In These Troubled Times, Be Brave, Engage, and Learn
By Irv Garfinkel, Interim Dean
We live in troubled times. As we cope, it is useful to keep in mind this is not the first time. Think about how people must have felt when facing American slavery, the Civil War, the Great Depression, Nazi Germany and World War II.
As a consequence of the election of Donald Trump as president, some of us fear for the well-being of family and friends, some in our community who voted for Trump fear to articulate their views, and many of us fear for the nation’s well-being.
What should we do, individually and collectively? Be brave, engage, and learn. One stanza of “We Shall Overcome,” the anthem of the Civil Rights Movement, repeats: “We are not afraid.” Of course all of us have been afraid at times, and the marchers and protestors who sang the song often feared for their bodies and lives. They sang in unison “We are not afraid” to give each other courage.
We all need to be brave, engage, and learn. Speaking up in class to express a minority viewpoint is scary. Resisting a demagogue in power is even more scary. Our work requires us to overcome these fears, to advocate for our clients, and to honor diversity—including diversity of thought. In the coming months and years, we need to figure out how to move forward as individuals and as a community.
Not long ago, I heard a fellow social worker mutter, how could you be in social work and vote for Trump? I didn’t know how to respond at the time, but the more I reflected on her question, the more I thought it deserved an honest answer. All social workers enter the profession with a commitment to help others, but the source of this commitment varies by individual. Some are motivated by secular worldviews, some by religious conviction. Some people of faith believe that abortion is murder. I don’t share that belief, but if I did, I would likely have voted for Trump.
Later, I thought, what if I were a descendant of Josephine Shaw Lowell, who created one of the three major roots of our profession when she founded the Charity Organization Society*? If I shared her ethics—for example, her idea that aiding the poor impoverishes them—I might have voted for Trump. Finally and most generally, it occurred to me if I were a Republican, I might have voted for Trump, as the lesser of two evils. In presidential elections, the overwhelming majority of Republicans vote for Republican candidates, just as the overwhelming majority of Democrats vote for Democratic Party candidates.
We are fortunate to live in a country with strong democratic institutions and a remarkable tradition of free speech. We don’t just tolerate dissent; we honor it. We will be stronger as a community when all of us, no matter our political persuasion, are brave and engaged. This process begins in the classroom and in our on-campus life together as we discuss, engage, and learn from one another about our agreements and disagreements alike. All of us will be stronger advocates for our beliefs if we can openly discuss our differences.
Ultimately, all of us, as social workers, whatever our beliefs, will be called upon to be brave and engage with the broader world. This engagement has already begun. The day after Trump’s inauguration, millions of women and men, including some from CSSW, marched in protest. Engagement began even earlier at the School of Social Work with an online event in December, now available as a Webcast, featuring Professor John Robertson and one of our second-year students discussing the call to action for social workers in post-election America. A planning committee led by Professors Julien Teitler and Qin Gao is taking ideas from faculty for further events. On February 1 we held a forum on likely changes to the Affordable Healthcare Act. Other possible faculty-led events will cover topics such as the need for community education around immigration, what it means to be a sanctuary city/university, and advocacy around reproductive health.
Though change is in the air at Columbia, in our country, and around the world, we are committed to the brave and necessary work that has always been our calling. I am grateful for the opportunity to continue this conversation with you, and I look forward to the work we will undertake together.
Noting the importance of listening to others’ perspectives, especially when they may not be our own, was an important aspect of Dean Garfinkel’s message. It’s a message for which there isn’t enough support either in the media or the university, or in current advocacy groups. These entities seem to have already forgotten what the surprised experts acknowledged was the primary element in the Trump victory–the growth of what sociologists and social workers refer to as the New Poor, formerly self sufficient groups left behind by social and economic developments in which they can no longer participate–the current one being a global economy with its more demanding educational requirements and increasingly uneven distribution of wealth. The Morning After handwringing of the embarrassed pundits who, unlike Sanders and Trump, had overlooked this elephant in the room throughout the campaign, was short-lived, however. Any talk of legitimate grievances of Trump supporters has now faded from the headlines, and is absent from the protest signs. However, these groups and their grievances haven’t dissolved. Investor Warren Buffet and many economists have warned that, as the new global economy races forward, such groups will fall even farther behind. Trump’s empty promises and scapegoat offerings are as shameful in their own way as the neglect of previous administrations was in theirs. The lack of meaningful re-training and support for devastated neighborhoods and the ills which feed on them, is a blot on both Democrat and Republican administrations of the past 3 decades. The history of the neglect of the grievances of the poor is something with which both social workers and historians are familiar. It has already been written into the story of generations of our established poor to whom hope is no longer a companion; it is now being written into the story of the New Poor. Anyone who took Professor Cloward’s class as I did, knows the sequellae to this, including how it breeds a pathway to totalitarian government led by the Man on Horseback.
As social workers, we have much to learn from listening to aggrieved people whose champion is someone we don’t like, and who we don’t believe will benefit any of us. It’s time to recall one of the first things you may also have heard in a CUUSW classroom on conducting a clinical interview: “Start where your client is at”.