I am going to lay some groundwork and fully acknowledge that I am privileged and that there are many contributing factors. I am a white, English speaking, heterosexual female nearing middle-age and the truth is, these attributes certainly lend well to opportunity; my educational background, my middle-class financial status, and my Protestant faith reinforce my privileged status. To the majority of people in my community, I am perceived as familiar, predictable, and safe. It is primarily these reasons, that I am motivated to write this piece for #Unitecloud, a social movement in our community that has humbled and inspired me.
My story is fairly typical in Central Minnesota. I grew up in a small, Northern Minnesota town and moved to St. Cloud in 1991 to attend St. Cloud State University (SCSU). I was privileged from the start, although people that look like me and share similar paths may argue the notion of privilege. We didn’t have much money growing up, but I had opportunity with very few barriers preventing me from achieving what I hoped for and dreamed of. As I reflect, the only true barriers were those that were self-imposed. I went to college despite the fact that my parents had never attended, and I never once considered that it wasn’t an option for me. Barriers were few and I persevered and chose my path. I later chose to purchase a home, had two children and fully expected that my children would have full access to an education and all the benefits that privilege brings. I never really had to question my options or the options for my children, because without question, all of the opportunities they chose to pursue were theirs (and ours) for the taking. Interwoven into my story is a series of choices not unlike those of you choosing to read this blog post. It is with the experience of privilege in mind, that I feel responsible and empowered to do something to improve the lives of all of the people I encounter every day in our community. Whether it is through attending educational opportunities, offering various forms of support (emotional, financial, social), engaging in simple day-to- day gestures and/or attending community celebrations, there are an abundance of ways I can and do get involved. Through identifying and challenging the things that make me uncomfortable and disheartened when it comes to issues of privilege and oppression, I will hopefully inspire my our community to be the best version of community that it can be.
Social Worker and Educator
Close to 20 years ago, I make a good decision. I recall with vivid clarity my first Social Work course at SCSU, it was “SW 201: Introduction to Social Work.” The class changed the course of my life and since that time, I have been privileged to work with many wonderful people in the midst of suffering and life’s relentless challenges. At the heart of my work has been the strongly held belief that with privilege comes responsibility.
I have been teaching at SCSU as an adjunct instructor since 2009 and in the classroom, I have embraced the various roles as teacher, mentor, supervisor and supporter of social work students and colleagues. For me, it has been purposeful work because I get to speak and live what I believe and it is the people I encounter that allow me to do this. The classroom has been an invaluable space to engage in challenging, sometimes difficult, and always inspiring dialogue with students. As an instructor in higher education, it is my goal to create safety in the classroom. Without it, we are all inhibited from taking risks and asking difficult questions of ourselves and of each other. In order to do the work we set out to do as Social Workers, as agents of social change, we need to unpack our privilege and our personal pain in order to understand and give compassion in response to the pain of others.
Without question, change starts with us and how we choose to live, teach, learn and lead. Unless we seek out and embrace opportunities to be students as well as teachers, we are destined to repeat and perpetuate the challenges in our community. To be clear, being a Social Worker in no way makes me an expert on issues related to cultural diversity; I remain a student and have much to learn. However, this does not mean I can’t take the lead and expect my students to do the same when it comes to being advocates for marginalized people. I expect that we will seek knowledge and understanding about members of our community that are open to sharing their stories and their lives with us. My expectations for my students are no greater than my expectations for myself – to understand our place of privilege and how this informs our understanding of one another.
Commitment to Social Justice
The lens from which I view the world is shaped by my Social Work education and practice. More importantly, my world view is influenced by my values and beliefs about humanity, how we should treat one another as human beings. One does not need to be trained as a Social Worker to understand anything I have written about. The concepts and ideas about social justice are not unique to Social Workers or the profession. It is true that as Social Workers we are responsible to recognize and respond to social injustice. This value system is instilled from the beginning of our Social Work education and throughout our training and continuing education. It is my belief that as social workers, we can and should use our privilege to take the lead when it comes to the challenges facing our community. In fact, as Social Workers we do not have the option to not to take the lead. Our National Association of Social Worker Code of Ethics (NASW Press, 2008) is the overarching guide for our profession that addresses our responsibilities as Social Workers. One of the primary values outlined in the Code is related to social justice and is outlined as follows:
Value: Social Justice
Ethical Principle: Social workers challenge social injustice.
Social workers pursue social change, particularly with and on behalf of vulnerable and oppressed individuals and groups of people. Social workers’ social change efforts are focused primarily on issues of poverty, unemployment, discrimination, and other forms of social injustice. These activities seek to promote sensitivity to and knowledge about oppression and cultural and ethnic diversity. Social workers strive to ensure access to needed information, services, and resources; equality of opportunity; and meaningful participation in decision making for all people. (www.socialworkers.org)
As a social work educator, I have observed students struggle with what can feel like an enormous responsibility. Students pose questions such as, “Where do we start?” or “What can I do? I am only one person and the issues are so big?” My response to students often sounds something like, “Start somewhere… start with yourself and your behavior and decide what is important to you.” Perhaps the students start with no great act, no monumental goal, but rather day-to- day efforts, small and thoughtful choices that raise awareness, raise consciousness, and create conversations about the challenges in our community. Social Workers are in the business of helping and for most of us, we recognize that it begins with self-awareness, understanding what drives our desire to help and recognition of our privilege and how this informs our next actionable steps in addressing social change.
Our Common Life
Numerous amazing social change pioneers with seemingly unlimited compassion and energy for humanity have been addressing issues of privilege and oppression for decades. These pioneers were engaged in their communities at a time when speaking out was especially dangerous, especially for women. The pioneers exemplified the notion that we are in this together, that we are more alike than different, and that doing something about their communities’ challenges was the only option. A few of the early social change agents that I revere include Dorothy Day (1897-1980), a longtime social activist, co-founder of the Catholic Worker Movement and a believer that we need to find and embrace the humanity in all of us in order to create and sustain social change. Another tireless advocate for human rights was Dorothy Height (1912-2010), a Social Worker and activist focused on issues of equality for all and a woman some refer to as the “Godmother” of the Civil Rights Movement. The third heroine’s work I look to for guidance about social movements, is Jane Addams (1860-1935). Ms. Addams is worthy of our understanding and our admiration. She is considered the founder of what we understand today as the profession of Social Work. She is one of the pioneers that led the way when it came to serving the community and working closely, literally hand-in- hand, with people in transition from immigrant and refugee to citizen. In 1931, Ms. Addams was the first female recipient of the Noble Peace Prize and a Social Worker dedicated to giving opportunity to people whose barriers and life challenges were numerous and beyond what I can comprehend. (www.hullhouse.org) It is clear to me that these three women had a shared belief system that when one person in our community suffers, we all suffer and that with privilege, comes responsibility.
My hope is that we will be inspired by those that have come before. Perhaps a place to start is to look to the work and mission of pioneers like Jane Addams and her compassionate spirit, her open heart, and her belief in the limitless possibilities of helping. As a community, I believe many of us recognize that ethically and morally we have a responsibility to each other. Jane Addams’ eloquent words from more than one hundred years ago still hold true today, “The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”
As our Central Minnesota community continues to change and grow, my greatest hope is that we will ponder our circumstances, our choices, and perhaps our place of privilege and ask, “What will I choose for our common life?”