By Cathy Ralph
While being the NASW-CA Chapter President at this critical time in our country has come upon me unexpectedly (the confluence of both, not the reality of our separate election outcomes!), I’m also an instructor on the Field Team at UC Berkeley’s School of Social Welfare and our School’s Title IV-E Project Coordinator.
Let me add that in these roles, I’ve mingled with our students, faculty and field instructors, as well as my statewide colleagues, for serious discussions, debriefing our feelings and finding ways to channel our core values into constructive responses. Students in particular have taken bold stances of leadership and sharing. It’s been heartening to hear from them and witness the thoughtful actions they’ve taken and are planning.
I’m aware that not only people ‘outside the bubble’ of our progressive-leaning profession, universities, Bay Area/California and other U.S. coastal communities, voted for the new president-elect, but so did some of our own students and colleagues. In creating “safe spaces” for post-election reflections, several of our campus administrators have been careful to note that among our shaken students and colleagues are also those who weren’t in agreement with our pre-election analyses, who may now be a minority in our grieving, agonizing, temporarily immobilized, thrashing midst. I think the way to persuade such seemingly natural allies to our position is not to further stigmatize them and add fuel to their fires of feeling ‘persecuted,’ rather than privileged, silenced rather than heard, but to remain steadfastly true to our stated values.
To go back to some ancient reflections on bringing others into mutual respect, if not total agreement with our beliefs, “See how these Christians love one another” is ultimately a far more persuasive observation and tactic than “You will be converted to our way or else pay a fine, be banished, or executed.”
Both methods have been tried (hence, the Crusades, Inquisition, and Native American genocides, for just a few historic examples, and the aftermath of today’s Taliban or ISIL village takeovers, or back at home, post-strike feelings after an inconvenient labor action). Bullying or silencing the minority, whether we’re righteous or not, typically means we lose out on knowing their true motivations, cannot then make our action plans responsive to a well-grounded assessment, and create generations-long repercussions of hate, anger, contention, feuding, resentment, fear, etc.
Both methods use some form of power, but the former misuses it, while only the ‘soft power’ of loving kindness can be an effective, persuasive change-agent in the long run. Ask any client who started out thinking that social workers were for “other people.” but who, individually or via a family member, found critically needed help from a social worker. Suddenly, our nonjudgmental quality makes sense and produces results, not least of which is opening a door, if just a crack, for a peek at what we’ve got going on our side.
If we know anything about human behavior—whether for clients or colleagues—it’s that people make changes at different points in their lives, depending on their past experiences and the power of the examples they see in their daily interactions. Yes, they tend to seek opinions that confirm their biases, but if we’re talking about changing behavior, it probably won’t come from finger-pointing, calling out, harping or threatening, but from our ability to regroup and demonstrate on smaller local levels that our values and methods have more power to transform people and society from within than theirs do from wielding brute, nonmandated force. We will make stands to protect and defend our values, our profession and our clients, but let’s not waste time chastising each other. We need to get to work. And the harm we expect to see from the coming administration will speak for itself, too. Not to mention that there may be some residual benefits from unexpected sources.
Mahatma Gandhi, Richard and Mildred Loving, and Martin Luther King Jr. are a few who exemplified positive transformations in their use of peaceful living, walking and kneeling in the face of dogs, fire hoses, arrests, unjust laws, and many other indignities and travesties. Fence-sitting people, who had little at stake back then, hoped these various civil rights causes would slow down or go away. But the displays that they orchestrated, and the supporters who participated, showed concretely what it meant to be a person of color or ally, how the person-hoods of many were violated every day. Not until then did the British occupiers, the Jim Crow laws and practices, the fear-mongering hate groups, and the insidious poll-blocking activities become anathema to the majority and get overthrown. Who undid all these injustices? Not social workers or other activists in-fighting and finding fault with each other, accusing those who didn’t participate in Freedom Rides, demonstrations, marches, voting, organizing or court cases re: their misguided unworthiness to hold membership in our organizations. Those who did the work can take the bows; and we who helped or supported, whether in person or in the wings, know it wasn’t easy.
I hope to emulate those leaders and followers who took the constructive paths and became role models for ethical decision-making. I expect that our outliers will have to decide if they can stand with us, upholding our principles and vigorously planning our next advocacy actions on behalf of our profession and our clients. Will we be defenders or persecutors in the ‘big picture’ upcoming parade of injustices? That’s where we have to find common cause.