Responding to the Saviour Industrial Complex: Check the Help and Free Yourself! (Part I)

While always a volunteer with various noble causes and charities since my youth, approximately five years ago, I vowed to become even more engaged on a civic level. It was around that time that I seriously began thinking about how I'd like to spend the remainder of my professional life. After much contemplation, I chose, despite hearing many tales of woe accompanied by dire warnings (e.g., low wages and burnout), to pursue a social work degree to better position myself to understand, serve and learn from causes and communities I hold near and dear to my heart. So, I began the journey of what I thought would be a complete change of career, and my excitement about being immersed in social work abound, if only because of naivete.

Three years later, armed with a master's degree in social work, a newly "credentialed" me wanted nothing more than to commit myself full-time to the issues I'm most passionate about; wanted nothing more than to leave the state agency that has been my professional home for the last decade and devote myself full-time to concepts that matter to me. However, I continue my current employment because, unlike many of my comrades on the front lines doing the good work, oddly, it somehow allows me to pursue my passions without compromise. You see, contrary to many working for social service organizations and nonprofits, while not, in the words of Nene Leakes, cashing "Trump checks," I am not paid pittance for work that, while not without reward, consumes your very being; work that leaves you so vulnerable to exhaustion that you oft-times lack the energy to defend your own integrity, let alone the integrity of those you've been charged with serving. In keeping certain work-related provisions (i.e., decent pay and necessary fringe benefits) in place for my most fundamental needs (i.e., food, clothing, shelter and healthcare), I am, through this "radical" form of self-care and my volunteer work, free to exercise the type of care and concern I've dreamed of extending to those I wish to stand in solidarity with, as well as be able to humble myself and be taught/led by those very people. I don't have to hold myself out to be the omniscient deliverer of hope or all-knowing oracle of today's zeitgeist. Dare I say it's because my paycheck sufficiently satisfies my needs, and isn't predicated upon me being a saviour, that I find I'm able to maintain a true strengths-based perspective, not just on paper, but in my heart; not just in theory, but in practice. Of course, I yearn for the day when I can practice a brand of social work that gels with my spirit; one that believes social work can be utilized as a vehicle for joy and celebration inasmuch as it is used to identify and treat pathologies. To be allowed this and the ability to clothed and feed myself at the same time would be a dream come true, but, for now, it seems the response from much of the social services sector and world of nonprofits to such a yearning is: "Ain't nobody got time for that!"

Beyond the pay and labor involved when employed at many entities, I remain shocked by a pervasive mentality, which, sector-wide, seems to be a necessary evil when pondering ways to sustain an organization or justify its existence. I speak of the paradigm that encourages one to feel constantly compelled to identify, hoard, maintain, and even become territorial of victims (a.k.a. potential clients, consumers, patients or participants), while being more concerned with the numbers they represent instead of their well-being. Without taking a Pollyanna-ish stance (recognizing, indeed, there will always be those of us who experience unique challenges in our quests for self-actualization), it's been my experience that when it's "victims" and their "horror stories" that sustain an organization, there are few reasons to ever offer practical solutions to stem the tide of them spiraling downward into a world of oppressive marginalization and the harrowing circumstances that ensue from being on the outside of "healthy and happy."

Now, and this is in fairness to the entities I speak of, from what I've observed, in many ways, I can't blame them for such a practice. Afterall, monetary assistance from most funding paradigms seem earmarked for those entities who can best identify the most victims, while selling themselves as the best saviour to said victims. Those organizations and individuals truly committed to celebrating a community, seeing it as capable of uplifting itself, and worthy of, as Luz Vega-Marquis, President and CEO, Marguerite Casey Foundation suggests, a place at the table when discussing THEM (a true strengths-based approached) are few and far between, partially because a true embrace of a community's strength would mean being the recipient of a dubious side-eye (read: Funding denied!). In all this, the sad realization, and here's that gut check that should signal a compromise of integrity or ethics, the very funding many individuals and organizations are allotted is predicated upon deficit model thinking where those being served are viewed first and most prominently as victims. From the outset (initial application for funding), to the renewal of funding, an organization often realizes the requisite item for financial support is a huge cache of victims.

In thinking about strategies undertaken by many "helping" agencies with regard to their approach and ability to sell themselves to funders and constituents, I couldn't help but think of those hotly contested election cycles where I am left musing about the effectiveness of strategy and messaging in political races; just exactly what woos an individual to throw their support behind a particular candidate? For me personally, I decided some time ago my visceral reactions to a candidate would inform which way I tilt in a polling booth. Now, this judgement isn't completely independent of some form of knowledge about a candidate, but it's less reliant upon one-liners and stances taken throughout the election cycle, the time when most seem to scramble to compose the best (usually insincere - Yes, I'm quite cynical of politicos) self-glorifying statements that enthrall and baffle a public at the same time. No, I don't fall for the photo-op that most politicians are skilled at taking advantage of; you know the one where they see a "poor" soul that can make them more sympathetic or appear more in touch with the people in the eyes of the public and insist on a photo with that person. There are also the tactics of waiting to discover the raison d'être, and adjusting convictions ever so slightly to ensure they (and we) remain affixed upon the proverbial fence, straddling issues, while appeasing us just long enough so they are allowed another day in the spotlight; allowed another day to continue a campaign of wooing the masses without ever truly answering an inquiry in a sincere or coherent manner or revealing who they truly are. Yeah, I know some might be saying, "So what, it's politics. What do you expect?" Well, I expect more... not so much from politicians, but from myself... from you. I expect an evolution of mind, heart and soul that guides a more discerning eye, an eye expected to become more adept at choosing those who truly deserve our support -- deserve our vote.

Akin to my examination of the political realm, I employ the same discerning eye in the work I do as a social worker and community activist; social work and community activism/organizing are two realms that, unfortunately, are as steeped in politics as any campaign trail. Ask recent graduates of any social work program who overwhelmingly enter the work-force filled with the optimism text book theory, oft-times aloof tenured aloof professors, and fellow bright-eyed graduates afford them, and you'll undoubtedly hear "There's the ideal, then there's reality." Where the rubber meets the road, one can discover themselves shelving everything they've learned or hoped for in order to compete and survive. One can even find themselves tucking their professional and personal integrity away, while shedding a tear for the compromise (and sometimes loss) of integrity. Of course, there always remains a desperate hope of revisiting that which truly inspires, and that which encouraged the initial pursuit of such a discipline, but a second- or third- or fourth-round of education is needed to navigate the political landscape in order to flourish as the "professional" you wanted to be.

In Part II of this post, I'll share with you experiences I've had, or have had shared with me, regarding maneuverings required to not only feel fulfilled about our quality of service, but tactics employed to truly uplift those who allow us into their lives as they seek to surmount personal and societal challenges. I hope you'll return for the second installment. Cheers!