There’s been a lot happening here in Chicago lately: I’m wrapping up my first year at SSA, getting ready for next year, navigating the application process to become officially “in care” for the United Church of Christ, preparing for my summer internship, and working on a couple of issue teams. Social life? Not so much.
It’s hard to believe that it’s been a whole 9 months since I began my social work education. I feel like it’s been so much longer and yet shorter at the same time. It’s weird to think that I’m halfway done with an education that will prepare/qualify me for a lifelong career—shouldn’t there be more to this? I mean, undergrad took 4 years and I feel like that education didn’t prepare me for much besides applying to graduate school. (Of course I learned a lot about myself and about the world at Agnes Scott College and I’m proud to call myself a Scottie!) And while I am amazed at how much I’ve learned in my field work this year, I’m a little shocked that I only need 2 years of formal schooling to be somehow legitimized for this challenging and complex work. I now know many different theories for how to address social issues on a community and macro-level, assessment and treatment recommendations by many well-renowned psychologists, and how to look at a graph with different cost curves to figure out the optimal prices for goods (sort of), but do I know how to run a nonprofit organization? How to develop sustainable and efficient intervention programs? Write a grant? Maybe that comes in year 2.
I have been impressed by how much I’ve learned outside of the classroom, on the streets and in an office doing what seems to be very little. There have definitely been days when I’ve felt a sense of futility in class, trying to understand how the subject matter will possibly improve my practice (cough, Econ, cough) and wishing that I was on the Mobile Outreach truck learning something practical. Even though I’m pursuing ad administrative track, I’m glad to have had such an amazing clinical experience this year with the Salvation Army Mobile Outreach Unit. I will freely admit that I was a little disappointed at being placed in a faith-based organization (I had specifically requested to be put in a secular organization because I wanted that experience before a career of religiously-affiliated work), but I honestly cannot think of a better fit for me. I was challenged every day, my understanding of complex issues like poverty, substance abuse, institutionalized and systematic racism, and homelessness expanded like a balloon, and I know that I only scratched the surface. In my coworkers, I found a camaraderie and inspiration that defies every burnt-out-social-worker stereotype, which made me feel a lot better about the vocation that I’ve been called to. I didn’t expect to find mentors in this first-year placement, in a field outside of my own interests and calling, but I have been blessed to have made such strong and life-giving relationships.
The Salvation Army's Mobile Outreach Unit working with the homeless on Lower Wacker. The woman to the right is my supervisor, Christine Henry. There's not enough space here to describe how amazing, inspiring, wise, and compassionate she and the rest of team are.
Although I loved my internship, I often found my class content frustrating. I often struggled to connect the clinical theories and practices that I read about to my work on the Chicago streets. There is no substitute for experience, and I find it a tad disconcerting that some academic researcher’s analysis of a complex issue like substance abuse is more valued in the field than a CADC who’s been counseling for 20 years on the West Side. I often feel like the basic lessons of my internship can be summed up by throwing all the theory I learn in class out the window. This is why I loved my class with Dr. Joan Palmer so much; she basically said that all of the foundational clinical reading of my first two quarters just doesn’t apply to a lot of client situations. My skepticism was validated, and in her class I learned about common experiences and themes found among socially vulnerable populations. I was also blessed to have had Dr. Bill Borden as my foundational clinical professor. He asked me to reflect every week on my internship and my academic work. I often wrote about my struggle to link course concepts with my work in the Salvation Army, the things that irked and inspired me in the readings and on the streets, and my own rookie social worker views of clients and communities. Dr. Borden is probably the most affirming professor I’ve ever had, and his comments and conversations were always what I needed to hear.
Perhaps all my frustration with the disconnect I feel between academic- and street-based education was a factor in my choosing the SouthWest Organizing Project (SWOP) for my second year internship. Community organizing values experiential and community knowledge in a way that formalized intervention programs don’t. Before this spring, I never thought of community organizing as a career path, much less one that I would be interested in pursuing. Truth be told, I only applied to the internship because it was the only site available that offered administrative experience, met the requirements for my program of study, and had some connection to religion/faith communities. After my interview with Jeff Bartow, the current director, I knew that this was the place for me. Jeff talked about how relationship building and critical community engagement was central to the process and outlined several inspiring initiatives that SWOP has spearheaded. Although he’s not theologically trained, he is theologically-minded and we have already had very deep discussions about how faith and action are connected. Almost as soon as I return from Ethiopia, I will jump into my new internship. I won’t have much of a break, but I don’t think I’ll really need it. After both meetings with Jeff, I was already itching to start!
In two weeks I'll be here! Can't wait!
Speaking of Ethiopia, it’s coming up fast! I’m still waiting for my business visa to come in; I’m sure the embassy is tired of me calling to check on their progress. Hopefully it will be processed and sent back by Friday, which will give the postal service a week to get my passport and visa back to me. In somewhat related news, my fingernails do not extend past the quik and my for-stress-only-chocolate supply is depleted. In addition to all the nervousness, I’m also super excited to get to Addis and start my work! I’ll be updating this blog much more frequently now that I no longer have class or an internship. Once I’m in Ethiopia, I’ll post probably twice a week and would love to engage in conversation through this medium! If you have any questions about my work or experience, post in the comments and I’ll answer to the best of my ability. As always, you can also show your support for IOFA’s (i.e., my) work in Ethiopia by visiting my GoFundMe page: http://www.gofundme.com/Transitions-Initiative.