An Aspiring Humanitarian’s Advice to Future Students Pursuing Studies for Social Justice Work
“One of the things I learned when I was negotiating was that until I changed myself, I could not change others.” — Nelson Mandela.
In my mind, this is truly biggest thing that I have taken from my experiences in my own social work programs, and is the most important piece of advice I would give to an incoming student. To me, “personal work” is the hardest work one can undertake, but it is a noble and worthy task.
I would tell new students to always be in a process of examining their worldviews, things that upset them, and beliefs about people who they believe to be different from them: to keep in mind some simple but complicated questions such as “Why do I think the way I do about “x” “y” or “z?” “Where did I learn about x?”
Continually asking questions can be useful in sorting things out, particularly when coming into contact with people or situations that may contradict what you previously may have thought before. Understand that we are taught misinformation about ourselves and others.
For example, in one of my experiences engaging in a discussion in class on social identities, someone made a comment about people on welfare that asserted that all people who receive services through welfare are exploiting the system, that they just want to “get a free ride” with no effort.
Holding negative and sweeping views about any population can be particularly problematic because as future social workers, we could potentially be in positions to decide whether or not people can have access to, and receive services of some kind.
I happen to believe that what we hold to be true in our hearts and minds can dictate our actions in our personal lives and in the field, so it is important that we take great care and invest consistent time and effort into critically examining ourselves to ensure that we will not be doing more of the hurting in our “helping” positions.
While focusing on the eliminating the systemic injustices perpetrated by “others” in society, it is also equally important (possibly even more important) to continue to change oppressive thoughts and behaviors that may be present in ourselves. We are all implicated somehow in the web of privilege and oppression. Through continuous self-reflection, strive to find ways to use the parts of yourself that are privileged, so that you can use those parts of yourself to be an ally to those who are oppressed.
Try your best to increase your understanding the nature of the work you are undertaking. The incentives to remain stagnant are high, and the costs of action can be great. The perks that come with privilege can be seductive, while the consequences that lie in allyhood can be overwhelming. They can come in the form of lost relationships, promotions, and income. In some instances, consequences can also come in the loss of reputation, and safety.
The effects that come with holding on to privilege can be like a drug, and as with many drugs, there are relapses on the path to recovery. Don’t forget to allow yourself some room to make mistakes. However, finding your purpose, taking time to appreciate your victories whenever you can, and understanding that by using yourself as an ally you are contributing to creating a more just society for everyone can produce its own rewards in some of the strangest, but most wonderful and fulfilling ways.
Keep your eyes open for these, because they can sustain you if you let them. Hang in there. The personal work is hard, but extremely necessary if you want to make any real change. If you work to commit to it fully, you may even surprise yourself. In thinking about my experiences in my own programs, this is the greatest lesson I can give.
From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins, MSW