Sunday, April 14, 2013

Shipler - The Working Poor - perspective summary and comparison

    "A social worker is not a neutral agent either in practice or in action," means that social workers are part of the change process. A neutral agent would have no impact. Social workers aim to make an impact, both in their specific chosen social work, and in their day to day actions. I think that's what Freire means - that social workers do not float unnoticed their their work, or their individual lives.
    I began my social work as a teenager, as a mentor to other addicts and alcoholics in twelve step programs. One of the biggest struggles for me after I was able to piece together a month or two of sobriety was how to find happiness without drinking and using. By listening to the older and wiser members of the twelve step programs, I quickly found that being connected to people, and being a meaningful part of other people's lives, was the most dependable way to be happy. That was the beginning of my social work career. I found that by devoting myself to others, to understanding them, providing a sounding board, showing up when people needed a friend, and letting them know how important they are both in words and through actions, people were empowered to grow and continue the giving cycle. I felt better about myself too.
    It has been an interesting process to discover how the actions we take can make an impact on others. One of my first experiences with that was though mentoring a 13 year old guy into sobriety when I was just three years older, and sober about one year. One of my sober friends was bugging me to start being of service to other young people at the twelve step meetings we attended. One day a really young guy showed up and raised his hand as a newcomer. Through a little coaxing from my sober friend, I managed to give my phone number to this guy and told him if he needed a ride that I could pick him up. As a young person, I remembered how embarrassing it could be to have your mommy drop you off at meetings, so I think that gesture was well placed. A few days later he called me for the first time. For the next few months, I would go pick him up and take him out to coffee, talk about sobriety for a while, then go to a twelve step meeting. Pretty soon we worked the twelve steps together, and he cleaned a few skeletons out of his closet. It didn't take long for our coffee meetings to turn into guitar jam sessions, movies, and camping trips. A group of sober friends grew up around us. We became a tight knit group of friends helping friends.
The magnitude of that did not hit me until about two years after we'd met, when his brother pulled me aside and thanked me for being instrumental in bringing his brother back from the depths of addiction. My friend's brother told me about how both of his parents had been inspired to get sober (mom was an alcoholic and dad smoked a few joints per day). What started as small, well-meaning actions, turned into big changes in family dynamics. His parents realized that if their son could get sober, they could get sober. Obviously, I did not make this guy get sober, stop destroying his life, and patch things up. He did all of that on his own. Also, if I had not reached out to him, it is very likely that another person would have. My suggestions and insights were not the only ones that he had access to over the years. At the same time, I realized that my words and actions did hold influence in the world, and that my influence could be used in a positive way. Interestingly enough, I'm not sure that I would have stayed sober either, had I not reached out and connected with people like this guy. He was there for me, just by letting me be there for him. Addicts live in terrible isolation, and being of service to others is an awesome way to connect with people.
    I have drawn much inspiration from the experience I get being of service to others. That inspiration has carried me through two bachelors degrees, internships at The Health Marriage Project and an inpatient drug treatment center. I suspect that inspiration will carry me through the MSW program as well. Most importantly though, being connected to others inspires me to make progress in my own life.
    To add to Freire's quote, I must say that one must first not be a neutral agent at home. Being a catalyst for positive changes in one's own life is a necessary part of making professional social work successful. Without having the ongoing experience of making changes at home, one cannot make changes elsewhere in the world. I believe many people try to only change the world first as a way to avoid changing themselves, and end up running into many obstacles as a result.
    Shipler's book, The Working Poor: Invisible in America, is a powerful account of the lives of poor and near-poverty workers in America. He builds compassion for the working poor by telling their stories, then describing how our culture and political systems keep the workers stuck. The problem is incredibly complex, and requires many solutions in many different problem areas. At the end of the book Shipler identifies a few ways to make steps forward; steps that can be taken by the poor and by social workers doing policy and healthcare work.
    The proposed changes which Shipler believes need to be made must be enacted willingly. The needed changes cannot take place without direct action. He would agree with Freire that social workers cannot be neutral, but they must really rock the boat to combat poverty. Furthermore, the working poor must take action in their own lives by voting for candidates who support the needed social agendas and policy changes. Progress is almost never easy, but by living our lives in ways that embody progress, we make progress possible.

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