.

I’m not saying that Paterno is the worst human being alive. I think Paterno was, however, acting to his own self-interest and to the interest of the Penn State community (or at least, the reputation or what he considered the interest of the Penn State community). However, it is my belief that fighting against child abuse and potentially preventing more children from abuse is worth some tarnishment to your reputation—a tarnishment that would have been much lighter than what he has to face now.

It’s also important to consider how this scandal would affect the survivors of Sandusky. Survivors of sexual assault often turn blame inward. Seeing the media portrayal of a school so upset over the firing of Paterno could potentially negatively affect these survivors. I can only imagine what would be going through their head—if only I hadn’t been there for Sandusky to abuse me, perhaps this trouble wouldn’t be happening. I hope, rather, that they are able to see what is happening as an example of why they are not at fault. The exposure of Sandusky and Paterno’s tight knit hold on the Penn State administration and the fact that there are several survivors may help the survivors conceptualize the severity of the situation and how out of their own control it really was.

But I can only hope. And as angry as I am at the Penn State protestors, I think it’s taking attention away from who the real victims are in this situation. It’s not these bro dawgs who are sad about losing their football coach. It’s the people who were severely and maliciously abused by Sandusky. There's some reasonable students at Penn State, fortunately, as seen in videos posted by Colorlines. I hope that while I can’t find empathy for them, that those protestors can find empathy for the survivors. 

New beginnings

So I've returned from my unplanned, longer than expected hiatus. Self-care right? I have this thing, and I think it's common amongst us social workers, where I make way more work for myself than there minimally has to be. In addition to graduate school and a 21 hour a week placement, I am working part time and also doing some heavy duty community organizing around fat issues. My middle name should be burn out.

Here's a small run down on things that I am working on that I hope to keep on a regular schedule of sharing with the blog-o-sphere:

  •  I've started a new club at NYU Silver, called Body Positive Silver. I've been connected to so many awesome students at Silver who are interested in changing body culture and tackling weight bias. I feel blessed, and honored to know these amazing ladies. 
    • We are working on SO MANY awesome campaigns. We hope to develop curriculum for both faculty and students on body politics, fat and social work.
  • The New School, where one of my colleagues Sarah Lewin is doing her placement this year, is doing some seriously radical work through a group called Changing Body Culture. I attended a Body Positive two day workshop which BLEW MY MIND and changed my life and completely shifted how I look at myself and food. I am not even exaggerating. As someone who suffers from depression, I have seen a marked changed in how I react to situations after this workshop. The Body Positive is one of my most favorite organizations, and I want to be Connie and Elizabeth when I grow up. 
    • For those of you in NYC, there will be a Body Positive four hour training Saturday, November 19 for free. Contact changingbodyculture (at) for more details and to RSVP. 
Ugh, there's so much I'm missing, but so much is going on. I've been busy presenting workshops for NYU students and I also presented at the amazing RISE Conference this year which was a huge honor (pics of that coming soon). I wish I were independently wealthy so I could just travel around the country and do this stuff full time! I love it. 

More entries coming soon. I definitely want to comment on Occupy Wall Street and the Penn State happenings.

Also! It recently came to my attention that named me their top blog about social work! I am so giddy and grateful. Check out their article to find other awesome blogs about social work.

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