One thing that most of us really appreciate about the second year of the MSW program is that we get to choose the agency where we do our field work. With this decision, we decide how we want to shape our education to suit our particular interests. I came into the program wanting to do something in the realm of policy and advocacy. I’d toyed with the idea of going to law school, but my heart told me that I could be more effective as an advocate if I took the social work route. Imagine my delight when I discovered a field placement that would allow me access to the North Carolina Legislature to learn how policies are put into law!
This year, I have had the opportunity to meet privately with legislators to gauge their position on issues of social justice, sit in on committee hearings to discover how other groups advocate their positions, and watch the legislative process in action while both the House and Senate were in session. In the early weeks of this work, I focused a lot of my energy on building relationships with other people who were doing social justice work, figuring we’d have the most in common and could help each other cope with the obstacles we encountered in the legislature. There are so many people doing good work for the people of North Carolina, that this was easy. I’d found my community at last!
Over time, however, I found myself in the strangest of situations: First, I had coffee with an activist for a cause for which I have almost no regard. Although we tip-toed around the politics, we did have a great conversation about the merits of Edmund Burke’s writings (I’m a bit of a British History nerd). Next, I was sitting shoulder to shoulder with protestors of legislation that I supported. Assuming I was “one of them”, they opened themselves up to me and shared pictures of their children while we waited for debate to begin. Later, I found myself chatting casually with a representative for interests that many of my friends think will destroy the earth. That conversation gave me even more insight into how important it is to build relationships with people with whom you think you have little in common. This “big industry” lobbyist was actually an immensely kind individual who was rooting for the cause I was fighting that day.
At first, I felt very ill-at-ease with these encounters. I was worried that I was becoming sullied by the political culture into which I had entered. But over time, I came to realize that this was what social work is all about. I was meeting people where they were, in their context, with unconditional positive regard. These encounters were not compromising me, but helping me find the humanity in people with whom I thought I had very little in common. Because of this profoundly macro field work, I am coming to understand just how important my direct practice social work skills are for doing my job well.
All of this is to say, that all aspects of my education at UNC-CH have been critical to whom I am becoming as a social worker. I wouldn’t trade this experience for the world.