Monday, August 22, 2005

Social Work as a Subversive Activity

I love thinking that I’m somehow working against prevailing social structures. If I could figure out why this gives me a giggle, I’d probably know something dreadfully important about myself. In the meantime, though, I will try to validate this personal perspective by recruiting fine upstanding citizens to join me in it. (My mother will be glad to tell you that I was usually the one to instigate trouble, and in just such a manner.)

We know that the “system” doesn’t work -at least not for everybody. Okay, I wouldn’t let a student get away with that kind of grandiose statement. What do I mean? I mean that the patterns that we’ve established -perhaps without a lot of thought- about how people survive in this country, how they keep their noses above water, seem to end up with a lot of people with their noses under the water.

This could, of course, be their fault. They should have learned to swim. However, we all know, if we’re honest, that learning to swim might not have been possible. To leave the metaphor aside for a minute, someone could argue (perhaps even accurately) that we established, for example, a minimum wage law in an attempt to protect laborers from exploitation. Maybe we did -but it’s also true that no one can live on a minimum wage job. Do the math. You’d have to have at least two minimum wage jobs to support a child. And last I heard, poor people only get twenty-four hours per day, just like the rest of us. Moreover, neither of those jobs will carry health insurance with it. So, if there’s even a simple need for the health care delivery system, any fragile financial security would now be gone. Not to mention that you would have lost one of those jobs because you couldn’t go to it because you were in the emergency room with your sick child...or grandmother.... or partner.

So some people have it easy and some don’t. That’s what I mean by the system. And social workers are the ones who say, “No! This isn't okay.” That’s what I mean by subversive. If we’re doing the work well, we’re looking at some hard questions. Why are there so many poor and abandoned people? What is due to workers and to people who are unemployed? What is the relationship between political, social, and economic justice, and between these and the common good? How did it come to be that there is domestic violence, child abuse -that there are missing children and homeless people? These questions might sound boring and pedantic, but they aren’t. They’re fascinating, because you ask and answer them in the context of helping the single individual who’s sitting in front of you. The questions are, however, threatening, because when answered they mean that we aren’t going to be able to live as we’re living now.

We do this work in different ways, of course. Social work can be subversive by overtly trying to change the economic or political structures that oppress. These people lobby in Washington or state capitols. They wear suits and do a lot of good work. Or they do community organizing and wear jeans and no one ever hears their names -and do a lot of good work. Others work with a single person to ensure that there is one fewer victim of those unjust systems. These people work in agencies and don’t earn much money, but can make a difference in the life of a family. And, for a few people, the work entails refusing to participate in the privileges that come to us through the unjust system we’ve put in place. People who do this work are hard to get along with -but they do a lot of good work.

I can think of two people who do this last kind of social work well -and they aren’t social workers. My husband does not drive a car if there is any way to avoid it. He rides his bike to work, to church, to the grocery store -everywhere. For him, this is a moral position. He can afford a car, but not everyone can. He also has very strong feelings about the environmental damage that cars do. The car is, for him, a symbol of an unjust system. He chooses not to de-value his principles and rides his bike. I point out that he doesn’t have to wear panty hose to work, and I drive the car. On this issue, I am less principled than he is.

Dorothy Day, who co-founded the Catholic Worker Movement and witnessed so steadfastly to justice, never voted in her life. I might be misunderstanding her here, but I think she made this choice because she rejected large-scale, nationwide decisions in favor of personal companionship with people who were poor. In most states, homeless people can’t vote. She could have voted, but in solidarity with them, didn’t. I don’t agree with her on this, but let’s review who has had a bigger influence on the life of the nation.

So, when you get ready to burn out -and you will- ask yourself if it’s the job that’s wrong, rather than you. Perhaps you’ve accidentally gotten into a career that is insufficiently subversive. Run! Run like the wind. You can do better than that!


Michael said...

Both Dorothy Day and your husband, I suspect, owe at least some of their subversiveness to being followers of the original subversive, a certain Jewish carpenter's son from Galilee.

Andrea Rusin said...

And it's well-documented that Jesus rarely drove -thereby cementing Dave's ideological position ;)

Michael said...

I remember an editorial cartoon that ran in the Trib more than a decade ago (back when I was still writing editorial columns for the Comical). It had a drawing of a black stretch limousine in the top panel, captioned "Jerry Falwell's means of transportation," above a pair of worn-out sandals in the lower panel, captioned "Mother Teresa's means of transportation."

So, yeah, I think Dave's got some good company. Even though I think biking to Minnesota is taking it a little far.

lianne said...

Michael, I give you that Jesus was subversive - but "the original"? Really? No one was ever subversive before Jesus came along ;)

Michael said...

Lianne, fair point. But for Catholics, yeah, Jesus would be considered the "original" subversive.