The 2017 Shari Prestemon Social Justice Interns have graciously agreed to share their experiences with all of us. From time to time, we’ll be posting ‘journal entries’ from Naiomi Gonzalez and Katy Morton. Below is one of these entries.
The Man (Woman/Person) in the Mirror.
Those of us who choose to be involved in social services and/or social justice work often recognize that we will be paid poorly and will receive little if any recognition for the good that we do. We know that will be facing complex situations that defy easy solutions. We will try our best to do what is right only to receive pushback from other social service organizations, peers, politicians, and even from our clients – the very people we are trying to help. We will often face bureaucratic red tape and be forced to jump through hoops that seem to be needless and harmful to those struggling with poverty and homelessness. One of my favorite quotes from the TV show Doctor Who, could be used to describe the motivations of those who choose to participate in social service/social justice work:
I’m not trying to win. I’m not doing this because I want to beat someone or cause I hate someone or because I want to blame someone. It’s not because it’s fun. God knows it’s not because it’s easy. It’s not even because it works because it hardly ever does, I do what I do because it’s right. Because it is decent, and above all, it’s kind. ( The 12th Doctor, “The Doctor Falls”)
However, as noble as social service/social justice work can be, the reality is that those of us who engage in this work are not perfect and we need to be able and willing to critically examine our attitudes, beliefs, and actions and to make changes when needed. Like Michael Jackson’s hit song, “Man in the Mirror,” there are occasions we need to take a closer look at our own beliefs and attitudes. We should all aspire to be like the 12th Doctor and seek to do what is decent and kind. But in reality, as flawed human beings we can be judgmental, hateful, racist, etc. Left unchecked those thoughts and attitudes can not only negatively impact our clients – the very people we want to help – but can also damage our own physical and mental health.
For instance, it can be easy to make broad, over generalized statements about those struggling with poverty and homelessness based on negative experiences with clients. When clients make what we perceive to be bad decisions, it can be tempting to want to say, “why do people in poverty expect us to be able to help them immediately? We can’t just provide them with a place to live or rental assistance at the drop of a hat. It’s this, ‘now mindset’ that is keeping them in poverty.” Or it can be easy to say, “Well if only they spent as much time looking for a job as they do trying to find ways to beat the system, then they would be gainfully employed.” This isn’t to deny the reality that there are some clients who consistently make bad choices and it is frustrating to try to help someone and not appear to be getting through to them. Moreover, in order to survive, some people in poverty have had to find creative ways to adapt and some of those ways that seem counterproductive in the eyes of those trying to help them get their lives back on track. But problems arise when we take our experiences and decide to generalize them into a universal truth. It can be tempting to go from, “this client made this bad decision” to, “why do these people always make bad decisions?” “Why do these people always try to find loopholes to get what they want.” While this may seem surprising, dehumanizing the very people we want to help can become a very real possibility if we allow negative experiences with some clients to become a marker for how we view every single client.
Additionally, we have to examine the ways in which we unconsciously adapt society’s toxic values. I don’t care how “progressive” a person thinks he or she is, the reality is that he/she will absorb and reproduce some of society’s harmful attitudes. For example, while poverty and homelessness are issues that affect people of all ethnicities and races, there is a tendency to view it as the exclusive domain of one particular race. Whether it’s “white trash,” the black, “welfare queen” or the “illegal alien” Hispanic, such stereotypes can also be found in social service work, though such attitudes tend to be disguised using “progressive” or “nice” language. For instance, contrary to popular belief, prefacing a comment that is talking about a specific group of poor black/hispanic people, by saying, “I don’t believe in these stereotypes…” and then proceeding to discuss how said group fulfills said stereotypes, does not erase the inherent racism of judging the actions of individuals as representative of their whole racial/ethnic group. It seems like such a small thing, but it demonstrates how even the kindest, most open minded person can absorb some of society’s toxic attitudes. This is a struggle we all have and in order to help others, we need to be honest with how some of our own views can be problematic and harmful.
I know that personally sometimes I get frustrated when a client talks about how they spend money on cigarettes or when they act in ways that to me are clearly counter-productive. But then I recognize that I need to step back and realize that 1) I’m not perfect and I’ve made mistakes. The only difference is that for a variety of reasons-having more to do with luck and support, rather than any brilliance on my part, I haven’t ended up on the streets. 2) Mistakes and bad decisions don’t negate the fact that homelessness and poverty are systematic issues. 3) Regardless of what a person has done, that person is still a beloved child of God.
Critical self-reflection is vital for those of us who are advocating for justice work. I spent previous blog entries discussing the importance of examining systematic injustice on a national and societal level, but just as important is examining how we as individuals and as a community often hold onto harmful and prejudicial ideas and attitudes. To be frank, I am learning that if I truly want to help others, I can’t dehumanize them. And holding onto stereotypical beliefs or generalizing the actions of a few is a form of dehumanization: you no longer see the person you are trying to help as an individual with their own needs, weaknesses, strengths, hopes etc. You see a “category.” You see “white trash,” or “ghetto” black/Hispanic people. You don’t see a person struggling with mental illness, joblessness, or health issues you see a “lazy” or “crazy” poor/homeless person. Justice work requires a willingness to change oneself.