Combining Practice and Classroom: Doing Political Social Work
BPD Update Online, Winter 2003
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Doing Political Social Work: My Sojourn
by Mitchell Kahn

Mum is Not the Word: Shout it Loud, Take Action!

I have two profound memories of my life before the age of four. The first was my mother bringing home a new baby brother and my subsequent enrollment in nursery school. The second memory is recalling a teacher at that nursery school hiding my 3 year-old Black playmate in a dark closet when a prospective white couple came to view the premises before enrolling their child. I don't think I ever got over my agitation at seeing friend's fear and bewilderment. I guess this was the beginning of my sensitization to racism and injustice. My complaining about this incident led some parents to protest, including mine, and withdraw their children from the school. Some of you clinicians may argue that this was a clever and politically correct way for me to get back home with Mommy. Well, it didn't work and I soon found myself in a more progressive nursery school. But as a four-year old, I gained my first organizing lesson: open your mouth when you see something wrong. It's the first step to being an actor for social change. The next is taking action. And that is what good social work is all about. It's not just the talking, it's the doing.

Ragtag Radical to Trained Organizer

My formative years were spent in Newark where I witnessed the endemic racism and poverty that was to lead that city to cataclysm in the 1960's. I wanted to do something, anything really, that would help address these problems. In college, I was a founder and activist in the SDS chapter at the University of Bridgeport, organized demonstrations, and worked for a while in an OEO community action program on the Lower East Side in NYC.

The Chicago 8 Conspiracy trial was just beginning as I started my first classes at the University of Chicago SSA Community Organization sequence. My first year's field placement involved helping to plan and organize the emerging Near-North, Lincoln Park Community Mental Health Center. Still, I continued to do political work. I spent my spare time working with the citywide Alliance to End Repression, a coalition that campaigned against the abuses of the Chicago police establishment following the killings of Hampton and Clark. That first year in Chicago ended in more turmoil when the Ohio National Guard killed four unarmed students at Kent State. Chicago students went on strike and all classes were cancelled for the rest of the year. The CO students in SSA were instructed to go out and do some worthy project for the remainder of the semester. My endeavor was organizing the Hyde Park Bail Reform Project which raised money for the National Welfare Rights Organization (NWRO). NWRO needed funds to post bail for members who were arrested at demonstrations. This influential period in my life set the stage for my future work as a political social worker.

Integrating Practice and Teaching

After leaving social work studies at the University of Chicago and community organizing work there I returned to New Jersey where I continued to work as a community organizer and began my teaching career at Ramapo College. When development of Ramapo's BSW program began in the early 1970's I insisted that there be a separate macro practice course and field placement to accentuate their importance and provide greater depth of knowledge. Ours was one of the first BSW programs to move in this direction. Outside of college teaching I was involved with three organizations where my students were able to work side by side with me.

During the past decade my colleague Susan Scher and I have made environmental justice a focus in our macro practice classes. (For a fuller discussion of our efforts to infuse content on the physical environment throughout the social work curriculum see our article in the JBSW, Spring 2002). Suffice to note here, Sue, my wife Joanne, and I have been active in a number of regional environmental action organizations that have provided field placements for our program. Students have had the opportunity to work on campaigns dealing with issues of toxic wastes, threats to the regional watershed, protection of coastal waters, energy deregulation, sustainable agriculture, and environmental racism.

The Beat Goes On

Each of us came to the social work profession in our own way and for our own reasons. We have to choose our focus and run with it. I have spent the better part of my life as a community organizer and teacher of macro practice and social policy. As a teacher I have been committed to bringing my passion for social justice to the classroom. More important, I've wanted to bring students to the ongoing struggle for progressive social change, and to show them how they can be change agents who can make a difference. There is an ebb and flow to this process. Political social work is often a frustrating process and there are time periods when we lose many more battles than we win. But it is imperative that we show our students how together we can struggle to transform a system that promotes the exploitation and oppression of many, to one that provides social justice and economic and environmental democracy for all.

There's more Combining Practice and Classroom on the next page...

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