All posts by Carol A. Hand

What matters are not the titles I’ve held or university degrees I earned or the size of a house or bank account. It’s really what I’ve learned from ordinary people like me whom I’ve met along the way. They taught me to live with gratitude and give thanks for each new day.

In Search of Community

Carol A. Hand

“Is it not right, then, that education should help you, as you grow up, to perceive the importance of bringing about a world in which there is no conflict either within or without, a world in which you are not in conflict with your neighbor or with a group of people because the drive of ambition, which is the desire for position and power, has utterly ceased? And is it possible to create a society in which there will be no inward or outward conflict?”
(Krishnamurti, 1964, Think on these things, p. 52)

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Living through the polar vortex forced me to question the wisdom of continuing to try to survive on my own. Of course, I am not totally alone. I have supportive friends and family, but this past winter they all had their own challenges to attend to, their own leaking roofs and freezing pipes, icy roads to travel to get places not served by public transportation, and never-ending snow to shovel despite artic temperatures. It has led me to the realization that living the way we do in this neighborhood isn’t wise or sustainable. Each family has its own separate dwelling, heating system, and needs to attend to all of the chores associated with survival on their own.

As much as I would like to head off to an intentional community, I am skeptical. I already tried that, twice. I am still laughing about the second attempt. A group of successful, smart people coalesced to prepare for the end of the world in a small farming community in central Illinois. I wasn’t there because of the nonsense the charismatic leader espoused. I was there because it made sense to share the work of growing food, contributing one’s unique skills to a collective, and reducing one’s carbon footprint on the environment. But the need many people have to follow leaders has never ceased to baffle me. Taken to extremes it is hilariously ridiculous or frighteningly dangerous.

carnival swing miss dash thrifty dot co dot uk

Photo Credit: Carnival Swing – miss-thrifty.co.uk

When I think of collective living, I think of people in my second alternative community experience. The leader organized a community-wide event for members — a chance to raise their IQs, for a moderate-sized fee of course. One of the members offered his large home as the training venue, and many attended the evening event. Attendees were greeted at the door and were given small brown paper bags as they entered. At the appointed time, the lights were dimmed and attendees were told to strip down to their underwear and breathe in and out of the paper bag for 10 minutes. They were promised that this exercise would improve their IQs – it would make them smarter!

(Then, I didn’t have internet tools to research the scientific validity of these claims, but in writing this essay many years later, it seemed wise to give it a try. Breathing into a paper bag for 5 minutes does seem to be a credible treatment for anxiety-triggered panic attacks – it helps rebalance elevated oxygen levels from over-breathing during attacks by increasing CO2 levels in the blood stream. People often feel immediate relief. So in this ingenious money-maker, creating a stressor and then reducing its impact left people with the impression that they felt better and brighter as a result of the exercise! Yet I only discovered wily walnut’s claim that the “Brain Bubbles” created by blowing in and out of a paper bag is one of the techniques one can use to raise IQ.

My partner and I were invited, but we declined. I heard about the event later from a friend who did go and felt even less intelligent as a result. My partner and I decided to leave the periphery of the community soon after.

The reasons for leaving my first attempt at “community” were not as amusing. Like the second community, the first was organized around a charismatic leader. But the followers were much younger, as was I when I first arrived, a single mother with a one and a half year old daughter. We hitchhiked, my little one in her stroller packed with necessary supplies and $20 in my pocket, trusting the kindness of the universe to help us survive. We weren’t escaping abuse, merely a mind and spirit-numbing environment of never-ending criticism and cold indifference — a life lacking warmth and laughter and possibilities for something better than the pursuit of empty material comforts. In the next four and a half years, our lives were transformed.

By the time we arrived, the alternative community had been in existence for more than 3 years and had grown from less than 20 people sharing a treehouse to more than 200 people spread across four towns in northwestern Massachusetts. I willingly agreed to accept the principles espoused by the community, no drugs, alcohol, or promiscuity. Newer arrivals like my daughter and me were initially relegated to live with more than 100 members in a rural setting that included a large house and dormitory with a smaller two-story shed. Despite my battered self-esteem, I looked around the community and noticed more than 25 children under five roaming about who were without care or supervision. With two other mothers, I set out to create a daycare center. We were able to renovate the first floor of the two-story shed, adding a sink that I helped plumb, and a stove and refrigerator we were able to get for free. We scrubbed and painted, and found some furniture and made sure kids had meals and supervision.

During the first few months, there were a number of observations that raised my curiosity about cultural differences. I watched as people pushed each other out of the way so they could be the first on the bus to attend meetings organized by the community leader. They competed for the white sweaters that proved they were more spiritually evolved than others and bullied and demeaned those who were forced to wear brown sweaters showing their lack of spirituality. I pondered the disconnect between the spirituality they gave lip service to and their actions. I also pondered it as I witnessed how mothers who previously ignored their children suddenly were only concerned about their children, stashing private bags of food for their children in the daycare center refrigerator. Unlike other mothers, I felt the need to make sure all children had the best we could provide.

I was also aware of how disrespected and patronized I felt by those who were in the upper echelon within the rural setting hierarchy, explaining it away to myself as another indicator of my many deficiencies. Despite my lack of self-confidence, there was still a noticeable difference between me and most of the members I encountered. I still thought about each of my actions and made my own decisions. I was perplexed by my observations that otherwise smart caring people did whatever the leader told them to do without question, even if it contradicted their deeply held values. Almost everyone else did unkind, foolish or illegal things because the leader told them to do it. Yet I stayed because I genuinely cared about my new friends despite all of these differences.

Slowly over the years, I gained skills and had experiences I doubt would even have come my way in another setting. I worked outside jobs as a waitress, nurse’s aide, donut finisher, receptionist, and seamstress, and as an attendant for an institution for people with cognitive and developmental challenges. As my status in the community rose, I moved from setting to setting. I travelled to the south to promote the community radio show, served as the booking agent and lightshow operator for a mobile disco, and ended up as the general office manager for the community, a buffer between the leader and ruling elite and the 200 members of the community. As my status in the community shifted, so did my ability to see more of what was really occurring. At first, I had believed most people followed the publicly proclaimed principles. I even believed that when I was the office manager, collecting members’ weekly donations, allocating funds to members to cover their needs, purchasing household supplies and food for twelve different enclaves, and buffering members from the never-ending demands for more money by the elite.

Again I pondered cultural differences. There were members who worked multiple jobs to donate all they could for the well-being of the community as a whole. There were members who never donated anything, but who were exempt because the leader favored them. There were members who were so wounded by life that they were unable to contribute anything but still needed resources multiple times a day every day. My carefully calculated food purchases to make sure each person in each house could have two eggs a day on Saturday and Sunday were glibly blown away by members from privileged backgrounds who thanked me for buying the eggs, proclaiming “I had six eggs this morning and it was such a treat.” I wondered how many children would be denied protein as a result.

But these were minor annoyances. There were deeper secrets I finally discovered – the way people’s hard-earned dollars were used to subsidize the costs of the leader’s alcohol and cocaine addiction. I thought long and hard about whether to stay and try to help someone whom I thought at the time wanted to recover or leave for my daughter’s sake. I came up with an alternative that I felt was reasonable. My daughter’s father agreed to take care of her for the summer. I would stay for that time to see what I could do to help the community get back on track. Two days after my daughter left, the leader of the community accosted me, yelling. “What the FUCK did you DO! Sending your daughter away was SO FUCKED UP!” (Those of you who have read my previous blog posts probably can guess how I responded.) I looked him at him calmly and replied in a quiet voice, “If you want to understand why I act as I do, it would be better to ask me. I always consider important decisions very carefully knowing that it is my karma not someone else’s if I make mistakes. It is not your right to question or judge my decisions. And it’s certainly not your right to tell me what to do.” He turned red in the face and screamed “GET OUT! GET THE FUCK OUT NOW!!!!” This was the only command I obeyed, but based on my own decision that it was the wisest course of action. It was not until decades later that I learned about the sexual abuse women and children experienced at the hands of the leader and his closest cronies, something many former members still prefer to ignore as they continue to believe they are “more spiritually evolved.”

So as I ponder the wisdom of living in an intentional community, I remember these experiences and ask if it is possible to find people who can really build a community based on comradeship. Can people escape the need to follow a leader? The organizational structure that both communities and every organization I have worked for shared in common was based on hierarchical power distinctions. Those organizations that were the most dysfunctional took oppression a bit further, using the “hub” style of management. The person in charge developed personal connections with each member or employee separately and discouraged the development of inter-collegial relationships by pointing out the deficiencies of all the others, a divide and conquer tactic that isolated people from each other and made them easier to manipulate. A picture is worth a thousand words here.

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Photo Credit: Hub-Management Powerpoint slide

The three-dimensional picture of the carnival swing (above) is a more effective illustration. Each person is isolated, reliant on a thin tether that connects them to the power source for their continued survival, a power structure they are incapable of penetrating because of its distance and protective isolation. Each worker or member is easily replaceable, a part of the ride. How can such a structure do anything other than encourage individualism and selfish preoccupation? Can intentional communities undo the unconscious programming of what “leadership” means to those socialized in the dominant culture?

Perhaps I am stuck in my romantic notions of “traditional” Ojibwe culture. In order to become an adult, each individual was encouraged to find his or her own gifts in order to more fully contribute from a grounded foundation to the well-being and survival of the community as a whole while protecting the environment for future generations. I wonder if this ideal is possible. I wonder if the moral of the Sufi story that John McKnight relates is true, “You will only learn what you already know.” Do we as a people already know that our survival really does depend on everyone else who shares the planet? Do we really already know what it takes to live with others in inclusive, respectful, constructive, peaceful ways?

For the sake of my grandchildren and generations to come, I hope we already do know or are still able to learn.

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For-giving

Carol A. Hand

“Be moderate in all things; watch, listen, and consider, your deeds will be prudent.”
(Midewewin Code, the Ojibwe “Path of Life,” Basil Johnston, Ojibway Heritage, 1976, p. 93)

forgiveness medinalmeadows dot com

Photo Credit: Medicinalmeadows.com

This morning I was reflecting on the dynamics of forgiving. I remember the first time I consciously moved beyond merely reacting to bullying and began to explore the ways in which I escalated other’s behavior through my own actions. I was a senior in high school. One of my former friends suddenly organized a group of other girls to begin making disparaging remarks about me as we stood in line to get lunch in the cafeteria. Their comments were loud enough for everyone to hear. I have long forgotten most, but the one that comes to mind, hardest to bear as a teenager, was a precursor of cyber bulling. “There she is, that arrogant slut.” The group followed me into classes and in the hallways as a chorus of unrelenting harpies.

Why, I wondered, are they behaving this way? I had never done them any harm. I believe it started as a result of a dispute between my father and the father of the girl who began the taunting. Her family needed access across land my family owned to get to their house on the top of a mountain in northwestern Pennsylvania, which my family granted. But when they wanted to widen and pave the road through the middle of the farm, a battle ensued between my father and my classmate’s father that reminded me of the Hatfields and McCoys. The conflict escalated from shouting to fistfights to an attack on my father with a road-grading tractor that left him bleeding on the road from a partially-severed leg. I knew the conflict was a two-way “pissing match” between two men who were not able to back down and appear “weak” in front of others.

I refused to engage in the conflict even though it angered the rest of my family. I also refused to move from the hilltop home when my family moved to an apartment in town. Although it was sometimes a frightening, I lived alone. I drove the one-lane dirt road around the winding turns up the mountain to my house knowing that I would be able to deal with any challenges on my own. But there were none, at least not at home. The challenges came at school from the neighbor’s daughter, also a senior who was in some of my classes. We had been friends before the conflict, but as it escalated, she stopped talking to me and then began organizing her group of friends to make my life in school hell.

So far, I sound like the virtuous victim, and in my own mind I know I thought of myself that way. I didn’t respond to the nastiness in a like manner. I remained stoic and reserved – “cool.” But I also used abilities I developed to cope with, and then end, my father’s abuse. I learned to read people’s greatest insecurities and fears. For my father, it was being diagnosed as “crazy,” a word he would have used to describe his uncontrollable bouts of depression and violent outbursts.  For my neighbor, it fear was being seen as “lower class” and not as smart as others. She tried to hide her family’s limited income by dressing in expensive clothes, and enrolled in the advanced classes because she was very bright.

I didn’t need to say a word to make her feel bad. I simply had to outshine her as a student and as someone whose family could afford things hers could not. And I could do it in a way that others didn’t think was intentional or mean. I could even fool myself into believing that it was fair to deal with a bully by making her feel small and insignificant. And then, one day, I woke up. I realized what I had done to hurt her, and I knew it was far more harmful than anything she had ever done to me. Waves of grief passed through me for the harm I had caused. There was no way to undo the hurt. I did try to apologize at the time and again years later, but I could never heal the harm that I had done.

Decades later, I had another opportunity to understand lessons about forgiveness more deeply. I accepted a position as a faculty member with a school of social work that prided itself on its unique approach to social justice as the foundation for its new master’s program. What I quickly discovered, however, was that the program was really no different than other social work programs. At first, some of my colleagues welcomed me as an innovative, compassionate critical thinker, but that changed when I didn’t engage in conversations that disparaged vulnerable students or colleagues. The tenured faculty with power functioned as the guardians and enforcers of the status quo, and they did so in ways that left lasting wounds for the most vulnerable and gifted of students and colleagues. When I began to speak in defense of colleagues and students, I was definitely no longer seen as desirable. It didn’t take long for me to realize that they saw me as a threat that needed to be silenced and neutralized because I could effectively buffer many of their targets from their bullying.

Although the four faculty members with the most power often bickered and jostled for power amongst themselves, they quickly created a united front against the threat to their unquestioned hegemony. As a new faculty member, an Ojibwe with a different set of values and approaches for teaching and doing research, I was an easy target. They used the most minor excuses to discredit my teaching skills despite student evaluations that documented otherwise, my scholarship despite publications and new research, and community service despite an overwhelming load of committee work and students advisees. And they got nasty. Again, I sound virtuous, but not necessarily blameless this time because I did serve as an effective advocate where there had been none before.

So they piled extra work on me, belittled me in front of their classes, and tried to force students who were my advisees to falsify my evaluations by fabricating deficiencies in my performance. I still sound like the victim, and I honestly saw myself that way. Going to work became increasingly more painful, and in my mind, I characterized my colleagues as evil incarnate. So I began to use the same defensive skills I had used in high school. I knew that the most frightening thing in academia is to feel you are not as smart as others and to have others find you out. In the midst of personal attacks, I knew how to use my voice, facial expressions, body language, words, and actions to play on those fears. It was clear that I won the popularity contest with students, not because I was easier, but because I was compassionate, supportive of students, and still expected excellence and authenticity. Although my scholarship was not as voluminous as that of some of my colleagues, it was nationally acclaimed. And although I tried to stay away from the spotlight, it’s impossible to do if you’re one of the very few Native American faculty in an institution that purports to serve Native communities.

It was easy to win over student loyalty and community support just by being myself. As individuals, my colleagues were intimidated by my graciousness, intelligence, and dogged refusal to falsely massage their egos by complimenting them on their skills or cultural competence. (I didn’t see any at the time.) I demonized them in my thoughts while I concomitantly struggled with the question of how to create world peace when I couldn’t even live in harmony with my colleagues. They weren’t invading countries or murdering children. Yet I resisted the growing awareness that I needed to forgive them. Then, in a moment of overwhelming grief, resignation, and despair, I realized it was not my colleagues I needed to forgive, it was myself. I needed to forgive myself for transgressing my own values and ethics. Just as I had years before, I had used my defensive skills to wound others in the areas where they were most vulnerable. I had escalated their violence by making them feel they were somewhat dull and uncreative, small and insignificant.

lady justice

Photo Credit: Google lady justice images

It is true that they did this to others, often to those who were the most vulnerable, and their actions left lasting harm. It is also true that they tried to make me feel small and insignificant as a human being, and did their best to destroy my career. But I realized that there was no excuse I could use to justify the way I treated them. I knew that whatever gifts I have been given are meant to lift others up, not to oppress or harm them. I learned that I really need to always remember a universal truth my culture has taught me about moderation and mindful actions.

I am sharing these memories with tears in my eyes in hope they will help others. I cannot undo the harm I have caused others. I could continue to cling to the illusion that my actions were justified, but I know that’s not true. This doesn’t mean that I feel I should ever accept oppression and violence as universal and unchangeable. What it does mean for me is the need to shift my focus from resisting or unseating “oppressors” to one of compassion, seeing individuals who have strengths as well as weaknesses, gifts as well as faults, and relating to them with hope and kindness. I need to work from the same foundation with those who oppress others as I do with those who are oppressed, to try to raise awareness about the systems that oppress us all, to help them see and unlock their potential rather than respond with reifying judgment that locks them more firmly into an identity as the “deficient” or “evil” other.

compassion greatergood dot berkeley dot edu

Photo Credit: greatergood.berkely.edu

There are no guarantees that this will work. I can only try to be more vigilant and mindful in the future as I remember the deep wounds in my own heart, not from the actions of others, but from my own.

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Indian Child Removal and the Ga-Ga

Carol A. Hand

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Recognizing the special relationship between the United States and the Indian tribes and their members and the Federal responsibility to Indian people, the Congress finds-–

… that Congress, through statutes, treaties, and the general course of dealing with Indian tribes, has assumed the responsibility for the protection and preservation of Indian tribes and their resources;
… that there is no resource that is more vital to the continued existence and integrity of Indian tribes than their children and that the United States has a direct interest, as trustee, in protecting Indian children who are members of or are eligible for membership in an Indian tribe;
… that an alarmingly high percentage of Indian families are broken up by the removal, often unwarranted, of their children from them by nontribal public and private agencies and that an alarmingly high percentage of such children are placed in non-Indian foster and adoptive homes and institutions; and
… that the States, exercising their recognized jurisdiction over Indian child custody proceedings through administrative and judicial bodies, have often failed to recognize the essential tribal relations of Indian people and the cultural and social standards prevailing in Indian communities and families.
(The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978)

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Years ago, the director of a child welfare agency asked me to do an in-service training for her staff about Native American child welfare issues. She added “Don’t tell them about the Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978. They already know it. What staff need to know is why they should care.” Because I left my position before I had a chance to respond to her request, this essay is my belated way of addressing her concerns.

boarding school adoptionstar dot com

Photo Credit: Carlisle Indian Industrial School (1879-1918) – adoptionstar.com

The most effective way to conquer a nation is to acculturate their children. Although the removal of Native American children from their families by the federal government, under the guise of education, did not become official policy in the U.S. until after the Civil War, it was not a new practice. From the earliest accounts of Spanish and English colonizers, Native American children were a special focus of assimilation policies. Removal by force and kidnapping were sanctioned ways of dealing with the children of people who were viewed as heathens and savages, and who were certainly in the way of the foreign advance forces that were only interested in claiming indigenous territory and resources.

Although the agents of removal have changed over time, the consequences have been destructive for families and communities for hundreds of years. According to an Ojibwe elder and social worker, social workers eventually merited a name drawn from Ojibwe mythology, the ga-ga, or bogey man. In dangerous environments, Ojibwe parents and elders met the challenge of protecting children from harm in many creative ways because physical punishment and coercion were rare and culturally discouraged. In the most serious circumstances, parents and elders used “scaring stories” that were passed on through the generations, sometimes taking on new meanings. She said that according to oral tradition, Ojibwe parents or elders used to tell children that the bear would take them away if they did not learn to listen and behave. And then, one child was taken by a bear. In order to avoid offending bear relatives and invoke their anger, the ga-ga, a mythical creature like the bogeyman of European fairy tales, was substituted for the bear in the scaring stories.

No one believed that there really was such a creature, until the imposition of colonial domination gave new meaning to this warning. Canada and the United States implemented sweeping policies intended to civilize indigenous peoples by removing children from tribal communities. The agents of removal, Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) agents, missionaries, and social workers, became known as the ga-ga. As the Ojibwe social worker recounted, for generations Ojibwe children have been warned.

 I heard the story when I was little. My mother told us that if we did not behave, the ga-ga would come to take us away. They would take kids and put them into other homes or schools. That’s all I remember. (Ojibwe elder, Personal communication, July 5, 2003)

The new nation that emerged on Indigenous homelands didn’t waste much time in asserting their agenda of political, religious, economic, and cultural domination. In 1819, soon after the United States was founded, Congress authorized $10,000 annually to support religious groups and individuals who wished to establish mission schools in tribal communities. Stressing white values, the schools taught boys farming and blacksmithing and girls domestic skills. For the next several decades, Indian education remained the responsibility of the churches, with federal monetary support” (O’Brien, 1989, p. 239).

Day schools proved ineffective at dismantling culture and community ties. When the Civil War ended, a new intervention spread throughout the nation, Indian boarding schools. The first federal school, under the direction of the BIA, opened in 1860 on the Yakima Indian Reservation in the state of Washington. It was not until 1879, however, that the U.S. opened what is probably the most famous boarding school in Carlisle, PA, under the direction of Captain Henry Pratt, a veteran of the Civil War and the Indian Wars in the western United States. By the 1900s, the BIA operated 251 schools, 113 of which were boarding schools, the preferred method for educating Native children even though they were more costly to operate than day schools. “It is the experience of the department that mere day schools, however well conducted, do not withdraw the children sufficiently from the influences, habits, and traditions of their home life, and produce for this reason a … limited effect” (as quoted in Adams, 1995, p. 30).

When children arrived, their hair was cut, they were stripped and scrubbed with disinfectant soap, deloused even if they didn’t need to be, and clothed in the garb of the colonizers, sometimes in cast-off Civil War uniforms. They were stripped of their given names, forbidden to speak their languages, and housed in over-crowded dormitories. They suffered emotional, physical, and sexual abuse, and because of crowded housing and poor nutrition, thousands died from tuberculosis, measles, pneumonia, and other causes. They were only taught manual trades, to be farmers, tradesmen, or servants, and indoctrinated to value the morality of hard work and the ownership of private property. Those who did return home “were virtual strangers, unable to speak their own language or understand the ways of their own people” (O’Brien, 1989, p. 239).

Photo Credit: My Mother before Catholic Boarding School (“Mom age 7 – Grapes of Wrath”)

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norma 2

Photo Credit: My Mother after Catholic Boarding School (“My 1st Communion”)

After the Great Depression (1934), the federal government shifted the focus of Indian education from the assimilation of Indigenous children through boarding schools to a broader integration approach within the public school system. The Johnson-O’Malley Act of 1934 provided funding to cover education for Native youth within local public schools in the White communities that bordered tribal communities. The agents of child removal also shifted, from federal agents to state and local child welfare workers.

By 1976, an alarm was sounded by tribal communities and advocacy groups. The number of Indigenous children who had been removed from their families and communities had reached staggering proportions. Surveys conducted by the Association of American Indian Affairs in 1974 estimated that “approximately 25-35 per cent of all Indian children are separated from their families and placed in foster homes, adoptive homes, or institutions” (Byler, 1977, p. 1). The U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs established a task force to investigate Indian child welfare issues and discovered that foster care placement rates for Native American children were more than five times higher than those of non-Indians. Adoption rates for Native American children, predominantly by non-Native homes, were also significantly higher than those of non-Indians. The task force concluded that “the removal of Indian children from their natural homes and tribal setting has been and continues to be a national crisis [,] … seriously impacts a long-term tribal survival and … Non-Indian public and private agencies, with some exceptions, show almost no sensitivity to Indian culture and society” (U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs Task Force Four, 1977, p. 52).

The Indian Child Welfare Act of 1978 (ICWA) was passed the next year to end the destruction of tribal cultures through policies that encouraged keeping Native American children who were removed from their families within their tribal communities or Native American homes. In reality, the law only granted tribal courts some say in decisions affecting children, and allowed tribal governments an opportunity to place some children who were removed with families on the reservation rather than with Euro-Americans families in other locations. The law did not return total jurisdiction to tribes to design the types of practices they defined as best to promote safe and healthy families. Despite ICWA, child welfare policies and best practices are still largely dictated by federal and state governments. The illusion of control represented by ICWA, however, has kept many tribes from challenging an oppressive system. And the backlash to ICWA from counties, states, and Euro-Americans who desperately want to adopt Native American children has been unrelenting.

Tribal child welfare workers with caseloads of 50 to 120 families struggle to keep children safe and families intact. Their clients span multi-county communities, states, and the nation as a whole. One of the biggest obstacles they face is the appalling ignorance of the general U.S. population about tribal histories and cultures. An even greater obstacle, however, is the rock-solid assumption among most non-Native child welfare experts and practitioners that they really know what is best for all children. Culture doesn’t matter. Community is irrelevant. What matters is being adopted as part of an insular nuclear family. They argue that nuclear families give children a sense of “permanency,” at least until they reach the age of 18.

Yet culture matters a great deal. Being part of a community with which one identifies matters as well. An exercise designed by Vera Manuel, First Nations author and teacher from British Columbia, demonstrates the profound difference between the Euro-American concept of “permanence” and an Indigenous sense of belonging to a community and culture. She engaged participants in sculpting the organization of a pre-contact tribal community. She placed a small pouch on a chair in the center of the room, explaining that it contained things that were sacred to her. The sacred pouch represented the spiritual beliefs that were the center and foundation of the community. She then asked for volunteers to act out the role of children. She asked them to form a circle facing the sacred bundle. Next, she asked for volunteers to role-play parents and form a circle around all of the children. The next volunteers, encircling parents, were aunties and uncles and other adults in the community. Elders formed the final circle of those community members who were facing toward the children and the sacred center. Around the periphery, facing outward, were the volunteers who agreed to represent leaders and warriors who were responsible for protecting the community from harmful outside forces. Next, a few brave volunteers agreed to play the role of “child stealers,” the ga-ga.

In early times, the ga-ga were federal BIA agents or missionaries. In later times, they were state and county child welfare workers. These agents of churches, the federal government, counties, and states broke through the protective circles to forcibly remove the children. Despite resistance by the leaders, warriors, elders, aunties and uncles, and parents, children were removed from their place at the center of the community and taken away by strangers using threats and force. Participants in the sculpted exercise were asked to act out their reactions to losing their children. Without their children, parents, adults, and elders cast their eyes down and turned inward, wrapped their arms over their heart, turned their backs to the center, or left the circle. Warriors and leaders were deeply shamed by their defeat and also turned inward or left. Their meaning in life was lost. When some of the children returned as adults, the community was often disorganized and unrecognizable. Without a purpose, the circles of care that had surrounded them as children were in disarray.

Most agents of removal may well have sincerely believed that Native children would be better off away from their families and cultures. Removal and outplacement continued for generations, funded and encouraged by federal policies and religious institutions. However, for the Ojibwe community members of all ages who have shared their stories with me, the life-long consequences of removal are clear. Each told me that the experiences he or she shared with me were unique and too painful for others in the community to hear or understand. They suffered silently, alone, with the legacy of self-doubt, pain, and anger. Their families and communities suffered as well. Most internalized the shame and blamed their removal on their parents’ substance abuse or irresponsibility. Few recognized that their experience was part of an enduring and deliberate federal agenda to eradicate tribal cultures, a repetition of what their parents, grandparents and more distant ancestors had survived.

Healing the legacy of widespread government-sponsored abuse of Native American children, families and communities is not an easy prospect. Children who were removed from their families and communities, warehoused and abused in federal and religious institutions, or placed with families of non-Indian strangers who were at best not able to help children be integrated into their tribal communities and cultures, and at worst were cruel and abusive, face special challenges as parents. Each generation has stories to tell about their experiences:

• being kidnapped from a village road at the age of five and delivered to a federal boarding school more than 100 miles away still carrying scars more than 70 years later from punishment inflicted on their first day for speaking the only language they knew, “Indian,”
• being the first of many community children placed in a white foster home where Native children were beaten and sexually abused from the age of nine until they were 18 and old enough to exit care,
• running away at the age of 15 to fend for themselves because system interventions only intensified their abuse,
• returning “home” to the tribal community only to find that the mythic culture they created in their imagination to survive years of exile was not there to welcome them and enfold them in a healing circle.

Tribes have done their best to rebuild communities of care despite centuries of destructive policies, and they have made significant strides. There is much yet to do and tribes need allies who understand the harm that has been done and are willing to work in partnership to help banish the ga-ga once and for all. As I write this essay in 2014, Native American children are still more likely to be removed from their families and communities than children from other backgrounds (Summers, Wood, & Donovan, 2013), and the ICWA provisions that offer some protections have suffered serious setbacks. Still, I believe it is within our power to prevent future generations of Native Americans from losing their connections to family and community, to their languages and cultures, and to their self-respect. It is possible to create policies, institutions, and practice paradigms that prevent abuse and neglect while also preserving families, communities, and cultures if we care enough to engage in constructive dialogue and work together as advocates in whatever ways we can.

circles of care samhsa dot com

Photo Credit: Circles of Care – samhsa.gov

Chi miigwetch to the community members who made me feel welcome and shared their stories, laughter, and pain, and whose inspiring work to improve the lives of the next generations will continue to give me hope despite these troubling times.

Works Cited:

Adams, David Wallace (1995). Education for extinction: American Indians and the boarding school experience: 1875-1928. Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas.

Byler, William (1977). The destruction of American Indian families. In Steven Unger (Ed.), The destruction of American Indian families (pp. 1-11). New York: Association on American Indian Affairs.

O’Brien, Sharon (1989). American Indian tribal governments. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.

Summers, Alicia, Steve Wood, & Jennifer Donovan (2013). Disproportionality rates for children of color in foster care, Technical Assistance Bulletin. Reno, NV: National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges. Available from http://www.ncjfcj.org/sites/default/files/Disproportionality%20Rates%20for%20Children%20of%20Color%20in%20Foster%20Care%202013.pdf

U.S. Senate Select Committee on Indian Affairs Task Force Four: Federal, State and Tribal Jurisdiction (1977). Final Report to the American Indian Review Commission, In U.S. Senate Reports, Vol 1-11, Miscellaneous Reports on Public Bills, XI, 95th Congress, 1st Session, Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

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The Forces of Normalization

Carol A. Hand

“Education either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world.”
― Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed

The last decades of my life as an employee were spent in academia as social work faculty. It wasn’t the field of study I ever intended to follow. I chose it after observing the ways in which oppressive institutions robbed people of their human rights and dignity. It was the route I took to learn about community organizing and social policy advocacy. Yet by the time I arrived in academia, the field was well on its way to a narrower agenda – recognition as a clinical profession equal to law, medicine, and psychiatry. From my perspective, this is a repressive agenda that not only robs people of their dignity but also fails to acknowledge the forces of social control that remain unchallenged by a medicated, behaviorally-modified docile citizenry.

world dash crisis dot come

Photo Credit: World-Crisis.com

Despite warnings sounded by Harry Specht and Mark Courtney in 1994 (Unfaithful angles: How social work has abandoned its mission), the discipline of social work had continued its accelerating transmutation into a profession with an ever-narrowing focus on helping deviant individuals better adapt to their environments. Initially, I was naïve about academia. When I was first recruited to join a faculty in a department that had recently hired Black, Korean-American, and Muslim members, I paid little attention to the department’s history. As I look back now, I am able to see a disturbing pattern. Unlike the university where I earned my degrees, each of the institutions where I served as faculty had recently added a new graduate program, purportedly to compliment the long-standing baccalaureate degree program.

Because tuition for graduate degrees is higher, universities saw this expansion as a way to generate more revenue. They could add a few more faculty members, not enough to cover the expansion, but the workload for new and existing faculty could be increased to accommodate the change. In the process, the quality of undergraduate programs was compromised by some institutions. Although some institutions initially tried to maintain an equal focus on the larger socio-structural forces that contributed to the challenges individuals, families, communities, and nations faced, money ultimately was not to be made by graduates who challenged structural inequality. Insurance companies, medical model standards, and state professional licensing requirements increasingly dictated which degree-holders could practice and what services they would be paid to provide. It is not in the interest of these gatekeepers to have graduates who think critically about normalizing hegemonic forces.

normalization

Photo Source: Drawing by Carol A. Hand
(based on an adaptation of N. Andry (1749), Orthopaedrics or the art of preventing and correcting deformities of the body in children, cited in Foucault)

I am saddened to say that the college I currently work for as an adjunct has followed this trend by adding a clinically-focused master’s degree. In an effort to help prepare undergraduate students for an easier transition into the new graduate program, faculty are being asked to standardize and reformulate the curriculum to focus on an enhanced clinical foundation. What this means is choosing texts and assignments that will please the gatekeeping accrediting body for social work programs, a body focused more on replicating the status quo than on challenging hegemony. I have been told that the standardized text that all undergraduate faculty will have to use to teach research is designed to prepare students to be producers and consumers of research. Once again, I face the reality that my commitment to work with students to promote liberatory praxis doesn’t fit with an institutional agenda. It is of little consequence that I have more experience as a researcher across a broad range of topics, populations, and methods than those administrators who will choose the required texts. As a Native American, my view will in all likelihood be marginalized rather than accepted as a well-grounded analysis based on an understanding of how research has served as a tool to further careers of the privileged while it added new “objective” dimensions to the oppression and suffering for generations of vulnerable peoples around the globe.

Although the following observation made by Linda Tuhiwai Smith (2001) specifically mentions Indigenous Peoples, the same can be said for any “objects” of research that have less power than researchers in the prevailing social structure.

A continuing legacy of what has come to be taken for granted as a natural link between the term “indigenous” (or its substitutes) and “problems” is that many researchers, even those with the best of intentions, form their research in ways that assume that the locus of a particular problem lies with the indigenous individual or community rather than with other social or structural issues…. For indigenous communities, the issue is not just that they are blamed for their own failures but that it is also communicated to them, explicitly or implicitly, that they themselves have no solutions to their own problems. (Smith, 2001, Decolonizing methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples, p. 92, emphasis added)

Oppression is complete when “othered” people believe they are the problem, that their differences make them deviant and their cultures are deficient – when they believe they can only make progress if outside experts take charge. From my perspective, students need to think critically and question these assumptions in published studies and those they may plan to conduct in the future.

Of course, I plan to do what I can to carve out a liberatory space as the program goes through this transition. Although I hope to be more successful this time around, experience has shown me that well-reasoned arguments don’t always prevail. But sometimes, tenacity does.

publicsphereproject dot org

Photo Credit: publicsphereproject.com

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In Gratitude

Carol A. Hand

Although the polar vortex has returned, I awoke on this frigid sunny morning to a clear blue sky. As I looked toward the sky, the rays of the rising sun turned the bare branches of trees to gold. I was filled with a sense of gratitude for friends new and old who have helped me remain hopeful during the long cold winter. It has been a time of learning and a time of loss. I was reminded of a poem I read long ago.

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Duluth, MN – February 25, 2014

Comes the Dawn
(by Veronica A. Shoffstall)

After a while you learn the subtle difference
Between holding a hand and chaining a soul,
And you learn that love doesn’t mean leaning
And company doesn’t mean security,
And you begin to learn that kisses aren’t contracts
And presents aren’t promises,
And you begin to accept your defeats
With your head up and your eyes open
With the grace of a woman, not the grief of a child,
And you learn to build all your roads on today,
Because tomorrow’s ground is too uncertain for plans,
And futures have a way of falling down mid-flight.
After a while you learn
That even sunshine burns if you get too much.
So you plant your own garden and decorate your own soul,
Instead of waiting for someone to bring you flowers.
And you learn that you really can endure…
That you really are strong,
And you really do have worth.
And you learn and learn…
With every goodbye you learn.

In the spring, I will plant my gardens again because you have all given me hope. You have opened my eyes to new truths, inspired me with your courage and commitment to making the world a better place, and touched my heart with your kindness, depth and beauty. Chi Miigwetch for all that you share (Ojibwe for thank you very much).

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Duluth, MN – August 13, 2013

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Living in the Space Between Cultures – Part 2

Carol A. Hand

Sometimes, living between cultures means looking at the world in different ways. As someone who doesn’t look “Indian,” I have experienced how much easier it is to live with white skin privilege. I blend in, at least outwardly, and feel invisible. Yet when I have lived and traveled throughout northern Wisconsin, I noticed that residents in communities that border reservations have a more finely attuned skill at discerning physical differences. I didn’t feel invisible when I walked into a business or restaurant. The scrutiny didn’t feel welcoming or friendly, nor was the treatment I sometimes experienced. “You can’t cash your check here,” said the teller at the bank I had used for years in the White border community. “We don’t know who you are. You need to go to the branch on the reservation.” Nor was the store cashier welcoming when she greeted me loudly so everyone can hear, “You can’t come in here with that bag on your shoulder (a laptop that I couldn’t leave while I waited for my car to be serviced). “It’s too big. You might steal something.” Or the more subtle forms of discrimination. Sitting in a restaurant for 45 minutes watching as all of the new White arrivals are served and finally realizing that my wait will be infinite. Sometimes I confronted it, but sometimes I felt shamed, angered, or both by the treatment. (It reminds me of how exposed I felt during the years I lived on the flat farmlands of central Illinois without the presence of trees to shelter me from the elements.)

As a child, I embraced my Ojibwe heritage without shame. In fact, it made me feel special. In my New Jersey community, it was seen as “cool” by my classmates. Still, I worked harder at everything I did out of a sense of responsibility to prove to my mother that being Ojibwe didn’t make us inferior. Feeling proud of my heritage also made me more likely to reach out to others who were “different.” Yet I noticed the importance of “skin-color gradients” on my mother’s reservation. When I stayed with my relatives in the summer, I saw that the cousins whose skin pigmentation was darker were treated differently, more harshly, than those with lighter colored hair and skin. In retrospect, I am grateful that my childhood spared me from that expression of internalized racism. I doubt that I would have survived it.

In school and professional arenas, I felt it was irrelevant and unnecessary to point out my cultural heritage. It didn’t prevent me from using critical thinking in school. It didn’t matter to the nursing home residents I cared for, or the people I served in restaurants. That changed, however, when I had to address the systematic discrimination and entrenched hegemony built into state policies that denied sovereign rights to tribes, or sanctioned agency practices that denied access to those who were most vulnerable.

I felt obligated to publicly disclose my cultural identity and assume a more visible advocacy role not only on behalf of tribes, but also for others who were similarly excluded due to age, class, gender, or ability. It was not a comfortable position. Doing so changed how people related to me, both Whites and Native Americans. Once again, I felt I was standing exposed on the prairie. I was “othered.” Suddenly, every word I uttered or action I took was carefully scrutinized. It seemed as though every contribution or mistake I made was publicly acclaimed and amplified well beyond their significance in ways that made me feel like a trained monkey who could talk, the personification of all the negative assumptions about Native Americans, or like a clumsy purple alien from outer space.

difference

Photo Credit: Gary Larson, The Far Side (1983 FarWorks, Inc.)

My boss introduced me to the Governor and other people in important public positions as “our well-tailored Chippewa.” She also made sure that I received a highly publicized award, not for one of the projects that I knew made a difference for elders in the state, but for a minor tribal initiative that showcased the agency’s commitment to Affirmative Action, confirming for others who were more deserving of recognition that the degrees I earned were not the reason I held my position. Although I found public scrutiny uncomfortable, I was able to maintain a sense of humor and use my position to serve as an advocate for people who would otherwise not be represented. As a state employee, my small successes to target resources to elders with the greatest needs still remained unobserved in the tedious policy documents I produced or the responses I ghost-wrote for the Department Secretary or Governor.

The opportunity to sometimes remain invisible changed, however, when I assumed the role of deputy director for an inter-tribal organization. For the executive branch administrators who were once my superiors in the hierarchy of state government, the “well-tailored Chippewa” had become a vocal advocate who would make sure that marginalized voices were heard in policy deliberations. Socially constructed beliefs about education and titles gave my comments more credibility. The inter-tribal staff who had unquestioningly imposed state and federal restrictions on tribes in the past eagerly shifted when they realized it was their job to represent tribes and question policies and procedures that created undue hardships for tribal people. University faculty who were used to exploiting tribal communities for research projects had to follow more egalitarian protocols and community direction. State funders who had once easily used “divide and conquer” strategies with tribal leaders to avoid awarding reasonable grants to address compelling needs or refused to recognize tribal sovereignty no longer found this approach effective. My Ojibwe boss loved to tease me about my feisty advocacy, asking where my white horse was parked and routinely giving me replicas of the statue of liberty.

super hero

Photo Credit: pagescoloring.net

It was exciting to watch as inter-tribal staff began to consciously challenge hegemony. Yet carrying the responsibility to transform power relations is a lonely life-style, not merely a job. It made me a target for those who wanted to resume their hegemony over tribes, as well as for tribal leaders and community members who wanted to be in the spotlight. I was grateful for an excuse to give up working 12 hour days seven days a week. Maybe, I thought, it’s time to try something new, but that’s another story…

Aadi & bubbles

Photo Credit: Aadi (my grandson) and me, blowing bubbles – 2001

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Reflections on another Snowy Morning – Blogging and Connections to Community

Carol A. Hand

This morning I was still thinking about the observations voiced by a gifted photographer from Greece who shared his parting observations about blogging, his farewell to his many followers and to the blogosphere. A year ago, I would never have imagined myself understanding what a blog was, let alone participating in one. As I understand his words, blogging from his perspective keeps people from living life in the real world, giving them the illusion they are tackling the injustices they write about rather than taking the on-the-ground actions necessary.

I know I have watched my own obsession with blogging intensify during this winter. Yet I need to be honest about the importance of context. I have never lived through a winter like this one. The two feet of snow that came early in December, covered by a layer of freezing rain, ushered in a polar vortex that is only now beginning to lift in mid-February. My car was literally frozen shut for three weeks by temperatures that never rose above zero degrees Fahrenheit. Windchills of 30 to 40 below zero made being outside a “nose and finger-numbing” reality in just a few minutes. I don’t have a tv, so the internet and blogging became my connections to the larger world.

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Photo: Duluth – February 17, 2014

My occasional trips to the store for necessities have never made me feel as though I was part of my new community. Although I try to live in the moment and connect with others in these public spaces, few respond to smiles or comments intended to create some kind of human-to-human connection. Being introverted, more because of life experiences than by nature, the only spheres for interpersonal connections for me have been work, school, and sometimes neighborhoods. Now that I am semi-retired, these options are limited.

The retiring blogger’s reflections have reminded me of how I have lived in other isolating times. When living in insular environments, I found whatever media I could to remind me of larger world contexts, photographs of people from around the world during colonial and post-colonial times, books and poetry from many different historical eras, nations and cultures, and foreign films and television shows. Blogging has been a more accessible way to connect. I am fortunate to have a computer and internet connection that are unattainable luxuries for others in the U.S. and the world. Yet I also realize that blogging has been more than merely learning about events around the world from many diverse perspectives. It has also been about building connections with others who share similar values.

This winter, blogging has exposed me to a community of creative critical thinkers who have challenged me to learn and grow. I am humbled by the contributions of other bloggers – the beauty of artistic gifts and eloquent descriptions of crucial actions to counter hegemony in nations, communities, prisons, and classrooms. It inspires me to use the opportunities I do have as a part-time adjunct to connect students with global information from bloggers who share creative ways of thinking about resistance to hegemony and actions that are being taken to build a kinder more inclusive world. I am grateful for those bloggers who have reached out to make me feel included in this community. From the still snowy north-country, I wish to say miigwetch (Ojibwe thank you) to the inspiring people in the blogging community who have opened up new vistas and a sense of comradeship for me during a winter that might otherwise have been unbearable.

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Photo: Pinto, my recently rescued companion – February 17, 2014

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Teaching — Reflections on a Snowy Morning

Carol A. Hand

 There are so many ideas swirling in my head and heart today that are waiting to be written, yet the most I can do to give voice to them at the moment is a simple reflection about teaching. I need to put creative urges aside, or channel them into grading assignments and developing a new class on research for summer. Teaching for me isn’t really about a paycheck, although the chump change I earn as an adjunct is helpful. It’s about the sense of responsibility I feel toward students who are eager to learn even though they have chosen a field that will probably never make them rich – social work. They are willing to balance child care, family obligations, work, sometimes long commutes, and take on debt that they will struggle to repay for many years. I feel blessed to be able to work with young people who care enough about the well-being of others to make these sacrifices. I owe it to them to give feedback on their papers and design courses that may help them in the future.

The class I am teaching this semester, American Social Welfare Policy, is the second least favorite class for social work students. (Research is the least popular.) Yesterday in class, I could see how intimidated many felt at the prospect of policy analysis, yet as we brainstormed about options, it was heartening to see them feel empowered and excited because they were beginning to feel they could figure it out.

I don’t teach policy the same way I learned it and the way it continues to be taught year after year in most colleges and universities. We do have a textbook, but it focuses on knowledge and skills to pursue social justice (Jansson (2011), Becoming an effective policy advocate: From policy practice to social justice). We are also using one book intended to help them explore the importance of “class” and power (Class Matters), and one to encourage them think about history and hegemony (We the people: A call to take back America). This semester I am also able to draw from all of the fascinating and important information from other bloggers, a far better resource for information about contemporary issues than textbooks or other media.

The class is just beginning the daunting task of analyzing policy in teams of three or four and developing suggested improvements and strategies they can use for community and legislative advocacy. They won’t produce boring policy analysis papers that will sit on a shelf gathering dust. The end product is a presentation about what they have learned from their analysis and their proposal for making changes from a social justice perspective. The dread about studying policy is beginning to turn to excitement, as this student email demonstrates,

“Just a cool moment… I’m a member of policy council for my son’s daycare. We were taking about policy changes and talking to legislators…woohoo I knew where to send people! You’re awesome. Thank you!!!”

Now, it’s time for me to face the pile of papers I need to grade and figure out how to structure a research class that is centered on improving people’s lives rather than showcasing one’s knowledge of sophisticated statistical methodologies!

research spectrumcenter dot umich dot edu

Photo Credit: spectrumcenter.mich.edu

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In Honor of Caregivers

Carol A. Hand

After my policy class this week, I decided to write about a project I coordinated many years ago to address elder abuse. After reading the first draft, I realized that it was missing important details about the challenges caregivers face. That meant I had to face my dreaded file cabinets!

As a child who loved not only to read, but re-read, it was sometimes excruciating to live in a house that had very few books. Although I discovered the public library, I never wanted to return the books I borrowed, resulting in overdue notices and fines that were so embarrassing. I learned to avoid the library if at all possible. As an adult, I started buying my own books, and as a student and professional, I collected copies of every article I read and every handout I gathered from workshops. The number of bookcases and file cabinets I needed grew each year. My file cabinets have taught me an important fact about myself. I am a piler, not a filer. On the days I am determined to organize papers, I come up with logical ways to sort and label. But when I am working on something and need just the right information, I am never able to remember the logic! If the articles are piled, I have little problem remembering which pile it might be in – because I have had to look through every pile hundreds of times to find things. But once they disappear into closed drawers in neatly labeled file folders, I become paralyzed with indecision. “How did I categorize this article in my all-too-fleeting moment of analytic clarity?”

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Photo Credit: The messy process of looking for details

I have learned to avoid my file cabinets as assiduously as I avoid libraries. But I have kept stuffing new things in them – there are now 5 of them with extra file drawers in 2 desks. But I haven’t left them behind as I moved from state to state – I might desperately need something that is in them someday! I really did intend to clean them out before my last move, but I only had 3 weeks to get ready and sorting files was just not a priority.

Adding details meant I needed to face my file cabinets. The only way I could ethically describe details from a project so long ago would be to overcome the resistance I feel when I even walk into the room where they are arranged and overcome the dread of opening the drawers. But I did face the challenge and actually made an important discovery not only about the project details, but also about myself as a much younger program developer and person. Even then I really did “walk the talk” of community-driven program development and egalitarian partnerships. Now I think I can tell the “real” story …

***

Many years ago, I made the decision to leave a well-paying job as a planning and policy analyst for a state government to pursue advanced education and the opportunity to keep learning. In part, my decision was based on the outcome of a recent gubernatorial election. A job that had once made it possible to advocate for improvements for elder services shifted to constant surveillance of every conversation I had with constituents and written justification for every exchange with legislators who requested information. It also shifted from developing innovative new programs to defending programs that were important for elders’ survival and well-being. And in part, the decision was because bureaucracies are stifling places to work even in the best of times. The political appointees who set the agenda for executive branch activities rarely have the power to make many changes that actually improve peoples’ lives within or outside the organization. They can, however, easily make it worse.

To help pay my tuition, I decided to take on a part time job coordinating a federal research and training project to develop and test an intervention to address elder abuse, The Male Caregiver Training Project. The project, conceptualized by a professor and a graduate student, was intended to reduce elder abuse by targeting men who were providing care for older relatives – parents, wives, siblings, or other relations. Although men were less likely to be family caregivers (about 25% of family caregivers at the time), they were more likely to be reported as perpetrators of elder abuse (about 66% of reported perpetrators were men). The assumption of the grant writers was that men who were at risk of abusing elders would voluntarily agree to attend eight, two-hour “training” sessions that were based on behavior modification techniques. The “trainers” would be social work graduate students under the direction of the professor, and the results would be measured to determine the effectiveness using pretest and post-test self-reports. The student who was going to coordinate the project left just as the funding was awarded, so I was asked if I would be willing to coordinate the project.

Of course, I didn’t know all of these details until after I accepted the position and read the grant. As soon as I did, I was amazed that such a proposal had been funded and set out to conceptualize something that might make a difference in the real world. What did I know about being a male caregiver? Really, not much. The only way to learn more was to talk to men who were caring for relatives. I also needed to meet with key staff in the two pilot counties to build trust and partnerships. And the best way to build authentic partnerships was to change who led the sessions. What would university students know about the communities and resources for caregivers? Community staff already had contacts, credibility, and knowledge. Why not involve them not only as leaders of sessions, but also as partners in designing what the intervention would actually involve? And if the intervention was successful, wouldn’t it make more sense for community staff to have a vested interest in seeing the sessions continue after federal grant dollars ended? I called the federal project manager to present my suggestions, and he became excited by the possibilities.

tools of the trade caren caraway

Photo Credit: Artwork by Caren Caraway for Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care

I met with the directors of human services in both counties and found a key staff person in each who agreed to work with me. They helped me find men who were willing to talk with me about their experiences. The men I met with all had so much to teach others about tenacity and compassion. They also had a great deal to teach me about the types of support that would make their lives as caregivers easier.

The stories I heard were a testament to the best people can be. Six of the seven men who agreed to meet with me were, or had been, caregivers for their wives and were themselves in their 70s or 80s. One was a primary caregiver for his father in his 80s who was experiencing mobility and self-care challenges. A few were understandably guarded in their comments, while others saw the interview as an opportunity to share challenges, sorrow, and struggles with anyone who was willing to listen and care. Alzheimer’s and dementia were the reasons men were caring for their wives. They spoke, often tearfully, about the loss not only of someone they loved to a disease that erased memories and made them strangers, but also about the loss of their closest friend and confidant. They saw it as their responsibility to provide care, often at great personal cost as they dealt with their own physical limitations and financial challenges. Most importantly, they all felt alone. There was no one to talk to about the conflicting emotions they faced. There was no one who could share the physical burden of doing all the cooking, cleaning, shopping, and being on call 24 hours a day. They did the best they could as caregivers because they cared, and they did it alone because they didn’t know anyone they could ask for help or information.

So I summarized the findings, and with the help of my partners in each county, held a general planning meeting in each county that involved all of the key agency staff who dealt with elder issues and services. The purpose was to identify a team in each county that was willing to help develop and present the sessions. I spent a sleepless night before the first community meeting. Yes, I had these powerful interview summaries, and based on that, a suggested list of topics. But we couldn’t call this the Male Caregiver Training Project! Training is something that is done to horses, not that I recommend this approach for horses, but it certainly shouldn’t be how we work with people. As I was taking my morning shower before the meeting, I had an epiphany – we should call the sessions Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care. It highlighted the fundamental strength of the men who shared their stories, and reflected the suggestions they had for ways to help.

Staff in both counties identified resources that could serve as tools and resources to help caregivers. We all learned a great deal from the first workshop session in each county. We thought it would be difficult for men to share emotions, so we began with more informational topics. Yet during the first session in the first county, the men who participated shocked us with their willingness to share the depth of their distress – some spoke of contemplating suicide and murder – so we added crises counselors to the workshop teams. After testing and revising the intervention, six more counties tested the approach. More than 60 men participated in all during the project. Ten years after the grant ended, most of the counties were still conducting sessions, not only for men who were caring for relatives, but also for women. It spread to other counties and other states and eventually was nominated for a national award.

What made the experience rewarding for me was not public recognition. It was the opportunity to meet people, caregivers and staff who cared deeply enough about others to make so many personal sacrifices, and the honor of hearing their stories and working side-by-side to create an intervention that succeeded in improving some peoples’ lives. Among those I met was a reporter for a local paper who captured the essence of the challenges of caregivers and the importance of providing resources and opportunities for sharing.

…For better, for worse. For richer, for poorer. In sickness and in health. To love and to cherish, till death us do part.

When Jacob and Martha exchanged wedding vows 45 years ago, he was an Army private and she was a schoolteacher. “She was a lovely little gal,” he said as he pulled out a black and white photograph – now yellowed from age—of their wedding day from a manila envelope. “Wasn’t she something?” he asked, speaking more to himself than to a recent visitor….

Like many couples, Jacob and Martha, not their real names, worked for the day they could retire and spend their days growing old together. Today, they are in their 80s, but their dream of carefree retirement is tarnished. Martha has Alzheimer’s disease…. She is easily confused and requires 24-hour-a-day care. Jacob provided that care. Despite his own failing health, he dresses, bathes and feeds his wife. He cooks, cleans the house, does the laundry and orders groceries to be delivered. He is with his wife all the time, declining offers of respite care because, he says, “it upsets her,” when he is gone. Her illness dominates his life….

Jacob was one of the six men who attended the first [Tools of the Trade] workshop series offered last fall…. “It’s was kind of nice getting out,” Jacob said. “The workshop was a very good thing for me. It helped me realize that I’m not alone. I had a chance to talk with others who are in similar situations.”

(Carla McCann, The Janesville Gazette, Wednesday, April 11, 1990, p. 1C)

***

I didn’t realize until many years later that I would need to know what I learned from caregivers during this project. I remember when my mother first realized something was happening to her. I went to pick her up because she had driven to visit my bother and could not remember how to get home. On the ride home she said, “I don’t know what is happening to me. I can’t remember things. I am so humiliated. I don’t want people to see me this way.” It broke my heart to know that this gentle woman who outlived her husband and survived years of abuse always wishing for a chance to enjoy life would never have that opportunity. At least, I thought, the bad memories will disappear as well.

Dealing with file cabinets has led me down memory lane with memories that are both grateful and sad. I think I will quickly find a place to stuff the project folders back into drawers and wait for the next polar vortex before opening them again. Yet I am grateful that I remembered how many kind and loving people I have met in my travels. I am sharing these memories to say miigwetch (thank you in Ojibwe) to the caregivers of the world and to those who support them.

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A Great-Grandmother’s Gift

Carol A. Hand

When my grandson, Aadi, was 7 years old, we went with his mother to visit his great-grandmother, Norma. Norma, my mother, was living in a home with other elders who needed attendants and nurses to provide care because she could no longer take care of herself. She had developed Alzheimer’s disease, an illness that caused her to lose her memories, her ability to communicate with others, and her ability to meet her own basic needs.

Speech was difficult for her, and when she did speak, her words rarely made sense – they often seemed to be bits and pieces from other distant times. Aadi’s mom, Jnana, was so kind and gentle with her grandmother, and so patient. Aadi was also gentle with his great-grandmother. He sat at her feet, carefully holding her fragile, wrinkled hand. I knelt down next to Aadi, and said to my mother, “This is your great grandson, Aadi.” My mother looked at me and said, “Aadi.” I smiled and then looked at Aadi and asked, “Did you hear her? She said your name!” Aadi shook his head, “no.” Then, my mother looked at Aadi, and then at me, and said, “He’s a good boy.” I asked Aadi if he heard this. This time, Aadi shook his head, “yes.”

Perhaps Aadi does not realize how magical this gift really was. Somehow in the later stages of a disease that robbed his great-grandmother of her language and the ability to communicate, she was able to show how special he was to her. She was able to say his name and tell him that he was a good boy.

Aadi’s great-grandmother made important contributions in her long life. She traveled many places and met people from many different walks of life. She was always a good judge of character. And somehow, because of her ability to see beneath the surface appearance of things, and because of the strength of her love, she was able to find words to tell her great grandson, Aadi, how special he is.

Norma and Aadi

Photo Credit: Norma, Aadi (3 months old), and Carol

And, Aadi is, indeed, good, although he is now a good, handsome, young man.

 

Aadi 7

Photo Credit: Aadi (7)

 

 

aadi ava ahma 2010

Photo Credit: Aadi, Ava, and Ahma (2010)

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