Exploring Our Roots

Carol A. Hand

Celebrities have never inspired me. I may appreciate their prowess or art, their courage, discipline or tenacity, but I wonder why that somehow makes them more worthy of admiration than the hard-working people we meet in our everyday lives. Fame-seeking behavior is not the best attribute for those who would be leaders or role models for others. “Making it big,” “being a winner,” in a society that worships status at any cost doesn’t mean one is kind, generous, wise or compassionate. Those are the hard-won characteristics I value far more than media recognition and acclaim.

The greatest gifts in my life have come from thoughtful neighbors, teachers, friends, or random kindhearted strangers who shared their wisdom and kindness because that’s what they do. They give of themselves to others without expecting recognition or fame. I only hope that I can learn from their examples to be humbler, a little wiser, and compassionate enough to do the same. To listen, to care, to give what I can without expecting anything in return.

Yet if I were to choose a role model to admire, it wouldn’t be Steve Jobs, it would be Jane Addams. Steve Jobs made a fortune by developing technnological devices that have, over time, increasingly distracted people’s attention away from their immediate surroundings. (In class yesterday, many students pulled out their iPhones or iPads to look at pictures of trees for an assignment rather than gazing out the window at the tree-filled college grounds surrounding us.) Jane Addams, on the other hand, used her inheritance to live among some of the poorest immigrants in Chicago during the tumultuous years at the turn of the nineteenth century to address serious health and social justice issues. She, and her friend, Ellen Gates Starr, wanted to be good neighbors in their new home. They wanted to help build a healthier, more inclusive sense of community.

“The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself” (Jane Addams).


“… the good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life” (Adams, 1961, p. 76).


“Social advance depends as much upon the process through which it is secured as upon the result itself” (Jane Addams)


“Nothing could be worse than the fear that one had given up too soon, and left one unexpended effort that might have saved the world” (Jane Addams).

Hull House, Chicago, Illinois – Wikipedia


Addams’ work has been a beacon of hope to many. Following is a poem written by Gwendolyn Brooks, an award-winning poet and author, to honor Addams’ many contributions.

Jane Addams (by Gwendolyn Brooks)

I am Jane Addams.
I am saying to the giantless time –
to the young and yammering, to the old and corrected,
well, chiefly to the children coming home
with worried faces and questions about world survival –
“Go ahead and live your life.
You might be surprised. The world might continue.”

It was not easy for me, in the days of giants.
And now they call me a giant.
Because my capitals were Labour, Reform, Welfare,
Tenement Regulation, Juvenile Court Law (the first),
Factory Inspection, Workmen’s Compensation,
Woman Suffrage, Pacifism, Immigrant Justice.
And because
Black, brown, white, red and yellow
Heavied my hand and heart.

I shall tell you a thing about giants
that you do not wish to know;
Giants look in the mirror and see
almost nothing at all.
But they leave their houses nevertheless.
They lurch out of doors
to reach you, the other stretchers and strainers.

Erased under ermine or loud in tatters, oh,
money or mashed, you

You matter, and giants
must bother.

I bothered.

Whatever I was tells you
the world might continue. Go on with your preparations,
moving among the quick and the dead;
nourishing here, there;
pressing a hand
among the ruins
and among the
seeds of restoration.

So Speaks a giant, Jane.

Source:  neenywritesagain, blogspot.com


In these times, US leaders whose ancestral roots originated in other “lighter-skinned” nations around the globe are spreading fear about newer “darker-skinned” immigrants, fomenting hatred and divisiveness. My colleague and I are countering those messages. We are asking our students to learn about their ancestral roots and the historical roots of the profession they wish to enter.


Module I – Exploring Personal Roots and the Roots of Social Welfare Macro Practice

How many of us wonder why people behave the way they do? Certainly as future social workers this is an obvious question we must answer. If we’re thoughtful, though, we quickly realize that there is no one easy answer. In a very real sense, how we think and behave depends on when and where we were born, what we experienced as a result of our inherited statuses in our particular social context, and how we have been socialized.

Understanding each client and colleague we encounter is only possible when we understand our own values and perspectives and how they were formed. Knowing more about our ancestral roots and how they have changed over time in response to changing circumstances provides a crucial foundation for beginning the ongoing journey of understanding who we are. The purpose of Module I is to help you begin to explore the importance of your ancestral roots within the context of changing historical environments.

Our work with clients is also influenced profoundly by the dominant values and beliefs embodied in the social institutions that prevail during our life time. Like the lives and circumstances of our ancestors, the values and goals of social welfare institutions have shifted throughout history. Changes in institutional values and beliefs have not always been beneficial from the perspective of social workers or the vulnerable clients they serve.

In order to assess where we are now, it is essential to consider the roots of social welfare and the shifting roles of social work in the US. The course readings for Module I describe the values and institutions adopted by the US in the early years, and the pioneering efforts of Jane Addams and the women of Hull House to address compelling human suffering, exploitation, and marginalization.

Perhaps your ancestors were among the thousands of immigrants who benefited directly from their work. Certainly all of our lives were affected in largely positive ways by the many policy and institutional reforms they inspired. It is our hope that a deeper understanding of your personal and disciplinary roots will prepare you to meet the challenges ahead in creative ways to foster healthy, inclusive communities as Addams and her colleagues did more than a century ago.


The work of Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, and “the women of Hull-House” is an essential foundation for understanding how to build understanding and inclusive communities. No jobs were too demeaning.

“We were asked to wash the newborn babies, and to prepare the dead for burial, to nurse the sick, and to ‘mind the children.’” (Addams, 1961, p. 72).

Listed below are some of the resources my colleague and I have shared with students in case you are interested in sharing them:

Jane Addams – Biographical by Nicholas Murry Butler that is posted on the Nobel Prize Laureate website in honor of the Nobel Peace Prize she was awarded in 1931.

“Publicly opposed to America’s entry into the war, Miss Addams was attacked in the press and expelled from the Daughters of the American Revolution, but she found an outlet for her humanitarian impulses as an assistant to Herbert Hoover in providing relief supplies of food to the women and children of the enemy nations, the story of which she told in her book Peace and Bread in Time of War (1922).”

Chicago 1880s – 1930s: A Tale of Two Cities (5.42 minutes)

The Women of Hull House – Part 1 (12.46 minutes)

The Women of Hull House – Part 2 (15.01 minutes)

Although my colleague and I need to rely, to a large degree, on technological innovations Steve Jobs made possible, we are using those tools to enlighten rather than to divide and distract. Our integrated learning hybrid program helps students who work, care for families, and commute to access college education that might otherwise be unattainable. I just wish education was more affordable, or preferably, free. Perhaps someday it will be…


After reading this post, my dear friend and colleague, Cynthia Donner, gave me permission to publicly thank her for being a supportive, inspiring partner in our ongoing experiments to make learning more engaging and relevant.


Tragically, Hull-House finally closed its doors in the spring of 2012. It was a warning sign of hard times ahead without the visionary leadership of gentle and unlikely giants like Jane Addams. (For more information, please visit the following link: World Socialist Web Site, wsws.org)

Work Cited:

Jane Addams (1961). Twenty years at Hull-House. New York, NY: Signet Classic.



38 thoughts on “Exploring Our Roots

  1. Thank you, Carol. I admire and respect the strength of your commitment, the shining clarity of your writing, the generosity of your heart. Those qualities you share with Jane Adams.

    Liked by 2 people

  2. That is quite a piece of American history, the kind of history the world would have rather experienced from America; the kind that would have ensured that America became a true world leader and remain such instead of a war-mongering exploiter now eating itself up. Alas, as these things tend to go, that was not to be either. Another effort by visionaries swallowed up in the great flush by power hungry elites and human ignorance.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your always thought-provoking comments, Sha’Tara. Sadly, Addams’ contributions are rarely included in history books, even in social work texts. In the words of James Loewen (1996, Lies My Teacher Told Me),”… history is the only field in which the more courses students take, the stupider they become” (p. 12). “Textbooks are often muddled by the conflicting desires to promote inquiry and to indoctrinate blind patriotism” (p. 14). Adams challenged nationalism in so many ways. Despite her renown and inspiring accomplishments, she was ostracized by the mainstream because of her commitment to socialism and pacifism.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow, what a great post. Jane Addams was quite a person.

    It’s troubling that after a short period of time in which peace was more highly regarded than corporate profit, society has lost what little had been gained in awareness. To see how little compassion we have for fellow human beings, animals, plants and the planet as a whole is discouraging, to say the least. While it is tempting at times to want to give up and accept that humanity is little more than a virus that plagues Mother Earth, that would be allowing evil to completely dominate. They seem to have the majority of the planet under their control in one way or another, whether through actual believers in their sick ideology or through apathy and complacency – which is tacit approval whether people realize it or not.

    Though it is an uphill “battle” to win back the hearts and minds of the masses, obviously we must continue to educate people and attempt to get them to think more about others than of themselves. An important tool in the arsenal of Capitalist manipulators is spreading the idea that you must obey in order to keep your income and help your family survive. We see everyone else do it so it seems “normal” to support a system that deprives billions of people adequate water, food, shelter and health care. And many are convinced that war is an inevitable part of life on this beautiful planet.

    I’m not sure what the solution is, but for now I guess it is to keep love in our hearts, stay mindful and educate those who seem to need help in understanding.

    Again, thanks for a great post and for a beautiful blog that inspires many people.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Thank you for your kind words and thoughtful heartfelt comments, A Shift in Consciousness. I wish I had answers to the many issues and challenges you raised. All I can do is to contribute in modest ways, teaching a few students, being both kind and honest, and sharing what I am learning along the way.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thank you for opening me to Jane Addams, who i had never encountered until you wrote this insightful piece. I so agree, celebrity has given a few a privilege by virtue of their craft, a little like business has been privileged by the power of wealth. It leaves a bad taste in my mouth. But in the end, the enduring narrative is surely the Jane Addams’ who history faithfully records, when people like yourself remind us.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments, Paul. No doubt celebrity status status was not something Addams sought, and it often meant censure because of her support for unpopular causes (worker’s rights, women’s rights, children’s rights, etc.) and her ideological grounding in socialism and pacifism.

      Liked by 1 person

        1. My class is reading her book, “Twenty Years at Hull-House.” It’s an interesting memoir that shows her humanity (both strengths and weaknesses), and how her passion for helping people evolved through a mixture of adversity and privilege.

          Liked by 1 person

  5. A lot of thanks for such a nice post. In real lice we ought to accomplish tasks of humanity with loving kindness for enhancing the dignity and standard of living of deprived section of society. We must shower our heartfelt admiration of legends who are helping others attainment of inclusive and sustainable growth. Certainly these personalities are our true role models.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words and thoughtful comments, Kishan. I agree with you. People of compassion and integrity do have a great deal to teach us all.


  6. Two points Carol. All the tribalism and patriotism is a distraction from the point that now in the 21C, we are clearly on One Planet and no longer as we were back in the day: Nor may we ever be again. No one country nor even several “bigger” ones eg US, Russia, China India etc. can act unilaterally ever again. We’re all affected as obviously as we share the same air, the same ocean, the same sky. We still act like children with our little toys, banging drums, blowing bugles… but we can be inspired by bigger people like Jane Addams to grow up more. Could the US become great in a way like an older sibling leading younger ones?? This clip is my take on that possibility:

    The other angle is the unfair allocation of resources, which again affects all of us “No man is an island” etc How much longer can we continue as this shows: https://www.theguardian.com/inequality/2018/jan/22/inequality-gap-widens-as-42-people-hold-same-wealth-as-37bn-poorest
    It’s simply unsustainable, isn’t it?
    This is not to mention the damage to the planet, its biosphere which sustains us all- not just the rich.

    We all breathe the same air, under the same sky. We’re all equal.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comments and for raising some of the many overwhelming challenges we face as a nation and world, Nick. I have no illusions that what I do as a teacher will address those issues. Just maybe, though, some students will be inspired to look at possibilities for local actions that will help reweave connections among people and between people and their (our) environments. The likelihood of my being here to see that, though, is slim. But hopefully my daughter and grandchildren will be. For me, that’s the message of Jane Addams.

      As Brooks eloquently advises,
      “the world might continue. Go on with your preparations,
      moving among the quick and the dead;
      nourishing here, there;
      pressing a hand
      among the ruins
      and among the
      seeds of restoration.”

      My students may well be be on the front lines dealing with “ruins and restoration.” I am doing my best to help them learn how to do so through critical thinking and knowledge-guided action.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. https://genius.com/13525781

    On Sun, Jan 21, 2018 at 7:56 PM, Voices from the Margins wrote:

    > Carol A. Hand posted: “Carol A. Hand Celebrities have never inspired me. I > may appreciate their prowess or art, their courage, discipline or tenacity, > but I wonder why that somehow makes them more worthy of admiration than the > hard-working people we meet in our everyday live” >

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thank you so much for your kind words, dear friend. I thought of you when I was working on this post. Your work reminds me so much of Jane Addams and the Hull House women. Speaking of which, I loved your last post.


  8. I strongly agree that society needs to do more to honor people like Jane Addams, who dedicate their lives to unity and to helping others, rather than those who are devoted to gaining money and power for themselves.

    Strong wealth disparities tend to drive division as well, as many rich and powerful people will do whatever it takes to maintain their status. I see a strong connection between the state of politics today and sentiments in the late 1700s and early 1800s. For example, Engels (2009), cites the example of Thomas Jefferson, who sought to maintain the power of wealthy landowners and prevent uprisings by creating division between poor white farmers and black slaves. Jefferson and others were terrified that poor white sharecroppers and slaves would realize what they had in common and rise up together against the elites; therefore, the wealthy engaged in fearmongering to prevent this, demonizing the slaves and manipulating the sharecroppers into believing that they needed to be “protected” from the threat the slaves would pose if they escaped from bondage.

    When really, as David Walker and other abolitionists argued, the wealthy white landowners were oppressing both the white sharecroppers and the black slaves, even though the slaves suffered far worse human rights abuses. I think that a lot of the same kind of rhetoric is being used today. We see more and more prosperity slipping out of the hands of middle and working class people and into the pockets of the top 1% of people, and yet instead, dark skinned immigrants are being demonized, even though the vast majority of immigrants only want to escape dangerous conditions in their home countries, work, and build a good life for themselves, which I think is really what most people want.

    Liked by 2 people

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