After reading a couple of chapters in Howard Zinn’s (1997) book, A People’s History of the United States, one of my students last semester asked a crucial question.
“What does Mr. Trump mean when he says ‘Make America great again?’ When was it ever great?”
Her questions led to a fascinating class dialogue.
Although it’s tempting for me to say that it was great here before Europeans arrived, I really can’t. Surviving the past long, cold winter made me realize how foolish and untrue it would be for me to say something so simplistic and disrespectful. Yes, much was lost for Indigenous people, but there have been benefits as well. For example, I can’t imagine the challenge of living in the north country without indoor plumbing and heat during a winter like the last. I am not sure how my ancestors survived by hunting and by gathering ever more distant fire wood outside to heat themselves, cook, and unfreeze water. Even when I lived off the power grid, I still had a well for indoor plumbing, a generator to run the electric water pump, and a backup propane heater in addition to a wood stove.
Despite my students’ critical view, the phrase “Make America great again” seems to be a powerful rallying cry for many people in the U.S. these days. I suspect it’s most powerful for those who have been programmed by schools that assiduously avoid resources that expose students to critical thinkers like Zinn. Those on the poorly-educated margins have been waiting a long time for America to be great for them as they struggled to make it as farmers, miners, or people trying to find jobs that made them feel that they were contributing something worthwhile to others and earning a decent wage in exchange.
Feeling forgotten or like a failure makes it far more difficult to resist the illusion that one can gain a little more power by putting others down. Many people are willing to follow a leader who sanctions divisiveness, who makes them feel special, and who helps them set aside any misgivings about morality. After all, someone in a position of authority tells them it’s a patriotic duty and demonstrates that it’s appropriate and legal to demean, scapegoat, and brutalize others whose differences set them apart somehow.
As I think about the class I’ll be teaching in the fall, research, I realize that Mr. Trump’s America reminds me of the Stanford prison experiment on steroids.
Give people a title and a little power and some will do anything to keep it. Or, as Stanley Milgrim’s experiments show, many people put aside their own common sense and empathy if a person in authority tells them what they’re doing is right even if it means inflicting harm on others. I have seen those dynamics in my work throughout my career in all types of organizations and communities. We’re witnessing what seems like escalating, outrageous, brutality on a national and global level.
The most crucial question to ask is, of course, what can be done to stop the egregious harm that is being done by people in power who seemingly have no hearts. I believe each of us who is aware must resist in our own way. For me at the moment that means stepping outside the protective comfort zone I created to heal from the battle scars of past encounters with the status quo. The specifics of what that will mean are still a work in progress. But so far this year, it’s meant planting the flower boxes I left empty last year as a gift of life and beauty to those who walk down the alley behind my house and happen to notice. It’s a small gesture, yet each life-loving thought and action may matter in ways we will never know.
Howard Zinn (1997). A People’s History of the United States (Abridged Teaching Edition). New York, NY: The New Press.
in the part of the city where Mr. Trump will soon appear
How fervently I wish real heart and intellectual power
would be restored to the people
as children are once again
being torn from the arms of loving families
The “Raised Fist Image” by Keith Tyler, Courtesy of Wikipedia, “… is a variant of the clenched fist motif which has been widely used by leftist, workers, and liberationist groups since the nineteenth century. The motif itself is not under copyright.”
Keith Tyler’s image was released into the public domain by its creator February 2007. “The wider motif itself is not protected by copyright.”
We teach the next generations
through our lived example
how to care for the earth
and all our relations
We’re ever creating the world
our children and grandchildren will inherit
across all of earth’s imaginary boundaries
and within diverse fictive nations
The question to consider
is what we want that world to be
Do we teach children to care,
cooperate, and conserve?
Or do we teach them to compete,
conquer, and consume?
The answers matter profoundly
but we need to remember
awareness can’t be imposed
It can only be encouraged
through living examples
that offer another kind of education
opening up new possibilities
that demonstrate the value
of compassionate contemplation
A lesson from an “Inchworm”
Sometimes it feels futile and foolish to work on creating healthy gardens on a city lot that has long been neglected. Factories just to the east churn out foul-smelling toxic fumes. My neighbor on one side has spent more than a decade burying garbage along the fence-line. Lately, the garbage has merely been left exposed, joined by plastic toys his children abandon when their interest wanes.
I have tried to engage in reasoned conversations and offered to help create a healthy landscaped transition. My words have fallen on deaf ears. Perhaps suggestions from an Ojibwe grandmother (you know, a triple whammy – age, gender, and ancestry) even exacerbated his unwillingness to consider alternatives. The experience has taught me how profoundly cultures and life experiences affect our ability to discern how our everyday choices affect what our children learn and the health of the environments they will inherit.
I’ve been told it’s a matter of perspective. Some prefer landfills that will someday look like manicured lawns despite the toxic or dangerous things that are hidden from sight, while others prefer healthy gardens.
May 31, 2014
May 23, 2018
I still wonder, though, how someone who claims to love children doesn’t seem to realize his actions are destroying a child’s garden.
July 3, 2015 – My granddaughter standing next to the garden she helped create.
May 23, 2018 – Damage control in process as the wooden divide grows ever higher to protect my granddaughter’s garden from the growing pile of refuse (including piles of dog feces).
The past week has been strange. My computer power pack fried on class-prep day, Thursday, leaving me without access to the internet. Thankfully, the colleague I co-teach with was able to shoulder the work of reading student assignments and preparing our class power point. Getting my little laptop functional presented too many challenges to address in a day – antivirus protection, internet connection, and too little space to even download Windows 10 updates. Amazingly, each challenge has been overcome with my sense of humor intact.
I must admit it was a relief to be free from the continuing bombardment of distressing news. Yet each time I entered the living room my eyes automatically focused on the computer screen. It was dark, making me realize how much time I spend online. Without my computer, I had time to think, read, and do tasks that I could never find time to do when I was dealing with my blog. I liked having all of that time to reflect.
Having so much extra time also meant I could sort through the piles of papers everywhere and get rid of unnecessary things. It was a healing time in some crucial ways, though. I realized how weary I have become. The state of the world weighs heavy on my heart.
Countering the hopelessness and sorrow that sometimes makes it hard for me to create takes a tremendous amount of energy. And it takes much more now than in years past. I don’t feel as physically resilient as I once believed myself to be. My 70th year felt like a turning point signaling inevitable decline. Illnesses, back injuries, and the uncertainty of recurring debilitating back pain were constant reminders of my limitations and growing frailty. The combination of hopelessness and feelings of increasing physical frailty made it very tempting to simply withdraw and live in a reclusive fantasy world.
Then, my computer power pack fried. Suddenly life quieted and simplified. I had a chance to reflect and fall in love with life again. I had a chance to remember what matters most in my life.
I realized that the one true love of my life has been my daughter through good times and bad. I certainly haven’t been a perfect mother but she has always remained the most significant love in my life, now joined by my two grandchildren. Partners and friends have come and gone, yet giving birth created a special connection. The words that come to mind when I think of her, “In my life – I love you more,” come from a song by the Beatles.
Time for family comes first. Just as I finished typing these words, I was called in to live them, putting all plans aside to help provide support in a challenging situation. Although unsure how to help, I was grateful for the chance to be present, standing on tiptoes to hug my beloved grandson.
I also had time to begin spring cleaning by purging file cabinets that I try to avoid opening with the excuse that I just don’t have time. Sifting through them this week helped me remember how many places I’ve lived. I had forgotten the courage it took for an introvert to begin such a wide variety of new jobs in new places. I realized, too, how much I have enjoyed working in partnership with elders, tribes, and communities to develop innovative programs that addressed their needs and visions.
Old files reminded me how much I have loved teaching. Reading through teaching evaluations made me realize that many of my students appreciated what and how I taught in return. I say that with deep humility and gratitude because it’s something I worked very hard to do in often repressive unsupportive institutions. Challenging the status quo through love-inspired creativity makes one a target, but for some of us, it’s just what we have to do to be true to who we are.
Revisiting the past made me realize how grateful I am for the opportunities I still have to teach and contribute what I can to help open up possibilities for others to awaken to their beauty and talents. It brings me joy to encourage others to care about the earth and people by example in the true spirit of liberatory praxis – action guided by knowledge and inclusive compassion. Making time for teaching keeps me engaged with life doing something I love to do.
The one ache that became clear, though, when I looked at the looming blank computer screen this past week, was my failure to make time to finish editing and revising my manuscript about Ojibwe child welfare. It’s not something I can do until my computer is repaired.
Thankfully, my computer can be fixed although it will take time. Until then, I will remain grateful for the ability to connect with the internet even though it means squinting to read tiny type on a tiny laptop. It’s hard on my eyes so I can’t spend much time reading or writing. If you don’t hear from me often these days, that’s why.
I am not sure when I will be able to post again or how often I will be able to visit your blogs and comment. That depends on forces outside of my control. But I can still send my best wishes to all and I do so now with gratitude.
I do try to look at the lighter side these days, but that doesn’t always work. Life intervenes in the oddest ways at inconvenient times. Recently I received an email from a Euro-American Dean at the college where I teach as an adjunct. Her email informed me that I was REQUIRED to take an online training on diversity. My response to her was honest and direct. “I have no intention of participating in this training.”
That doesn’t mean I think I know all there is to know about diversity. Living all my life in the liminal space between Anglo-American and Ojibwe cultures taught me a great deal, as did my interest in taking every chance I could to learn about diverse cultures and people. Mostly, I learned not to accept simplistic stereotypes that supposedly fit all. There is always more to learn about the rich diversity of people who share the earth – but standardized online trainings are definitely not the best way to do so. Learning for me only comes through leaving my relative comfort zone, if such a place exists for those of us who live between cultures, to enter the spaces where others live, to listen deeply with an open mind and heart, to view the world as they see it, and to care.
As a serious scholar, I have studied cultures and histories from many perspectives. Not surprisingly, I discovered how biased so many accounts of “others” are. I wonder how many Euro-Americans have had the same opportunity to see their cultures and themselves through other lenses.
Thinking about the Dean’s email, I remembered an amusing article I read as a young person in an introductory anthropology class, Body Ritual among the Nacirema by Horace Miner (1956). (Links to the full public domain article can be found here and here.)
“In the paper, Miner describes the Nacirema, a little-known tribe living in North America. The way in which he writes about the curious practices that this group performs distances readers from the fact that the North American group described actually corresponds to modern-day Americans of the mid-1950s.”
By the way, did you notice that “Nacirema” is “American” spelled backwards?
The Dean’s email also brought to mind a book that a friend gave me years ago, Basic Skills Caucasian Americans Workbook, by Beverly Slapin and Annie Esposito (1990). Miner’s article and Slapin and Esposito’s book remind me how often I have read ethnographies that describe Ojibwe people in my mother and grandmother’s generations as “children of savages,” or make sweeping generalizations about Ojibwe people on the basis of limited samples superficially portrayed through colonizers’ lenses.
I wonder if the Dean has ever seen her culture described through different lenses. Here are a few excerpts from Slapin and Esposito’s satirical work that provide an example of what that looks like.
“…. This book leads us along a fascinating trail. Its pages are alive with the tang of smoke-filled caucus rooms, the sound of beat boxes, and the swift flight of Stealth bombers. In it, Beverly Slapin has caught the magic of the Caucasian. May her “talking leaves” add to your store of knowledge and take you into the Caucasian world of mystery and beauty.” (Doris Seale, Curator, Museum of the American Caucasian) ….
Caucasian American Education
“The way Caucasians prepared their youth for adulthood (a-dult’-hud) was by educating (ed’-yew-ka-ting) them. The education rites were held in cavernous gray temples call schools (skoolz), which often resembled cavernous gray temples called prisons (pri’-zonz). Both kinds of temples were used for similar purposes. These rites began when the youth were quite young, often as young as five years old, and continued until the children reached adulthood! Imagine how long schooling must have seemed to them!
“In school, the youth learned such important customs as standing in line (stan’-ding-in-lyn), raising a hand (ra’-zing-uh-hand) when they wanted to speak, holding bodily functions (hol’-ding-bod’-uh-lee-func’-shunz) until a certain time called recess (ree’-cess), ceasing all thought (cee’-sing-awl-thawt) when a bell rang at certain intervals (in’-ter’vulz), and learning the right answers (rite’-an’-serz) in order to pass tests (tests)….
“The right answers were inscribed in textbooks, which were considered sacred, and contained all the answers the Caucasians thought necessary to succeed in life. One of the most important lessons in life for Caucasian children was to learn never to question the veracity (ver-a’-ci-tee) of the teacher or the textbooks….
Caucasian American Government
“Caucasian Americans had a very strange way of choosing their leaders. Their main leader was usually chosen by the people in a strange ritual called an election (e-lek’-shun). In order to be a leader, a person had to have three qualities (kwal-it-eez): he had to be a man, he had to be Caucasian (kaw-kā’-shun), and he had to have rich family connections (kun-nex’-shunz). If he had those qualities, he would ask a council of old trusted men to sponsor (spon’sor) him. These men were called bankers and businessmen (bank’-erz and biz’-ness-men). If the council decided that he was suited to lead the people, he would promise to obey (o-bay’) them, and they would campaign (kam-pāyn’) for him by paying great amounts of money (muh’-nee) to the media (mee’-dee-a) to buy advertisements (ad-ver-tiz’-mentz) to convince people that he was the one they wanted to lead them. The leader would make lots of promises (prom’-is-ez) to the people, and then the people would vote (vot) for him. Once he was elected, he was called the president (prez’-ih-dent) and lived in the White House. His house was called the White House because all of its inhabitants (in-hab’-i-tents) were white.
“Once the leader became president, he would go back on his promises and tell lots of lies to the people. Sometimes the people would find out about these lies, and they would be angry….
The president almost always consulted with the council before making a decision that concerned the whole tribe. But sometimes he didn’t. Sometimes he would just talk with another council of powerful war chiefs called generals (jen’-er-ellz), and he would make war, often without telling the people. The only people who knew about many wars were the young men who were sent to fight in them.
“Making war on other people would make the president feel good and strong, even though he didn’t do any of the fighting. It would also make the bankers and businessmen feel good because it would bring them great amounts of money. These war chiefs were very strange people, indeed, and their system of government was very strange.
Caucasian American Leaders
(keep in mind that this book was published in 1990!)
“Probably the greatest Caucasian American leader of all time was Donald Trump. Donald Trump’s father, also chief of the Great Council of Bankers and Businessmen, taught his son all the qualities he would need to become a leader of his people: extreme self-confidence (self-kon’-fi-dens), greed, lust, and delusions of grandeur (de-looz’-unz-of-grand’-ur). As he grew up, Trump became a great admirer of the Mogul Empire (mō’-gul-m-pīr), and when he became an adult, named one of his commercial palaces (kom-mer’-shul-pal’-u-sez) after their famous shrine, the Taj Mahal (tadj’-ma’hal’). Trump fought well in battles against other business chiefs, and soon became a famous warrior and the most important Caucasian leader in New York (noo-york’). He was savage in battle, and believed in the common Caucasian practice of putting prisoners to death. Although many considered him a ruthless (rūth’-less) leader, Donald Trump provided many jobs by keeping the scandal mills (skan’-dul-millz) going.”
I hesitate to share satire because it stereotypes and often pokes fun at or demeans groups of people despite the tremendous diversity within any “group.” Rarely do I find it funny. I know what it feels like to be on the receiving end and we have more than enough meanness in the world today.
Yet I often learn from the wisdom of my students. One of my Ojibwe students asked me how they could be expected to imagine something different than what they had always known. A profound question, isn’t it, that gets to the heart of diversity.
How can a Euro-American Dean in a Euro-American-led institution in a predominantly Euro-American culture know what it feels like for people who have lived their difference every day to be told that they don’t know enough about diversity? That decades of study and work with diverse groups on program, policy, and curricular innovation mean nothing? That sitting alone staring at a computer screen wearing headphones is the right way to learn what diversity means?
Some battles are just not worth my time, though. I’ve said all I have to say on this topic to those in power who believe their comfortable versions of truth are the only ones that matter. There are many far more important issues to focus on these days.
Beverly Slapin & Annie Esposito (1990). Basic Skills Caucasian Americans Workbook. Berkeley, CA: Oyate. (a joint project of Oyate and the Teaching Peace with Justice Task Force)
Four crows sitting atop the willow tree
chattering loudly while surveilling their domain
reminding an old eagle grandmother of four dark souls
determined to keep fledgling eagles from taking flight
to travel to heights where crows cannot breathe
There was a time when crows were new to her
when she listened and watched them in thoughtful silence
as they crowed loudly about how clever they were
strutting about confident in their superiority
showing off shiny things they gathered in their travels
Nevertheless she naively believed that they could be friends
not realizing then how different she was
until she discerned a disturbing pattern
watching them band together to keep fledglings grounded
reveling in the suffering they caused
She understood then that lone eagles have a different path
to attract the focus of crows’ attention elsewhere
to create a safer space for fledglings to practice flying
so they could develop the strength of their wings
and study the nature of wind and weather and gravity
Trying hard, though they did, the crows didn’t darken her vision
as she learned how to keep them at bay
without harming them even though they struck her
repeatedly with increasing ferocity
crowing in joy at their collective power to wound
Scores of fledglings launched before she needed rest
before she could take flight herself and rise
though she heard that the dark souls continue
taunting and grounding those they fear who can fly higher
and explore vistas beyond the limited realm of crows
She watched as the crows in the willow tree grew silent
and departed one by one to the four directions
their lone cries echoing in the distance
She gave silent thanks for her freedom
and for the inner strength the crows helped her find
realizing that it might not have happened otherwise
Exposing people in their 20s and 30s who have lived in rural communities most of their lives to the video is not always effective. It presents information that is new and not easily understood. Yet as future social workers, it is crucial for them to have some critical awareness of the larger social forces that affect them and the people they will serve in their careers.
Reading the notes the most recent class wrote confirmed the difficulty. So I took my own notes and included them in the Power Point for class discussion. Excerpts are below.
The Century of the Self – Part 1: “Happiness Machine”
This is “the story of the relationship between Sigmund Freud and his American nephew, Edward Bernays. Bernays invented the public relations profession in the 1920s and was the first person to take Freud’s ideas to manipulate the masses. He showed American corporations how they could make people want things they didn’t need by systematically linking mass-produced goods to their unconscious desires” (YouTube overview, emphasis added).
Consider the subtitle of this first part of the documentary, “Happiness Machine” How does this relate to the overall message of this video?
The preface to the video introduces Sigmund Freud’s theory about human nature. Simply stated, Freud theorized that all people carry primitive sexual and aggressive forces hidden deep inside. If these forces are not controlled, societies will be filled with chaos and destruction.
What are your thoughts about Freud’s perspective? Our guess is that it’s easy to conclude that the theory has merit if one views society today. Now consider the same question from the perspective of your ancestral roots. Do you think Freud’s theory explains your ancestors’ motivations and your own?
The preface of the video also explains that the purpose of this series was to raise awareness about the ways in which Freud’s ideas have been used by those in positions of power “to control the dangerous crowd in an age of mass democracy.”
How does the timeframe of Bernays’ work fit with shifts in the focus of social work practice and social welfare policies? Can you see any links to your ancestors’ experiences during this historical era?
Part 1 describes the central role that Bernays played in popularizing and applying Freud’s theories to “manipulate the masses,” working both with politicians and corporations.
What are some of the ways Bernays employed theories to promote US entry into war, increase cigarette sales for tobacco corporations, or buffer corporations from overproduction when WWI ended?
Strategies for social control in times of peace followed, involving “the engineering of consent.” How was this done?
Stuart Ewen, historian and author, noted that the emergence of democracy had changed the relationship of power that governed the world. He described how Bernays’ strategies gave back power to the ruling elite by “giving people some kind of feel good medication that did not alter their objective circumstances … even if it meant stimulating the irrational self.”
The Great Depression ushered in by the 1929 stock market crash required a different approach to governing. Franklin D. Roosevelt believed people were rational and he wanted to know what they thought as he began to initiate a series of interventions to address massive social issues that affected them. He turned to George Gallup who had developed a way to poll peoples’ opinions scientifically without introducing emotional bias. It gave citizens a rational voice so they could take part in government.
With Bernays’ help, “big business” fought back with an ideological attack on the New Deal to regain power by creating emotional ties to corporations. The 1939 World Fair presented an opportunity to manipulate people to believe that democracy would not exist without capitalism and the goods it produces.
“Active citizenship” was replaced by “passive consumers.”
A day after I posted the notes, I found myself face-to-face with the consequences of consumerism. My granddaughter’s birthday was coming up. She has discovered therapeutic coloring books and loves the challenge of using her new pens to create intricate patterns of many colors. For her birthday, I offered to let her choose a new coloring book. She was excited. Off we went to a “big box” store to see what we could find.
The store was filled with people browsing art supplies, plastic flowers, craft kits, and aisles of yarn. We perused all of the merchandise several times unsuccessfully. The only three staff in sight were womanning the cash registers, nonstop. There were no roaming staff to ask for help, so I asked a young girl if she had seen any coloring books.
“She’s my daughter,” boomed a woman’s voice behind me. “She doesn’t work here.”
I turned and smiled. “I didn’t think she worked here. But I thought maybe she had seen coloring books. My granddaughter and I are trying to find them and we haven’t been able to find any staff people to help.”
The woman came up to us and asked her daughter to help us look, so they both joined the search. Even with more people looking, we still had no luck.
“I know how to get their attention,” the woman finally said. She walked over to the rows of yarn and grabbed two huge balls of yarn and stood below the surveillance camera posted high on the wall. She shoved the balls into the top of her shirt and held up her arms and waved them at the camera. “This should get someone’s attention!”
She was right. A humorless dour-faced man walked through a hidden side door. “Where are the coloring books,” she shouted.
“By the cash registers,” he replied before he turned without further comment and disappeared again.
Tears from laughter were clouding my vision as we headed to see if we could find coloring books. No luck. My granddaughter was undaunted. Despite the long lines at the registers, she asked one cashier to help us. The books we found were for little children and not at all what she wanted, so we ended up buying a gift card for a bookstore instead.
The connections between the legacy of Bernays’ machinations and big box stores are quite obvious, although that’s not a lesson that seemed timely for a little girl turning 11 who loves the challenge of coloring and creating something beautiful.
Hopefully, there will be times in the future when we can laughingly recall our adventure and discuss the deeper implications. For the time being, she can enjoy an activity that doesn’t involve dangerous and addicting technology.
Ah how I wish I were as courageous as the woman who helped us. I can only imagine what her daughter thought, though. And I am left wondering what Bernays would think of the man hidden away to merely watch customers and do little to help them consume…
On this grey morning thoughts of the Standing Rock Water Protectors again touch my heart with deep sorrow. It’s far more than the legacy of historical trauma that brings tears to my eyes. It’s the continuing structural oppression that I have witnessed for so many First Nations reservations, Appalachian hill communities, urban neighborhoods or rural farming communities. It’s the overwhelming sense of threat and loss in the ongoing clash of worldviews that makes everything I have done and am doing and wish I could do feel so pitifully ineffective.
My granddaughter will turn 11 tomorrow. My grandson turned 19 last month. There are so many reasons to be concerned about the future they face.
As I feel the physical limitations and pain of my aging body, the scars of so many past efforts to build healthier more inclusive communities weigh on my heart. I wish I could be hopeful but I can no longer believe that change is possible unless a critical mass of people awaken. It feels as though all of my efforts to help that process along during my career have been so insignificant.
Perhaps the tears that are flowing will clear my vision so I can see possibilities. But as I greet this morning, it’s all I can do as I type these simple words. All I hold dear is threatened by insane forces that wreak death and destruction.
Still, it’s time to dry my tears. Somehow, my ancestors found the strength to survive genocide, displacement and Indian boarding schools. I owe it to them, the Standing Rock Water Protectors, my daughter, my grandchildren, and all life to do what I can any way.
Celebrities have never inspired me. I may appreciate their prowess or art, their courage, discipline or tenacity, but I wonder why that somehow makes them more worthy of admiration than the hard-working people we meet in our everyday lives. Fame-seeking behavior is not the best attribute for those who would be leaders or role models for others. “Making it big,” “being a winner,” in a society that worships status at any cost doesn’t mean one is kind, generous, wise or compassionate. Those are the hard-won characteristics I value far more than media recognition and acclaim.
The greatest gifts in my life have come from thoughtful neighbors, teachers, friends, or random kindhearted strangers who shared their wisdom and kindness because that’s what they do. They give of themselves to others without expecting recognition or fame. I only hope that I can learn from their examples to be humbler, a little wiser, and compassionate enough to do the same. To listen, to care, to give what I can without expecting anything in return.
Yet if I were to choose a role model to admire, it wouldn’t be Steve Jobs, it would be Jane Addams. Steve Jobs made a fortune by developing technnological devices that have, over time, increasingly distracted people’s attention away from their immediate surroundings. (In class yesterday, many students pulled out their iPhones or iPads to look at pictures of trees for an assignment rather than gazing out the window at the tree-filled college grounds surrounding us.) Jane Addams, on the other hand, used her inheritance to live among some of the poorest immigrants in Chicago during the tumultuous years at the turn of the nineteenth century to address serious health and social justice issues. She, and her friend, Ellen Gates Starr, wanted to be good neighbors in their new home. They wanted to help build a healthier, more inclusive sense of community.
“The essence of immorality is the tendency to make an exception of myself” (Jane Addams).
“… the good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain, is floating in mid-air, until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life” (Adams, 1961, p. 76).
“Social advance depends as much upon the process through which it is secured as upon the result itself” (Jane Addams)
“Nothing could be worse than the fear that one had given up too soon, and left one unexpended effort that might have saved the world” (Jane Addams).
Addams’ work has been a beacon of hope to many. Following is a poem written by Gwendolyn Brooks, an award-winning poet and author, to honor Addams’ many contributions.
Jane Addams (by Gwendolyn Brooks)
I am Jane Addams.
I am saying to the giantless time –
to the young and yammering, to the old and corrected,
well, chiefly to the children coming home
with worried faces and questions about world survival –
“Go ahead and live your life.
You might be surprised. The world might continue.”
It was not easy for me, in the days of giants.
And now they call me a giant.
Because my capitals were Labour, Reform, Welfare,
Tenement Regulation, Juvenile Court Law (the first),
Factory Inspection, Workmen’s Compensation,
Woman Suffrage, Pacifism, Immigrant Justice.
Black, brown, white, red and yellow
Heavied my hand and heart.
I shall tell you a thing about giants
that you do not wish to know;
Giants look in the mirror and see
almost nothing at all.
But they leave their houses nevertheless.
They lurch out of doors
to reach you, the other stretchers and strainers.
Erased under ermine or loud in tatters, oh,
money or mashed, you
You matter, and giants
Whatever I was tells you
the world might continue. Go on with your preparations,
moving among the quick and the dead;
nourishing here, there;
pressing a hand
among the ruins
and among the
seeds of restoration.
In these times, US leaders whose ancestral roots originated in other “lighter-skinned” nations around the globe are spreading fear about newer “darker-skinned” immigrants, fomenting hatred and divisiveness. My colleague and I are countering those messages. We are asking our students to learn about their ancestral roots and the historical roots of the profession they wish to enter.
Module I – Exploring Personal Roots and the Roots of Social Welfare Macro Practice
How many of us wonder why people behave the way they do? Certainly as future social workers this is an obvious question we must answer. If we’re thoughtful, though, we quickly realize that there is no one easy answer. In a very real sense, how we think and behave depends on when and where we were born, what we experienced as a result of our inherited statuses in our particular social context, and how we have been socialized.
Understanding each client and colleague we encounter is only possible when we understand our own values and perspectives and how they were formed. Knowing more about our ancestral roots and how they have changed over time in response to changing circumstances provides a crucial foundation for beginning the ongoing journey of understanding who we are. The purpose of Module I is to help you begin to explore the importance of your ancestral roots within the context of changing historical environments.
Our work with clients is also influenced profoundly by the dominant values and beliefs embodied in the social institutions that prevail during our life time. Like the lives and circumstances of our ancestors, the values and goals of social welfare institutions have shifted throughout history. Changes in institutional values and beliefs have not always been beneficial from the perspective of social workers or the vulnerable clients they serve.
In order to assess where we are now, it is essential to consider the roots of social welfare and the shifting roles of social work in the US. The course readings for Module I describe the values and institutions adopted by the US in the early years, and the pioneering efforts of Jane Addams and the women of Hull House to address compelling human suffering, exploitation, and marginalization.
Perhaps your ancestors were among the thousands of immigrants who benefited directly from their work. Certainly all of our lives were affected in largely positive ways by the many policy and institutional reforms they inspired. It is our hope that a deeper understanding of your personal and disciplinary roots will prepare you to meet the challenges ahead in creative ways to foster healthy, inclusive communities as Addams and her colleagues did more than a century ago.
The work of Jane Addams, Ellen Gates Starr, and “the women of Hull-House” is an essential foundation for understanding how to build understanding and inclusive communities. No jobs were too demeaning.
“We were asked to wash the newborn babies, and to prepare the dead for burial, to nurse the sick, and to ‘mind the children.’” (Addams, 1961, p. 72).
Listed below are some of the resources my colleague and I have shared with students in case you are interested in sharing them:
“Publicly opposed to America’s entry into the war, Miss Addams was attacked in the press and expelled from the Daughters of the American Revolution, but she found an outlet for her humanitarian impulses as an assistant to Herbert Hoover in providing relief supplies of food to the women and children of the enemy nations, the story of which she told in her book Peace and Bread in Time of War (1922).”
Although my colleague and I need to rely, to a large degree, on technological innovations Steve Jobs made possible, we are using those tools to enlighten rather than to divide and distract. Our integrated learning hybrid program helps students who work, care for families, and commute to access college education that might otherwise be unattainable. I just wish education was more affordable, or preferably, free. Perhaps someday it will be…
After reading this post, my dear friend and colleague, Cynthia Donner, gave me permission to publicly thank her for being a supportive, inspiring partner in our ongoing experiments to make learning more engaging and relevant.
Tragically, Hull-House finally closed its doors in the spring of 2012. It was a warning sign of hard times ahead without the visionary leadership of gentle and unlikely giants like Jane Addams. (For more information, please visit the following link: World Socialist Web Site, wsws.org)
Jane Addams (1961). Twenty years at Hull-House. New York, NY: Signet Classic.