Education and Equifinality at UM’s School of Social Work

Introduction:

My passion for working with students in high-needs communities has stemmed from experiences working within classrooms on the west side of Detroit.  I had the privilege to obtain an education that was filled with financial resources, and opportunities to be encouraged and heard by my teachers and administration. I loved to learn, and felt like I could escape the outside world when I was at school.  I could see that same feeling in the faces of many students that I worked with in Detroit.  However, there were glaring differences in our situations.  There was an alarming lack of resources such as toilet paper, pencils, and backpacks for many of the students coming into the building every day.  The students rarely had the opportunity to go on a field trip to enrich their learning, or even have the chance to learn about things that were relevant to them.  Instead, teachers were trying to meet state standards for testing, maintain control of overcrowded classrooms, and support their students throughout the traumas that occurred in their community — all on a salary that had not changed in the last five years.  

my babies
The two classes that I worked with on the West side of Detroit on their last days of school.  9th graders (top), and 3rd graders (bottom)

The differences I saw between my own academic experiences and those of my students showed me first hand the inequity that is occurring in schools throughout the country, based simply on geography.  These issues are not being addressed efficiently by federal and state lawmakers.  Leadership in this area will need to be combined with many other parties, such as social workers, policy makers, community leaders and members, and trained administrators, in order to begin to change the deep cycle of discrimination and oppression of vulnerable groups in our society.  My aspirations in the social work field are to work with children and families in urban areas, providing direct service to clients as well as the community. I believe that social workers cannot provide support to clients without addressing the community around them as well, and I am passionate about working with others to address and work towards positive social and structural change.

The Project:

It’s for these reasons that I decided to center my final project around perspectives on education at the School of Social Work.  I am extremely interested in the concept of equifinality at the School of Social Work.  Equifinality is the idea that different early systems can lead to the same outcome.  For example: the backgrounds and educational experiences that students at the SSW hold throughout their childhood and adolescence vary greatly depending on the type of environment they grew up in, the support systems they had, the quality of education they received, etc.  At the same time, there is something that brought each of us here, to the University of Michigan School of Social Work, in 2017.  Our backgrounds may be very different, but we are all in a similar location and field today.  How did this come to be?  What factors, particularly when it comes to education, created these different experiences for each of us?  How can we make sense of these and be more cognizant of these differences as we all work together to become competent social workers?

equifinality
Different causes lead to the same outcome

My project originally began as a photovoice project, intended to understand the experiences of 5 individuals in the program from different backgrounds to look at their journeys to the SSW.  However, as I began to receive responses for the project, I realized that I wanted a larger sample size to look at the diversity of experiences that are present in the school.  I received 5 in-depth responses from individuals in their first-year at the School of Social Work, in which I asked questions about their race and social class, experiences with education, and asked them to submit up to 5 photos of images that represent their education to them.  These photos could have been taken in the past or in the present, and in the vein of the photovoice method, I asked the individuals to write a few sentences about how this represents their education.  

The 5 individuals that I polled were not from as diverse backgrounds as I ideally would have liked, but I asked them to participate because I was hoping to receive some strong and reflective answers from them to think about their education.  Below are a few examples of the responses I received:

DREAM activists

Caption: I felt unprepared furthering my education because my high school had many issues; over crowded classrooms, old books, no money, which created space for violence, gangs, and thus did not prepare us well. Through my activist with the DREAM ACT, I literally had to fight for my right to an education. 


#al

Caption: I was the only person that I knew at my high school to get free lunches. My parents were ashamed that they couldn’t pay for my lunch, and I think I became ashamed too. Sometimes I just wouldn’t eat anything and try to get my friends to share with me so I wouldn’t have to type my student number in the lunch line. My guidance counselor found out and convinced me that I had to eat. She showed that she actually cared about me, and I’m so grateful for her.


Photo Credit: Katie Schwartz

Caption: Growing up, I was well-supported by my family members. My family offered grounding love, support, and protection, providing my future foundation to bloom. Throughout childhood and adolescence, I was exposed to a variety of experiences that provided opportunities to discover so many passions galore. In a literal sense, this photo displays a piece of pottery I created amidst my 22 years of ceramics, an artistic medium that became a very important part of my life since youth. Metaphorically, the overlapping geometric glazes represent the many parts of myself that I have grown to be proud of; though I recognize and acknowledge my privilege to these life-long opportunities and experiences. Photo Credit: Katie Schwartz


#az

Caption: This photo is of my Peruvian abuelitos. I went to Peru for a semester in college as part of my education, yet these two people taught me so much more than academia could ever possibly teach me. Contrary to popular American narrative of individual success, these two queridos taught me absolutely everything about family, community, and caring for one another.


#mm

Caption: I grew up in rural Northern Michigan where the community remains racially homogenous (white) and faces significant income inequality. As a middle-class student, money rarely constrained my ability to benefit from these opportunities. My parents could afford to fund my extracurricular and academic aspirations; this privilege meant I could focus all my energy on gaining knowledge/skills/experience rather than on finances. This photo depicts a banner my classmates and I made for our high school math teacher to celebrate his retirement. To me, this picture represents the sense of community that unified my school. As a relatively small high school we grew close. I was blessed with many amazing teachers who helped shape my life trajectory.


After I collected these photos and started to analyze them, I saw a few key themes.  The one that stuck out to me the most was the idea that community and support growing up played a huge role in the way that education was perceived by each individual.  When I was creating the project, I was thinking about a systems theory approach that would reinforce the importance of education, and this seems to ring true for those who submitted pictures.  Throughout each of the responses that were submitted, regardless of what the photo was, there was an acknowledgement of the community that they came from, and the support that was received from different individuals in their lives.  

I also noticed that many of the pictures and descriptions that I received spoke to the privileges that students had when it came to their education.  It made me think about who is here at the SSW, and who is meant to be here at the SSW.  Are we accessible enough to the individuals who come from more disadvantaged backgrounds?  Do our programs and systems support these individuals?  Who is social work meant for, and who do we see in this profession?

Part 2:

Even after seeing the photos that were submitted, I found myself wanting a bit more representation from other students in the SSW.  I added the final part of my project in an attempt to hear more voices and experiences that could add to my understanding of the different experiences that led students to UM.  To do this I created a list of different statements/prompts having to do with education.  Then, I sat in the atrium after one of my classes and asked individuals to choose a random statement and fill it out.  I did not give any context for the statements, and said they could write as much or as little as they wanted.  Below is a gallery of the different hand-written responses that I received from students from all different areas in the SSW:

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This part of the project really struck me, because I didn’t necessarily know the backgrounds of the students who were responding to these statements.  I had no idea what they would write.  So many of the responses were so poignant to me, and spoke to the greater depth of experiences that students in the SSW have.  Some people wrote about the opportunities that education has afforded them.  Some had fond memories of K-12 schooling, while others didn’t.  But all in all, the responses showed me something that I hadn’t realized when I started working on this project: The importance of connection, empathy, and support.  

Final Thoughts:

All of the messages that we receive from those around us can help to shape our experiences positively or negatively.  Not everyone at the SSW has the same experience, but there is some sort of reason that we are all here today.  It’s crucial to recognize these differences as social workers, because these disparities are occurring all around the country.  There are entire schools of students whose voices are being silenced, who are not receiving a quality education, and who are being forgotten, when they have so much to offer.  I think back to my 9th graders from Detroit and remember watching them playing basketball during gym.  These students are so bright and capable, but have grown to feel controlled by systems that don’t take an interest in them as humans — they only see them as numbers in a school system that they have to push through.  So many students don’t have consistent networks of support, or the chance to connect with someone who will support them to figure out who they want to become, and not just what they want to become.  Those 9th graders can become the next great social workers, the future biomedical scientists, and our country’s presidents, if the systems around them will give them the chance.  But until processes change, until the SSW becomes more diverse and transparent in their initiatives, this is likely to be a hurdle for many students around the country.

This project helped me to better understand the complexities of experiences here at the School of Social Work.  While we are all in this space, pushing for more equitable and just practices in society, we are approaching this issue from different angles.  The diversity that we each bring to the table is invaluable.  Each narrative deserves to be told.  To practice what we preach here at the SSW, we need to explore the systems that grant us privilege and oppression, and recognize the ways that these play into our ideas of service as social workers.

Thank you for reading.  If you have any questions, comments, or concerns, please leave a comment below.  I appreciate your thoughts!

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Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent

Hi friends!

So, I was really dreading the trip home for Thanksgiving because my family and I don’t exactly see eye to eye on many of the news and politics that have been happening in our country.  I’d been mentally preparing myself and thinking about ahimsa, seeking truth, etc., when chatting with my family, but also felt like I needed something to ground me after the draining conversations I was sure to have.  So I stopped by the bookstore to find a book, which I wanted to share with you all!

The book is called Radical Hope: Letters of Love and Dissent in Dangerous Times.

radical hope

Basically, it’s a collection of a bunch of letters that writers, activists, and poets wrote after the election of Donald Trump last year.  The collection is quite good, and they are easy to read, since they are written in the form of a letter.  To me, it feels therapeutic to read.  When I started reading it, I felt the emotions coming through on the paper from each author, and it felt good to be reading the work of others who sometimes can feel scared during these moments in our country.

Another really cool thing about the book is that it is separated into three sections:

  1. Letters to our ancestors
  2. Letters to present-day people or communities
  3. Letters to future generations

As someone who loves to write and finds great power in the use of narrative to drive social change, this book has been really great to read so far.  I will say that at times it can seem a little frustrating, because this book isn’t necessarily about the solutions.  It is about the power of sharing our stories and experiences, and the therapeutic strength that comes from this action.  I’m so grateful to all of the authors of this book for sharing their stories.

If this book sounds interesting to you, I’d encourage you to check it out!  I found my copy at Literati bookstore (on Washington, near Main Street!).   Likewise, if you have any book suggestions for the holidays, let me know!  I’m a big reader and would love to hear some of your recommendations! 🙂

Alt-Right Dialogue?

When I was reading Dean Videka’s email this morning regarding Richard Spencer’s request to visit campus, it made me think about the role of non-violent communication on our campus.  The university’s statement that physical safety is of the utmost importance to them makes me mad, because there has been a precedent of violence and danger in Mr. Spencer’s appearances at colleges around the country.  How would bringing a person who speaks of intolerance and hate to our university, a place where marginalized students already do not feel supported or welcomed, be protecting the safety of our students?

I agree with many of the readings that non-violent communication is an important part of social justice work.  During undergrad here at UM I was involved in dialogue work with the Program on Intergroup Relations (IGR) and Growing Allies, and grew a lot from these experiences.  These were the spaces that I learned the differences between discussion, debate, and dialogue, had the opportunity to hear about others experiences and share my own, and push myself to my learning edge in spaces that were created for safe learning.  I’m even a grad assistant for IGR this year, engaging with alumni across the country.  Articles like Adrienne Dessel’s (my professor for my first IGR class!), and the Nissen text have helped me to maintain an open mind and be cognizant of different identities that are brought together in spaces.  Being a facilitator in a dialogue is such a unique position, because it involves so much personal awareness, as well as awareness of the group you’re in.

These dialogues are consistent with social work values because they value the stories of others and the dignity that all humans deserve.  It’s a matter of approaching the dialogue with ahimsa and seeking common ground to work towards a greater understanding of each other and the world around us.  We can practice dialogue everyday by suspending assumptions and assuming best intentions, being aware of the space that we take up, and asking and learning about our differences.  Much like the class norms that we created at the beginning of the term, these practices can be translated into everyday reactions, and can frame conversations with others in a way that promotes respect.

 

As I reflect on all of this and the chance of Richard Spencer coming to our campus, I wonder what the best course of action is to take.  Recently at the LEAD (Legislative Education and Advocacy Day) Conference I went to earlier this month, one of the keynote speakers spoke on the rise of the alt-right in recent years, and when asked what he thought was the best course of action to take as Richard Spencer was approaching our colleges, he answered that providing alternate events would be a good suggestion.  He mentioned that alt-right leaders like Spencer want violence to happen, and instigate others to create this dynamic.  The speaker also said that by ignoring the event, it would likely lose steam more quickly.  I remember hearing this and agreeing with the logic, but now as this situation seems more real to me, I wonder about what will happen.  Will the alternate events provided be productive?  Will others go to protest and be met with violent communication and aggression?  How can we as social work students and proponents of social justice and equity best support students being attacked?  I have so many questions and just wonder about the effectiveness of non-violent communication in cases like this.  Thoughts?

Seeking PhotoVoice Participants!

Capture

Hey all!  If anyone is interested or has the time, I’d love to get participation from the class for my photovoice project!  I’m interested in the cultural ideas you have around education, in particular in terms of your experiences with education and privilege/oppression.

I’ve created a survey with the questions here.  In it, you can upload your 5 photos that represent education to you.  If you have any questions or concerns, please send me an email at alyssalo@umich.edu 🙂  Thanks!  Can’t wait to see you all next week!

Thoughts on This Week’s Readings

Overall, Chapter 9 was extremely motivational to me as a social worker.  I feel like sometimes I am just going through the motions, even though I know that this is something I do not want to do.

I think that many “traditional social workers,” as Mullaly put it, come from privileged backgrounds, which can prevent them from taking actions towards anti-oppressive social work. In these situations, many of these individuals have not had the need to practice more radical approaches, because they have not been directly affected by it.  In general, it can go back to the natural human instinct for comfort and convenience when faced with obstacles.  Obviously this isn’t true for all privileged social workers, but many who are not as self-aware of their privilege might fall into this category, and this can go unchecked.  I feel that this can describe me sometimes as well in my work, and this is something I need to continue to be aware of and work to change.

This was recently made apparent for me after I read Chapter 9 and had an experience related to this at my field placement.  At my placement, I am one of two MSW students working in my agency.  I am a new member of the community where my agency is located, and my fellow intern has lived in this community her entire life.  This past week, we were discussing with our supervisor some of the concerns that our youth program has with the strict rules that the company has when it comes to promoting materials, creating events, raising money, etc.  My immediate thought was “This is the way that it has been… what can we do to support the youth in the program and still get the most out of their experience?”  However, I was inspired by what my fellow intern responded with: “What can we do to change this policy?  We can boycott the company, take our concerns to the Executive Board, and fight for these changes.”  After reflecting on this, I was taking the easy route of dealing with structures that were already in place.  Instead of accepting the way that things have worked for years, why couldn’t we engage for change?  My mind hadn’t even gone to that possibility.

Going along with this, maintaining this level of separation from the struggle goes back to how we can participate in more anti-oppressive practices at the structural level.  It goes back to what Mullaly discusses in Chapter 9 around things we can do in our everyday lives:

  • keep up to date with ideas, literature, practices, and developments (especially once we are out of the MSW program)
  • maintain realistic expectations
  • engage in critical self-reflection (such as this blog and reflections inside and out of the classroom)
  • practice self-care
  • find support and study groups

These ideas are so important, and I am actively trying to do more of this in my everyday life.  Anti-oppressive work, especially at the structural level, is not something that I have thought about intensely before.  However, I see it so much in my experiences after this week’s readings.  Does anyone have any other suggestions about actions we can take in our everyday lives to practice more anti-oppressive social work?

Show Up, Do Work

Both the video module and Mullally chapter for this week discussed the practice of being an ally, and the main theme that was reinforced was the concept of showing up.  Particularly, the fact that support is not just saying you support a cause (or sharing a video on Facebook), but showing your support through your actions.  I think that this is something that social workers need to keep in mind as our society becomes more and more tech-based.  The importance of showing up and doing the work needed to promote meaningful social change cannot be understated.

As I was reflecting on my own allyhood, a spoken word piece came to mind.  You can watch it below:

Also, here is the transcription.

This piece stuck out to me because so many of the statements that were made were ones I could relate to.  They are actions that could look harmless on the outside, but are actually detrimental to the concept of support and allyhood in terms of social justice.  One line really hit me: “You are the kind of ally that will share a poem like this on YouTube but will never listen to the words.”  I see this all the time from friends, and I know that there have been some videos or resources that I’ve posted without reading all the way through.  And you feel good about it — like you are making a difference by educating others.  But really you’re rendering identities invisible once again by not listening to their voices.

Mullally includes a short discussion in his chapter about white guilt, and how it can lead to “excessive misplaced guilt and abandoning efforts,” towards social justice.  I feel like it can be so easy to just give up when I realize that I am not being a good ally, and this is my privilege speaking.  My privilege allows me to think that I can separate myself from the inequities of the world and just ignore them.  Allies cannot ignore their privilege and be satisfied by half-hearted attempts to support others.  Personally, I need to do better.  Jamie Mitchell says that “actions need to be incremental, but we should always have a bigger goal,” when it comes to anti-oppressive work.  This is where I need to start showing up and doing work.

All of this reflection had me thinking about a recent situation that I was in two weeks ago where I didn’t show up when I needed to.  Two weeks ago, my field placement organization and LA CASA organized a Hispanic Heritage Month celebration on the Diag.  We set up an ofrenda for Dia de los Muertos, had conchas and hot chocolate, artwork, and music.  It was really an amazing and very successful event, and I want to thank all those that came.  (Shoutout to Hannah, who I got to chat with for a bit!)  🙂

Here are some pictures:

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During the event, we had many individuals stop at the ofrenda and chat with us about our organization and what we do.  One of these individuals was an older, white gentleman who motioned us over to the table after browsing for a minute.  When we approached, he began to get agitated, asking us why we do not dress in colorful clothing, like the ofrenda we were displaying.  He began to raise his voice, telling us forcefully that we were “not Latino-Americans,” because we look like everyone else.  “How can you call yourselves Latino-Americans if you don’t dress like Latino-Americans?” he kept repeating.

My coworker and I stood there stunned that he was approaching us like this, until he stormed off shaking his head.  And immediately after the shock passed, I realized that in that moment, I wasn’t an ally when I should have been.  I should have showed up and said something or tried to engage with him, because I was protected with my white/passing privilege.  I’m still disappointed that I didn’t do anything.  The entire time in my mind I was thinking, “What can I say to this guy to shut him up and shut him down?”  But this took me back to our discussion in class at the beginning of the semester.  I wasn’t approaching this interaction with ahimsa.  If I had reacted impulsively and approached him that way, there would have been no opportunity to build common ground.  Despite this, saying nothing was just as hurtful.  I failed to be an ally to a community that I feel connected to and that I support, because I didn’t take action.  I didn’t show up.

Relating to this, Mullally also states that “decentering of the dominant culture is a fundamental challenge to the dominant order.”  So where does that fit into this example of assimilating to “American” dress?  In a way, the man was telling us that we should be proud of our culture, but his way of doing this was all wrong.  It made us feel attacked, and invisible, as a diverse and complex community of individuals.  After he left, Latinx students around the ofrenda started chanting “Estamos aqui” (We are here!).  It was a powerful way for the community to band together against yet another instant that Latinx students felt invisible on our campus.  I am proud to be a part of such a strong and resilient community on this campus, but I need to show up and stop taking a backseat to injustices when they occur.

Decolonizing My Health

The past two weeks have been extremely difficult for me on a personal level.  Two weeks ago I started to feel a sharp pain in my side, and went to the ER while I was at my field placement to check it out.  That pain turned out to be acute pancreatitis, which turned into a 6 day stay at the hospital, complete with lots of pain meds, needle pokes, and uncertainty about the state of my health.

I was diagnosed with diabetes 4 years ago during my junior year of college, and have been working to control it ever since.  At first, I struggled with my diagnosis of type 2 diabetes, throwing myself into a constant cycle of guilt and shame.  I kept telling myself that it was my choices that led to developing diabetes, and in turn I kept falling off track in maintaining my health because of this mindset. The concept of “being normal,” is one that I only recently have begun to explore.  I used to avoid taking my insulin and medications in order to feel “normal,” like the rest of my peers.  However, when I did this I always ended up feeling more “unwell” than “well.”  My dad’s family has a history of diabetes as well, so I began to “accept my fate,” and avoid warning signs of my declining health.  And 4 years later, I ended up back in the hospital, in unbearable pain, because of this.

health

In watching Dr. Many Meyer’s talk this week, I was reminded of how colonized my mind had become in thinking about my health as an inherent marker of my fate.  The assumed superiority of modernity that afflicts society is so prevalent and real.  And in reflecting on this, I began to think about the ways that I “learned” about health.  For example:

  • Why do I tense up every time that I even think about scheduling a doctor’s appointment?  Because as a child my family did not have health insurance.  If someone went to the doctor, it was because they were extremely sick, since it was a last resort.  Whenever this would happen, there would inevitable be bad news associated with the visit because we waited so long to be seen.  This was out of my control as a child, but still sticks with me to this day.  I still hold on to these negative emotions and connotations, even though I have Medicaid, as evidenced from my most recent hospital stay.
  • What constitutes this “normal” that I so desperately want to be?  Normal to me means no worries.  Able to eat whatever you want and maintain control over your own body.  You can be independent, and be in control of the functions that the “idealized” person has.

I learned these things from family and society growing up, and they have caused me to hold onto the beliefs that I have today.  But in trying to write what “normal” was to me, I found it more difficult than I thought.  I didn’t realize that Western education has impacted my knowledge of health in such a deep way.  It’s both terrifying and relieving at the same time.  While I need to become more conscious of this and start to reject and change my views of this “knowledge,” I feel relieved that I have come to this realization and think that it will help me to become more accepting of my health obstacles.  Why should I make myself feel sick in order to feel “normal?”  Shouldn’t my “normal” just to be healthy?  Yet I still find myself thinking, “do I deserve to be healthy?”

I wanted to just end with something that really resonated with me in Dr. Meyer’s talk, which was the intersection of knowledge and dialectic.  She spoke about how we can use the same word, but all of us may have many different meanings — which got me thinking.  Health is a term used so frequently in our society, but can mean so many different things.  Mental health, physical health, sickness, wellness, ill, medical, etc., are just some of the terms that come to mind.  Yet we think of health as a universal desire.  How can we say we want to be healthy when it can mean so many different things?   As Dr. Meyer says, “The dialectic will change the world,” and I do believe it’s true.  What are your thoughts on health in our society?  I’d love to hear your thoughts.

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