Week 4

The things that give me privilege and power in social work are, in some ways, also the things that work against me. I am young, white, and college-educated. Like Professor Mike wrote about in his piece, the things I identify with I rarely ever need to reflect upon much, even if I had the time to do it. In the small amount of time I have worked in the social work-related field, I’ve been able to have lots of upward mobility in my job. It is admittedly ridiculous that I got paid more after less than a year at my job than my co-worker who has been there for over a decade, all because I had a degree and she didn’t. In the field, this translated differently. My co-worker had lots of “street cred”, people in the community call her “aunty”, and she commands a certain amount of respect because she’s “been through it all” And who am I? A scrubbed clean, fresh-out-of-college person who could still pass as a teenager. When I would go on home visits, I’d have an inflated sense of inadequacy and feel like I was being perceived as a fake. I always thought that the families I was helping would never want to listen to me because I haven’t been to the school of hard knocks and didn’t have a family at the time.  For the most part, this was in my head and people truly did respect me, even the ones who were twice as old as I was.

The privilege I experience in my everyday life is what drove me into this profession. I grew up in an upper-class family where my mother did not need to work. I saw how she immersed herself into volunteer work, helping out with non-profits like Child and Family Services and Aloha Medical Mission. I was always taught that if you have something to give, it’s your duty to give it. I feel lucky and privileged enough to pour from a full cup. My first taste of direct service work was going to the Philippines as a teen to volunteer at a shelter for sexually abused girls. Until recently, I had always though the work I did, and the work my mom did, were pretty noble deeds. When I look at it through the context of internationalizing social work, it makes me take a step back and re-think my position in the context of this work.

Cultural competency is of the utmost importance in social work. In order to make long-lasting, sustainable change, it must be considered in all aspects of the profession.  When I think of social work as a Western ideal, I kind of cringe at international work now. Although in my heart my mom and I had the purest intentions to help, it seems a little imperialistic to me now. I would never want anyone to think “Oh great, here come these American idiots swooping in trying to save the world again.” When social work comes from the outside, from the West to the rest, we further perpetuate the cycle of colonization. I like the idea of indigenizing the work and trying to make it authentic. I just feel like if social work is such a western context, it shouldn’t necessarily have a place in non-western worlds.

When I think of culture in social work, I think of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. We saw a lot of cultural struggles in social work and in the medical field. There was a psychologist, Sukey Waller, who described herself as “fixer of hearts” in Hmong on her business card. This is a great example of trying to squeeze a Western ideal in another culture where it doesn’t have a place, let alone a name for it. Social work is not a universal thing and although I feel like every should be helped, I don’t know if social work fits everywhere.

The little I know about respecting culture and indigenous voices comes from working in a Western context with immigrants and refugees. It’s imperative to go in with a working understanding of how different cultures and ethnicities operate. In many ways, it can be difficult. I’ve worked with families from the Marshall Islands where respect for elders is huge. If I have a language barrier and have to translate through a younger person in order to communicate, it is as if I am bypassing that elder and conferring without them. I have come to find out that many families do not mind as long as I am coming with the proper intention and respect. And like Fadiman in the book, they expect a lot less from an outsider. It also doesn’t hurt to learn a handful of phrases!


4 thoughts on “Week 4

  1. Hi, Lauren:

    It is never easy to point out our own privilege and power, so I admire that you put it out there (I love your analogy about pouring from a full cup, too!!!! I’m going to borrow that from you ;))

    Like you, I would have that same feeling of inferiority with the youth and families I work with. When I started out in the field, I was practically a youth myself! It’s really difficult to gain any respect in the field without crafty rapport building for the young ones like us because we don’t have the “aunty” power like our experienced counterparts. I also faced the same barriers–I’m trying to teach them independent living skills, but I was dependent on everyone at the time (living with my parents, needing help with learning to cook, etc.)…and counseling families raising teenagers and obviously not having any myself at the time! It’s uncomfortable to admit when they point it out to you on the spot, but then at least there’s transparency and I found the families were much more willing to work with me when I “stopped pretending.”

    So much of our practice is said to be “clinical,” but there’s an interesting transformation happening within this culture of care in modern social work practice. We thought we had all of the power to make the clients we work with conform to standards that don’t resonate with who they are…and we would penalize them for not doing so (e.g., termination of parental rights, institutionalization, etc.). At least now we are forcing ourselves to go outside of our traditional clinical practice and we are now using “pliable silicone baking cups” versus the “hard-plastic cookie cutters” to work with the “dough” that is our youth and families. (I hope that analogy makes sense!)

    I think that the more we know where we stand in society (e.g., socioeconomic status, stereotypes about our skin color and race, etc.), we can use this knowledge to bring out the voice in others and it’s like you said, we can go with good intentions not to “fix” people, but to bring out their voice and advocate for their needs. The difficulty is in learning the practice and theory while trying to apply it to real life and giving up the ghost and acknowledging when it isn’t working and trying alternative approaches instead.



  2. Lauren-I agree with the idea that social work does not fit everywhere. its almost as if we need to break down the idea of social work and just call it caring compassion or something f the like because I believe that every culture has that element or need within their culture. there is one language that we all speak and that is LOVE. We all need and or seek it out and simplified my feeling is that social workers are either giving LOVE or are feeling love through the experience of reaching out to people. I dont think we should change our professional status from social workers to LOVERS but i do think that we could use a tune-up even in our terminology if we are to truly merge into certain cultures and there preferences. Each one is unique in its own way with its own set of needs and expectations.

    i also have to believe that those whom are more street wise in our profession that may or may not be getting paid as much are likely being driven by something much deeper than finances which makes them far more effective. this is not to say they should not be compensated for their wisdom and effort but i do think they are likely be paid in greater ways than those of us with solely college credentials that justify our pay.

    keep going with the alternative approaches as you had mentioned in your last statement. I believe that is the future of successful social work.



  3. Lauren,
    I’ve experienced many of the same feelings and thoughts as you while working in the field and also in relation to international social work. I too felt very inadequate at times when working in the field. To this day I still remain very aware that my education doesn’t put me either above or below someone I’m working with. When working with the community I try to remember that the most important thing I can do is first listen and then work in unison with the person or family I’m working with towards health.
    This class has helped me see that international social work can be very harmful. Like you said, our intentions may be good but that doesn’t mean we are right in our interpretation of what is needed by a culture we may be unfamiliar with. Thank you Lauren.


  4. Lauren,
    Thanks for your reflection on privilege and power. I agree that within the context of social work today, it is quite colonial in its ways, especially internationally. However, if we look at our core values: social justice, empowerment, self-determination, dignity, integrity, human relationships, service, competence, they are in fact compatible with the kind of decolonizing work we seek to do!


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