Intersections of Power, Privilege, and Personal History

Intersections of Power, Privilege, and Personal History:

A Presentation by Natalie Millman, MSW Student.

As presented at Columbia University School of Social Work’s “Community Day.”

April 8, 2013 at 10:20am.

Online video link will soon be available!

There was a movie that came out in December. Anyone know what I’m talking about? The one where Anne Hathaway won an Oscar for her tears? You know what I’m talking about, Les Mis? What a great movie.

Of course it’s kinda relevant to us as social workers, too. I mean, we’re aware of the catch 22 that is life post incarceration – you either stay in prison and get treated inhumanely, OR, you have the fantastic other option of leaving prison and getting treated inhumanely. It’s a damned-if-I-do, damned-if-I-don’t scenario. No wonder people have difficulty getting out of a cycle of desperation, poverty, substance abuse, and crime. They’re disempowered by those with privilege.

And you know what, we as social workers can’t do everything that we want to do. We can’t do what the priest does in Les Mis. We can’t give our entire collection of silver to every person who needs it so that they can start a new life. We only have so many silver candlesticks to give.

But of course we can’t be like the policeman, Javert, either, aligning our egos to systems that doesn’t care about us, or about our clients. Not only can that lead to disaster, as it does for the poor policeman in this story, but I don’t think any of us wants be Javert: privileged people employed with the job of chasing down less privileged people, engaging in massive power struggles, focused on trying to get all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed.

But, wait a minute, isn’t that what we spend a lot of our time doing anyway, trying to get all the i’s dotted and the t’s crossed? .

So that leads me to the question: how can we work for these frustrating, disempowering systems that seem like they want to squeeze out every drop of compassion and love that we want to share with our clients and extinguish the inner faith that motivates us?

Because, as I’m sure many of you know, it’s a reciprocal relationship. Agencies that treat their staff well, treat their clients well, too. And when those things don’t go together, it keeps us from advancing the greater good!

I wish I could say things were different, but unfortunately, from what I hear, many agencies don’t treat their staff well, and this impacts the quality of the services provided to clients. When power is unequal, the privileged few gain more control and those who lack privilege are disenfranchised. Many of these systems crush our clients, telling them that they don’t have souls. And you know what, even as though many of us are privileged to be gears in these systems, we are often told the same thing.

So we’re faced with the question: how can we, as social workers, encourage our clients to win back power for themselves? And at the same time, how can we win back power for ourselves, too?

I don’t have a definitive answer to these questions, but here’s one idea: approach clients from the perspective of a “personal historian.”

Now what is a “personal historian?” In a nutshell, a personal historian is someone who assists people in documenting their life stories, whether that be through organizing family photographs, leading storytelling groups, or helping them write their autobiographies. They can also do genealogy, archival work, research, and anything else a historian employed by a museum or university might do, but they don’t do their work on the “big” events and figures of history, they focus on local stories of everyday people like you and me.

Now that doesn’t really explain how I help my clients. What I mean to say is, I try to treat every client with whom I interact like I am documenting their life story for posterity. Even if I am not actually writing it down.

Because the way I see it, their story is becoming a part of my story, and vice versa. The way I interact with them, and the way I elicit their stories, either allows their story to become more complex and developed, or stunts its growth. If I listen to someone, it gives them power. But I can’t give them power if I don’t have any of my own.

The goal of this presentation is to convince you that you do have some power even in an agency that leaves you feeling desperate, disenfranchised, and alone: more power than you imagine. And you can use that power, and give some to your clients. This is something I’ve learned this year at my own field placement.

Personal history work involves giving power to the client: by observing and preserving the past, and allowing them to reframe their narrative in a new way, it can lead to wisdom and growth. Instead of just repeating the same old story to another nameless face who doesn’t really care, who is just writing the story down for the client’s chart…I try to be as engaged and present and mindful as possible, despite circumstances that inhibit this. I try to give them power in the therapeutic relationship that they won’t otherwise get. I won’t say I am perfect at applying this – not at all – but this is what I aspire to do.

So I have isolated three concrete skills that, if you take just one or two of them away with you today, I hope they will be helpful in your practice.

1. As you have probably heard before, history is written by the victors. So by treating your client’s story with the respect and dignity of a historian documenting an important person or experience, you can make the client feel like they are more important. If they feel that they have changed history, that gives them power to impact the future, and that means they can make positive change for themselves and their community. They don’t need to be President to do good in the world.

2. Don’t ask so many questions. Full disclosure: this is a skill I attribute to Dr. Zweben’s Motivational Interviewing class. When you ask question after question after question after question, your clients become fatigued! And that makes it more likely that they won’t come back!

So what can you do instead? Reflect on what they said. That doesn’t mean ‘uhuh,’ ‘yeah,’ or ‘I see.’ Don’t be afraid to go ahead and say, in a tone that is confident, “So that makes you feel paralyzed.” or “frustrated.” And keep that questioning aftertone out of your voice. That tone where you’re like, “So, that makes you frustrated?!”

Let the client breathe! Remember you are DOCUMENTING and WITNESSING, and helping them process their own experiences. Not INTERROGATING.

3. At the risk of sounding like I am contradicting myself – be CURIOUS. Personal historians want to know more, and find ways to accomplish that without making their clients defensive. So when you hear something that doesn’t make sense, call the client out on it! In a nice, social worker way, of course. “So, I hear you are wanting to be a better father to your son. And I also see you are spending a lot of time out drinking with your friends. So I’m confused. How does that work?” Dr. Zweben calls this the “Columbo Approach,” and I think it’s brilliant.

So those are my tips: treat your client as an agent who can change history, don’t interrogate your client, and be curious.

Now before I part, I have a few quotes from personal historians that are useful to us as social workers.

First, “Never doubt that you can change history. You already have.” Marge Piercy.*

Second: “The past actually happened, but history is only what someone wrote down” A. Whittney Brown*

And third: As social workers, we can “convert experience into wisdom and growth” Susan Whittig Albert*

One last observation I want to make – I mean I started off talking about Les Miserables. So I just want to point out that Victor Hugo, the guy who wrote the book that the musical and movie are based off of, was a historian! If you’ve ever read his book, you would discover about a hundred pages dedicated to the history of the battle of Waterloo and how it matters for a couple of characters. And he also spends almost the same number of pages writing about the history of the Paris Sewer System.

But he spends most of this seven hundred page book writing about the people in a biographical way. And it’s fascinating, because he spends a lot of time honoring those who are actually not “important” people in power. He spends most of the book writing about the disempowered, who are overlooked by the history books – people who we call the mentally and physically ill, the impoverished, the homeless.

Most of all, he highlights the difficulties of incarcerated people re-integrating into society, like Jean Valjean.

We may think of Victor Hugo as just a writer of fiction, but ultimately he is a historian. We too can be historians in our line of work – raising our clients up by treating their stories as valuable and important, even if we are not writing them down to share. A personal historian approach involves being mindful. Being empathetic. Being socially conscious. By doing this, we might inspire change in those disempowered people who are labeled by these systems with numbers – allowing the 24601s to flower into Jean Valjeans.

* = These are all from the front page of the website of the Association of Personal Historians, as accessed on April 7, 2013 at 10pm EST.


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