If a student were to knock on your door and inquire, "What
is it really like to be a social worker?" what information would be available to give them? I think too little real information about what it is like to be a social worker is available. Yes, you
could hand them a social work textbook but most books and courses in social work approach the subject from a sterile
academic perspective ignoring some of the critical reasons why people become interested in social work practice. Take
for example, Siporin's definition that "social workers are professional helpers designated by society to aid people who are
distressed, disadvantaged, disabled, defeated, or dependent" –this definition and indeed the textbook does not help
you know what it is like to do social work, to be a social worker.
My recent book, The
Call to Social Work: Life Stories (2002) was a quest was to bring readers
more information about the everyday practice of social work. At the end of a day, what kind of self-doubts, humility,
and self-reflections are on the mind of the social worker? I wanted a window into the life of a social worker.
Why do people choose to do social work? And what value do they obtain from being a social worker?
These questions cannot be fully answered without narrative descriptions from contemporary social workers.
As Rachel Naomi Remen
(1996) reminds us, “everybody is a story.” Stories contain important grains of wisdom and we are rediscovering
the importance of stories. Barry Lopez (1990) states the case emphatically: “ The stories people tell have a way of
taking care of them. If stories come to you, care for them. And learn to give them away where they are needed.” Without
stories, we lose important wisdom about who we are. There is indeed value in “kitchen table wisdom,” as we pass
stories along to each other. Remen invites us to take a seat at life’s kitchen table. I believe students need a kitchen
table that is surrounded by social workers, all telling stories about their lives.
Although we have much information about how to be a professional social worker; what about how to live as a social worker?
What can we learn from this perspective?
As I listened to the
34 social workers I interviewed for my book, the more awareness I developed about the unique "call" that many people
have to do social work. "I still go back to the core thing", says one social worker. "I do something
that matters to somebody else, that matters to me. Something that has value." Or more directly a social worker
said to me, "social work is a calling. A call to something. There is restlessness inside of you and you have the
opportunity to deal with it. That restlessness has to do with the injustice in the world."
I believe it is, as Gregg Levoy (1977) describes,
a calling, a meaningful and authentic life that these people have found and are following.
Some refer to the development of “work spirit,” the spark and vitality people express when they love what
they do. When my students sit down in those hard, small desk chairs to begin their first class, they are responding to a calling
deep within themselves, a desire to leave behind the banal day-to-day struggle and enter a world with greater meaning, develop
an expanded social consciousness, and strengthen connections to fellow humankind.
For many people, being a social worker is a pathway to better know life, discover its meaning, and obtain a higher
sense of connection with the world. In Social Work education we do too little
to nurture that calling --the reasons they want to be social workers in the first place.
The social workers I talked to demonstrated altruistic values in their work that seem
to fuel their calling to social work. They not only actaltruistically, they possess altruistic intentions—they want to do good with no expectation of reward. Elizabeth
Day spoke of how growing up in South Africa brought a profound sense of empathy toward lacks.
Her statement “People are hurting more
than you can put words to” provides a
glimpse of her underlying compassion. Her direct experience of the discrimination that existed in her childhood environment
created a devotion to love and respect everyone. Many of the social workers in my book spoke of the genuine caring for the
people they are trying to help. I was struck by Levonne Gaddy’s memory
of placing a child in a foster home and then discovering the foster father was “treating her like a prostitute.”
Her compassion is penetrating when she admits
“My heart hurts today for that decision and what happened to that girl.” As I listened to the social workers,
common threads emerged that had guided them to harness these caring qualities and avoid being dispirited in their work. The sixthemes
that follow are reflected in the life stories I heard.
Being Connected With Others. Many professionals have
jobs that separate them from others in the world: They work in isolated cubicles, are fixated on a computer screen,
or are consumed with hard labor. In contrast, a social worker often works directly with other people, developing a greater
sense of connectedness. Peering into another persons
existence, their trials and tribulations, can lead to a broader perspective on life. Social worker Gail Gibbons talks about
how her work with refugees adds a global perspective to her life. Through this work
she sees the “triumph of the human spirit.” Levonne Gaddy reached
out to others to build an organization for multiracial support. In one of the nation’s largest cities, Los Angeles,
she created a mechanism to connect people to each other.
Seeing Privilege and Honor in Helping Others. The care of an abused child, the last words of a dying AIDS patient, the joy of an
adoption, the life decision of a teenager—these are profound events in people’s lives, and social workers get
the privilege of entering and participating in these private affairs. The social worker knows the life of the homeless person: the
struggles, the barriers to happiness are repeated
in many people’s life stories. Melinda Oliver reflected on her role as
a social worker after attending the funeral of one of her elderly clients. In spite of the difficulties in working with this
irascible client it became clear to her that
she assisted this person in preserving her dignity, she helped her achieve her goal. She observed, “It struck home in
my heart—this is the purpose of what I am doing. It is to give people a good life.” In a similar manner, Michael
Pesce reflects on the simple but meaningful experience of having a child say “thank you” when he was removed from
an abusive home. Cathy Sammons talks about the importance of informing parents about their child’s developmental disability
and her desire to be the person to do this because she wanted it done in a respectful and sensitive manner. “I would
look into the eyes of a parent and while I was telling them this terrible news and though my heart was heavy with sadness,
I wanted to be the one to tell them.”
Reflecting on the Meaning of Life. Much of helping
reflects a philosophical perspective on life. Sartre’s definition of responsible
is to “be the author of one’s life.” Helping people be author
and write their life stories means confronting the very basic questions in life. In some instances the focus of working with clients is about helping them build character and
accept the responsibility of adulthood. Danelle Joseph says it eloquently
“If everybody took personal responsibility
we wouldn’t have any problems because we would all do what we needed to do to take care of ourselves.”
Much of the encounter between the social
worker and the client reverts back to questions about the meaning of life. And even if clients are not consciously attempting
to answer those questions, the work of the social worker often brings these questions to the forefront of their lives. There
is much uncertainty in doing social work, uncertainty in the process and in the outcome of the work. In the face of such uncertainty
and intensity, we reflect on the fundamental questions
“What is important to me in my life?” “Am I achieving what I truly believe I want to do?” “Do
I, the social worker, have the courage to master changes in the same manner I am encouraging my clients?” By asking
such questions social workers can get closer
to living a more “authentic” life, putting the heart back into one’s existence.
Having a Relationship With Others. With delight and
candor many social workers told me about personal
and intimate experiences they had with clients. This is a factor that helps motivate many social workers in doing their work.
For many social workers the client-worker relationship
enters a realm that is emotional, personal and
intimate. Being with a man when he first learns about the seriousness of his cancer,
realizing together with a woman that her marriage is not working, listening to a client disclose a history of sexual abuse—these
are intimate accounts that strengthen the relationship between client and social worker.
Reeves tells an amazing story about complexity and need in human relationships that she helped nurture. The mother is a drug addict and prostitute. She has three boys, 7, 9, and 11 years old. The boys ask Johna,
“Go get our mom; we want to see our mom.” Several times a year
Johna goes downtown and finds her and takes her to the detox center to get cleaned up. When the mother is ready, she brings
her to spend several hours with her three boys. She isn’t trying to change the mother’s behavior but says “I have three children asking me to find their
mom so they can have some time with her. When their mom leaves again, I process with them and try to help them develop some
ability to cope with their situation and go on.” Not focusing on the need
to treat or cure the mother’s lifelong addiction, Johna instead attempts to bring together a family who love each other
but do not have any other avenue to share that love.
Being Guided by Moral Principle. Many social workers
discussed their commitment to a spiritual lifestyle and how social work was part of fulfilling their spiritual goals. A title I considered for my book was Angels
of Mercy, an apt description of many of the social workers I interviewed who had a deeply spiritual side to them. For many people, helping emerged as a process of returning something to others, a
process of giving back. Often they had received a
gift of help and felt compelled to return it or had a negative or hurtful experience and wanted to protect others so they
might not experience the same.
Joyce Morgan left home at 13 years old and grew up in shelters; foster care families,
and an orphanage. She now dedicates her life’s work to similar children. Kathy
Lortie’s story starts with a painful description of the death of her baby and the failure of a social worker to provide
her with needed support and counsel. Her story ends with a description of a baby girl dying in her parents' arms, the
family singing together to the baby and dressing her in new clothes in preparation for the funeral. As a pediatric social
worker she helps families prepare and accept
the death of their children in a respectful, loving, and humane way—an experience that she did not have. Pat Bethard
talks about how her father died of alcoholism and how she herself is a recovering alcoholic. She recalls the notion that “the
curse becomes the blessing” and describes herself as a “wounded healer.” She works as a substance abuse
outreach counselor in a public housing community.
Kathleen Brehony (1999) reminds us that “it hurts to care, to open the heart to
the pain of others. And yet, the removal of barriers between ourselves and others has a mysterious nurturing force as well.”
A social work student working in a cancer support group asked me, “Is
it OK for me to cry when I am with my clients?” I raised that question to the social work methods class I was teaching.
It was clear that students had varying opinions and had been given different answers by supervisors. But the question itself reveals deep compassion and sensitivity to others. Compassion is a deeply felt
relationship with another person, especially those that may need help. Tibetan Buddhists call this tonglen, the process of giving and receiving. The person experiences the energy that opens them to the truth of
another person’s pain and suffering. Sometimes
social workers are simply taken with the pain and suffering of their clients, by the urgent need for caring and kindness. The Dalai Lama says plainly
“y religion is kindness.” Spiritual
connections need not be cloaked in religious themes; for many
it is passion for social justice. However we describe it, the spiritual dimension is an important one for social work and
is being increasingly recognized as such.
a Caring Community. Robert Coles (1993) refers to the call of service
as a witness to idealism. These social workers’ life stories are an inspiring
account of their actions to be responsible for this world. Indeed, in the words of Dorothy Day, a historical figure in social
work, “There is a call to us, a call of service—that we join with others to try to make things better in this
world.” Day, like many of the social workers I interviewed,
looked at her work in terms of its overall significance to humanity. In her book Ordinary Grace, Kathleen Brehony (1999) asks
a thoughtful question “Is it more reasonable
to accept that evil is ordinary but goodness is not?” Her point
is simple: We are exposed to more negativity in the world than goodness. Compassion and caring can be promoted by social workers
who accept these as important values in life. As goodness becomes more accepted and shared we can forge a stronger
more caring community. The Lakota Sioux, Black Elk, points to the pathway of creating a caring community: "Like
the grasses showing their tender faces to each other, thus should we do, for this was the wish of the Grandfathers of the
Each social worker I interviewed has become for me the “hero of an epic poem.”
Through this process of reviewing, analyzing, and celebrating these 34
lives, I have gained a deeper sense of respect for social workers and the work they do, individuals who have found their calling
in life. Who will do the social work
required to help individuals and families in need, organize communities for more humane living conditions, and correct some
of the injustices in the world? It is the social workers. It is their call to social work that we can all be thankful for.