Celebrities have never inspired me. I may appreciate their prowess or art, their courage, discipline or tenacity, but I wonder why that somehow makes them more worthy of admiration than the hard-working people we meet in our everyday lives. Fame-seeking behavior is not the best attribute for those who would be leaders or role models for others. “Making it big,” “being a winner,” in a society that worships status at any cost doesn’t mean one is kind, generous, wise or compassionate. Those are the hard-won characteristics I value far more than media recognition and acclaim.
The greatest gifts in my life have come from thoughtful neighbors, teachers, friends, or random kindhearted strangers who shared their wisdom and kindness because that’s what they do. They give of themselves to others without expecting recognition or fame. I only hope that I can learn from their examples to be humbler, a little wiser, and compassionate enough to do the same. To listen, to care, to give what I can without expecting anything in return.
Yet if I were to choose a role model to admire, it wouldn’t be Steve Jobs, it would be Jane Addams. Steve Jobs made a fortune by developing technnological devices that have, over time, increasingly distracted people’s attention away from their immediate surroundings. (In class yesterday, many students pulled out their iPhones or iPads to look at pictures of trees for an assignment rather than gazing out the window at the tree-filled college grounds surrounding us.) Jane Addams, on the other hand, used her inheritance to live among some of the poorest immigrants in Chicago during the tumultuous years at the turn of the nineteenth century to address serious health and social justice issues. She, and her friend, Ellen Gates Starr, wanted to be good neighbors in their new home. They wanted to help build a healthier, more inclusive sense of community.
“The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself” (Jane Addams).
“… the good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life” (Adams, 1961, p. 76).
“Social advance depends as much upon the process through which it is secured as upon the result itself” (Jane Addams)
“Nothing could be worse than the fear that one had given up too soon, and left one unexpended effort that might have saved the world” (Jane Addams).
Addams’ work has been a beacon of hope to many. Following is a poem written by Gwendolyn Brooks, an award-winning poet and author, to honor Addams’ many contributions.
Jane Addams (by Gwendolyn Brooks)
I am Jane Addams.
I am saying to the giantless time –
to the young and yammering, to the old and corrected,
well, chiefly to the children coming home
with worried faces and questions about world survival –
“Go ahead and live your life.
You might be surprised. The world might continue.”
It was not easy for me, in the days of giants.
And now they call me a giant.
Because my capitals were Labour, Reform, Welfare,
Tenement Regulation, Juvenile Court Law (the first),
Factory Inspection, Workmen’s Compensation,
Woman Suffrage, Pacifism, Immigrant Justice.
Black, brown, white, red and yellow
Heavied my hand and heart.
I shall tell you a thing about giants
that you do not wish to know;
Giants look in the mirror and see
almost nothing at all.
But they leave their houses nevertheless.
They lurch out of doors
to reach you, the other stretchers and strainers.
Erased under ermine or loud in tatters, oh,
money or mashed, you
You matter, and giants
Whatever I was tells you
the world might continue. Go on with your preparations,
moving among the quick and the dead;
nourishing here, there;
pressing a hand
among the ruins
and among the
seeds of restoration.
In these times, US leaders whose ancestral roots originated in other “lighter-skinned” nations around the globe are spreading fear about newer “darker-skinned” immigrants, fomenting hatred and divisiveness. My colleague and I are countering those messages. We are asking our students to learn about their ancestral roots and the historical roots of the profession they wish to enter.
Module I – Exploring Personal Roots and the Roots of Social Welfare Macro Practice
How many of us wonder why people behave the way they do? Certainly as future social workers this is an obvious question we must answer. If we’re thoughtful, though, we quickly realize that there is no one easy answer. In a very real sense, how we think and behave depends on when and where we were born, what we experienced as a result of our inherited statuses in our particular social context, and how we have been socialized.
Understanding each client and colleague we encounter is only possible when we understand our own values and perspectives and how they were formed. Knowing more about our ancestral roots and how they have changed over time in response to changing circumstances provides a crucial foundation for beginning the ongoing journey of understanding who we are. The purpose of Module I is to help you begin to explore the importance of your ancestral roots within the context of changing historical environments.
Our work with clients is also influenced profoundly by the dominant values and beliefs embodied in the social institutions that prevail during our life time. Like the lives and circumstances of our ancestors, the values and goals of social welfare institutions have shifted throughout history. Changes in institutional values and beliefs have not always been beneficial from the perspective of social workers or the vulnerable clients they serve.
In order to assess where we are now, it is essential to consider the roots of social welfare and the shifting roles of social work in the US. The course readings for Module I describe the values and institutions adopted by the US in the early years, and the pioneering efforts of Jane Addams and the women of Hull House to address compelling human suffering, exploitation, and marginalization.
Perhaps your ancestors were among the thousands of immigrants who benefited directly from their work. Certainly all of our lives were affected in largely positive ways by the many policy and institutional reforms they inspired. It is our hope that a deeper understanding of your personal and disciplinary roots will prepare you to meet the challenges ahead in creative ways to foster healthy, inclusive communities as Addams and her colleagues did more than a century ago.
The work of Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, and “the women of Hull-House” is an essential foundation for understanding how to build understanding and inclusive communities. No jobs were too demeaning.
“We were asked to wash the newborn babies, and to prepare the dead for burial, to nurse the sick, and to ‘mind the children.’” (Addams, 1961, p. 72).
Listed below are some of the resources my colleague and I have shared with students in case you are interested in sharing them:
“Publicly opposed to America’s entry into the war, Miss Addams was attacked in the press and expelled from the Daughters of the American Revolution, but she found an outlet for her humanitarian impulses as an assistant to Herbert Hoover in providing relief supplies of food to the women and children of the enemy nations, the story of which she told in her book Peace and Bread in Time of War (1922).”
Although my colleague and I need to rely, to a large degree, on technological innovations Steve Jobs made possible, we are using those tools to enlighten rather than to divide and distract. Our integrated learning hybrid program helps students who work, care for families, and commute to access college education that might otherwise be unattainable. I just wish education was more affordable, or preferably, free. Perhaps someday it will be…
After reading this post, my dear friend and colleague, Cynthia Donner, gave me permission to publicly thank her for being a supportive, inspiring partner in our ongoing experiments to make learning more engaging and relevant.
Tragically, Hull-House finally closed its doors in the spring of 2012. It was a warning sign of hard times ahead without the visionary leadership of gentle and unlikely giants like Jane Addams. (For more information, please visit the following link: World Socialist Web Site, wsws.org)
Jane Addams (1961). Twenty years at Hull-House. New York, NY: Signet Classic.