In January 2015, I attended Haymarket’s anti-racism event where I met the now Associate Director, Polly, who graduated from Smith School for Social Work. We connected about our mutual affiliation with the program and I followed up to keep in touch and was able to schedule an informational interview in March.
I took a picture in the lobby of the “Roadmap to Success” and was inspired by the organization’s mission and comprehensive approach to individual change.
My own career took a detour in the Fall of 2016 and I ended up applying for two positions at Project Place. I spent this past year working there and am just beginning to make sense of my enriching and complicated experience as I go through the mundane motions of updating my resume. How can I express the significance of Project Place in the world and in my life? I was fortunate to work with resilience and inspiring clients: individuals in re-entry from incarceration, in recovery from addiction and trauma; those managing the stress of mental illness and employment; veterans and women in shelter with children in obtaining jobs and housing.
Each week, many Project Place clients and alumni attend enrichment workshops that I was responsible for coordinating, covering a broad range of topics. These workshops provide opportunity to practice interpersonal effectiveness, learn new skills, and share in thoughtful discussion and self-reflection, while providing a supportive community.
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I could tell you about our feel-good holiday party and the inspiring stories of clients who have transformed their lives. These stories are so important to share because change is happening thanks to organizations like Project Place. To learn more about homelessness, “The Chronicle has joined with more than 80 other news organizations to focus attention on the seemingly intractable problem of homelessness in the Bay Area. As part of the SF Homeless Project, The Chronicle’s Beyond Homelessness series explores possible solutions that might ease, if not end, the suffering of thousands of people living on our streets, and improve the quality of life for all residents. To date, the SF Homeless Project has been emulated in several U.S. cities where homelessness remains a humanitarian crisis.”
Though I largely worked with clients who were courageous and focused on making great change in their lives, today I feel unsettled, angry, resentful of our mental health system and how inaccessible it is. What does inaccessibility even mean? The more marginalized one is, the more invisible they are to those in power, and those with privilege to remain unaware of others’ suffering. A perfect illustration is the media coverage of how Our Opioid Crisis Reveals Deep Racial Bias In Addiction Treatment.
For many of my clients, mental health services are inaccessible to them in part because they have been betrayed and abandoned by the people and institutions that were meant to protect, educate, and care for them. Many of them would not choose to see a therapist because trauma makes it hard to trust that a stranger could care about you when again and again you have been made to feel invisible.
It wasn’t enough to listen, to care, to show up for my clients because there are powerful forces working against them succeeding in their quest for change. What does it mean to work IN the system and not be OF the system? Some days, I feel complicit and guilty that I’m not doing enough. I feel tired of working in the wake of trauma. Yes we need resources and services until they become obsolete, but I want to work towards the prevention of trauma, to promote wellness and equity by creating new paradigms. I want to practice social work in a society where therapists don’t have to make career choices based on financial necessity. Additionally, I see my colleagues struggling to stay in the field because of lack of structural supports. When the majority of social workers are propelled into the field in large part because of their own relationship to systemic oppression, there must be best practices to support them.
My recent trip to SanFrancisco was a reminder of how most people see the homeless. I don’t live there and can only speak anecdotally and share my reactions because these are difficult conversations to have. I want to be effective in revealing the truth of what homelessness actually looks like and advocate for better services & policy to prevent homelessness.
Beginning on the plane ride, I sat next to a 24-year-old, sensitive and caring White man. We spoke briefly about the news and a story of bullying that had upset him. Shortly after he warned me of all the homeless youth who choose the streets in the city. We had been talking for awhile and I felt comfortable sharing that I don’t believe anyone wakes up and prefers to be homeless without more complicated reasons. We had a great conversation about the nuances of mental health, trauma, addiction, etc. I was impressed with his curiosity and genuine interest.
The rest of my trip was marked by comments about fear of the homeless, cars being broken into by “junkies,” warnings for my safety when people were doing drugs on the street. I acknowledge that the homeless situation in SF was shockingly more visible than anything I’d experienced in Boston or New York, but still struggled in how to respond to the comments.
A close friend brought up Dylan Roof and I could tell even though she doesn’t believe in the death penalty, she was pained by his lack of remorse for the crime he committed. How can we understand that nobody who is well commits murder? A 17-year old didn’t choose his upbringing. My response was that most people who suffer from mentally-illness are not violent, but often most vulnerable to being victims of violence. The media often perpetuates our fear and it leads to an adverse affect on how society views punishment and ultimately impacts access to mental health services. I don’t have answers, but I wish more people would take the young man on the plane’s approach and keep asking questions rather than accepting the face value of what you see on the streets or read in a news story.
My work at Project Place gave me an intimate understanding of how people’s mistakes impact their families and their lives. Obama’s sentencing reform speaks to the injustice of our criminal justice system and it’s time we address the racist policies that perpetuate the impact of trauma, mental health issues, and addiction. My clients care deeply about their children and communities. So many of them aspire to work in the field of recovery and to inspire youth to be leaders.
The injustice in the world feels overwhelming and if I were full-time organizing or working on policy change, I’m sure I still would still feel like I was doing enough. There is so much suffering right now. To stay grounded in my relentless hope, I remind myself that the relationships I built with clients and in my community mattered. My efforts made a difference. In the years to come, I will feel more confident, but I feel less hopeful about retention in the field and the lack of attention to workers’ interests. We can only care for our clients as well as we care for ourselves. I am more committed than ever to develop and strength what we’ve coined “self-care” practices because at this point I realize most institutions are NOT equipped to provide such support. I will keep being critical of the institution and work towards making them better, but refuse to burnout in the process.
As I get ready to return to Smith College and reflecting on how I feel about the field and re-entering the program, I think about how I’ll never know the reason why my friend and classmate graduated from social work school and took his life. I will let his legacy remind me that we can’t continue to stigmatize social workers’ lived experiences and promote martyrdom. I am learning to set boundaries on my time at work and in my personal life, to know my limits and know that these changes in myself will ripple out and allows me to sustain myself and be even more present for my clients.
Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining. -Anne Lammot
I vow to find ways to create systemic change and not be complacent with the status quo, while still honoring the tremendous value of bearing witness to suffering and helping others recognize their humanity.