All the cool kids are cranky about ethics

21 06 2012

Julea Ward, a counseling (not social work) student in Michigan with an unfortunately misspelled name (I’m annoyed with her, I can be petty) got rather tetchy when asked to see a certain client during her internship. This was no ordinary client, you see. The young man was a…homosexual.

Are we all scandalized? Have your pearls been sufficiently clutched?

Ms. Ward said she couldn’t “affirm homosexuality” because it “goes against the bible.” And why shouldn’t she be able to avoid gay people all her life, including in her work? She’s not going to be a counselor at a Broadway musical or roller derby event, for god’s sake! It’s not as though the gays are three dimensional individuals you might encounter in, say, a high school, where Ms. Ward would like to work.

Now, Michigan has taken it upon themselves to say that anyone studying in a “counseling, social work, or psychology program” doesn’t have to deal with people who engage in behaviors that go against their sincerely held beliefs. Legislators, they know better than us silly helping professionals! It’s similar to how much I enjoy it when a judge tells me how I ought to be engaging a child in counseling.

Are we all done laughing?

Ms. Ward was not studying to be a social worker. But this ridiculous law extends to us. Even though it violates our own code of ethics. That makes it fair game for my righteous anger and sarcasm.

Our code of ethics calls upon us to “obtain education about and seek to understand the nature of social diversity and oppression with respect to” lots of things, including sexual orientation, gender identity, and gender expression. We also are not to “practice, condone, facilitate, or collaborate with any form of discrimination on the basis of…sexual orientation, gender identity or expression.”

Nothing in that code of ethics says, “unless the religion you choose to follow says not to. Then forget it, run as fast as your legs may carry you, but you can still totes be one of us!” No. We’ve got a profession to uphold. If you simply want to talk nicely to people and help them feel better, then do it on your own time without a title. As social workers, we don’t discriminate.

We’re also not supposed to discriminate based on religion, some clever, outside-the-box thinker always brings up. (I know I’ve been punching you in the face for hours, but you hit me back. That’s bullying!)

Ms. Ward’s beliefs were not being discriminated against. She can hold whatever misguided views she wants to. But she wants to be a professional and attend an accredited institution. Which means she can’t turn and run whenever a gay person walks in the door. What if the person isn’t totally gay, but experimented a little at a Boy Scout Jamboree? I mean, where exactly is the line? What if the person is being held as a slave and isn’t obeying his master, (Ephesians 6:5), would Ms. Ward still be willing to counsel that person? I’m just wondering, because she says she doesn’t go against the bible.

Not to mention that no one is telling a Christian counselor at a public agency or school to “affirm homosexuality.” It doesn’t need affirming, it just is. Ms. Ward was not being asked to sit with this client gabbing about his latest date, saying, “Ah, guy on guy action. Yes. Way to go!” She was supposed to help him in managing his depression. (Which I’m sure this debacle worked wonders for.) Even if his sexual orientation was a part of what he was working through, it doesn’t matter. You don’t say that you won’t deal with someone because a part of who they are just isn’t good enough for you. If a social work intern told me that they wouldn’t work with a Dominican family, or an interracial couple, I would think they were in the wrong profession. Just as I think Ms. Ward is.

I don’t have religious beliefs. But I have values. Violence, particularly against a weaker, defenseless person, goes against my values. Exploiting someone’s addiction goes against my values. Helping a child to decorate her jacket with Justin Bieber paraphernalia goes against my values. However, these are things that I have to work with.

We don’t get to be all that picky in our work. For one thing, the people who truly need our help typically have, you know, problems. Drug addiction, anger management, mental illness…you know, the kind of people Jesus would shun.

I’m being told that’s actually the opposite of what Jesus would do.

Clinical social workers, and other clinicians in private practice, can choose who they’re going to take on and who they won’t. They can have their reasons. They should be in line with our code of ethics, of course, but they have some leeway and control in terms of what populations they specialize in and who they take on. Every social worker, particularly every social work student, I know works for an agency. Ms. Ward, as I mentioned, planned to be a school counselor.

No big deal. Most high schools have at least fifteen different counselors, so someone could pick up the cases that Ms. Ward felt squeamish about. Right?

Oh, no. That’s not how it works. In this field you get what you get, and you do the work on yourself to make sure you can deal with it. I didn’t think I would be able to work with sexually abused children. I wouldn’t go to an agency that serves this specific population exclusively. But I’m part of a team, and this is an issue that comes up all the time. I can’t say, “sorry, I don’t do that. I’m special and I get to choose.” I got my shit together, and I do my job.

We can’t say that we’re only going to work with people who do things our way. Of course we try to help people to change their harmful behaviors. But if you think living openly as the gay person you were born to be is harmful, then you need to do some research. Research that isn’t sponsored by Focus on the Family or the National Organization of Marriage. Research by or supported and accepted by the organizations you supposedly have enough respect for that you want to attend their accredited institutions and be a part of their body of professionals–National Association of Social Workers, American Psychiatric Association, American Psychological Association, American Association for Marriage and Family Therapy, the American Counseling Association, the National Association of School Psychologists, all those guys.

That’s what pisses me off, in addition to the blatant homophobia hidden in religion. Educate me, legitimize my work, but let me do whatever I damn well please, because I have beliefs. No. You can’t have it both ways.

We know our profession, and we know our values. We need to have enough respect for it to stand up for it to those who don’t.

The State of the SocialJerk

26 01 2012

As good, loyal Americans, I’m sure we all watched the State of the Union address. I know I did. The whole thing. Until just about twenty minutes before it was over, when we realized we were bored and had a stack of Modern Family DVDs. What? Speeches get repetitive.

Before I go on, let me say I like Obama. Like most east coast, liberal, college-educated, fake Americans, when I’m not meeting with my coven over brunch or cavorting with known homosexuals, I’m being inspired by our president. There are some things I wish he had done differently, or at all, but overall, I like him.

As a modern lady (I can be a lady if I want to) I watched the state of the union whilst Tweeting. And I saw that a lot of my fellow American social workers were struck by the same line that I was.

“When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better.  So tonight, I am proposing that every state — every state — requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18. ”

This is an issue that affects my work directly. We work with kids who have effectively dropped out, whether or not it’s legal, all the time. It’s a problem we’re supposed to fix. I could just hear my teens’ reactions to the president’s proposal.

“Wait. I’m supposed to be in school? Heavens to Betsy, I had no idea! I’ll get myself over there post haste.”

I work with two sisters, ages 13 and 15. They’re in 7th and 9th grade, respectively. They have barely attended school all year. They see me for counseling (when I hunt them down.) ACS is involved. The school staff is shockingly dedicated, cares deeply about these kids, and have gone above and beyond to accomodate them.

But they refuse to attend school. They leave the house and go where they please. If they are walked to school, they hang out for an hour and then take off. School staff can tell them to stay, but they aren’t allowed to touch or restrain the kids. They head out to Flying-Spaghetti-Monster-knows-where until the end of the day. Their mother has no control, and has accepted the situation for what it is. They’ve been removed and placed in foster care and returned home more than once, and it made no difference.

They’re already not allowed to drop out, but they kind of have. If the age were raised to 18, would this behavior have been delayed for two years? Maybe. No wait, that’s stupid. Definitely not.

I have worked with other kids who gave up on school because they were so hopelessly far behind. I’m talking about 15, 16, and 17 year olds who were still in seventh grade, and could barely read. If they suddenly passed every year in a row, they would be 22 when graduating high school. And what are the odds that they’ll suddenly get on track academically?

There are some really good programs for kids who have missed a lot of school, are far behind, and want to graduate high school. Young Adult Borough Centers do a great job of accomodating these “overaged, under-credited” kids and getting them jobs and helping them to graduate. There are some wonderful GED programs as well. But the kids have to be in high school, and they have to be at least 17. Prior to that, they’re essentially told to wait it out.

Kids who are already truant in middle school are really lost in the shuffle. For years.

I don’t have all the answers, (it’s true, I know it’s upsetting to hear, but it’s true) but I have seen things work. Some kids have different learning needs and require an IEP, and somehow this goes unnoticed until they’re 13 and running the streets. It’s not ideal, but it’s not too late, and getting the kid in the right setting can make all the difference.

Some kids are afraid to go to school for some reason–threats of violence, fear of being arrested (one of my girls uses this excuse all the time. I think if she were really that afraid she’d stop jumping other students and stealing their stuff, but I digress.) At times this is legitimate, and needs to be addressed either by the school, or with a safety transfer.

A mentoring program or extracurricular activities that require a student to be attending school have made a huge difference in attendance for some kids I work with. One of my girls had zero interest in school, but was sufficiently excited about an afterschool dance program. It got her ass in her seat, which was my goal. Then she realized that class wasn’t quite as terrible as she thought. When kids get to an age where they’re offered, there are alternative schools that do excellent work. We need more of these programs. Desperately.

And we need more options for kids. We have over one million students in the New York City public school system. They’re not all going to graduate. I’m not talking about giving up on kids who are not succeeding academically, but we need to be realistic. There’s just no such thing as 100%. If a young person is really unable to do what is required to get an academic high school diploma, or is so disinterested that the alternative is them getting nothing and being half-heartedly chased by city officials until the age of 16 (or 18) we need another option.

Truancy is an extremely complicated, horribly frustrating problem to work on. There is not a simple solution.

Raising the dropout age, though? That’s just fucked.

No matter what, we can all agree–Newt Gingrich sucks

5 12 2011

Newt Gingrich, who is apparently (really?) a serious candidate for president, seems to kind of hate poor children. Or, if you think janitorial work is tons of fun, he loves them. I’m sure we all remember last summer, when Fox news broke the startling story that poor people have refrigerators.

Lamenting that people are not so hard up for cash that they can afford to keep their eggs at a temperature that won’t kill them, or that kids are spending time learning to read rather than mop, seems pretty harsh. I don’t usually hear that about the families I work with.

But I have been subjected to views along these lines. I’m sure you’ve all heard them as well. Everyone seems to have a neighbor who drives a Lexus to recertify for their foodstamps, or a deadbeat, unemployed cousin who has the ultra-premium cable package, complete with Showtime. Of course there are all those people in soup kitchens making calls on their iPhones, and every kid in a failing school is wearing the latest Jordans.

I mean, those people are living better than I am! And I work!

Of course, this isn’t true of many people we work with. I have a lot of families with video game addict children, but those expensive games are always purchased second hand at Game Stop. They’re looking fashionable, but that shirt was five bucks at a no-name warehouse on Fordham Road. The nice phone is most often a gift from grandma. People have told me that I’m not seeing the bigger picture–what about how much the phone plan costs a month? Um, you’re stupid. Everyone participant I work with has a pay-as-you-go deal, and very often they don’t have minutes at all.

We also hear a lot about how the people we work with just don’t know how to budget. They act like cable is a necessity. (It’s not, but I can see how you might feel that way if you have six kids.) They buy too much pre-made food. (Again, when you’ve got a bunch of hungry kids in a one bedroom apartment, and you’ve been working all day? I get it.) They don’t prioritize. (Unlike me. I needed that novelty size Pez dispenser.)

As a society, we’re too hard on the poor. We expect things of them that we ourselves can’t do. We learn to defend against these viewpoints in Comedy Central social work school. But those who say low-income people need to budget and prioritize better? They’re not always wrong.

I don’t like to say it. It goes against my liberal social work sensibility. But I have worked with some people who frustrate me in this regard. They spend more money on junk than on concrete things that their children need. I had a mother ask me for band-aids to take home for her child, explaining that she didn’t have enough money because they had just bought a Nintendo Wii. Another worker was very upset to find out that her family that was facing eviction was still paying for three cable boxes. A friend was at a loss when a mother she helped to find a new apartment was late on her rent, because she spent her pay check on a dinette set instead.

I don’t like to tell these stories. Like I said, poor people get enough shit. There are enough people who think we waste money on public assistance programs by enabling people too stupid to budget properly. As long as the children’s needs are met, how adults choose to spend their money is none of my business.

Many people were scandalized when I mentioned that my first encounter with an iPad occurred when one of the two year olds I work showed me her family’s during a home visit. (I have never felt older than when that child rolled her eyes at my inability to operate it.) People couldn’t believe that this family could have afforded an iPad. I defended them strongly. Dad works fourteen hour days, mom is home with the kids, they live extremely reasonably, but they are geeks and love technology. It’s something they enjoy as a family. They can decide what to do with their money, so shut up with your faux concern/jealousy that you don’t have one.

Until the children’s needs (school supplies, clothing, and so on) aren’t met. Or they come to me asking for help paying their back rent. Then it is my business, whether I like it or not.

I understand some of it. I delay gratification and hold off on buying things I don’t really need, because I know that I’ll be able to save up for a down payment on a house new car new pair of Chucks. When you’re making minimum wage or living on public assistance, and greatly struggling to pay rent, the idea of saving up for a larger goal is not really on the table. It doesn’t seem realistic. So spending the six dollars in your pocket on sending the kids down to the corner store to get french fries for dinner (which simultaneously gets them out of your hair for twenty minutes) seems to make sense.

I don’t think that this means the people who engage in this particularly frustrating behavior are bad parents. In my experience, a lot of them became parents very young, and are very overwhelmed in their day to day lives. I can understand that they would spend money on unnecessary, but fun, stuff.

As a broad social policy, acting like poor people don’t have it that bad, or would be fine if they just laid off the Dom Perignon to go with their steak dinners, is pointless. It’s not true, and it doesn’t work. It isn’t right, and it won’t change anything.

But one to one? We can’t feel wrong in recognizing this. And I know people do. We’re constantly defending our clients to people who think they’re bad parents, bad people, they’re free-loaders, public assistance is the reason we can’t have nice things, America!

The thing is, it’s never all or nothing. You can’t paint an entire group of people with one judgmental brush, solely based on their income. And we can’t be too protective of the populations we work with, or married to a certain point of view, that we deny that people are doing something wrong.

So in this safe space of like-minded individuals, I will say–I have a great deal of respect for all of the families I work with. They regularly blow me away with their resourcefulness and resiliency.

 But I kind of wanted to drop kick the woman who chose Nintendo Wii over band-aids.

Let’s hear it for New York (the rest of that quote makes no grammatical sense)

27 06 2011

I’m sitting here, prouder to be a New Yorker than I have been in a long time. No, we didn’t get a new theme store in Times Square. The Mets didn’t do anything remarkable, and the Yankees haven’t been traded to Guam. But Friday night, we achieved marriage equality within my state.

Watching the state senate vote yes on same sex marriage was one of those rare, special moments when you know you’re witnessing history. Even rarer, because you know you’re witnessing history in a good way, not watching events like Columbine or 9/11 unfold on TV. It was like hearing Jon Stewart call the election in favor of Obama, or seeing the first episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I’ll be honest, I haven’t witnessed that much history.

But Friday night was enough. Sitting and watching anxiously with my roommates, after convincing one of them that Anchorman on TNT could wait. (I mean, we have three copies on DVD.) Trying not to get our hopes up, but saying things like, “I think it’s actually going to happen.”

And then it did! Celebratory ciders all around, victory shouts heard throughout the neighborhood, and it was as if things had always been this way. “Remember way back this morning, when same sex couples couldn’t get married? Weird.”

Of course, there were some downers. State Senator Ruben Diaz Sr., mostly. I took a drink every time he was asked to wrap up his rambling speech, which was the only thing that got me through it. It contained such gems as, “God, not Albany, set the definition of marriage.” I would say he should stay at his church, not in Albany, if he really feels that way, but unfortunately his church is located in the Bronx. We don’t want him. Though it is gratifying to watch him be left behind by history. It’s nice to think of him being remembered as an even less effective George Wallace of this civil rights movement, an embarrassment to his family and district.

There were others, most notably Senator Grisanti, who really summed up not only being a good politician, but also a pretty decent  person. Grisanti’s speech essentially stated that, though he was raised to personally believe that same sex marriage was wrong, he had to separate this from his work and recognize that all people were deserving of fair and equal treatment.

My social work sense was tingling the entire time.

It doesn’t make everything perfect. We don’t have full equality and acceptance, things aren’t magically better. This is one step, a massively important step, towards inclusivity.

I am already excited for the way that this affects not only the lives of my friends, family, and all New Yorkers, but for how it affects my work as well.

A lot of the LGBT people we work with are young, struggling with their identity, and dealing with being only marginally accepted, or outright rejected, by their families and communities. Some social workers I know, particularly workers I met in Japanese Game Show social work school who fancied themselves the Most Out Of The Box Left Thinking Social Worker There Ever Was, talked about marriage equality as an issue of privilege. Something that didn’t matter to a homeless teen.

But people who say that are kidding themselves. The right to marry might not mean a whole lot to a teenager recently kicked out of his parents home and struggling to make it day to day. But living in a state that grants that teenager his basic rights and recognizes him as a full citizen counts for a lot. Just listen to couples who have been together for ten, twenty, fifty years, talk about what marriage means to them. Being recognized as a legitimate couple and family, having equal rights…that’s good for everyone.

I certainly hope that, if I had been around during the 1960s civil rights movement, George Wallace and other segregationists would have pissed me off just as much as Ruben Diaz did. Because stripping people of their rights and humanity goes against our values, personally and professionally.

As social workers, and decent people, we need to keep fighting for equality. And we also need to celebrate this victory.

Cider’s on me!

Same old woman, different shoe: The housing saga continues

23 03 2011

Monday, March 21st was a rough day in this office. Phones were ringing off the hook. There was also a surge in people being directed to my blog (OK, so it wasn’t all bad) by search terms including the words “Advantage voucher” and “FEPS,” or “Family Eviction Prevention Supplement.”

That’s because letters went out the previous week, informing clients that the Advantage voucher program was ending. No more rent checks would be issued after April 1st. The Advantage program is a program that helped people to move out of shelters and into their own apartments. The idea is that the program pays your rent for two years, then either ends or tapers off, converting into a Section 8 subsidy.

Except, Section 8 is no longer available. OK. And the waiting list for public housing is still years long. Oh, and rent in NYC, even in the Bronx, is still just a bit high.

Did I mention that people were informed of this March 21st? That their rent would no longer be paid as of April 1st? Not, “Oh, we won’t be honoring your two-for-one yogurt coupon.” We won’t be paying for the place that you and your children live.

We had a bit of a heads up at the office. The New York Times (let’s face it, all struggling parents have the time and energy to read the Times cover to cover, daily) ran this article explaining that this was happening due to the city’s financial crisis.

It’s cool. We’re short on funds, so we’re making people homeless.

In case you’re wondering, this is not SocialJerk being dramatic. It’s not my style. (Not entirely true, I was a fierce Little Engine that Could in 1989, but I digress.) The NYC Department of Homelessness website explains that if you have an active public assistance case, and are receiving cash assistance, you might qualify for a rental allowance. It might not be enough to cover your current rent; in fact, it almost definitely will not be enough. But it will be something. If you have sanctions, due to missing a recertification date, or skipping a Back to Work program in favor of attending college, or you only receive food stamps, too bad. Not happening. You are responsible for your rent, and you have a week to come up with it.

Now, SocialJerk, these are adults. Shouldn’t they be responsible for their own rent? I mean, is that asking so much? I certainly pay my own rent!

Shut up. Hear me out. Certainly, independence and self-reliance is the goal. But that’s not what our public assistance system is set up for. It’s set up to give people the least amount of help and comfort for a limited amount of time before cutting them loose. The Advantage program helped a lot of my clients get out of shelters. That’s great. And it paid their rent for a while. Also great. But their excessive public assistance appointments, the constant sanctions and fair hearings, the difficulty getting themselves enrolled in school (b-t-dubs, higher education is actively discouraged) in favor of attending pointless “work programs,” and the hoops they have to jump through just to get their kids into day care? Shockingly, none of this gets people educated and into a job that will pay their rent.

Maybe you don’t care. Maybe you think people deserve this, because their poor women minorities lazy. But a vast majority of these people have kids. And all that money the city doesn’t have? Is being spent on building new shelters. Very cost effective, I foresee no issues with this plan.

I spent a lot of time on the phone yesterday with a 22 year old mother of two. She wound up in a shelter after leaving the abusive father of her children. She got out with the help of the Advantage program. This woman described herself as being “on top of the world” when she moved into a one bedroom apartment with faulty plumbing and broken windows.

She was at her local PA office all day yesterday, missing a day of college classes, trying to figure out what to do. She knows that this is going to interfere with her completing her education, and with her daughters continuing at their current day care. She doesn’t want to return to the shelter, but she doesn’t have anywhere else to go.

This woman doesn’t have until April 1st, because, due to budget issues, the Department of Homeless Services started missing rent payments for her a few months ago. Now the arrears are her responsibility. She’s missing school, and almost forgot that it was her youngest child’s third birthday today, because of all the stress.

But really, the mom is irresponsible. That toddler doesn’t deserve presents or cake.

You can think what you want about these types of programs. But to tell people that they’ll be helped, to promise them a service, to provide them with something as basic as a place to live, and then yank that away with minimal warning, is cruel and inhumane. To go after people who are too busy, too overwhelmed, to wrapped up in struggling to survive to protest and call attention to their plight, is wrong.

New York social workers are now in the position of receiving these calls, and having to tell people that there’s nothing to be done. I knew the system was broken before, but it never hit me in this way.

It’s our job to fight this.

Moving on up! (But staying in the exact same place)

10 03 2011

I don’t know if you all heard the news, but I think it’s time to share. Here at Anonymous Agency, we’re expecting! That’s right. 150 new families, 13 new case planners, three new supervisors, and a new director.

At a time when a lot of social service agency are hemmorhaging workers, and losing funding to serve clients, we’re getting more. Why, you must be asking, could that be?

For one, we’re very, very good. I say that facetiously, but it’s true. We do good work. This place is less crazy than most agencies.

For another, our proposal promised to do a lot with a little. More than possible, some would say. (I mean, I wouldn’t say that. That would be termination worthy incorrect.)

We had a meeting the other day to discuss, what else, doing more with less. It’s been the topic of pretty much every staff meeting we’ve had since our old director who made us do group-building yoga exercises left.

The main problem is space. We’re getting a lot of new people. And we don’t have anywhere to put them. We’ll be able to use a large room down the hall, but that’s all we’re adding on, in terms of office, cubicle, and counseling space.

Let's try a helpful visual aid.

This is the office as we currently have it. Those smiley faces are workers. The smiley face with the long hair and eyebrow ring is your very own SocialJerk. The one with glasses that make him look like a ninja turtle is my desk mate.

These little diagrams were passed out a staff meeting, which the Big Boss attended. She frightens me. And when I’m nervous, I get extra sarcastic and try to be funny. It’s not the best defense mechanism, I admit.

She came in and told us that we would have to rework our floor plan. The large room down the hall will be divided in half, so one half can be used for groups, and the other can be used for case planners.

In the space we currently use, we would have to figure out how to cram in some extra cubicles, give the new supervisors the private offices that they so richly deserve, and not sacrifice all of our counseling space.

Now, if you ask me, the priority is counseling space. Yes, we need a place to do our paper work, and a spot to keep our files, but without counseling space, what’s the point?

Obviously, I’m an idiot.

“”Can the supervisors share offices?”
“Well, that would make supervision difficult.”
“But they’re not supervising all the time. Maybe they can work on sharing the space, come up with an arrangement.”
“I’m not sure that would work.”

I took “that won’t work” to mean, “We want our own damn offices, Snood isn’t going to beat itself.” I might have just been in a bad mood.

Then one of my coworkers suggested using a potential counseling room as a storage area. I’m sorry, are we running a big box store on the side? I understand that we have a lot of junk here, but let’s try to clear it out and keep what we need in actual closets.

How about our enormous filing cabinets? What if we attached a shelf over everyone’s desk, so they could lock and keep their files there?

“But where will be put the cabinets?”

It was the strangest descent into office life I’d ever experienced. It was as though I’d stumbled upon a primitive culture, who had no idea of the advances going on in the world around them. “That is the rock. The rock has always been there. We cannot move it.” For a moment, I comtemplated taking out my smart phone and convincing them to worship me as a goddess.

Every suggestion that was made, some Debbie Downer, or Negative Ned, I don’t care which one, piped in with why it was terrible. If we use partitions they won’t be soundproof, if we give away the donated clothes we won’t have them when we need them, turning cubicles that way might be a fire hazard, bunk desks are a dangerous and stupid idea, SocialJerk, stop suggesting that.

Somehow we developed impossibly higher standards for our new space. Even higher than the standards we currently have. (To be fair, you’ve seen pictures, our standards are pretty low.)

But changes are coming, whether we like it or not. One thing I’ve always loved about social work is that it allows me to creative and flexible in my practice.

So I’m still holding out for top desk.

Never fear, PC Gal is here! (Fear no, annoyance yes.)

8 03 2011

It’s been a while since we’ve revisited A Series of Unfortunate Events social work school. That magical land where I learned the importance of language. No, I don’t mean not swearing at clients (though I do recommend that you try to avoid this) but of the all important politically correct terminology.

Apparently, I’d been unwittingly oppressing everyone around me. To be honest, I was open to learning.

I think being “PC” has gotten a bad rap. What’s wrong with making an effort not to offend someone? Think of all the times someone has made you feel like garbage, and then explained, “well, I didn’t mean it!” Really? I didn’t mean to stick my foot in your ass, so I guess we’re even.

In the words of Simon Amstell (whatever, I like curly haired, insecure, English comedians) “I like that political correctness exists, though, otherwise we’d all still be racists.”

While this view is a bit simplistic, it is also a bit accurate. Language evolves. Some words that used to be offensive no longer are. Some words that used to appear on government documents will now earn you a gasp and shunning in polite company. We need to pay attention to that.

But what I learned in social work school was that it wasn’t enough to be politically correct. You had to be the most politically correct. You had to win the non-racist, non-homophobic, non-transphobic, non-sexist, non-classist, non-sizist, anything else you can think of award.

If there was an actual trophy up for grabs, I might have been more interested in playing along. Instead, it just seemed that we were playing for smug satisfaction, and the right to make other people feel stupid.

One girl, a repeat offender, informed us all that we were to refer to people as being “white-skinned” rather than white. I think she explained, but I had stopped listening. Like I said, repeat offender.

This is the same girl who told our class that we should be referring to Native Americans as “first nations peoples.”

After doing a little research, it was determined that I was the only one in the room who actually knew any native people. I explained that my cousins liked the term “native” and had banners reading, “Native all the way!” decorating their MySpace pages. They had never heard of the term “first nations people.” If asked, they said they were Navajo, because that was more accurate.

What’s that, someone speaking from experience? Silence!

I was also not open-minded in my disdain for “Stop Snitching” t-shirts. Apparently, the viewpoint that this movement primarily benefitted drug dealers and brought stuggling neighborhoods further down was not welcome. I had no right to say such things because…again, I stopped listening.

Once I referred to a client as “overweight.” This caused a clusterfuck of epic proportions.

Let me remind you that I said, “overweight.” I did not say, “What a raging fatty-boombatty” or call her a “heifer.” I referenced the fact that her weight was higher than what was recommended and healthy for her height. This was a factor in her low self-esteem.

I then got a twenty minute lecture on being “fat positive,” and how saying that someone is “overweight” is offensive, because it’s too clinical.

Since learning more about that particular issue, I think there’s a lot to be said for it. But (prepare to be shocked) being told in a room full of people that I was wrong, that everyone in this room is now dumber for having listened to you, I award you no points, and may God have mercy on your soul (sorry, I had to) did not make me want to open up and listen. It made me think that this girl was kind of a jerk.

That’s not a PC term, but I can use it because I am one too.

I appreciate what these other students were trying to do, kind of. I understand that they wanted to empower clients to accept and love themselves.

But the problem is that a lot of our clients don’t talk or think like this, and this isn’t the problem they come to us seeking help for. I think PC Gal would catch the vapors and drop dead of shock if she heard some of the things my clients say.

“Miss! Sorry to be ghetto, I’m throwing down the key!” yelled one mother out her fourth floor window. (Ghetto? Ugh, how judgmental!)

“Yeah, my mom beat us. But she’s mad Dominican.” (Painting an entire culture with such a broad stroke? For shame.)

“You can’t discriminate against my kid based on his sex, religion, political affiliation, or the fact that he’s queer as a three dollar bill!” (OK, that last one was Burt from Glee. But I think it illustrates my point nicely.)

I don’t know that telling someone that everything they say (even about themselves) is wrong and offensive is really going to help. It’s a tricky, delicate, issue, and pretending that it’s not just really doesn’t help anyone.

I just hope I figure it out by March 17th, so I can celebrate with all the other drunk micks.

Our bodies, Ourselves (Also, our snacks)

3 02 2011

Last night, we packed up the scented candles and snacks (my goodness, my girls love ranch dressing) one last time. It was our final teen girls’ group.

SocialJerk, you said you weren’t going to cry.

OK, I’m back.

We did the things you usually do when terminating (my, that word sounds kind of harsh) with a group. The girls did evaluations. We reminisced. We talked about what went well, what could have gone better. And we asked the girls what they learned.

They had a lot to say. A lot about confidence, and self-esteem, and making friends. But one thing stuck out to me.

“I learned that I can say ‘no.’ Like, that people should listen to it.”

It’s not a groundbreaking idea, I know. And this girl had definitely heard before that she has a right to her boundaries, and that people should respect them.

But still. This was something important, that she credited group in helping her with.

Weeks earlier, we had a rather memorable sex ed chat with the girls, which was spread over two sessions. A lot of the second week was spent talking about the right to say no. Is “no” ever not enough? Can you ever sacrifice that right?

Some of the girls thought that you can. Quite easily.

We asked the question, “If a girl is wearing something sexy, and she’s assaulted, does she have the right to go to the police?”

Why was I so naive to think that this wouldn’t be a debate?

Almost all of the girls thought that a girl dressed “too sexy” was at least partly to blame for her assault. My co-leader and I challenged this assumption. We talked about self-control. Why are we constantly degrading men, acting like they’re dogs who can’t help but hump anything that will hold still for long enough? It seemed like these girls legitimately thought that a man could not be expected to have any restraint if he saw a woman showing too much skin.

I then pointed out how subjective “too sexy” is. Have you ever seen footage from Afghanistan? Saudi Arabia? They would be scandalized by you showing your arms, your ankles, your neck. Does your grandma ever think your clothes are too revealing, when you know they’re exactly what everyone else is wearing? OK, so how could one possibly regulate this?

“Well, maybe the guy AND the girl should go to jail.”

Oh, dear.

One girl (there’s always one) looked at the rest like they were crazy. “I don’t show off my body, but no one has a right to touch you if you don’t want them to.”

Thank God for you!

The other girls came around a bit. And I think they will continue to. I’m glad they were exposed to some different ideas. It’s important to challenge those immediate assumptions, because people really just don’t realize how silly the knee-jerk reaction is. Oprah showed us all when she interviewed Trisha Meili, “the Central Park jogger,” who was raped while out jogging. She asked her what she was doing in the park at that hour, alone?

We’ve all heard it. Most of us have thought it. “It’s terrible what happened, don’t get me wrong. But what was she doing in that area/out at that hour/walking alone/going home with that guy/drinking that much/dressing like that?”

Um, she was probably looking for someone to assault her horribly. I mean, obvi.

We need to teach girls that they have control over their own bodies. That they have rights, and are entitled to their boundaries. That their bodies are not on loan.

A lot of us have been hearing about HR 3, a charming bit of legislation that would make it more difficult for low-income women to have Medicaid pay for their abortions in cases of rape.

Stay classy, Republicans (and one Democrat.)

They want to limit Medicaid funded abortions to cases of “forcible rape.” You attorneys out there will recognize the term “forcible rape” from your second year law class, “Legal Terms That Do Not Exist and In Fact Make No Sense.”

All rape is forcible. What they’re saying here is, you weren’t really raped. Unless a stranger jumped out of the bushes and assaulted you while you were walking to the library in a safe neighborhood at a reasonable hour, preferably while you were wearing a nun’s habit, it simply doesn’t count. Saying “no” isn’t enough. You are not in charge of your own body.

I don’t delude myself into thinking that my girls are C-Span junkies, hanging on John Boehner’s every word. But they are getting this message. It’s a part of our culture.

And let’s bear in mind, in our work, that this is something we need to challenge. Making sure that women are aware that they have agency over their lives and bodies is crucial to what we’re trying to do. The idea that one of these girls, my girls, could be victimized in the future, or think of how they’ve been victimized in the past, and see it as something they brought on themselves, breaks my heart.

Which is enough to get me preparing for our next group already. I’ll get the ranch dressing.