The Sam Saga

Great words from my colleague, friend, and fellow blogger, John McGowan.

McGowanBlog

UNC Chancellor Carol Folt resigned yesterday—and took the remnants of the campus’s Confederate monument out the door with her.

While the UNC system’s Board of Governor’s met in an emergency session to discuss “Chapel Hill leadership,” Folt stole a march on them, announcing her resignation and her order for the removal of the toppled statue’s still-standing pedestal to an undisclosed location, before the Board’s meeting ended.

Campus work crews had dismantled the pedestal and hauled it away by midnight last night.

Good on her.

Now is not the time, it seems to me, to repine over what could or should have been.  Instead, we should accept where things currently stand and, as a campus, stand braced to fight back against any retaliatory actions coming from the BOG.  Reviling the BOG or speculating about what it has or will do is also not very useful in my view.  But we should…

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Preparation

We stood speechless as we scrolled through the images that she had sent without captions. Utter misery inflicted on desperate people at our Southern border. How in God’s name are we allowing this?

This afternoon I sat in a coffee shop preparing for work later this week with a group of medical fellows. We will be talking about the Latinx immigrant population in our community using an intervention called, “Yo Veo,” meaning “I See.” We will use a series of photographs by the photographer, Janet Jarman http://janetjarman.com to begin our conversation. The images from her story, Marisol and the American Dream, form a jumping off point to consider the ways in which migration experiences shape an individual’s experience with various systems, such as health care or education. As we go through Marisol’s story, we will also spend time with data collected from young people and their parents here in North Carolina. Some of that data comes from studies I’ve done with colleagues through the years and some comes from the good work of others.

Using visual images and the performing arts to promote nuanced and reflective conversation about race, ethnicity, culture, migration, difference, and professional practice is an approach I and others I work with have been refining since 2010. Although we use a particular method to structure these experiences, the conversations are open-ended and unpredictable. Sometimes the mood is tense. Other times the room floods with empathy. Usually, at least at first, there is a mixture of wariness and confusion as participants search for a “right” answer to the questions posed. Gradually, the group grows more comfortable with not knowing, a posture which overtime gives way to understanding, reconsideration, and respect. Although the structure is the same, no two Yo Veo conversations are alike. As a facilitator, comfort with ambiguity, trust in the process, and a willingness to let the images work is key. This flexibility and responsiveness is what gives the approach its power and differentiates it from more traditional “trainings” focused on diversity or difference. Our research indicates that what we do does influence professionals’ attitudes and motivation to engage with clients, students, or patients whose backgrounds leave them open to disparate health and educational outcomes. For those interested, links to some of our published research articles are at the end of this post.
Immigration questions appear to be evergreen in our society, a consistently hot topic. As such, whenever I prepare for a Yo Veo conversation, I end up tweaking the slide deck. Sometimes, I am tailoring for a particular type of audience or a particular timeframe. But usually, I am incorporating images and information that speak to the current moment. A month or so ago, Janet sent me images from her recent time in Tijuana covering “the caravan.” My son was in the kitchen when I opened the file. We stood speechless as we scrolled through the images that she had sent without captions. Utter misery inflicted on desperate people at our Southern border. How in God’s name are we allowing this?

Today was no different. I looked at more images taken by other photographers that document the separation, loss, atrocity, occasional resilience, and faith that characterize the current, shameful chapter in our national immigration story. As I look, I know our Yo Veo conversation this week will be meaningful. But it is hard to focus on the work through my tears…

 

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/256198342_How_images_work_An_analysis_of_a_visual_intervention_used_to_facilitate_a_difficult_conversation_and_promote_understanding

https://www.researchgate.net/publication/316751923_Making_a_difference_in_medical_trainees’_attitudes_toward_Latino_patients_A_pilot_study_of_an_intervention_to_modify_implicit_and_explicit_attitudes?_sg=S7zdUrG8227FpulXPLcUwk2i40_pBF7TXCnkRG1BQX3yJfFDdkACTP_U4HOG6_K3pFui-4hDRWzYKnLpB_Wrg666VffmqQS-1qxgGs4a.NU_7u7ToJ1VTc0TIDKXbtmKhf54TXaOZyl-7LxuODnrtyrHC_UGQCuLV-wYSyg9pND38LuYGQ-lj16rSoxHTpA

 

Photograph Credit: https://static01.nyt.com/images/2018/12/26/podcasts/27daily/26daily-superJumbo.jpg?quality=90&auto=webp

Angels Unaware

This post is an edited version of a remembrance I gave at a memorial service yesterday, October 27th. This has been such an awful week, bombings, shootings, so much hate. It makes saying goodbye to those that do good in the world that much worse. 

My first post MSW job was in an urban emergency room, work that broke through so many of my illusions about American life.  It was place where anything and everything could happen and as such helped me learn who I was, what I believed, and what would be important to me in approaching my professional life going forward. One thing I learned was how to spot those that the writer of Hebrews spoke of when he cautioned, “Be not forgetful to entertain strangers: for thereby some have entertained angels unawares.”

The first time this happened was with a distraught mother. The exact circumstances escape me, but we were in my office, knee to knee, and she was crying and repeating that God would take care of her. The waiting room was over-flowing, my pager was ringing, I wanted to help her. I also wanted to answer the doctors and nurses who judged my performance. I affirmed her faith and sat with her tears, but my mind was elsewhere worrying about my delayed response to other crises. As I spoke her words back to her – “Yes. God takes care of us.” – she looked up, stopped crying, and spoke. “Yes. But He needs your hands.”  An angel unaware, calling me back from my distraction to focus on what true helping means.

Academia is a lot different than an emergency room. But as a social work professor, I still serve many masters and only some of them “count” toward tenure, promotion, the coveted chair, or whatever the next big recognition is that says we have made it as scholars. So when I received an email in 2012 from someone asking to talk about a tutoring program in a trailer park, my first impulse was to press “delete”. Indeed, I recall mentioning the email to colleague who said, “Like you have time for something like that… not!”  But that mother in the ER had taught me well and this email from a retiree who could be doing anything, but was dedicating herself to a group of Latinx families, a population marginalized over and over in the current environment, continued to nag at my conscience. I said yes to coffee, and met Carol, an angel unaware who once again showed me the importance of being God’s hands in a troubled world.

There were so many things that struck me in that first meeting. Her cheerfulness and joy in working with a group of children and parents far from her own prior teaching experience, her faith that I, a stressed out associate professor, mother of two, had something to offer the situation. Her consideration and understanding that it would take time for me to figure out how to help, and her willingness to put our heads together and take it step by step. We met with the principal at Margaret Pollard Middle School. I introduced her to the good folks at  El Futuro , an organization she came to love as I do. Eventually we got MSW students involved through field placement. The Learning Trail became an official non-profit. Some law students and professors joined the effort. This sounds like a smooth process. It was not. It has been full of fits and starts and this year we were poised to our collaboration to the next level. We met just weeks ago with this year’s students, a new field instructor, and supervisor to plan.

Carol’s death is devastating because it was her commitment and confidence that has inspired me and kept me going with this effort even when I felt overwhelmed and too busy. Her persistence called me back, again and again to what true helping means. She reminded me through word and deed that when we are kind to strangers we host angels unaware.

I saw her last on September 27th, exactly a month ago today. After lunch we walked to the parking lot together.  I was too busy as always, said a hurried good-bye, and rushed off upon arriving at my car.  Now, I wish I’d lingered, had the second cup of coffee, chatted in the parking garage for five minutes more. I wish I’d made time to send a follow up email, tell her how much I loved working with her.  But I did not. I rushed onward to the next thing unaware that I was leaving an angel behind.

 

For those interested, here’s another post on our collaborative work from 2014. 

Photo Credit: Skylar Searing

 

 

Where Research and Real Life Collide

This morning I woke up at home after a quick trip to England. I was attending a conference on migration hosted by a journal for which I occasionally I review. The event was free and there were some people I was interested in hearing on the program.http://www.sussex.ac.uk/migration/seminars/conferences/3rdconference. To keep my thinking fresh, it helps to get out of my routine and listen to smart people talk about issues I care about. Inevitably I return to my work with new eyes. Yet when I opened the newspaper this morning, it was not “my work” that I was thinking about in the context of the conference; it was Wildin Acosta, an 18 year old senior at Riverside High School in Durham, NC who could be deported to his native Honduras at any moment following a judge’s decision to deny his request for an asylum hearing.

He’s been in detention in Georgia for about six weeks and has requested that his teachers, who have been in contact by phone, send him homework so that he may have a chance of graduating in June. His high school has rallied to his defense with teachers and students holding vigils and writing letters to courts and elected representatives. Indeed, the representative for the area in which he lives has requested review of the latest decision from the highest levels of the federal government and the city council passed a resolution on his behalf. But the options are running out for him as today’s article in the Raleigh News and Observer details http://www.newsobserver.com/news/local/counties/durham-county/article66942212.html .

Wildin’s story brings to life the language I was hearing at the conference. Alex Betts of Oxford uses the term survival migrants: individuals who are not choosing to leave their homeland for better economic chances; they are coming because they must if they and their families are to have a chance to survive. The threats they experience might include the violence of grinding poverty or physical violence. This language gives voice to so much of my work with new immigrants in North Carolina. Their choice to move is not about income per se. It is about survival. It is the Acosta family’s story too. Beginning with Wildin’s father, family members began leaving Honduras 10 years ago due to escalating violence and poverty. His mother followed a few years later. When both had gotten stable work here in the US, they sent for their children. At 16 years old, Wildin made the treacherous journey only to be stopped at the Texas border. He explained to border patrol that he was leaving Honduras due to gang threats in Honduras. Read this NYT article from 2014, the year Wildin came to the U.S., to learn more about the realities of life there. http://www.nytimes.com/2014/07/10/world/americas/fleeing-gangs-children-head-to-us-border.html?_r=0. He went to his first hearing and was advised not to return for his second by an attorney because he had turned 18 and was at greater risk of being deported. It is at that moment that his situation became particularly precarious. Here’s the second new term I learned.

Precarity: a term applied by Elaine Chase of University College, London to capture more accurately the ways in which immigrant and refugee young people are vulnerable. She argues convincingly that the vulnerabilities associated with these young people are not really vulnerabilities at all – they are precarities: vulnerabilities that come from their status as refugees or undocumented immigrants or unaccompanied minors. A quick google search told me that the social class in this situation is now referred to as the “precariat.” This too is Wildin’s story. This young man is solid student, growing up in a working, two-parent household. He had plans to attend Durham Tech after graduation. He has friends, played sports, and has won the respect of his teachers. He is not involved drugs or other illegal activity. He exemplifies current data out of the UT Austin School of Social Work that immigrants are 50 % less likely to binge drink, be involved in any way with illegal drugs, and 33% less likely to commit violent crimes as compared to their native born counter parts. https://socialwork.utexas.edu/directory/salas-wright_christopher/ . In other words, he is not vulnerable, at-risk, high-risk, a risk. Yet, he is also not “resilient.” He can’t be because the social structures in which he finds himself make his existence precarious. And in a democracy those structures are determined by you and me.

Many have and are speaking out on Wildin’s behalf. They are using the democratic process and their freedom of speech to protest an injustice in progress. If there is any silver lining to this story that’s not yet over, it allows, at least for a moment immigrants and refugees to move from being “them” to being “him,” a real kid, with real hopes, real promise, in real trouble. Like many, I will keep hoping for Wildin and others like him. I hope that an individual who hears his story and has the power to change it will use that power. And for the rest of us, my hope that we can move from seeing immigrants and refugees as burdens toward Alex Bett’s view in which people with very real needs can also be recognized as active agents that re-energize our communities and in so doing gain skills and resources to rebuild their own home countries when conflicts have resolved. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tiWwrdMqvvM

Image Credit: Stuart McAlpine
https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/legalcode

After Years of Work, Overnight Success!

After Years of Work, Overnight Success!

This quote came from a community partner at lunch today. Sitting with her, and a supervisor from El Futuro, and two MSW students, I couldn’t help but feel awed and grateful. The Nature Trail project is up and running. How did that happen?

The story began two years ago, maybe a little more when I received an email from a retiree living in a neighborhood just outside of Chapel Hill. She was reaching out because of something she’d seen on UNC’s website about some of our work and thought I’d be potentially helpful to a tutoring effort she was leading in a trailer park close to her comfortable neighborhood. The volunteer tutoring program was directed at the new immigrant kids from Latin America that lived in the trailer park – the bulk of the census of the place. Staffed by retirees many of whom have had great careers as educators, reading experts, and other educational specialists, the program works with elementary and middle school age young people. My contact , Carol, asked to have coffee to talk about the psychosocial needs of the kids and families she and her compatriots were getting to know.

For many of us, time is our most precious commodity. And the typical advice for managing time well is to say no to things that have no clear benefit to our work. I remember telling someone about that initial phone call only to hear, “Who has time for that?” Of course no one ever has time for anything but there’s always time if you care about it or if you’re just…curious. People like the woman I met, who is now a friend and colleague generate questions. What are you doing that is so compelling to you that instead of cruising the Mediterranean, as many in your circumstances might, you are choosing to do this work even after a full career of service? Why work with kids that nobody else cares about? Here’s the answer to the first question. This committed group was tutoring elementary and middle school children who were immigrants or children of immigrants from Latin America. They were raising money to replace trailers that had been decimated by fire or age. They were providing food at holidays and after school. And along the way they were becoming privy to issues they felt were out of their scope. That’s why they called; they wanted help negotiating that extra-educational terrain that makes all the difference in whether or not kids can take advantage of educational opportunities. The answer to the why question, I’ve never asked. I’m just glad they chose to do it and I’m glad I said yes to that cup of coffee.

Fast forward to now. El Futuro, a long time community partner, is now supervising two MSW students who are working primarily in this trailer park. The students, who started this summer, are doing community needs assessments, coordinating with schools and other agencies, creating programming to enhance and expand on what the tutoring program, now officially incorporated and called Learning Trail, started. All this activity in spite of the fact, that last spring, I thought I was going to have to go back to everyone and tell them the whole thing was not going to work. The puzzle we had dreamed up had so many pieces that had to come together at once and we couldn’t get more than two or three in place at anyone time. We had some financial resources but not enough. We had students that were interested in part of the plan but not all of it. My dean had put some resources toward this project. The Carolina Center for Public Service gave me a small grant and extra time to bring undergraduate service learners into the mix. El Futuro’s leadership said, “We don’t know how we’ll do this, but we’ll do it.” The Director of Field Education, for whom situations like this almost always cause some headaches, said, “Yes” and accepted the accompanying headaches with grace. All had taken a chance, said yes, and the idea of going back to them and saying we would have to shelve the effort was disheartening…and so I put off doing anything. Surely if we’d come this far…

And then barriers became breakthroughs. Two amazing students with the heart and temperament for this work came into our program. When we went back to the tutoring program and said, now we have the right students, but we need some fund raising, Learning Trail found an anonymous donor who said yes. At last the work has begun. There will be so much to figure out, so much that will challenge and frustrate all of us as we co-create this work. But for today, I’ll be thankful for the magic, the alchemy that turns ideas and possibilities into realities, the power of possibility and the power of yes.

Olympic Dreams

You’ve probably seen the photograph of Gabby Douglas hugging her Chinese-American coach with the subtitle “America” celebrating the peculiar and wonderful diversity that comes from being a nation of immigrants.  Inherent in the photograph is the message that our country wins because of our differences not in spite of them.  And just as the Olympic athletes make their work look effortless, the picture makes cross-cultural understanding look completely easy and natural.  We know that it is anything but.  Creating a society where ethnic, cultural, political, educational and myriad other differences are embraced and not squelched requires unceasing commitment and dedication.  Just as Olympians train for hours, days, weeks, and years to be able to “execute” when it counts, all of us have to do the same in maintaining our ability to learn about and embrace the “other” whoever that might be today.

Last week we were able to bring our teacher training entitled Yo Veo (I see) to a new school that has a different composition from others with which we have worked.  Not only the student body but the teachers were different – a bit more cosmopolitan and more skeptical in very sophisticated ways.  Our two days were challenging and took our team to a new level in being able to respond and navigate different waters than we’d previously sailed.  Yo Veo uses pictures to bring people into a narrative about immigration from Mexico.  The photographs we are using come from a photojournalist who lives and works in Mexico and has followed a particular family for over a decade documenting their “Dream of the Rich North.”  [see janetjarman.com to view the series] They are beautiful and stark and compelling.  Combined with well-facilitated discussion and additional information, they seem to have the power to open people’s hearts to see additional dimensions of their students’ lives.  At least that’s what our results thus far suggest.

And, yet, as our team experienced this week, there is a tendency to distance from the photographs’ impact by all manner of acceptable and sophisticated means.  “That photograph had to be staged.”  “Clearly, the photographer has set up extra lighting for that one.  So it’s not completely candid or objective.”   What? Of course these photographs weren’t staged.  The photojournalist we’re working with subscribes to the ethical standards of her profession which prohibit such things.  We were surprised by a line of questioning that one might expect to hear in an advanced art history discussion where the focus is on the point of view of the artist and not the creation itself.   But our team is diverse both in ethnicity, life experiences, and academic disciplines and together we were able to respond and move the group forward.  Our art historian took on the post-modernist critique.  I went for the clinical approach – what do you gain by focusing on how the pictures were made versus the content that you see?  And our therapist who comes from Mexico and has witnessed the realities depicted said simply, “This is completely real.”

The school has asked us to come back for further conversation.  Individual teachers have started engaging in their own research on the topic and have told us they are going to be thinking about their immigrant students differently than they had before.  They are encouraged to be the teachers they wanted to be when they started out – teachers that can reach every child not just those with dozens of books, computers, and helicopter parents at home.  And our team has grown too.  We trained different muscles and used our collective strength that comes from diverse places to run this race.  We aren’t the “Team USA.”  Yet, like them, we draw strength and flexibility from our diversity.