In the late Maya Angelou’s poem “Alone”, she ends each verse with the phrase:
Nobody, but nobody can make it out here alone.
As I progress through and now near the end of the MSW program, I am increasingly finding this to be true. Though many may view social work as a feel-good profession where all work is group-based and everyone holds hands singing “Kumbaya” every day, this has not always been my reality. Yes, as an Advanced Standing student, enduring the trial-by-fire bridge course has resulted in me gaining what I like to call a social work family. And as we joined the final year students this fall, that family has expanded. However, despite becoming a part of this growing social work community, when it came to my work (and life), I often found myself still holding onto very individualistic ideals.
Coming into the MSW program, I wanted to start a nonprofit to help the homeless. When visualizing how that would be accomplished, sad to say, it always centered on what I would do. I would assess the community’s needs. I would come up with the organization’s mission, vision, and goals. I would write the grants, apply for 501 c3 status, etc. Needless to say, this mindset was not very “social worker-like.” However, though my interests have shifted and developed as a result of being in the program (in previous posts I explain my transition from Direct Practice to CMPP), I have still carried that individualistic mindset into my work and goals. It has not been until recently that I have come to realize the value of community, especially when it comes to achieving social justice and equity.
As part of my independent study course, I was given the opportunity to attend the Racial Equity Institute’s Phase I training in Chapel Hill. Through training and consultation services, the Racial Equity Institute (REI) works to “bring awareness to the root causes of disparities and disproportionality in order to create racially equitable organizations and systems” (REI, 2015). This training focused various on aspects of structural racism and implicit bias in the United States. Though I felt that I was one who was pretty aware of racial inequities, over the course of two days, I was enlightened and my mindset was transformed in ways that I didn’t foresee. While I will not give a spoiler of the training (it is definitely worth investing in for yourself!), one of the ways in which it impacted me is in changing my view of community.
In wake of the movements that have arisen within the past few years, most notably among them Black Lives Matter, I Can’t Breathe, and others, I have found myself becoming increasingly interested in social justice for all groups. As I began to consider how I could play a role in furthering equity, again, my thoughts centered more on what I can do as an individual. How can I go on to obtain a PhD in social work to further social justice? How can I use my love for writing and art to raise social consciousness and spark action? All those wonderful first-person pronouns. And while I still have these goals, attending the REI helped me realize one critical truth: this work cannot be done alone. Dismantling structural racism and inequity is a complex, multi-faceted task that takes collective effort. While individual efforts are important, it is when we as individuals align and begin to move with one cadence that the most impact will be made. As noted in the REI Workbook received after the training,
We cannot be effective trying to go it alone; we must band together to increase awareness, study, learn, discuss, plan, and take action. Then we take stock, evaluate, learn more and plan further action. To be successful we must become part of a movement to change the paradigm of structural racism. Successful social movements in this country have always come out of community organizing at the grassroots level. We can become part of this movement (REI, 2015).
Those last two lines were profound for me. While we tend to uphold leaders such as Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. as individuals who led entire movements, in reality, the success was a result of ordinary people – in various organizations throughout many states – on the ground level. One individual could never do it all.
The above statement, while simple, goes against what I have believed for so long. Instead of “going it alone,” I am now challenged to become a part of the movement that is greater than myself. For me, this begins with connecting with the social justice community right here within my own physical community. In addition to my fellow social workers and social justice advocates at UNC, I seek to connect to the Organizing Against Racism (who hosted the REI training) community as well as the greater community of social justice groups doing work right here in Chapel Hill, the Triangle, and the state. And while I am not sure where my post-MSW journey will lead me, by getting connected here while I am still at UNC, I hope to set the foundation for a lifelong commitment to social change.
P.S.: For those who are curious, here are links to the Organizing Against Racism as well as the Racial Equity Institute sites where you can learn more about the organizations, workshops and trainings, as well as caucuses that meet regularly. It truly is a life-changing experience!