Sunday, February 26, 2017

The Day I Realized Why I'm a Social Worker

The day before the election in November, I got on the train to my internship. It was 6:58am. I sat down across from one of the only people without their head buried in their phone and he looked me in the eyes as I sat down.

"Good morning," he said.

I responded in-kind and proceeded to pull out some reading for class. He continued looking around: out the window, at other passengers, at me. Honing in on the backpack sitting in my lap, he saw the button attached to the front that reads: "I'm a social worker who votes." And said, "What's a social worker?"

I imagined pretty quickly that this was the evangelical equivalent of a "witnessing opportunity" and felt the weight of the question between us. If he legitimately did not know what a social worker was, this seemed a great opportunity to share that with him. But I kind of froze up. I wasn't expecting the question or the conversation at this hour in the morning and said something like, "Social workers take care of people. Especially people who are disadvantaged or marginalized. We help people find things like food, housing, health care, child care, education, and other resources."

He just kinda shook his head and then proceeded to tell me about his job recycling computer parts. Which you might guess I care nothing about, but I listened politely anyway. I got off the train and it kept bugging me throughout the day that I didn't have a better answer for him. Why couldn't I answer a question about the very thing I'm attending school for? Social work.

The next day Donald Trump was elected president of the United States.

And we've all felt a mix of emotions as a result. In the past year we watched someone say things that were racist and bigoted and sexist and untrue. And we shook our heads and figured he'd never get elected. And then, he did. And we were shocked. And confused. And scared.

Because his campaign emboldened a whole tribe of people who now feel justified
-sexually assaulting women and saying, "Trump's elected now bitch, get used to it."
-chanting "You're gonna get deported" at their Latino classmates
-proudly waving a confederate flag and shouting, "White power"
-burning mosques
-desecrating Jewish grave stones and making bomb threats at temples
-using the n-word and telling black people to "know their place again"
-physically attacking gay and transgender people
(Southern Poverty Law Center)

And so many conservative voters are surprised by this onslaught of hate speech and violence and I have no idea why. It's like they didn't think Trump was serious. But as Maya Angelou says, "When someone tells you who they are, believe them."And I'm not naive. Frankly, these things have always been happening. But they were under the surface. They were socially unacceptable and now, they've been invited into the light of day. And it feels like we just re-wound the United State's social progress by fifty years or more. 

In the days and weeks after the election, I watched fellow social work students yell and cry and march in the streets. I watched social work faculty discuss in bewildered tones and console each other with hugs. And most recently, I've seen social workers mobilizing.

It wasn't until Donald Trump was elected that I realized how to answer that man's question on the train. And so for what it's worth, I'll answer it here:

A social worker stands for almost all of the things that 
Donald Trump appears to stand against.

It's not a rule. Notice I said "almost." I do believe that there's a way to talk about what social workers do that is separate from political affiliation. Plus, I welcome the opportunity to be surprised--wrong, even--about what President Trump stands for. If he changes his tune, I will happily change mine.

Until then, so long as the President of the free world continues surrounding himself with white supremacists, enacting travel bans that target Muslims, and taking away policies that protect transgender people, I am becoming a social worker.

Which means that I will stand with:
immigrants and refugees
gay people
transgender people
people of color
indigenous people
poor folks
essentially, people.

And in the social work community, I am encouraged. Not greatly, because it feels like there is so much to fear, but encouraged, nonetheless. Because I am on the side of people who still think racism is wrong. And sexism is not okay. And bigotry doesn't fly around here. And, to be clear, when I talk about "sides" I am not talking about political parties. Because all of us, regardless of how we voted, are making decisions about what is and what is not okay in America.

The day after Trump's inauguration, Jeremy and I woke up unreasonably early to attend the Women's March in Denver. I don't have, like, a lifetime of political activism under my belt. A lot of this is new to me. I've never protested anything because, frankly, there wasn't much to protest. But I made a sign. And I showed up. And as we walked toward the capital building and came over the hill, I stopped and had to catch my breath. Because the lawn was a mass of people who were feeling as concerned and fearful as I was. And I cried. Out of relief. That so many people had showed up to say, "We are better than this." And no, I didn't agree with every sign that I read. And no, I didn't agree with every speaker at every Woman's March around the world. But I went because I needed to feel hopeful that were other people needing hope.

Earlier this month, I attended an annual town hall event held by Congresswoman Diana DeGette who represents my district. As people poured into the events center on a sleepy, Saturday morning, you could feel the energy buzzing in the air. DeGette got on stage, welcomed us, and said, "Usually these events bring out 20 senior citizens. Today, over 1,000 people showed up. In all my years, I've never seen this kind of political turn-out. We see you. We hear you. Thanks for coming."

After Trump's travel ban was enacted, I emailed the mosque in our neighborhood and asked if they needed anything. If there was a way I could get educated about Islam. They invited me to their monthly Open House. Last Saturday, Jeremy and I attended. More and more people flooded into the room as people were scrambling to find more chairs and enough space for all the people that showed up. The speaker said, "Usually we get 1-2 people each month at this event. There are easily 200 people here today. Thank you for showing up and supporting our community."

These things matter.
Showing up matters.

The organizers of these events see us.
The people who show up see each other. 
The news organizations see us.
Our children see us. 
And most importantly, history sees us. 

I do not hope for Donald Trump's failure as president.
He is my president. He is the president of the country I call home. I've been praying for him since November. And I will continue praying for him to have wisdom and a peaceful heart.

But I do hope that his policies that are racist, homophobic, or bigoted fail.
I do pray that he doesn't alienate us from the rest of the world. 
I do hope that his rhetoric falls flat on the ears of people who know better.

And at the same time, I think it's foolish to waste too much energy worrying about Donald Trump. The man. 
The character. 
The entertainer. 
He is only a symbol that has awakened and brought to light an ideology that has always existed in America. One that is based on fear and ignorance and scarcity. 

If there's anything to the Law of Attraction, to this idea that what you focus on you will inevitably receive, I think we should all stop talking and posting and Tweeting about Donald Trump "the man", because he's getting enough attention already. The more stage time we give to "the man" the less attention we give to the actual problem. And what we can do right now. Today. Tomorrow. 

I'm going to become a social worker during one of the most heated and controversial times in our recent history. I don't feel prepared for this. I don't think many of us do. You don't know what to say to your kids or your congregation. We're all trying to figure this out.

But if I've learned anything, it's that we're better together.
That love wins.
That progress probably won't happen on Facebook.
That real change will be happening in the streets.
And in our houses.
And in our places of worship.
And that someday, I will tell my children that I was on the right side of this.

And that somehow, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg said, "There's reason to hope that we will see a better day," because "the true symbol of the United States is not the bald eagle, it is the pendulum. And when the pendulum swings too far in one direction, it will go back."

Ruth has seen a few things. So, I'm just going to trust her.

Peace to you and yours.
We're going to get through this together.