Tag Archives: discrimination

Just When I Thought I Was Finally Safe…

Anonymous
Note: In consultation with the author, we unanimously decided not to publish her name in order to protect her safety and identity.

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This morning, I made my usual trek up to the mailbox and noticed a hand-addressed envelope. I was curious to see who had written to me, so I quickly opened the small envelope. Inside were two pamphlets, one titled “The Real Story of Christmas” and the other, “Sin City.” The first pamphlet quoted scripture and invited the reader to use a simple prayer if they were ready to receive “the Christ of Christmas as your Saviour.” The second pamphlet had a more sinister message depicted in comic-book fashion. “Christians are being overrun and targeted by homosexuals for hate crimes. They are perverting the word of god and are ruining the lives of many young people by enticing them into the gay lifestyle.” On the back of this pamphlet the sender wrote,

GHG image

This message was wake-up call that my relatively new home in the Appalachian Mountains might be even more dangerous than my last in the Midwest.
Although I find the word distasteful, I am lesbian and have been careful not to disclose my sexual orientation in my new community. They do not know me or how I lived in denial of my own homosexual orientation for many years. I tried in earnest to not be gay, only to live feeling deeply repressed and knowing that I suppressed a most joyous part of myself. Coming out for me was the most transformative experience of my life, an experience of liberation that I would not deny anyone, gay or straight.

Although I accept who I am and have no personal reservations about disclosing my sexual orientation, I learned in the last community where I lived in that it would place me at risk. As university faculty, I felt it was important to be a role model for students who are gay by openly sharing my background. I quickly discovered that most faculty in the social work department, all of whom were heterosexual, avoided any interactions with me during the three years I taught there. During my last year, several vocal students interpreted everything I said through a homophobic lens and spread ugly, untrue rumors about me. Only one colleague was supportive. I learned that although I am comfortable with who I am, others might not be.

In my new community, I have kept to myself. Only my colleagues at my new university know my sexual orientation because it is the focus of my research and writing. I rented a little log cabin nestled against a forest some distance from campus. It is a beautiful and serene little place where I enjoy being out in the woods, meditating and gardening. My dog and cat enjoy the freedom of living away from the confines of city life and provide me with many hours of love and entertainment.

My first two winters here were financially challenging. I couldn’t afford to run up high energy bills, so I had to rely on a wood stove for heat. Getting enough firewood those first years was a challenge, but my landlord connected me with a resource, the local wood ministry. I would go on a Saturday and work all day splitting wood with other members of the community, as well as young men out on work duty from the local jail. Although distant (which seems to be a normal reaction to outsiders or folks not from the south), everyone treated me respectfully. And after a day of hard work, they would bring out a load of cut firewood for me to use to heat my cabin.

Last year the wood ministry provided such a needed service to people in the community that they ran short of wood. Consequently, I asked my landlord if it would be all right for the ministry to come and use wood from the property that had been cut down by the power company, clearing a path under the power lines. This year, the week before Christmas, I was surprised by my neighbor, who stopped in to tell me that the wood ministry had sent him out to begin cutting and splitting up the huge pile of logs. The next day, more men from the ministry showed up and deftly cut up the logs, hauling them off to benefit the community.

Although I do not know for sure the originator of my hateful mail, I cannot help but wonder if it has come from the few people I have interacted with most recently, perhaps a neighbor or someone involved with the wood ministry. During the 2-1/2 years I have been living in my little cabin, I have been minding my own business, keeping mostly to myself, and conscientiously supporting local business. I felt that I was at last starting to meet my neighbors, only to then receive such a hurtful message in the mail.

On another level, I am disturbed that my own personal space can be penetrated so easily by a hand-addressed letter. Although I am careful about my personal information, I am not a hermit, nor do I harbor paranoid inclinations that everyone is out to get me. But I am careful and understand that not everyone needs or wants to know I am gay, or that it even matters.

It is distressing to think that because I am a self-sufficient and independent female living alone that a stranger would make the assumption that I am, or choose to be, lesbian—or, to them, a deviant, perverted homosexual. And I wonder why anyone would feel inclined to send a so-called religious message steeped in intolerance and bigotry.

My first inclination was to throw the letter away and not give it anymore of my time or energy. And yet, I do not want to feel alone in this. I want others to know that this is happening. And so I choose to speak out.

Bigotry and intolerance need to end. They thrive under a cloak of secrecy and darkness. I am sharing my story to let others know how important it is to look beyond the superficial differences that separate us.

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The Gatekeepers and Mrs. A

Carol A. Hand

I truly wish the account I am about to share were a fictional creation. I also wish the ending provided an example of enlightenment, how faculty could use their power to open doors for students who have overcome overwhelming odds to reach academia. Alas, the events point to a misuse of power and the tendency of those in positions of power to protect themselves at all costs, including at the cost of their own humanity.

gatekeeper 1

Photo Credit: Google “Gatekeeper Images”

Mrs. A, obviously a fictive name to protect identity, had always dreamed of obtaining a social work degree. It was not until she had lost everything because of her husband’s serious and progressive mental illness that she was finally able to enter a university through the help of the Department of Vocational Rehabilitation, when she herself was suffering from chronically challenging physical health conditions. As a mature student in her 40s, she was a conscientious and engaged student. I had an opportunity to observe her hard work and dedication in a class I taught. Despite health challenges and family responsibilities, she was in class, on time, with work completed. She was respectful toward her instructors, and kind and supportive of her younger peers. And, through her first three years as a social work major, she earned a grade point average of “A.” She was also a McNair scholar whose work won awards and statewide acclaim.

It important to understand the significance of socioeconomic class in academia, particularly in the field of social work. First generation college students like Mrs. A have often learned crucial skills. They often come from families that needed to forge relationships with other families in similar situations in order to survive with limited incomes. These mutual support networks exchanged resources and services in times of need. Children learned to quickly discern who was in a similar situation and how to form supportive networks. They also learned to endure the shame of paying for food with food stamps, or wearing outdated, unfashionable secondhand clothing that drew the ridicule of more affluent peers. These lessons often make it easy for students from families with fewer economic resources to form trusting relationships with agency clients. Yet like all strengths, context matters. The purpose of education is to help students be able to decide when to use these relation-forming abilities and when to maintain professional distance.

Mrs. A described some of the experiences that were humiliating for her when she was a child, and the deep shame she still feels when she remembers these experiences. Because she is kind-hearted and empathetic, her natural inclination is to reach out to others who share this history to ease their humiliation and pain. It is this predilection to ease the suffering of others that placed her at odds with middle class notions in social work. For most faculty I have encountered, the need to maintain “professional boundaries” with clients is simplistically operationalized as a distant power-over relationship. There is little room to understand the nuances culture, class, context, and purpose of interventions, etc., have on the most effective approaches for working with people.

There are also profound differences in how faculty teach social work. Unfortunately for Mrs. A, the majority of faculty in the institution Mrs. A attended saw their role as gatekeepers, enforcers of the “right way” to practice social work in old problem-focused ways that rob clients (and students) of choice and dignity. The place in the social work curriculum where socioeconomic-class clashes become most apparent are in social work’s “signature pedagogy,” the practicum experience. Students are placed in an agency under the joint supervision of a faculty member and an agency social worker to “be trained” as a social worker in a field setting.

The university is supposed to put safeguards in place to make sure that both clients and students are protected. First, the university has contracts that specify the expectations of each partner: the agency, the agency intern supervisor, the university faculty, and the student. Second, students are assessed and placed in an agency that best meets both their educational needs and builds on their particular strengths. Third, the agency intern supervisors are required to go through an orientation to make sure that they have the necessary skills to create a professional learning environment (as opposed to a clerical position) and appropriate supervisory skills. Fourth, students are required to submit weekly journals where they discuss what they are doing and learning in field. They are also required to write about any challenges or ethical dilemmas they encounter. It is the responsibility of supervising faculty to read the student journals and address any issues. Fifth, students meet in a weekly seminar to discuss their placements, ideally receiving feedback from their peers and faculty supervisor on how to negotiate any difficulties or resolve ethical conflicts. Finally, faculty are required to visit the agency at the beginning of the placement to make sure the placement is appropriate and at the semester midterm to assess student progress.

Unfortunately for Mrs. A, few of these safeguards were in place. Given the inexperience of the university’s new field coordinator, the agency where Mrs. A was placed was a poor fit with her interests, skills, and realistic learning goals. The agency intern supervisor had not been to orientation, adding to the challenges. Nonetheless, Mrs. A tried valiantly to make this placement work. Because she was helping me with a project, I had an opportunity to hear about her experiences with her agency intern supervisor. As I listened to the ethical dilemmas and inconsistent directions Mrs. A was given, I was concerned and advised her to include these in her written logs, raise any questions during seminar, and speak to her faculty supervisor privately about her concerns. Mrs. A did all of these things, only to be told by an inexperienced faculty supervisor who was teaching seminar for the first time, “just wait. Things might work out.” Unfortunately, the way things worked out changed Mrs. A’s life profoundly.

The midterm evaluation never happened. In the eleventh week of a fourteen week semester, the agency intern supervisor called the new field coordinator to report a serious breach of professional boundaries. From an objective standpoint, it was really a relatively minor misunderstanding that resulted from poor agency supervision and poor university oversight, compounded by socioeconomic class differences between Mrs. A, the agency intern supervisor, and university faculty. Rather than approach the situation as a learning opportunity for all involved, faculty quickly reacted from their gatekeeper mentality. They met with the agency intern supervisor to hear her concerns without ever speaking to Mrs. A. Again, without ever speaking to Mrs. A, faculty decided to give Mrs. A a failing grade in practicum and remove her from the agency immediately. Administrators in the social work department supported this decision, again without ever giving Mrs. A a chance to share her perspective and experiences.

Mrs. A was repeatedly shamed by the field coordinator, other faculty, and the chair of the social work program. Ultimately, Mrs. A was told she would not be allowed to finish her degree because of the failing grade in practicum and the characterological deficiencies that would always make her unfit to function as a social worker in a professional setting. She heard these damning pronouncements without ever being allowed to voice her perspectives and without ever being allowed to have her two informal faculty advocates present during meetings. After one of these encounters with the field coordinator and key faculty, another student found Mrs. A wondering on the campus grounds in a daze and brought her to my office.

What happened to Mrs. A and the new colleague who wanted to serve as Mrs. A’s lead advocate forever changed my view of the institution where I worked and people in positions of power there. My colleague and I helped Mrs. A successfully appeal the department’s ruling, although it cost her another year and thousands of dollars to finish her degree. I was able to offset some of these costs by hiring her as an assistant with small grants I had. Yet, despite my best efforts, I could not help my new colleague survive the backlash of people in power who needed to cover their own long legacy of mean-spirited incompetence. Yes, I was even told by the chair as a parting comment when I announced my early retirement, “You have a terrible reputation! [as he was screaming and waving his arms] You’re seen as a STUDENT ADVOCATE!”

Ah well, there are worse things to be. I count my blessings every day, and despite geographic distances, my colleague and I still have opportunities to help other students make it through the repressive gatekeepers with some of their dignity, integrity, and creativity intact.

gatekeeper

http://www.wallsave.com/wallpaper/1024×768/gothic-gate-keeper-jpg-free-dark-art-and-202574.html

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A Grandmother’s Reflection

Carol A. Hand

As the holidays approached, I felt the annual dilemma of what I could give my daughter and my two grandchildren, Aadi, my grandson who is now 14, and my granddaughter, Ava, now 6. I know that my grandchildren cannot help being caught up in a society that values things. The rampant consumerism that rises to a frenzied pitch during this time of year always reminds me of the need to keep things in perspective. I ask myself, “What really matters?” The answer, for me, is to be mindful of others’ suffering, to do what I can to ameliorate it, to do what I can to prevent it in the future, and to refuse to allow the pressures of conformity to dictate my giving, even for my grandchildren. What I give them is my commitment to do what I can, small though it is, to remember what matters. I can give them stories that remind them they are loved and special. And I can share stories that remind us that we all have much to do to create a world that values all of our children.

In the spirit of remembering what matters, I am sharing this excerpt from Jonathan Kozol’s Amazing Grace: The lives of children and the conscience of a nation. He describes the neighborhood in South Bronx where poor families are forced to live in appalling conditions that have no doubt deteriorated since Kozol’s 1995 visits.

During these days I walk for hours in the neighborhood, starting at Willis Avenue, crossing Brook, and then St. Ann’s, going as far as Locust Avenue to look at the medical waste incinerator one more time, then back to Beekman Avenue. In cold of winter, as in summer’s heat, a feeling of asphyxia seems to contain the neighborhood. The faces of some of the relatively young women with advanced cases of AIDS, their eyes so hollow, their jawbones so protruding, look like the faces of women in the House of the Dying run by the nuns within the poorest slum of Port-au-Prince. It’s something you don’t forget. Seeing these women in the street, you feel almost ashamed of your good health and worry that, no matter how you speak of them, it may sound patronizing. ‘The rich,’ said St Vincent de Paul, ‘should beg the poor to forgive us for the bread we bring them.’ Healthy people sometimes feel they need to beg forgiveness too, although there is no reason why. Maybe we simply ask forgiveness for not being born where these poor women have been born, knowing if we had lived here too, our fate might well have been the same. (p. 71)

Like Kozol, I am grateful that neither I nor my daughter and grandchildren were born in this neighborhood. I wonder this holiday season how I can give my grandchildren the gift I wish all children should receive – a world that sees each and every being as unique and irreplaceable, worthy of respect and compassion, deserving of a safe and healthy life. A world, in the words of Sweet Honey in the Rock, that acknowledges “We Are — One.”

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“Communities of Relatedness”

Carol A. Hand

Sitting on my back doorstep as I greeted yet another snowy morning, I was reflecting on my most recent neighborhood. West Duluth, the working class part of town. The side of town where the industries – manufacturing and paper mills – send plumes of putrid exhaust into the air. Some days the winds blow it eastward toward the lake, away from the children in my neighborhood who are walking to school or out on the school playgrounds. On the days the winds blow westward, I know it’s unwise to take more than very shallow breaths. Mine is the side of town where only those with few resources are able to find housing, the side of town where parents without choices send their children to schools with fewer resources and amenities. Even if I had more financial resources, I suspect I would still choose to live here, even though people in my neighborhood are not especially sociable – they’re too busy just trying to survive.

Perhaps it’s foolish of me, but I prefer to live in an old house that needs lots of work, with an overgrown yard that needs tending, on the side of town with the most diversity. So many people in the world live with far less. And it is the things that need transformation that attract my attention and inspire my creativity. I suspect it’s because of a different cultural frame. I don’t feel a sense of allegiance to the symbols of “nationhood” – fictive notions of fraternity – of us against the world. Instead, I realized this morning that I feel a sense of responsibility to people and my environment, not just Ojibwe people, but all my relations.

I have had the privilege of working for a state developing policies and programs for elders, and then working at the community level implementing and evaluating programs and policies for families and children. What I observed was a fundamental disconnect between policies developed by experts from a dominant cultural paradigm, what I refer to as “collectivities of strangers” like the residents of Duluth, and communities that were based on the foundation of enduring relationships. Raising the awareness of policy developers and academics to the importance of this distinction is not an easy task. So I have shifted my efforts to try to raise the awareness of students who will hopefully become the policy and program developers of the future.

From an indigenous perspective, the centrality of relationships is apparent. Tribal communities are characterized by centuries of enduring close family and community relationships among members and their natural environment, and members anticipate the continuation of these bonds for generations yet to come. The legalistic, impersonal approach used by the dominant Euro-American social welfare and judicial systems can best be characterized as “a collectivity of strangers,” designed to keep strangers from killing each other. As Jared Diamond (1997, Guns, Germs, and Steel) argues,

… the organization of human government tends to change … in societies with more than a few hundred members … [as] the difficult issue of conflict resolution between strangers becomes increasingly acute in larger groups…. Those ties of relationship binding all tribal members make police, laws, and other conflict-resolving institutions of larger societies unnecessary, since any two villagers getting into an argument will share many kin, who will apply pressure on them to keep it from becoming violent. (p. 171)

What this means for the sense of responsibility members feel toward each other from these contrasting cultural paradigms can be simplistically illustrated.

Community of Relatedness                                 Collectivity of Strangers

lp world                       tug of war

What these distinctions mean for children can be described simplistically as well.

cor graphic

cor cos graphic

As I contemplate these contrasts this morning, I need to ground the philosophical questions in my present lived experience. Fortunately for my neighborhood, the gentle wind is blowing in from the west this morning, leaving the air clean and sweet. It was safe to take deep breaths and contemplate the possibility of building a sense of community that recognizes the importance of protecting the health of all our relations. In doing so, however, I am mindful that my privilege of breathing clean air this morning doesn’t mean the world is fair. The factories that provide jobs for people in my neighborhood are still sending forth poison plumes. It is others who are downwind who must breathe shallowly today. They are both strangers to me in one sense, and relatives in another. The challenge I contemplate is how to reach out to them so we can begin to work collectively to create a community that is healthy every day for all of our relations.

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“More or Better?”

Carol A. Hand & Cynthia Donner

The following essay is written in the spirit of collaboration and reflects two voices, Carol A. Hand and Cynthia Donner, to describe our efforts to develop social justice curricula for undergraduate social work students.

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Recently, I agreed to come out of retirement to teach for a private Catholic College with a satellite program offered on the campus of a tribal and community college. The decision came after a surprising lunch meeting. I reluctantly agreed to meet with Cynthia Donner, the coordinator of the satellite program, in order to explain face-to-face why I no longer wished to teach social work. Perhaps the easiest way to explain my reluctance is a graphic I use in my classes to illustrate the possible purposes of social work interventions and social welfare policy.

SW graphic

Graphic Source: Carol A. Hand

As a profession, social work has competing goals. It is rare for textbooks or professors to acknowledge which of the underlying goals influences their practice, research, and teaching. Sadly, the focus has often been on enhancing the status of the profession, and hence, the status of its practitioners as equals to those in the medical and legal realms. Increasingly, the focus of research and education has been on a narrow clinical focus that attempts to help individuals adapt to their circumstances more effectively. Just as family-based physicians have been replaced by a spectrum of medical specialists for every aspect of the human bio, case managers and specialized clinicians have replaced social workers who used to focus on creating change in systems and society.

Although the professional code of ethics espouses the importance of working toward social justice, I would argue that clinical practice is not the way to do this. Clinical work may reduce suffering, but it can better be described an effective means of social control. My critical stance toward contemporary clinical social work practice and education is grounded on my revulsion toward any practices that are reminiscent of the centuries of assimilation forced on Indigenous Peoples in the U.S. and world.

The western medical model is rooted in disease discourse and controlled by two industries of the neoliberal corporate elite, insurance and pharmaceutical. It drives most clinical social work practice today with diagnostic pathological criteria for treating and medicating a plethora of “disorders” and “disease” type conditions. Yet, how much anxiety and depression among people today can be attributed to histories of oppression associated with the colonization of nations, cultures, economies, and minds? Add the current daily struggles experienced by a growing majority associated with discrimination (from verbal attacks to outright violence in our schools, workplaces and communities), and with basic survival (as forces of neoliberal corporate control drive people and whole communities into desolate poverty and widen the gaps between the rich and poor, the politically powerful and powerless). Today more than ever, we need people trained for the goals and strategies that will lead to structural changes our world and humanity are depending on.

When I met with Cynthia, I shared my perspective honestly. I expected the typical response. “Thank you for your interest in our program. Unfortunately, we have chosen someone who is a better fit with our focus at this time.” Much to my surprise, she smiled broadly and animatedly began to share similar perspectives.

I sensed a common orientation as we shared our perspectives on social justice and our approach to education. Like Carol, I ask my students to consider historical truths about U.S. social welfare policy and pose the question, “are you satisfied with helping individual people manage their suffering within the context of oppressive forces, or do you want to work with people to help them find ways to liberate themselves from oppression and the suffering it imposes on their lives individually and collectively?”

Through a dialogue that spanned hours, we discovered that we shared experiences on the margins, Cynthia because of growing up in poverty, and me because of growing up culturally mixed. Rather than accept that we were inferior, both of us sought the education and positions that would allow us work with disadvantaged groups to challenge the structures of oppression. Cynthia, like me, had worked in “macro practice” settings focused on enhancing lives in addition to reducing suffering, confronting the forces causing oppression rather than helping people merely adapt and conform to those forces.

Toward the end of our conversation, I agreed to teach the course on social welfare policy. This was the beginning of a still-evolving experiment to find more effective, experientially-grounded ways to help students think critically about oppression and encourage them to consider careers that focus on policy and community practice. In the process of designing our latest lab focused on social justice, Cynthia discovered an amazing resource that we felt might help our undergraduate students envision how to create a “better” future. For me, it transforms “the change paradigm” by providing a clear goal to work toward rather than a problem to fight. We wrote this brief introduction as a way to share a resource that may be helpful to others. The video that focuses on solutions, created by author Annie Leonard, presents a feasible alternative to “fighting the system” and left me with a sense of hope that transformation is possible, even during these challenging times (and perhaps, even in social work education).

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Grasping Tightly to the Symbols of Power

Carol A. Hand

This morning I awoke thinking about the images that come to mind for three of the ways power is manifested: military/police force, symbolic forms of oppression through the enforcement of conformity, and resistance. Military and police action is the easiest to envision for me, and the list of images that come to mind is long indeed. Images for resistance are also easy to envision, although not as likely to appear in corporate media. Symbolic power is more difficult to envision, but the image that comes to mind for me is from Andry (1749), Orthopaedrics of the art of preventing and correcting deformities of the body in children.

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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 (1)

At a university with strong anti-Native biases, I lived under the manifestations of symbolic power – the oppressiveness of invalidating judgments from most of my non-Native colleagues. Interestingly, those who made this judgment claimed to operate from a stance of strength-based social work practice. Some even thought of themselves as experts on Native American issues, and some of them had authored works that claimed to teach others how to operate from a social justice framework. But that is another story for another time.

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The story I need to record today is about the illusion of power. It is a memory of the past, but has implications for the present and the future. It was graduation day at the university. A prominent faculty member, a self-proclaimed feminist who was scheduled to deliver the graduation address later in the day for master’s students, arrived dressed in high-heeled clogs.

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I watched her walk as I took my position behind her in line as we headed toward the auditorium. I worried that her clipped and unsteady gait might spell disaster. Although my inclination was to reach out to help steady her balance, my culture has taught me it is rude to intervene in another’s path without an invitation. In any case, my role in this procession was to merely follow. Thankfully, we arrived at the hall without incident.

Following our unsteady clog-clad colleague, the social work faculty entered the large sports arena for the university commencement ceremony. We proceeded to our assigned seats toward the front, on the left side of the arena. Faculty from the anthropology department were seated several rows behind us. The commencement began with a blessing by a respected Tribal elder, followed by speeches from university officials. The highlight of this particular commencement was the keynote address by the governor. He began his address by dedicating it to “the first, best, ‘state citizens’.” As I looked at the prominent presence of Tribal elders and leaders on the stage behind him, I thought this was a hopeful sign. The governor then noted, “the first best state citizens were not the explorers or timbermen or miners who came, or those who built the railroad that spans the state. The first, best citizens were the farmers and ranchers who made it their home and who, through hard work and sacrifice, made the state what it is today.” As the governor said this, I heard a collective gasp from the anthropology faculty, and many others scattered throughout the arena. Yet, my social work colleagues appeared too enraptured with the governor to notice.

After the ceremony ended, my colleagues gathered to discuss the speech. My clog-clad colleague gushed, “That was such a powerful speech. The governor is such an eloquent speaker!” The rest of my colleagues nodded enthusiastically in agreement. I just couldn’t let this pass, so I quietly added, “I thought it was very disrespectful of Native Americans.” Only one of my colleagues responded, “Oh my god, I never would have thought of that!” The rest became silent, exchanged glances, and walked away.

We went on to the next ceremony for social work graduates, located in a in a smaller room. Faculty sat in a row on the stage behind the podium where those chosen to deliver encouraging words spoke, facing the waiting graduates. Those of us who remained seated had an interesting, behind-the-scenes view.

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When the time arrived for my colleague to deliver her address, she shuffled to the podium with her carefully crafted speech in hand. I watched as she placed her papers on the podium, gripped the sides of the podium tightly with both hands, and stood on tip-toe. As her speech stretched on, her grip increasingly tightened as her ungrounded stance caused her to wobble. Although I do not remember any of her words, I remember the image of the ever-tightening grip that turned her knuckles white (as mine do when I grip the steering wheel of my car when I drive on icy roads, a similar feeling of ungroundedness and fear).

I have pondered this scene. The podium, a symbol of power gripped evermore tightly, became a prop to steady someone who needed, for some reason, to appear to be what she was not. I also reflected on the fawning deference shown to the governor. All too often, we revere people in positions of power, not necessarily because they have anything meaningful to say, but merely because of their socially constructed status. The lesson for me is to be sure that I take the time to be sure-footed, to be well grounded, so I can walk and stand with mindfulness, grace, and certainty. And to take the time to remember what is really important: simplicity, humility, concern for others and the earth.

I wish my colleague well. Yet, I witnessed how this need to grip the symbols of power often resulted in unconscious ways of invalidating others, be they students or colleagues, when she was not on stage in the public eye. Her lack of grounding also affected Native people in other ways. She developed the diversity class for master’s students, and only included Native American literature that confirmed misinformation about the disfunctionality of contemporary Native Americans in a state, community, and institution that already had significant anti-Indian biases. I share this story to encourage others to be aware of the invidious seductiveness of the symbols of power. We are most tempted to grasp them when we are most fearful, least grounded, and least balanced. And without balance, we can do great and lasting harm to others.

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I am truly grateful for the lessons I learned about power from my colleagues at the university. Those of us on the margins are sometimes fortunate to encounter harsh lessons. If we are able to hold onto our foundations from other cultural or spiritual perspectives, we are better able to remember what really matters in life. It helps us resist the temptation to grasp the symbols of power for our given position in the socially constructed hierarchical order. Having options helps us question the limitations of internally programmed and externally imposed norms. It helps us see more clearly the worth of who we really are. It helps us have compassion toward others. And it gives us the tools we need to loosen the ropes that bind us all in the prison of socially constructed categories, roles, and hierarchical relationships.

Work Cited:

(1)   Michel Foucault (1979). Discipline and punish: The birth of the prison, photo inset between pp. 169-170. New York, NY: Vintage Books.

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Why Are You So Different?

Carol A. Hand

Years ago, I accepted a position at a university as an assistant professor. I did not know at the time that I was only the second Native American faculty member the department of social work had ever hired for a tenure track position. The first left 30 years before I came because of the anti-Native discrimination she experienced, a perception that the state district court affirmed in a decision that awarded damages. The anti-Native bias was still palpable and unrelenting during the 3 years I spent there. Unlike my predecessor, I chose not to pursue legal action. Doing so would have locked me in an angry, ugly battle for years. Instead, I turned to writing, grateful that I could escape from a toxic environment with such unhappy people. The following essay is drawn from the series of stories I wrote about my experiences and reflections during those years.

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“Why are you so different?,” my colleague asked. I suspect that, in part, my response to this question contributed to being ostracized and pathologized by faculty who were unable to hear the many ways this question could be asked and the many possible, legitimate, responses.

As I read this neutral question on a written page, there are so many possible meanings. There are so many ways tone of voice, spoken inflections, facial expression, and body language suggest intent. Meaning or intent is also nested within context. The individual histories of the person who asks and the person who is asked frame the meaning, the way the question is interpreted. The history of relationship between the asker and responder matters, as do differences in history and degree of belonging within the system where the question was asked. Power differentials, both in terms of hierarchical status and long-term relationships with the system, matter as well. And equally important is the congruence between how the question is asked and the publicly stated mission of the agency in which it is asked.

As a child, I asked this question many times. As I pondered the amazing diversity of the six-pointed shapes of snowflakes that fell on my dark mittens on a winter day, I asked, “Why are you so different?,” with a sense of wonder and awe. As a child who grew up between two cultures yet not fitting neatly in either, I asked myself, “Why are you so different?,” with a sense of genuine puzzlement. Embracing that sense of difference actually led me to engage in authentic efforts to learn to understand the world from as many diverse perspectives as possible. My favorite children’s story was about the Churkendoose, a little bird that was a mixture of a chicken, turkey, duck, and goose (Berengerg, 1946). “Difference” in this story was simply that – difference. Ultimately, there were no values assigned to being one creature or another, and no interpretations of being superior or inferior as a result of difference.

thechurkendoose

As a teenager, the question was more emotion-laden. I wondered why I could not simply be a part of the cliques that reached out to include me, but not others whose difference was more visible and seen as inferior. (Those who were excluded were the most interesting to me.) Difference that meant inclusion or exclusion was based on family socioeconomics, religion, appearance, perceived intelligence (either too much or too little), or being “cool,” whatever that meant. I respected peers who did not seem to care about their exclusion. Instead of joining cliques, I reached out to those who were excluded, not in an attempt to forge an anti-clique, but to understand the position of difference as a somewhat consciously chosen stance of resistance. I admired the courage of those who were willing to carry the responsibility of thinking critically, who were willing to challenge norms and social expectations in visible, creative ways.

As a young person searching for a place to belong, for a role and career that had meaning, difference had new connotations. It was time to believe in the message of the Churkendoose, a time to explore as wide a range of diversity as possible. I spent time in the hills of Appalachia and on Indian reservations, and worked in the inner city of Chicago while I attended an exclusive Catholic women’s college. I survived the streets of Hollywood, and experienced the possibilities and disappointments by being part of a New Age commune. Among my friends, I have counted priests and prostitutes, artists and legislators, people who were poor and rich, blue collar workers and university professors. Difference enriches my life and my understanding of the world. Like the snowflakes on my mitten as a child, it is a source of never-ending wonder and engenders curiosity.

I did not hear this sense of wonder and curiosity in my colleague’s question. It was intoned in a way that sounded more like an indictment. For more than a year, the indictment remained her preferred way of relating to me. It is at least honest to ask, accusatory or not, “Why are you so different?” “Perhaps,” I wondered, “is there a possibility of building deeper understandings across our differing perspectives?” Unfortunately, it was not possible with this colleague or others in positions of power at this particular university.

I was reminded of a passage from Hyemeyohsts Storm’s work, Seven Arrows (1972). If we place people in a circle, facing inward toward a multifaceted object in the center, each will see only one side, and each view will be incomplete. If each person can share their perspective with others in the circle, a fuller picture will be possible for all. Afraid of difference, we will see only what falls within our limited gaze. How can we teach this partial frame as the one truth? Why would one want to insist that this is the only true reality? And why would anyone be willing to believe such a ridiculous assertion? Difference is the rule, not the exception, and a wondrous gift promising the possibility of wider, deeper vision and understanding. The alternative is to live trapped in a small prison, much like the hell Sartre (1976) describes in Huis Clos (No Exit), surrounded only by people with whom we feel no affinity, consigned to a life that has little possibility for exploring the wonder that surrounds us every day.

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Photo Credit: Google images – snowflakes

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“We’re Honoring Indians!”

Carol A. Hand

More than two decades ago, when my daughter was a senior in high school, she received a commendation notice from her French teacher. This was not the first or last, but it was the one I noticed on a different level. I remember “seeing red” when I noticed the logo on the top, yet I immediately reflected on the message – my daughter had demonstrated excellent work. So I complemented her. Then, I contacted the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction (WDPI) to explore what protections they had in place to prevent racial stereotyping of indigenous peoples. The response from WDPI changed my life.

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At the time, I was working on a federal grant to address elder abuse in eight pilot counties in Wisconsin. In an effort to promote awareness about the project, I met with a reporter from a local paper. In the process of talking about the project, “Tools of the Trade for Men Who Care,” the reporter and I became friends. We were both outsiders in the largely white, Christian community. She was Jewish, and I was Ojibwe. I mentioned the appalling name and logo used by the local high school, and mentioned that I had been advised by WDPI to wait until my daughter graduated to pursue any action. But, I was told, there was a state statute, the Pupil Nondiscrimination Act that I could use as the basis of a complaint. The WPDI staff added that although the statute had never been tested for its relevance to discriminatory logos and team names, filing a complaint under this statute could set an important precedent. My friend asked me to let her know if I ever decided to pursue the issue.

The months passed and my daughter graduated and went off to a university. I stayed in touch with my friend at the newspaper as the project I was working on gained momentum. Then, I added another job. I was completing my doctorate in social welfare at the time, and began as a teaching assistant in a sociology class on diversity and discrimination. As I faced the 465 students, I realized that ethically I needed to walk the talk and address the discriminatory use of logos by public schools in the state.

My education thus far had taught me two things that appeared relevant to this issue. First, when approaching community change, it is always best to start on the assumption that others may easily agree if approached from a position of collaboration. So I drafted a letter to the superintendent of schools in the district. I asked my diplomatic and thoughtful university advisor to review the letter, and when he commented that it was well-reasoned and balanced, I sent it off. I also sent a copy to my friend at the newspaper.

Second, I expected a thoughtful diplomatic response from the superintendent of schools. If one believes the physics theory that every action results in an equal and opposite reaction, a well-reasoned letter calling attention to unintentional discrimination toward Native Americans should result in the willingness to dialogue, right? That was not the case. The response of the superintendent was to send a copy of my letter to the weekly newspaper in the local community. My friend also broke the story in a larger newspaper on a slow news day. Within a week, I was the topic of hundreds of letters to the editor in local and state newspapers, and featured on the nightly TV news. The community reaction included nasty, degrading personal attacks and threats.

After the initial media blitz, I attempted to reason with the school board at perhaps the best attended meeting in their history. There were at least 100 people in attendance, many of whom were in their 50s, 60s, or older. It struck me as sad that so many elders defined their sense of identity with a high school name and logo. (I had also gone to a school with a winning football team tradition, yet decades after graduation, my identity as a human being had nothing to do with the name or logo of the team – the “dragons.” I already had a tribe to which I belonged.)

I presented my case to the group, and angry community members responded by voicing three recurring arguments: “we’re honoring Indians” (so shut up and be honored); “other schools and national teams do it” (so it’s okay); and “we’ve always done it this way” (so the history of denigrating others and exploiting their cultures makes it acceptable to continue, even when presented with evidence that it causes lasting harm). The most interesting observation voiced by community members – “If we call our team the Red Hawks, the ASPCA will complain about discrimination.” Only one person at the meeting spoke in my defense, a minister who was new to the community. He stated that the entire scene at the meeting reminded him of the civil rights struggles in the South during the 1960s. He added that my position was reasonable, and he was aware that by saying so, he was likely to experience backlash from the community.

It was obvious from this meeting that change would not come willingly from the community. Other change strategies would be necessary if I decided to pursue the issue. So, I undertook a number of exploratory steps. Two brave teachers at the elementary school invited me to speak to 4th and 5th grade classes. My friend from the newspaper came with me, and published an article that highlighted the thoughtful and respectful comments and questions that students voiced.

I spent time perusing the library of two educators who had collected an array of materials about Indian issues and Indian education, copying articles and materials that provided a foundation for understanding the significance of stereotyping for youth, both Native and non-Native. I met with Native colleagues at the university, and they volunteered to circulate petitions to voice their strong objections to the use of American Indians as mascots and logos. And, I reviewed the WI Pupil Non-Discrimination statute, and drafted a formal complaint. I contacted a faculty member in the law school at the university, and he agreed to review the draft and give me suggestions for improvements. (Coincidentally, he had won a Supreme Court case on behalf of the Crow Tribe, asserting the Tribe’s jurisdiction over non-Natives who committed crimes on the reservation, angering powerful forces in Montana. He became a supportive ally for me throughout the legal process.)

The law I was testing required that I deliver a formal complaint to the Principal in person, which meant I had to march into the high school to his office. Two Native friends, both large Indian men, volunteered to go with me. The office was abuzz with activity when they saw us arrive to deliver the complaint. And so began the next phase of what had become both a campaign and a contest.

Because it was clear that the local community was resistant to any change, I decided to take the campaign and contest to a state level. I presented my case to the Inter-Tribal Council comprised of leaders from Wisconsin’s 11 tribes and gained their support. I contacted statewide groups that supported treaty rights and gained their endorsement as well. I put together press packets and met with editorial boards for my friend’s newspaper and the most prominent state newspaper, gaining support from both. And I approached a supportive legislator who agreed to present a bill to the WI legislature to address the use of American Indians in the 60-90 school districts in the state that were then using American Indian names and logos for their sports teams.

The local school district chose to fight the complaint, using educational monies to pay the school district’s attorney thousands of dollars to defend continuing discrimination. The school’s attorney and I were summoned to meet with the Chief Legal Counsel for the WDPI to argue the case. My friend from the law department came with me as support, although I knew that it was my role to serve as the primary speaker on the issue. As the meeting began, it was clear that the Chief Legal Counsel was leaning toward the district’s position. The district’s attorney launched into a loud tirade about how stupid my complaint was, arguing that it was not a proper legal document and my concerns were pointless and silly. I remained calm and focused, and when the attorney finally was silenced by the Chief Counsel, I quietly replied. “I know that I am not a lawyer. But I do know that I am a good writer and I have presented the issue in clear English.” At that point, a major shift occurred. The Chief Counsel looked at me and replied “I, for one, would appreciate hearing a clear explanation of the issues. Please take us through your complaint.” At that point, he became a behind-the-scenes ally. We later found ourselves as co-defendants in court when the school district filed a motion to stop my complaint from moving forward. I was able to secure representation from ACLU, but the district prevailed. The judge ruled that I was barred from moving forward with the complaint. The district celebrated by sending the school band to march in front of my house playing the national anthem and other patriotic songs.

Thankfully, the district’s victory was short-lived. The Chief Legal Counsel took the issue to the State Attorney General who ruled that although I could not move my complaint forward, the statute could be used by others to challenge the use of Indian names and mascots. And despite the court victory, the offensive cartoon that was prominently displayed on the gym wall was removed. (Police cars were parked on the street in front of my house that day.)

The outcome for the community took time, but it was the best resolution. Ten years later, the students themselves advocated to change the name and logo for their sports team – to the Red Hawks. (I doubt that the ASPCA will ever file a complaint.) And every session, my friend in the legislature continued to introduce his legislation to discourage the use of American Indians as names and mascots. It took 20 years for the bill to be enacted. In the interim, he placed a state map with black pins depicting districts with Indian logos and pink pins to denote districts that voluntarily changed to other names and logos as a result of increasing awareness.

As I look back on those years, the most important thing I remember is something I learned from the two educators who shared their library. After I read and copied books and articles for 3 days, they asked me what I had learned. My response was simple. “I have learned that this has been an ongoing issue throughout U.S. history. I am but the voice of the present, and I still have so much to learn. Others who are more knowledgeable than I am will need to follow.”

Many hundreds of friends and allies helped me raise awareness before, during, and after my involvement. In some settings, my voice was perhaps the most effective, and sometimes, others were the most effective advocates. I learned that it is not who serves as the lead spokesperson that matters. What matters is contributing what one can in the ongoing challenge of creating a community, state, nation, and world that promotes inclusion and respect for differences.