Confession: I have been blind to my white privilege

“The engaged voice must never be fixed and absolute but always changing, always evolving in dialogue with a world beyond itself.” (p. 11) -bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom

Today in class we participated in an exercise on race, social class and structural determinants of privilege & discrimination. In the discussion afterward, I made a comment about how race was not as relevant as the intersectional paradigm in understanding social class.   My argument was the reality in America today is that people experience multiple and overlapping marginalizations on individual, social and institutional levels.  An intersectional perspective for analyzing complex social issues demands a broad, community-based approach.  I continued to stress the point that it is simpler to view populations as homogenous—the poor, the homeless, the mentally ill—but this is a simplistic approach that thwarts creativity to solving the problem.

As I spoke, I looked over at Sarah, my friend.  She was shaking her head. She said, “It’s all about race. It’s still about race.” I tilted up my chin, gave her an uncertain smile, “So it’s black versus white? I just can’t believe it’s that simple.” She looked at me square in the eye, “You mean to tell me that slavery wasn’t real?”
“Maybe it is about color,” I responded.  In Peru where I was born, it’s not black versus white. The dichotomy is European descent (white skin) versus Indio (yellow skin). However, the color dynamic is the same. In my family, I was the favorite because I had the lightest skin.  I remember being 4 and experiencing my blonde hair darkening as a fall from grace.
“I have to admit, Sarah, I did have a privileged status growing up because I was pale skinned.” Sarah fixed her gaze on me again, “You don’t have to tell me about skin color and privilege! I’ve been living in this skin my whole life…” She points at her arm and mouths, “Midnight.”

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On Building a Social Work Consciousness

My perspective on social work has been shaped by my work roles, the agencies where I have worked and primarily, the clients I have served.

My first real job after my Bachelor’s degree was a Head Start teacher. I learned from 3 and 4 year olds that I could not teach if I couldn’t connect with and engage each child in my class. I learned to create an environment of collaboration so my classroom was supportive and fun. The Head Start model also includes the concept of “shared governance.” I learned from the parents–housekeepers, migrant farmworkers, people living in deep poverty–how to organize, lead and create a sense of community.

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Emotional Intelligence and Leadership Responsibility

Emotional intelligence (EI) as defined by Brackett, Rivers & Salovey (2011) is “a set of mental abilities involving emotion-based problem solving” (p. 99). The four abilities are 1) perception of emotion, 2) using emotion to facilitate thinking, 3) understanding and analyzing emotions and 4) reflective regulation of emotions. Research of EI in education and leadership indicates awareness and coordination of emotions can contribute to a higher performing, more supportive learning and working environment (Bracket, et al., 2011; McCleskey, 2014; Ordun & Acar, 2014).

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Educational Leadership

Today in our small group class discussion we spoke about what it means to be a social work educator/leader.

These are some of my thoughts still lingering from the discussion:

The importance of position and intersectionanality–as leaders and educators we need to be able to reflect on our position and articulate it clearly to our students, clients and peers.

The sense of “calling” to the profession some of us feel originates from our upbringing, our spirituality and our values. For me, this precedes the NASW Code of Ethics in terms of shaping how we practice. The idea of a calling can also be a hindrance if it limits who we think “should” be a social worker and how much we should be paid.

Social justice is a personal process that begins with an “I & Thou” relationship with our clients. We embody social justice when we begin by acknowledging the humanity of the person in front of us. At the same time, the magnitude of injustice in our society feels oppressive. I continue to struggle with the weight of the task–how do we make our American society more just? How do we raise the critical consciousness of our students, our clients & our communities?

I struggle to be an empowering leader. I can only do so by starting with my own fallibility, my humanity. I strive to be a leader in social justice work and I do so by raising my own critical consciousness and by making the small choices against oppression each day.