Psychology Senior (Social Work Pre-Grad Intern) Xuan Le
Meagan O'Connor is a second year social work graduate student at the University of Texas at Austin and will be serving as my mentor throughout this semester to give me a sense of what graduate school entails. The Refugee Services of Texas (RST) office is located at 3710 Cedar Street Suite 8 in Austin, Texas. The office space is part of the historic AGE Building at the intersection of 38th and Cedar Street. The RST in Austin, TX functions to assist the resettlement of refugee populations in the US-more specifically they assist to help these individuals "recover from past trauma, gain personal independence and economic self-sufficiency, become contributing members of their communities, and able participants in all aspects of American life." My duties as an intern were to shadow the life of my mentor which included a trip to the Austin-Bergstrom airport to pick up an Iranian family, participating in ESL with Burmese clients, assisting the office on preparing documents for client employment, and interacting with the employees in the office.
Defining Social Work
The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) provides a widespread summary for the definition of social work: "Social work is the professional activity of helping individuals, groups, or communities to enhance or restore their capacity for social functioning and creating societal conditions favorable to that goal." This definition has been used as a common one-line summation of social work practice, however I feel that this definition acts to essentialize a complex meaning for a profession that requires a thorough background of knowledge, skills, and values that is contingent upon the person and time period. The basic tenets of social work consist of five central themes : commitment to social betterment, enhancement of social functioning, orientation to act, appreciation of human diversity, and a versatile practice perspective. Through my experiences with RST I encountered several of these tenets in practice. For example, while at an airport pickup of an Iranian family I witnessed my mentor and a Persian-speaking volunteer facilitating the family's "social functioning" and "appreciation of human diversity" by helping them resettle into their new apartment, and strategizing ways for them to find a natural water source to perform a religious ritual.
This family had an anchor (family members already established within the US), so the stressors of resettlement were immensely relieved by their help. Social work professionals and volunteers are directly working with individuals needing assistance right from the moment they enter a new country-this was an exciting moment to witness. The family consisted of two parents in their mid-40s to 50s, with two daughters in their 20s-I suspect that there will be generational differences in the process of adaptation and assimilation in the US. This divide in age makes me think about how the daughters and parents will negotiate the process of becoming American.
Before participating in this internship and reading on literature written by social work scholars and professionals, my understanding of social work becomes more clarified-these professionals are directly working with individuals to provide them with assistance and the skills (i.e. ESL classes) to lead self-sustaining, competent lives in American society. However, I also see that the definition of social work can remain nuanced because it can change at different points in time depending on the individual in practice and the issue at hand.
For Jane Addams, the vanguard of social work and reform in the 1920s, there was an initial need to provide assistance to vulnerable populations, to raise awareness and consciousness-her actions were in response to the Progressive Era of 1890 to 1915 . As a result, a social movement characterized by the goal of reaching social and economic justice evolved into what we know as social work. The practice of social work today has changed since the 1920s, as the issues affecting communities are contingent upon historical movements and traumatic events affecting people on a national scale such as 9/11 terrorist attacks, Columbine and Virginia Tech shootings-with each historical context we can expect a different set needs and issues facing our society. This makes the social work practice rely heavily on the ability to be flexible depending on changing issues, which brings us to the basic tenet of a "versatile practice perspective".
Products of Society
Zastrow (1993) includes the "Ecological Model of Human Behavior" in this book to emphasize the relationship between the person and the environment which includes family, education, goods and services, religion, employment, politics, and social services. By extending the view of a person to include environmental influences, social work practice embraces the notion of the individual as a product of society-this is important because as individuals with agency, we have an obligation to intervene when the lives of our fellow human being becomes dysfunctional.
Defining Social Justice: Interviews with Dr. Fong and Meagan
It was not until a month into the internship experience that I realized I needed to address the issue of how social workers defined social justice-to not do so would assume that all social workers meant the same thing when they referred this concept. In an interview with Dr. Fong, she summarized social justice as the following:
In life, there are going to be a lot of policies, laws, and attitudes. There are also going to be people implementing policy that is not fair-when you look at employment, education, and other opportunities, all these resources should be open and available for everyone to access. Discriminatory measures may be based on certain "isms", such as race, gender, ability, sexual orientation (i.e. two partners "married" who do not have access to healthcare is an injustice). Everyone should be able to have access to these resources. The opponents of this argument would say that we do not have enough money and there should be cut-off points-that may be true, but we have to be sure that when we are implementing these limitations, we do not cut off a particular group of people deliberately.
For Meagan, the definition of social justice piles on the perspective of a White anti-racist activist:
Social justice to me means advocating and standing up for those who do not have a voice by using my White identity and social status to obtain access they would not have or would have much trouble acquiring. I understand how White civil activists got killed in their efforts to educate people about the types of privileges and advantages that came along with Whiteness. She later addresses the difference between ignorance and stupidity, and how a White audience who may confuse the two when they are confronted with issues of racism they may not be aware of:
Ignorance implies stupidity, innocence, but stupidity is a lack of ability to learn and gain knowledgebecause ignorance has always been associated with stupidity there is a tendency to think of a redneck hillbilly. Some people are just oblivious, and they just don't know that these injustices are out there.
By claiming and acknowledging her White identity, Meagan chooses to recognize her position in systems of power -she uses this position with her agency to provide assistance to people who have been historically oppressed. It is also important to note that she did not have access to all the privileges and advantages that is typical of the White majority because she belonged to a working class family. This is an example of the multiplicity and heterogeneity that comes with a White identity that often times becomes overshadowed by hegemonic discourse in race discourse.
Concluding Thoughts-A Space to Explore
The great part of this internship is that it allows me so much flexibility to explore intellectually with fellow students, graduate students going through the process, and professors who have been there done that, and are still learning throughout the way. Before this semester started, I did not have a thorough knowledge of refugees in the US-by taking a class examining how laws affect immigrant groups, in addition to shadowing my mentor in the Refugee Services of Texas, I had created an environment for myself to understand the processes that immigrants under the category of refugee endure upon arriving in the US, and how social workers facilitate this process.
My professional goals have evolved throughout the semester and I cannot attribute it to one singular experience-it is rather an amalgamation of my internship experience with RST, the knowledge learned from my classes, and my role in organizing an ethnic-based conference, that eventually helped me define what social justice means to me and how I want to use my agency and cultural identity to remedy the problems I see in society. After studying the case of Ho v. Reno in an Asian American Studies course, I examined the roles that the US and Cambodia had in undermining international law, originally set in place to protect human rights as defined by the UN. For these individuals convicted of crimes (Cambodia Americans in the Ho v. Reno case) there is an injustice when deportation is used to solve the problem of crime in immigrant communities with legal US residency but lack US citizenship-when the US opened up its borders in 1980 as part of the Refuge Act to allow refugees to enter they made a promise to protect these individuals fleeing persecution from their country of origin.
By forcing repatriation of convicted immigrants back to a country that continues to be characterized by political and military corruption, I was forced to rethink how the US contradicted their definition of "refugee", how laws are socially defined, who writes the laws, and how these individuals are forced to reconstruct their concepts of "home". If home is not the place where these individuals grew up, built families and became members in their communities, then how can deportation be a just means of punishment? Every year thousands of immigrants and refugees are being deported and detained, taken away from their families and deprived of basic human rights-I want to step in here, to find justice for these individuals by fighting for more equal measures in the implementation of US and international law. As a result, I am planning to apply to law school in the next year.