Promises to Keep

Carol A. Hand

Sometimes I wish there was someone to rock me to sleep
To lighten my burdens and give me time to weep
Some days the cruelty seems too heavy to bear
The powerful keep causing suffering and don’t seem to care.

Hubris and profligacy rule in these days
Tragically it’s the earth and the majority that pays
Let me breathe in love, let my courage run deep
Let me love life fiercely, I have promises to keep.


Photo: Aadi, Ahma (Me), Ava, Jnana – Duluth 2009


La Joie de la Vie

Carol A. Hand

Funny what people will do
When they care deeply about others.
I finally gave my car a name
Even though it’s nine year’s old
Inspired by the song my granddaughter sang
As we washed it together yesterday
In the intermittent rain.


Photo: Ava in front of the Sunshine Café – July 24, 2015

After Mickey Mouse pancakes
With a chocolate chip smile
At the Sunshine Café
Where we stopped for a while.
An assortment of people
Caught my attention as we
Drew pictures and ate our lunch
Some because of their silent kindness
Others because of their need to be seen.


Photo: Sunshine Café – July 24, 2015

When we left the Café to go home
It was 90 degrees in the blazing sun
But in the few minutes to took us to arrive
The clouds had come and I wondered aloud,
What can we do that’s fun in the rain?
Do you think we should wash the car?
Oh yes, oh yes!,” you said.
So I grabbed a bucket and two new sponges,
Yours orange and mine purple.

Does your car have a name?
I thought quickly of one of your favorite toys – Pink Pony!
And I remembered an Ojibwe friend from long ago
Who teased me about riding to the rescue in my White Pony
When I drove another white car
Through the forests, past lakes and farmlands
To tribal communities and the State Capital
In our work on tribal social justice issues.

So my car was given its predecessor’s name – White Pony.
But this White Pony mostly stays in the driveway now
Even though it once climbed mountain passes
As it brought me, in a round-about way, to my new home.


Photo: Ava hard at work – July 24, 2015

Dear Ava, although I didn’t tell you how the car got this name
I listened to the song you sang.
Oh poor White Pony, I know you’re very sad
Because the other ponies tease you about being so dirty
But you are loved – that’s why we’re washing you.
Now the bullies will leave you alone.”
I didn’t ask where this song came from – but now
I know I need to continue to watch and listen
Even more carefully to make sure you’re safe.

Although I appreciate the memories of days long ago
I’m much more grateful for the chance to be here with you
To hear your songs, dear Ava, and to watch you grow.
I hope you always remember that you are loved, too.


Photo: Ava – ready for the rain – July 24, 2015

In the end, it’s not the things we have that matter.
It’s the time we have together – working, singing, laughing, loving
And enjoying life – whether it’s hot and sunny or even in the intermittent rain …

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Reflections about Choices and Possibilities

Carol A. Hand

As a young child, I had two recurring dreams. In one, I was on a screened porch. Just beyond the screen were hungry, scary monsters. They were snarling and clawing in their attempt to break through the screen to get to me, and I huddled in fright. I would awake with my heart racing. But this dream was often followed by another. In the second dream, I would stand at the top of stairs in my house with my arms widespread. I would jump gently and soar thought the air. I easily exited my house as I swooped though the front door and realized my thoughts could take me high into the sky far above the earth or allow me to hover just above people who were walking on the earth. I still have days that alternate between these two possibilities.

crouching child

Photo: Crouching Child

I often think about these contrasting choices – to feel boxed in and exposed, paralyzed by fear or to fly free above the chaos. Both are lonely choices for a life lived on the margins. I’m sure there are other choices, yet these two seem to alternate in an endless loop for me. And I return once again to contemplate the words of Krishnamurti.

“The urge to find out what truth is, what God is, is the only real urge and all other urges are subsidiary. When you throw a stone into still water, it makes expanding circles. The expanding circles are the subsidiary movements, the social reactions, but the real movement is at the centre, which is the movement to find happiness, God, truth; and you cannot find it as long as you are caught in fear, held by a threat. From the moment there is the arising of threat and fear, culture declines.” (p. 89)

As I think about what is happening in the world today, I see the consequences of fear – paralysis or efforts to ensure safety by conquest and control. And I see the consequences of people who have continued to pursue change or revolution by fighting inside of the imprisoning paradigms of the oppressive, limiting assumptions they have been socialized to accept without question. I was one of them in the past.

“Have you not noticed how arrogant idealists are? The political leaders who bring about certain results, who achieve great reforms – have you not noticed that they are full of themselves? In their own estimation they are very important. Read a few of the political speeches, watch some of these people who call themselves reformers, and you will see that in the very process of reformation they are cultivating their own ego; their reforms, however extensive, are still within the prison, therefore they are destructive and ultimately bring more misery and conflict to man [sic].

“Now, if you can see through this whole social structure, the cultural pattern of the collective will which we call civilization – if you can understand all that and break away from it, break through the prison walls of your particular society, whether Hindu, communist, or Christian, then you will find that there comes a confidence which is not tainted with the sense of arrogance. It is the confidence of innocence. It is like the confidence of a child who is so completely innocent he [she] will try anything. It is this innocent confidence that will bring about a new civilization; but this innocent confidence cannot come into being as long as you remain within the social pattern.” (pp. 94-95)

Of course there are risks when one takes flight, free from the comforting confines of tradition. It is takes great faith and love to dare the lift off – and even greater faith and endurance to remain in flight. But the first steps may seem impossible. How does one free oneself from “the dust of many centuries, the dust of what we call knowledge, experience”? (p. 101) The first step for me is recognizing it is crucial to free my heart and mind so I can leave the screened porch to see new possibilities. It’s a hard step to take in these times. The second is mustering the courage to take flight outside of the prison of “yesterday’s reminiscences.” (p. 101) Although I carry the weight of my ancestors’ historical trauma and my own, let me choose to take the risk at this moment. As one simple ordinary person, let me observe what was and what is without paralyzing fear from the distance of love and possibilities for what can assuredly come to be.

dancer (1)

Photo Credit: Dancer (Carol A. Hand)

Work Cited:

Krishnamurti (1989). Think on these things. New York, NY: Harper Perennial.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Reflections about Indian Child Welfare – July 15, 2015

Carol A. Hand

The most difficult part of any new initiative for me is figuring out where to begin. What is it I hope to achieve with this newest project – a book about Indian child welfare? What can I say that hasn’t already been said, and what do I really know for sure? Who would be the best audience – the audience that would be most receptive and most likely to act in thoughtful ways to address continuing oppression? These are some of the questions I have been pondering as I look at the blinking cursor on my empty computer screen.

Start somewhere,” I tell myself. “You have a title, so draft a title page.” (Yes, I often refer to myself in third person language in my thoughts. I’m not sure why even though I think it’s rather odd …)

rescuing children title page jpg

Photo: Draft Title Page

But how should I begin? Here’s my most recent beginning. I really do welcome your honest comments and suggestions.


Imagine that you were a five-year old boy or girl walking along the road in your village. A village where you knew everyone, where you felt safe because the villagers all watched over you and kept you from being hungry or harmed, until that one day when no adults saw the strangers that drove by and enticed you into a car. You had never ridden in a car before and were curious as many children your age would be. Now imagine that it would be more than a decade before you would see your family or community again. You awoke from the long journey to find yourself in a strange place with many other strange children. More than seventy years later, you still carry the scar on your hand from that day when the adults in that strange new place where you found yourself hit you with a sharp-edged ruler because you asked another child where the restroom was in the only language you knew, “Indian.”

Imagine what you would feel as a parent or grandparent if your child suddenly disappeared. You knew he or she was not the first to be taken by the strangers who had invaded your homeland more than a century before. And he or she would not be the last to be taken by the descendants of strangers whose language and ways were different and who had the power to take your land and confine you to a small “reserved” area of your original homeland after they clear cut all of your trees. Strangers who had the power to outlaw your language, spiritual practices, and ways of life. Now they were taking your children and there was absolutely nothing you or anyone else in the community could do to get your children back or stop the kidnapping. Imagine what all of the relatives, elders and warriors of your community would feel and how profoundly it would forever change the community and how you felt about life.

This is only one of the stories I heard from Ojibwe community members whose childhoods were spent in places far from their families and community. This book shares some of their stories and describes the historical events and contemporary consequences for a system that claimed to be rescuing children from neglect and abuse. I leave it you as the reader to determine if the inhumane and traumatizing child welfare policies that were and are still imposed on Indigenous peoples in what is now the United States are something that should remain unacknowledged, unchanged, and unchallenged.


1. For those who haven’t read prior posts, the photos on the title page are of my mother before and after Indian boarding school.
2. I was inspired to write this reflection after a conversation I had with a dear friend yesterday. She asked me what my purpose for writing the book was and who the intended audience was. This is my first attempt to respond to those questions. I hope you will share your views.

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Scent of Sweetgrass

Carol A. Hand

Suddenly, I awake when I’m in your presence –
The scent of sweetgrass
My attention is sharpened and focused,
I feel peace and hope and joy surge in my heart.

You appear at the strangest of times.


Photo: Sweetgrass. ( Source – Four Sacred Medicines …, Kade M. Ferris )

I’m not sure what I am doing just before
Your delicate essence drifts by,
A gentle wake-up call to become aware
Of the beauty of life that surrounds me.

Even in a world where people are suffering
And fighting pointless endless wars
For things that will never bring them happiness or peace.
Your presence gives me hope that peace is possible.

Chi miigwetch for reminding me of what really matters,
For reminding me to breathe deeply
To be present, to love and to celebrate simply being
During the fleeting moment of this life.

 Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

“Draw a Monument”

Carol A. Hand

It was a July morning in 2011. An odd group of faculty, mostly from the English and art departments of a university, gathered for an in-service to learn how to use art as a vehicle for unlocking people’s stories. The instructor began.

You have two minutes to draw the first thing that comes to mind for each of the words or phrases I mention. Don’t worry about technique. That will just interfere with your ability to tap what is most important to you.

Draw the ‘safe place when you were a child.’ Draw ‘pressure – the pressure you feel from all of the demands that you deal with in your life.’ Now, draw a ‘monument.’”

For me, the images I drew that day were all linked to nature, to the natural world. That has always been my source of balance and solace in times of challenge and uncertainty. And now, as nature is threatened ever more by forces of exploitive disregard and destruction, it’s hard to hold on to a sense of hope and peace some days.

Unlike my colleagues, I didn’t draw an edifice of marble or concrete, I drew a tree – a living monument of what helps us survive on this planet. If Jared Diamond’s (2005) thesis is accurate, could it be that one of the final death knells for societies is the destruction of the forests that blanket the earth and give us all oxygen to breathe?


Photo: My beloved old willow tree after it lost a huge branch in the wind – June 5, 2015

“The process through which past societies have undermined themselves by damaging their environments fall into eight categories, whose relative importance differs from case to case: deforestation and habitat destruction, soil problems (erosion, salinization, and soil fertility losses), water management problems, overhunting, overfishing, effects of introduced species on native species, human population growth, and increased per-capita impact of people” (Diamond, p. 6)

“The environmental problems facing us today include the same eight that undermined past societies, plus four new ones: human-caused climate change, buildup of toxic chemicals in the environment, energy shortages, and full human utilization of Earth’s photosynthetic capacity” (Diamond, p. 7)

I believe that many people feel the risks we face, but don’t know what they can do. I ask myself what I can do in a world controlled by the intensifying invasive tentacles of psychopathic corporate environmental destruction. I don’t have an answer. I ponder this question as I work on saving what I can in my own yard first – the years of neglect and expedient solutions – burying garbage (old concrete slabs, glass, nails, and shingles) and covering the landscape with a variety of invasive plants and trees that have been neglected for decades by people who were simply doing the best they could with the knowledge and resources they had.

Often it feels pointless and selfish to spend my days trying to preserve what I can and clean up messes. As a retired change agent, I often feel I should be doing something “more important” on a larger scale – on a community, state or national level. But I don’t have answers for others. I need time for healing and reflection. (For now, I have the luxury to do so, if I’m willing to live very simply. I can’t remove the storm windows by myself or afford to replace them, but I can plant flowers in the flowerboxes beneath them.)


Photo: July 10, 2015

As I work at grueling physical labor,
I watch my thoughts and feelings,
I sweat and swear,
Laugh at myself and my struggles – and find peace,
Sometimes present and other times floating in memories of past times and places,
Talking to plants and earthworms,
To the robins that are watching
Eagerly waiting to explore the earth I’ve just uncovered
And swatting at mosquitoes (I’m sorry to say).

I arise the next morning knowing there are still new jobs to be done. There is no ego or allure of fame and fortune involved. I know what I am doing will not save us from the future, but it gives me comfort to know that around the globe, people are tending the earth with hard work and loving care. Living simply and breathing love into the work we do whatever it might be – it’s what we can do for ourselves and the future of our grandchildren and our world.

“Actually, while it won’t be easy to reduce our impact, it won’t be impossible either. Remember that impact is the product of two factors: population, multiplied times impact per person.” (Diamond, p. 524)

The trees and the gardens we tend and the love we breathe into the world around us are the most important monuments we can leave.

Work Cited:

Jared Diamond (2005). Collapse: How societies choose to fail or succeed. New York, NY: Viking Penguin.

 Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Social Security and Nationalism

Carol A. Hand

As “Independence Day” approaches, I am reminded of a discussion I had with students in an undergraduate social welfare policy course I was teaching in a prairie-state university. The topic for the day was the Social Security Act. As I thought about the class, I couldn’t tune out the context. The year was 2002. The U.S. was poised to invade Iraq with the flimsiest of excuses.

“In October 2002, the U.S. Congress passed a “Joint Resolution to Authorize the Use of United States Armed Forces Against Iraq“.”

People’s lives and their futures hung in the balance.

historical policy shifts

Slide – C.A. Hand – American Social Welfare Policy PowerPoint – April 23, 2014

It’s clear that wars have always deflected the attention of the nation from the needs of people, providing an excuse to decimate the grudgingly created and almost always inadequate social safety net in the U.S. How could I follow my syllabus by discussing a topic students always found boring even in the best of times?

The costs of war would certainly affect all of the programs covered by the Social Security Act (e.g., Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, Aid for Families with Dependent Children – now called Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, and Supplemental Security Income).

“Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone. It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children…. This is, I repeat, the best way of life to be found on the road the world has been taking. This is not a way of life at all, in any true sense. Under the cloud of threatening war, it is humanity hanging from a cross of iron…. Is there no other way the world may live?”
Dwight D. Eisenhower

The future of vulnerable populations would no doubt be bleaker because of the resources wasted on war, and so would the job prospects for this eager group of 25 undergraduate social work students. I wanted them to think about the context critically. So instead of a lecture, I asked them what they thought about the prospect of their nation invading Iraq. I also took time to have the class as a whole develop a list of ground rules for the discussion before I randomly assigned them into smaller groups to discuss and record their views.

This was something new for them. Although they were social work majors, many were first generation college students from small conservative rural communities. Most were Euro-American, but there were a few Black students as well. The group discussions were animated but respectful. (The ground rules they helped develop really did work!)

We reconvened as a whole class when they were ready. Teams began to share views across the political spectrum. One Black student who shared a particularly critical view of the US invasion of Iraq asked me what I thought. “That’s a legitimate question. I promise to share my views when all of you have had an opportunity to speak,” I replied.

All of the students participated and shared their differing views, and the dialogue that followed was inclusive and respectful. With less than ten minutes of class left, it was my turn to deliver on my promise. But what could I say that would honestly reflect my feelings and beliefs that would not be viewed as judgmental, and perhaps, as treasonous?

Now, as then, I suspect many would not agree with the views I shared that day.

“When I think of independence, I think of history. My Ojibwe ancestors were not liberated at the end of the revolt against England. Our oppression has continued and deepened over the centuries since 1776, as has that of other tribes and people around the globe. And even though I know many Native American people feel a great sense of pride as warriors and defenders of their homeland, I feel no allegiance to any national government. I feel no need to fight to defend territory demarcated by imaginary lines that separate neighboring peoples or to risk my life to defend the sardonic mythology of “freedom and liberty for all.” In fact it makes me very angry to know that generations of Native American children were forced to celebrate holidays that symbolized their defeat and oppression at the hands of the U.S. army. A disproportionate number of Native Americans have proudly served the U.S. and still do, even though the same government has done little to address the many legacies of genocide, land theft, and deliberate destruction of cultures that tribal communities still experience today.”

So then as now I would say that the U.S. has no right to invade another sovereign nation to impose its will on other cultures and peoples. In 2003, as in the 1700s and 1800s in the U.S., the invasion was really about gaining power as a nation and establishing control over resources.

I ended by saying that I respect and honor those whose views are different than mine, but I feel it is my ethical responsibility to speak the truth as I see it from my perspective today.

The class was thoughtfully silent. Many came up after class to thank me for sharing another perspective, including the young woman who asked me to share my views.

The midway outcome for the Iraq invasion? Journalist Christian Parenti (2004) reports his observations when he visited the children’s hospital in Iraq during late April, 2004.

“I had seen several children in Baghdad with enlarged heads and huge veins bulging from their skulls and been told that this condition and other bizarre cancers and childhood diseases are linked to roughly 1,700 tons of depleted uranium-tipped weaponry that the United States used on Iraq during both wars” (p. 57).


Photo: Microsoft WORD Clipart
“… the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air, gave proof through the night that our flag was still there …”

I know that as you watch “Independence Day” parades and fireworks, you will think about what freedom really means not only to you but also for others here and around the globe. Real social security means addressing the suffering of others, not with bombs but with peace, equality and compassion.

Work Cited:

Christian Parenti (2004) The freedom: Shadows and hallucinations in occupied Iraq. New York, NY: The New Press.

 Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

One with the Storm

Carol A. Hand

Suddenly the sky fills with dark clouds,
Lightning flashes and thunder rumbles,
Echoing from the hill to the west, intensifying its power.
Heavy rain begins to fall, buffeted by the wind.

I offer tobacco with a prayer,
Please spare us all from harm.”

Suddenly I am one with the storm raging overhead
I can feel its energy coursing through my body
My heart is aglow and I feel the warmth
Of healing energy flowing from my hands.
I send out love to all those who are suffering,
And to those who cause others to suffer.
May we learn to live in peace with each other
And in balance with the earth we all share.”

The storm quickly passes,
The sky clears and the wind calms,
Leaving only rain-soaked gardens in its wake.
I offer tobacco again, “Chi miigwetch.”

I wonder, “Is this the key for surviving other storms?”

garden june 29 2015

Photo: June 29, 2015

 Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

Reflections about Symbolic Actions

Carol A. Hand

Thoughts racing all over the place –
Happy for some but worried
That seeming humane advances
For some groups while other groups suffer
Without an end in sight
Is only a calculated way to create divisions
Among those on the margins.

mole lake flag

Photo Credit: Sokaogon Band of Lake Superior Chippewa – Mole Lake Band Flag

We speak of flags as symbols
Yes, we are a nation still at war.
To me, that is democracy
Where the thinnest majority may sometimes
Have a modest say
But only in the best of times.
These are not the best of times.

Polarized views are seldom addressed or reconciled
And left to fester until another
Winner-take-all contest.
There have always been overseers of the rabble
To serve as buffers for the gated elite.
What will it take for us to realize
That we all need to stand together as one?


Photo Credit: Brotherhood of the Spirit – Warwick, MA – 1973

Copyright Notice: © Carol A. Hand and carolahand, 2013-2015. Unauthorized use and/or duplication of this material without express and written permission from this blog’s author and/or owner is strictly prohibited. Excerpts and links may be used, provided that full and clear credit is given to Carol A. Hand and carolahand with appropriate and specific direction to the original content.

The Power of Socio-Cultural Programming

Carol A. Hand

“Critical theory holds that … capitalist social organization is the overarching social problem from which most other social problems derive.” (Luske, 1998, 0. 118)

Living in the liminal space between cultures often provides a confounding but fascinating vantage point. It’s difficult to explain this to others who have had the comfortable privilege of growing up surrounded by only one perspective. Advocacy and teaching are challenging in such a context. How can one provide opportunities to raise awareness about alternative perspectives and meanings? Three rather divergent examples from my time in academia came to mind as I thought about this question.

Norma b

Photo: Lac Du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation – 1923 –

My mother at 2 dressed by the wealthy Euro-American woman who wanted to adopt her

norma 1

Photo: Lac du Flambeau Ojibwe reservation – 1928 –

My mother at 7 (her birth mother refused to allow her to be adopted)


Research that uncovers the powerful, seductive appeal of social status.

One of the resources I found helpful is an article that details the findings of a critical ethnographic study conducted by simulating social inequality in a college classroom: Are we all dumb cattle to be branded and corralled? – Social inequality and praxis in the college classroom (Luske, 1998). In a core social work course on the sociology of inequality, the instructor conducted what he describes as a critical ethnography. At the beginning of the semester, students were randomly selected to be in one of three groups – upper, middle, or lower class – “to simulate the accident of birth.” “Color-coded badges are issued to lower and middle classes, and each of the three classes is assigned different class-specific workloads, privileges, or liabilities” (p. 120). Students are required to keep a journal of their feelings during the project to analyze the effectiveness of the course in relation to the “readings and their own lives” (p. 121).

The instructor carefully explains the purpose on the first day of class, hoping that students would come together to challenge his authority and the system of inequality despite these socially constructed divisions imposed by his authority.

“… my main goal is to stir in each student a deep, even painful experiential knowledge of ‘unfairness’ as indicative of the systemic social inequality which essentially characterizes American society – or, if the student inherits upper-class status, to feel the direct sting of resentment or opposition.”

Are you curious to know what he discovered in this study of social work students whose ethical code specifically emphasizes the profession’s obligation to challenge social injustice?

The classroom revolution finally emerged in the tenth week of a sixteen-week semester when a group of four students, comprised of representatives from each social class, handed him a document: Declaration of Equality – “Are we all dumb cattle to be branded and corralled?” The revolution originated with one young women assigned to the lower class in the simulation who, through critical reflection about her own middle class experiences, recognized the source of oppression and wanted to do something about it. She was joined by another young woman from the upper class who questioned the oppressive classroom structure. They were joined by two young men, one lower class and one middle class who also were eager to address the sources of oppression and engage in liberatory praxis.

“There is no question that students in this particular … class develop exemplary critical insight (radical reflexivity). I want again to emphasize that I believe this happy phenomenon to be attributable mainly to the emergence of student leaders who embody an ideal concatenation of sociological imagination, self-reflexivity, strategic acumen, patience, and compassion. For just one important example, the leaders recognize their own first impulse is to punish the former upper class, but interrogate and interrupt this desire to establish instead radically egalitarian classroom policies that include the former upper class.” (Luske, p. 147)


Photo: Community

This is a very superficial overview of a fascinating article. I hope you have an opportunity to read Luske’s full article. “Are we all dumb cattle to be branded and corralled?” – Social inequality and praxis in the college classroom. Perspectives on Social Problems, 10, 117-151. You can link to his bio and a list of his other works here.

Inequality simulation and raising consciousness about what “society” values.

If I ask you to review the following list of personal attributes and identify which ones society most values, how would you answer? How would you rank order them from the most valued attributes to the least valued?


And for this list?


Now, imagine you are part of a team, competing with other teams to answer a series of similar questions with the goal of earning the highest numeric score in order to win the game. The rules seem pretty straightforward. The names of the team are written across the black or white board up front. Each team is advised to choose a recorder and discuss each of the lists they are given, and rank order the items on the answer sheet from the most valued to the least valued. They enter the team’s top choice on the answer sheet and record the score when score sheets are handed out. When all the teams are finished, someone from each team call out the team’s points the instructor/facilitator writes the scores on the board.


Photo: Tug of War

This is when things begin to get interesting. Some teams ask “What’s going on? Everyone took this seriously and we all worked hard. Why are the scores for teams so different? How could our team get minus points?”

The second challenge, to choose the roles society most values, is even more discouraging for some of the teams when scores are tallied. Often you can literally feel the anger and frustration building. You can overhear comments. “Why should we bother! We can never win at this point!”

But they still remain engaged in the final round, to choose the professions society most values. And by now, the final scores are clearly skewed in ways that are impossible to believe for some teams. There is no way the winning teams could have earned that many points. “What’s going on?!!!”

Privilege gives some the ability to enjoy special advantages without ever giving it a conscious thought. The strange thing is that others have accepted the normalcy or appropriateness of these advantages as Luske’s study clearly documented. The preceding exercise is based on a simulation that was developed to highlight the taken-for-granted nature of gender inequality. It actually works to highlight the experiences of others who are also devalued in a society dominated by white Christian heterosexual “temporarily able-bodied” economically-comfortable males. Assertiveness is valued and appropriate for this group, but is it as valued when a Native Woman or Black man are assertive? What happens when White men are perceived as self-effacing or demure?

Debriefing the exercise was always fascinating. The score sheets were different – one version reflected points that society would award to white men, and the other version the points that women or other devalued groups would earn. Of course the points are arbitrary and depend on historical context.

Upersonal attribute score sheet

This exercise has proven to be effective with undergraduate and graduate students, as well as with human services professionals. During debriefing, the “other” groups would talk about their anger, frustration, and resignation. (Only one “other” group out of hundreds gave fictive scores to record on the board – a creative solution in a clearly unfair context from my perspective.) The “White Male” teams were angry to find out that they had an unfair advantage. “We worked hard for our scores. We feel we deserve to win.” And really, what does “winning” mean in this context? No financial rewards or extra credit grade points were riding on the final outcome.

Role playing and raising consciousness about assumptions.

How often do we automatically assume that others, when the details about background are unspecified, are white, middle class, heterosexual, and without disabilities? It’s not something I really noticed until I taught interviewing skills to undergraduate social work students. I realized that students assumed that the clients they would serve as social workers would be just like them. This certainly hadn’t been my experience. So I decided to let them develop the details of their clients, but here is where the assignment becomes a little complex. I had learned through experience that it is quite challenging to design role plays that protect students from the risk of inappropriate levels of personal self-disclosure to their peers. The conundrum becomes how to construct role plays that are ethical, safe, and as realistic as possible – role plays that they will take seriously and may actually help prepare students to be able to work with clients and topics that would be challenging for them.

In order to increase the usefulness of the class for their future work, I decided to use case scenarios that a previous instructor had developed. The scenarios were vague, but listed the issues each client was dealing with and maybe a relevant detail like age or gender. I decided on some crucial pedagogical design features:

First, clients would be randomly assigned to students. (They picked the client number out of a hat.)

Second, each student would be randomly assigned to a three-member team (or in some cases, a four-member team depending on the actual size of a class with enrollment capped at 25).

Third, each student on the team would play all of the three key roles: social worker, client, and equipment operator/interview observer.

Fourth, students were all required to do a series of three interviews with their client over the course of the semester that followed the basic structure of an intervention. Forming trust and rapport (“engagement” in social work jargon), gathering information about problems, issues, strengths, and resources (“assessment”), and developing an intervention strategy (“action plan”) in partnership with their client.

Fifth, all interviews would be tape recorded and posted online so team members could have access to each other’s videos.

And finally, students would be responsible for analyzing their own performance as interviewers by applying what they learned through readings, homework, and class lectures.

It took me time to realize that the predominantly White students assumed that all of their clients were white, Christian, and heterosexual, unless other characteristics were explicitly noted on the case scenarios. There was one exception. In the case of clients with criminal justice issues, they were often seen as Black or Latino. This meant developing greater clarity and accountability for the client role players and “quizzing” students after the teams developed more details about their clients.

“Can you tell me more about your client’s background – ancestry, socio-economic status, religion, sexual orientation, etc.? Do you think you would need to change your approach if your client were Black, Latino, Native American, Muslim, Jewish, gay, etc.?”


Photo:  Community

Despite the relative homogeneity of the class composition, students rose to the challenge of portraying people who were from backgrounds different than their own in ways that were respectful, authentic, empathetic, and challenging for the interviewers so they could develop appropriate knowledge and skills. Perhaps the most important outcome was the self-awareness students gained about who they were and about their own skills and areas they identified as something they wanted to address in the future.


Luske’s study, the “Becoming a Person simulation, and teaching interviewing all helped me realize how easy it is for all of us to assume that the people we encounter will be just like us, that structural inequality is normal, and that there’s little we can do to change anything, even if we’re suffering ourselves.

The students in the interviewing class taught me how important it is be willing to take time for self-reflection – time to uncover our strengths and test our limits. This is a necessary foundation for being willing to risk leaving our comfort zone to engage with others who are different. It’s the only way we can really learn about other people and different ways of seeing the world. They also demonstrated how important it is to be willing to uncover our own biases and acknowledge things we take for granted.

Luske’s students and the feminists who originally developed the Becoming a Person simulation modeled the importance of thinking critically about the mechanisms and sources of oppression for all people. Much of what oppresses us is structural, but some of it is our internalized acceptance of the taken-for-granted paradigms that keep oppressive structures in place. And like Luske’s students, we need to be willing to build bridges with comrades in other positionalities to work together for our collective liberation.

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