You have all probably noticed my frequent absences recently. Autumn is always a busy time for me. This year is no exception – except it already feels busier.
The rotting board on my deck has been repaired and the deck floor has a new coat of paint. I think I’ve washed off most of the paint from my hands and arms, and under my nails.
Weeds and branches are secured in large paper bags, waiting to be transported to the local collection site. I still have many more branches to bag, though. Hopefully the bags will fit in my little car (White Pony).
Despite the heat and drought, life has been kind.
There are bountiful gardens to tend and harvest.
Another round of editing has begun for the book manuscript I’ve been working on for years. This time, I have a plan.
Soon I will have a digital copy of an original painting for the cover thanks to a dear friend, Carl Gawboy, an Ojibwe artist, scholar, and storyteller. Here’s the old photo that has now become part of my chapter one rewrite. It illustrates shifting times. Children who were once surrounded by nature and family live on reservations where the original forests were clear cut. The first generation didn’t realize the magnitude of the environmental and social changes that would follow when most of the trees were gone. But the next generation lived with the consequences of yet more losses.
A quick visit today to the on-line site for the class I will be teaching beginning on September 8 was a rather alarming reminder about the amount of work I have yet to do on my syllabus and assignments. Luckily, the new edition of the course text arrived yesterday. Of course, I will be trying something new, again. We’ll be looking at the link between access to clean water and community health. That means some research, thinking, and writing. Any suggestions you have about relevant research articles, online resources, or innovative initiatives would be greatly appreciated.
I hope you all know how much I value your presence in my life. For now, though, I will need to carve out more time to deal with these pressing responsibilities. I can’t predict how long I’ll be gone. I have an unpredictable muse who surprises me now and then with something urgent I need to write and share. Of course, I can’t post something without reciprocating visits and responding to comments (often belatedly). As you all know, that takes a lot of time. Frequently I resist posting until my muse makes my life unbearable.
Dear Sherri I doubt that you remember Billings Montana in August Air filled with smoke from the fires burning just beyond the ridge But I think of you fondly smiling almost every time I stand by the sink doing dishes
I remember our laughter in a bar after a long day when you were among the few to treat me like a friend even though I carried the heavy isolating distinction of keynote speaker at the BIA human services conference
Others looked at us our tears streaming as we laughed while you recounted stories about your nosy neighbors who reported you for feeding deer a nuisance to their sculpted yard and your creativity and humor watching their response to your latest prank peeking with binoculars through your kitchen window by the sink to watch them watching you through their binoculars to surveil your latest visitors
Life-sized sheep you crafted out of paper maché and placed in your yard as if they were “grazing” repeatedly moving them when you knew the neighbors weren’t watching to add to the illusion
The authorities finally grew weary of your neighbors’ fallacious complaints and left you alone to live as you wished feeding wildlife you loved
I am sorry I lost track of you after so many jobs and moves but I will always be grateful to you for bringing kindness and laughter into my life and forever brightening the mundane task of washing dishes as it did again this sunny morning
For the past month, my friend, Cynthia Donner, and I have been working on revising a class focused on social justice. It’s been a daunting process to frame and describe the purpose and create new assignments. And we’re facing our first class in less than a week, so please wish us luck.
We’ve decided to use trees as a metaphor, focusing on the importance of roots, landscapes, branching out, and nurturing supportive inclusive communities. With Cynthia’s permission, the draft purpose we developed is posted below. I’ve included both a text and photo version. Although I like the look of the photo, I’ve learned that it’s difficult to translate words on WordPress photo images into other languages, at least with my level of computer skills. As an educator, I believe innovations, even those in process, should be accessible as a foundation for dialogue.
The health of trees is also dependent on their environment, as is ours. This has changed over time for trees, as it has for people. Environments have become less and less healthy and nurturing in the name of progress. Policies have not always been developed with community well-being in mind, either for trees or people, with increasingly alarming consequences. It’s crucial to understand how things have changed from a broader historical perspective.
Social work has sometimes focused on helping individuals adapt to an unhealthy environment, rather than remembering their mission to serve as effective and visible advocates for equality and social justice. We can fertilize and trim individual trees, but their ultimate strength comes from standing together against the storms, supporting each other in times of drought and scarcity. This is a crucial lesson for social workers of the future.
It should be clear that we can’t expect governments to provide the types of social services that build on people’s strengths and reweave inclusive, supportive communities. The challenge before us now is to think critically about how we can support and help create informal mutual support systems that provide a sense of roots in a healthy landscape.
Our goal in this course is to engage in imagining what the world be like if we learned the lessons of trees, nurturing all, knowing that by standing together, we’ll be better able to weather storms.
Cynthia and I are both excited to see how this will work for students in the real world. But there’s a story about how our friendship and collaborative teaching partnership began. This morning, I revisited one of my earliest blog posts. It describes our first meeting and represents one of our initial collaborative projects.
Carol A. Hand & Cynthia Donner
(Originally posted on December 15, 2013)
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.
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.
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 (posted below), 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).
Life sometimes opens up possibilities we had never envisioned and presents us with interesting choices. I remain truly grateful to Cynthia for inspiring me to take the risk of starting over yet again. Who knows what my retirement years would have been like had I not met her and been greeted by her sparkling eyes and enthusiasm to challenge the status quo. Chi miigwetch, Cynthia, for being an inspiration and supportive friend.
A gift of bigger yak trax and pecans
Gleaned from Birmingham streets
Kindness of a beloved friend
Warms a winter heart with thoughtful treats
Bringing back memories of treasured times past
Shared laughter and tears built a friendship to last
Despite changes and distances the love will endure
Gracing life with gifts from the heart – who could ask for more?
You appeared in a morning dream
to ask for the energy of healing love, my dear
I gave it freely, sensing otherwise an end is near
Then I watched as you turned and slowly walked away
your kind and gentle essence shining clear as day
from an old man’s body, slightly stooped, moving with a shuffling gait
There’s still time to heal the past, you know, though the hour is growing late
I was saddened to hear you’ve begun a new journey, dear friend
To a distant place that, although common, still has a mysterious end
As I watched you struggle to find words, it was my heart that cried
Yet with your usual grace, you simply replied
You’re not worried about losing memories that are sometimes hard to bear
Of hardships and the most painful losses in a life that often didn’t seem fair
I will remember you as I first met you, your radiant smile and sparkling eyes
Scrambling over obstacles with your cane under sunny summer skies
I’ll remember how much you taught me about gardening and life
When we shared “tea for three,” laughing ‘til tears flowed despite stories of strife
I’ve always found your uncensored honesty an absolute delight
Even though you always felt you were intolerant, somehow just not right
Does one need to know deep suffering and cruelty
To learn the importance of being kind?
What is the secret of the transformative alchemy?
Is it found in one’s heart or one’s mind?
Does it come from silent prayer or ancestors walking near?
Is it ever-present potential within all of us or only a few?
Does it come when one feels lost or only when the path is clear
Like gentle rain to ease the drought, starting our life anew?
After I posted my last essay, I realized that I forgot to mention my gratitude to a dear friend, Cheryl Bates. She reviewed various drafts of the play (You Wouldn’t Want To Hear My Story) and gave me very helpful feedback and suggestions. Although she took a hiatus as my blog partner to focus on her work as an assistant professor, we still talk and exchange emails. She has often helped review some of the odd things I write. Some were refined and published on my blog as a result of her feedback, and some remained as unfinished fragments that were revisited and sometimes woven into later posts.
Photo: Dr. Cheryl A. Bates
Although I have always had special friends wherever I found myself, I noticed how they dissolved over time when I took on new responsibilities and moved to new places. The threads that connected us gradually frayed as our lives and work took different directions. Although fond memories often remain, holding onto the past is something I do mostly in my thoughts to make sense of the present and reflect on the future. My friendship with Cheryl is unique because it was forged and strengthened by facing challenges together as allies during a year of momentous transitions for both of us. The year 2010 was a time of life-changing events.
I often ponder the old adage: “A rolling stone gathers no moss.”
The saying helps me look back at a life of many moves from many different perspectives. Honestly, I do wish I had purged a lot more of my furniture, files, and mementos when I made my last move. But I did leave all of my dear friends behind as I have been doing since I made my first pivotal move at the age of 12. While my parents and brother settled into their new home, I spent the summer of transition with my grandmother on the Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation in Wisconsin. My summer experiences and the shock of entering my new home just as school began influenced my lifetime far more profoundly than I realized at the time. I learned that for some people, like my grandmother, growing up in adversity doesn’t necessarily make one kinder or wiser. Sometimes, people are too wounded to care about themselves or others.
Photo: My Mother and Me (at home in NJ) – 1959
My transitional summer from childhood to womanhood was spent in the company of an abusive alcoholic. My grandmother’s abuse was different than my father’s physical beatings. I had learned to endure physical abuse by using my mind to focus on other things so intently that I was oblivious to pain.
Taller and thinner than many of my Ojibwe relatives, I felt like an awkward giant. Bespectacled from the age of eight, I was used to being called “four-eyes.” I suspect my grandmother could read my awkwardness and insecurity. That may have triggered her abuse – cruelty that cut deeply. At least a hundred times a day, I was wounded anew each time she ranted about how ugly I was. She ranted in private and in public at every opportunity.
Photo: My Mother and Me (outside our home in NJ) – 1959
Now, I wonder if perhaps her cruelty was due to jealousy. She was a gifted hair stylist and beautician. (It’s not a gift I inherited.) And as a young girl, she was stunningly beautiful. But age and hard living had taken their toll – makeup and hair dye couldn’t erase the effects.
Photo: My Grandmother and Her Sisters (my grandmother is the one on the right)
Every evening after my grandmother closed her beauty salon, she dragged me along as she made the rounds to local taverns, drinking up what she earned each day. She dressed me up in clothes way too old for a twelve year old, with make-up and carefully coifed hair. Older men tried to pick me up as they laughingly referred to my grandmother as “Black Agnes.” Next, she started accusing me of stealing her money and sleeping with men. I begged my Aunt and Uncle to let me stay with them when my grandmother kicked me out. They did take me in.
And then, the summer came to an end. I moved to my new home where I didn’t know anyone, shredded with self-doubt and internalized shame. My new school was three to five years behind my old school in every subject – reading, math, and even home-ec. Hoping to end it all, I downed a huge bottle of aspirin. But my mother, a nurse, found me too soon. (I’ve been allergic to aspirin ever since.)
Surviving wasn’t easy, and I didn’t really try. The only real friends I had for the five years I was in my new temporary home were the elders who lived in the nursing home my mother owned and administered. I learned about grieving over loss and death from them at an early age as my older friends healed and went home, or had health setbacks and moved to hospitals or died. When I headed off to college, there were really no friends I would miss and I had no intentions of returning when I finished school. My yearbook and mementos were recycled decades ago, and I’ve never seriously considered visiting the town or attending a high school reunion.
Photo: My Mother and Me (on my way back to college after spring break) – 1966
In a strange sense, I realize my grandmother had given me a gift. I accepted the fact that I was unattractive and decided that was okay. I was smart, charming when I wanted to be, and multi-talented. And I learned I could survive without approval from others. But these gifts also came with costs – some obvious, and some that have waited decades to be understood.
I began to understand some of the hidden gifts and costs in 2010. It’s the year I split with my partner of 35-plus years. He finally had a decent paying job after 20 years so he could afford to support himself. My mother died that year after 13 years of progressive decline due to Alzheimer’s disease. Her death was a blessing. Her suffering ended and she was finally at peace. I still miss her and grieve because of the hard times she lived through, but these old photos brought back healing memories. Without the ongoing challenge of figuring out how to cover the costs of her care, I could contemplate the possibility of retirement. After one last ugly battle against institutional discrimination targeted toward vulnerable students and colleagues, I did decide to retire at the end of the academic year (2010-2011), a lot earlier than originally planned. It was obvious that academia was not going to change for the better given the cast of characters in power who allowed these abuses to continue – and continue – and continue – despite the best of my efforts. I guess that’s something else my grandmother taught me. Hurt people hurt people and sometimes people are just too deeply wounded to heal.
Cheryl and I shared the battle and its aftermath, and I will be forever grateful for the friendship that we developed. We left at the same time. One of us moved a little to the northwest (me), and the other, to the southeast, one to retirement, and the other to another position in academia (Cheryl). We both left our other friends behind.
Battle weary, I sold my house (well actually, Wells Fargo really owned it and charged me most of my salary to live there). I moved closer to my family to see if I could be the kind of grandmother I wished I had had so long ago.
Photo: My Grandchildren and Me – Summer 2011
Only time will tell if I succeed, but that extra furniture I moved continues to provide a place for my daughter and grandchildren to share meals, sleep, play, and teach me new things.
Dear Cheryl, I apologize for forgetting to mention your invaluable help. Please know that I am grateful for your continuing friendship, your honest feedback, and your presence in my life.