What the Media Left Out About the Last Democratic Debate

Senator Kamala Harris.

Senator Kamala Harris was without peer during the fourth Democratic presidential primary debate. In fact, it’s difficult for me to identify Sen. Harris’ strongest moments because she optimally accomplished so much with each statement. I think the quality of her performance Tuesday night calls for a point-by-point breakdown. So, I’ll try my best.

First, a snapshot of her game: Kamala Harris achieved (and sustainably grounded) position as master of her domain. She scored efficiently. She argued elegantly. She empathized naturally. She outclassed all opponents through a sheer display of self-possession. Her touch and tact, sincerity and sophistication, reflected a clear, robust understanding of the complex situational dynamics at play. Successfully capitalizing on each opportunity, Sen. Harris occupied and punctuated her time cerebrally — and, she protected her time as well. Time and again, the poise and ease of her stage presence exampled presidential command.

What stood out most in Sen. Harris’ opening statement was her facility in seamlessly and vividly connecting the dots of Donald Trump’s devastation. Moving from the great Maya Angelou’s perceptive insight about “listening to somebody when they tell you who they are the first time,” and Trump saying that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and get away with it to the democratic visions of America’s framers, Harris diagnosed the disease (Trump) and offered the right solution (checks and balances) in a context conducive for unity: “Our system of democracy.”

Regardless of an individual’s background or ideological preferences, most Americans value our self-corrective democratic system of government. Also strong and cleanly executed was the way Sen. Harris noted, at the outset, how her experience as a progressive prosecutor uniquely positions her to read Trump like a children’s book: “I know a confession when I see one.”

Harris’ second statement, once again, showed her to be not just the adult in the room, but a candidate fundamentally committed to fighting for the most vulnerable amongst us. Directly and poignantly, she issued perhaps the most imperative observation in the entire debate: “This is the sixth debate we have had in this presidential cycle and not nearly one word, with all of these discussions about health care, on women’s access to reproductive health care, which is under full-on attack in America today.”

After the applause, Harris made no bones about getting to the heart of the matter. Her passionate, thoughtful expression embodied the frustration of women across America as well as her steadfast determination to resolve this crisis once elected.

I can’t say that I’m surprised by this example of moral leadership, but I am very grateful.

I also want to acknowledge Senator Cory Booker for accentuating and building on Senator Harris’ remarks by reminding us that “women should not be the only ones taking up this cause and this fight.”

Back with more firepower, Harris, in all of her brilliance, took an abstract (relatively dry) question about a wealth tax and turned it into an incredibly powerful account that gripped me in a very personal way. She described how her mother would sit at the kitchen table, late at night, trying to figure out a way to provide for her daughters, and she spoke about fathers doing everything they could to support their families and meet the bills at the end of the month. It just so happens that the challenges Sen. Harris gave voice to encapsulate my own father’s experience through much of my life. What moved me most in that moment was the depth and calm of her concern. Her solicitude felt durable and unadulterated — like it could withstand the messiness of political conflict and the harshest reality of any setback that might come with being president.

Her resolve gave me confidence as I marveled at the power of her light to uplift.

It was at this point that I thought to myself, the moderators, just on the basis of her performance thus far, will have to find a way to prioritize her inclusion.

Despite their failure, her performance only elevated. At her next opportunity, Sen. Harris exemplified peak preparedness, using feminine pronouns to capsulize a commander-in-chief’s responsibility to “concern herself with the security of our nation and homeland” before following through with a lucid, compact, and highly detailed answer that named names, delineated the most relevant ramifications, and specified her intention to “stop this madness,” under a Harris administration.

Following that, Harris attained perfection, offering an impeccable response to Anderson Cooper’s gun control question about “enforcing a mandatory buyback.” She exhibited complete control in her ability to deliver a thorough, colorful, and well-paced answer without error. This response from Senator Harris belongs on any shortlist of captivating, exemplary presidential debate moments.

With patient equipoise, Harris held her powder as a number of candidates bent over backwards to throw their hardest blows at Senator Elizabeth Warren. Once their energy was spent, Harris rose to the occasion with characteristic confidence and self-direction. “No, I don’t agree with that at all.” Harris proceeded to skillfully press Sen. Warren to agree that Trump’s twitter account should be suspended. Upon being interrupted, Senator Harris firmly (and appropriately) impressed her dominance: “I’m not finished.”

With little recourse, Warren fumbled, scurried to evade the question, and barely escaped entrapment by way of moderator interference.

In Harris’ penultimate declaration, she held forth assertively and decisively on reproductive rights, beginning, “My plan is – as follows…,” and ending, “It is her body. It is her right. It is her decision.” Put simply, Harris seized this opportunity to definitively declare her commitment to ensuring that all women have the right to determine what they do with their bodies, and explain precisely how she would enact such justice.

To round out the night, Sen. Harris separated herself from the pack emphatically once more by answering the final question about friendships with political adversaries swiftly and without mishap. While every other candidate meandered and several appeared to be searching for an answer as they spoke, Harris replied immediately: Probably Rand Paul. What is more, she gracefully culminated her closing remarks with personal power and inspiration by telling her own story, and explaining that if Donald Trump had his way, her story would not be possible.

Unfazed by bias and seemingly unbothered by every obstacle, Kamala Harris accoladed a feat of prowess for the history books. While I am not the least bit surprised, I am both proud and supremely delighted.

Kamala Harris is the Fighter Our Country Needs

U.S. Senator Kamala Harris (D-CA) asks a question as U.S. Attorney General William Barr testifies before a Senate Judiciary Committee. REUTERS/Aaron P. Bernstein

Senator Kamala Harris has been at the top of her game over the last week. Leading the wave, Sen. Harris has been first, clear, compelling and unrelenting in condemning Donald Trump, Brett Kavanaugh, William Barr, Mike Pompeo, and Rudy Giuliani. She has communicated her message versatilely, eloquently, and effectively. Speaking and tweeting with conviction, concision, discipline, and allure. One strong example:

“Trump’s tweets about the whistleblower represent clear intent to harass, intimidate, or silence their voice. His blatant threats put people at risk—and our democracy in danger. His account must be suspended.”

Another hard gem: “It’s been one year since the horrific, premeditated murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi by Saudi Arabia. And Trump has yet to hold Saudi officials accountable. Unacceptable – America must make it clear that violence toward critics and the press won’t be tolerated.”

Sen. Harris has praised distinguished Congresspersons Maxine Waters and Al Green for long opposing the grievous mistake of giving Donald Trump a millimeter. Sen. Harris has publicly given Republican Senator Chuck Grassley credit for supporting and defending the whistleblower. She did not hesitate to sincerely wish Senator Bernie Sanders a speedy recovery, commending also Sanders’ political toughness. She has sagaciously intensified the force of her presence in Iowa. She has expanded colorfully in Nevada and New Hampshire. She sustains a hard look at South Carolina.

In her latest interviews, Sen. Harris has handled delicate matters with open, acute sensitivity as she has overpowered shade with the clarity and detail of her answers. It is as if Sen. Harris has chosen to step forward, and, standing straight and tall, say: I want you to hit me with your best shot. Please. She even wrote a letter to Jack Dorsey requesting that he consider suspending Donald Trump’s Twitter account. I clapped before chuckling. Then clapped some more. Perhaps Sen. Harris’ finest achievement of the last week, however, has been her comforting and entertaining demonstration of first-rate prosecutorial prowess.

I mean, that video of her filleting William Barr warrants a parental advisory label – not for explicit content, but for the startling and just ferocity with which she slices Barr open like a cardboard box. Her interrogation of him is both ruthless and revealing. Yet what I admire most about her prosecutorial prowess is the brilliance it magnifies. With each question posed, we see that Sen. Harris understands precisely how to press, entrap, expose, and defeat.

This week Senator Harris graces the cover of Time magazine, propounding her powerful case against four more years of Donald Trump. It is little wonder that critics are crawling out of the woodwork. Some should be stiff-armed. Others of these critics, such as Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan prod vaguely with slights and cavils and quibbles about Sen. Harris’ leadership that amount in the best case to indiscernible conclusions. I, for one, believe the Trump administration needs urgently to be subjected to the harsh punishment of a prosecutorial atmosphere. I also think that calling Donald Trump a screwball makes light of his cerebral defects and his vile bigotry.

Other critics, like Dr. Jason Johnson at The Root, appear somewhat less substantive and consistent and tend to carp and grumble in the form of snarky, backhanded compliments about the efficacy with which Senator Harris has campaigned. More thoughtful critics – David Axelrod, for example – have put forth sensible observations that might be more useful if they were offered in the context of comparison. Put differently, what specific alternatives should Harris’ consider and why? I would further challenge Mr. Axelrod to specify who, if anyone, in the Democratic field is delivering well in those areas.

Finally, we encounter seemingly naive detractors hardly worth validating. Those who ask Senator Harris tougher questions than they ask Senator Warren, on purpose, before dodging public calls for an apology from the press. Lyz Lens deserves the feedback she has received. Former UN Ambassador Nikki Haley should be less embarrassing.

The rest I spare, for now.

As we approach the fourth Democratic debate, look for Senator Harris to continue shining. We – me and all of my family – love to see it.

The Power of Language and Labels

A while ago I posted a meme which said, “Better to have lost in love than to live with a psycho for the rest of your life.”

I liked it, of course, otherwise, I wouldn’t have posted it. Eleven others did too, some commenting on Facebook, “Amen to that,” and “Definitely!!”

Then this: “Hate it. It’s beat up on people with mental illness time again. Ever had the amazing person you love tell you that they just can’t deal with your mental illness anymore? Our society is totally phobic about people with mental illness having intimate relationships.”

Woah, that came a bit out of the blue. I hadn’t made the link between “person with a mental illness” and “psycho”, otherwise I wouldn’t have posted it. It didn’t say, “Better to have lost in love than to live with a person with a mental illness for the rest of your life.” I had linked “psycho” with the often weird, unspoken assumptions people make when in relationships, which have kept me out of long-term relationships all my life.

It made me think, though. Suppose it had read, “Better to have lost in love than to live with an idiot for the rest of your life.” Would that have been a slight against people experiencing unique learning function?

Probably a more accurate meme would have been, “Better to have lost in love than to live with an arsehole for the rest of your life.” But that’s not what the image said.

For the record, I have had someone I loved tell me he couldn’t cope with my unique physical function anymore. It was hard to hear, but ultimately he was the one who lost out. And I know intuitively many would-be lovers haven’t even gone there — again, their loss and my gain, because why would I want to be with anyone so closed-minded?

The power we let labels have over us can be overwhelming. If I had a dollar for every time a person called someone a “spaz” in my presence, I’d be wealthy. If I got offended because “spaz” is a shortened version of “spastic”, which is one of my diagnoses, and I got another dollar for that, well — I’d be angrily living in the Bahamas.

I think the evolution of language — and the generalization of words like, “gay,” “spaz,” “idiot” and “psycho” — creates the opportunity for them to lose their charge and liberate us from their stigma. By allowing them to continue having power over us, though, we re-traumatize ourselves every time we hear them. Words are symbols and they change meaning over time and in different contexts.

I celebrate that “gay” means “not for me” rather than “fag”; that “spaz” means “over-reacting”, not “crippled”; that “idiot” means “unthinking”, not “retarded”; and that “psycho” means “someone with weird, unspoken assumptions”, not “a crazy person”.

By letting words change meaning for us, we are redefining diversity and creating social change. It’s not a case of, “Sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me.” It’s recognizing that, unless someone is looking directly at us menacingly, calling us gay, spaz, idiot or psycho, we’re not in their minds — they’ve moved on.

Maybe it’s useful for us to move on with them?

The Call of the Rohingyas: A 21st Century Holocaust

Photo: AFP

The brutal killings of Rohingyas have been confirmed by the international diaspora as being – “The Worlds most persecuted minority”. Rohingya progeny is found in Myanmar with the consistent brutal violence and forced fleeing which has become their daily existence.

A very minute spec of Humanity (The Rohingya`s) in the 21st century is in crisis and a strength of belonging to one`s land is transformed into a reality of statelessness. It’s a well directed ethnic cleansing, the level of hatred was and continues to such an extreme that Rohingyas hurriedly left their lands using the quickest available means of transport, mostly using water transportation, out of the fear of being persecuted in hopes of seeking shelter on whichever shore they reach. Despite being denied entry in many countries, they continue to float, as though living dead bodies would have done.

The very act of stamping down masses or crushing them is not limited to ethnic cleansing only, it`s a negative transformation injecting a lifelong fear, or memories of fear, hatred, and rejection from other nations, a destruction including emotional, physical and sociological. It`s a small term to call the Rohingya`s ethnic cleansing as genocide, it`s beyond the wordy jargons, something which humanity is witnessing in the 21st century – The Holocaust! The Renaissance of Killings!

“A Tale to be talked out or a Tale to be dusted in the coming years.”

The world needs to ponder, what are the paths that lead to the extremity of injected ethnic cleansing which violates almost all laws of human rights whether national or international, do question the level of insecurity any minority or small groups of tribes/masses undergo? What is the credibility that these lives will survive with dignity? The damage is done, though hope has not to be lost, human values are slowly dying a natural death, wonder the uncaptured inhuman phases the Rohingya`s are forced to live with?

There are innumerable talks on United Nations protocol, Laws which are ratified and not by Nations who want to help but find reasons to rejection or acceptance of its non-ratifications, security threats yes or no, but there is no one talking about, where do these group of neglected people go?  Who will repatriate them while guaranteeing security and safety and thereby normalising towards rehabilitation?

What does it mean to be a Rohingya?

Just one day to be a Rohingya can cost you to stand just nowhere, belonging to no one, with nothing at all to exist except a body which is better living then dead if escapes to any other land or for that matter even surviving for days in the sea ….and curse oneself to be born, living in highly impoverished conditions with  no health care access, and a life of  full of crippled mobility.

The case of Rohingyas is being dealt in a manner where a strategic displacement in shifting the identity from National identity to individual minority group with a stateless status, and it is this very depreciating transformation has been played well enough to plan a systematic exodus of the ethnic group and flush them out of the Nation just as the slag of any process.

“ Myanmar is going through self inflictment, injuring its own people, it is not that easy, it kills the reputation of a Nation globally, affects its economic growth and this ethnic cleansing has witnessed a history, a history which is not supposed to be repeated but to be repealed!!”

What can or can`t the Nations do, is not the struggling or comparative question, the responsibility is more on how can this mass exodus of Rohingyas be addressed by the neighbouring Nations and not stopped.  The reason of not stopping this exodus is clearly understood, since the history of Rohingya cleansing in Myanmar, dates back in 1970s, which is a proof of foment, displaying ethnic rifts and polarisation by using genocide as a tool to clean the cultural and religious species of Rohingyas.

 “  Is Myanmar carrying  a Heritage of Horror for its next generation”

They are subjected to a systematic marginalisation and wherever they have migrated, they are living in sheer abysmal conditions after escaping the fear of persecution. Not that migration has given them any promising hopes for rehabilitation but the least it could benefit them is saving life and continuing the survival struggle. An exhumation of the Rohingya history will bring out how this ethnic group has been time and again subjected to violence, hatred, rejection, forced labour, imposed a legal stateless status, restricted freedom of movement and to be précises a 21st century Holocaust!

 “Is it a fight of religion or a fight to displace people who are of no good (as considered by their own nation), for the Nations economy and residing at that terrain which is explorable for tapping rich natural resources?”

What if Donald Trump Had Empathy?

Donald Trump has proven over and over that he is incapable of empathy. Being called upon to relate to the pain of another person is like asking a toddler to drive a space shuttle.  He CANNOT do it. For him, every experience is a mirror— he is always, always assessing himself to bolster a very brittle ego. This explains his obsession with the number of people at his inauguration, the popular vote count, etc.

His response to Hurricane Maria made this empathy deficit abundantly clear, and it has done great damage. Below are some actual quotes from Trump, followed by what might have been said by someone capable of empathy:

Trump: “You’ve thrown our budget a little out of whack”

If Trump had empathy: Whatever it takes, Puerto Rico, we are there for you. We will get you the aid you need. We will help you rebuild. Your problems are our problems—you are not alone.

Trump: “I know you appreciate our support because our country has really gone all out to help”

If Trump had empathy: I know you are frustrated. I know you are scared and feel abandoned. But the US looks out for its citizens. My promise to you: we will not let you down. We will get you the food, water, medicines, and other supplies, and we will find a way to reach those who are isolated. We are Americans. We do not abandon our own.

Trump: “Such poor leadership ability by the Mayor of San Juan, and others in Puerto Rico, who are not able to get their workers to help”

If Trump had empathy: Mayor Carmen Yulin Cruz has been fighting for you. She has let me know what you need and I am grateful for that. She will not let you be forgotten. And I promise you this: neither will I.

Trump: “We’ve only heard ‘thank yous’ from the people of Puerto Rico,” he said. “It is something I enjoyed very much today.”

If Trump had empathy: When I look into your eyes, I see strength. I see resilience. This is what will get you through the next difficult months. I cannot take away your pain, but we promise we will help you rebuild. Puerto Rico will emerge stronger than ever.

Trump: “What’s happened in terms of recovery, in terms of saving lives – 16 lives that’s a lot – but if you compare that to the thousands of people who died in other hurricanes that frankly were not nearly as severe”

If Trump had empathy: I mourn with you. I feel your sorrow at the loss of your loved ones. Every life is precious, and this disaster touched each of you in a devastating way. You will recover, but it will be a hard, trying journey, perhaps made easier because you KNOW are not alone. We are with you, Puerto Rico. We are with you.

As we hear of the continued anguish in Puerto Rico, we must demand that other leaders in Washington step up. We cannot leave them without food, water, and the tools needed to rebuild. We must NOT let the suicide rate on this island continue to rise.

We must give them hope. They are a resilient people, but even the strongest among us needs help at times. If our president cannot send this message then we must:

We are with you, Puerto Rico. We are with you.

I Don’t Think I Am Racist

Donald Trump during the 2016 Presidential Campaign

I can’t be a racist.

Some of my best friends are African American. I work with African Americans every day. As a social worker, I fight for social justice, and that includes racial justice, so I’m not a racist.

I certainly don’t want you to think I’m a racist. My family never owned slaves—they were coal miners, which was practically slavery. I believe in diversity, inclusivity, cultural humility, and cultural proficiency and whatever PC term-of-the-week we use for this stuff.

I want to prove to you I’m not a racist. I attend rallies and carry signs.  I was there when they voted to remove the Confederate flag from the statehouse grounds. I don’t vote for racist candidates and express my horror at racist comments, especially from our leaders.

I thought I wasn’t a racist. The truth is, I view the world through blue eyes. The world interacts with me as a person with very pale skin. I may not want to be privileged (maybe I do) but damned if I’m not. I’m often treated differently than people of color. If police pull me over, I don’t fear for my life, I fear for points on my license. If I walk down the street in a sweatshirt with the hood pulled up, people say good morning and comment on the cold weather. They don’t look at me like I’m about to rob them.

When I see rage on the faces of African Americans, I sometimes think—quietly, of course—they may be overreacting. After all, we need to love each other and put the past behind us. We are a rich tapestry of different people and that’s what makes our nation great. This is 2017—time to move forward!

And then Charlottesville happened.

And then I heard the President defend the Nazis and racist, alt-right rally participants.

And then I saw this video and watched white supremacists spew hatred against blacks and Jews while someone was doing CPR on a victim hit by the car.

And I saw this man:

And I saw how his pain, his rage, his desperation reached depths that I have never experienced. He is emotionally bleeding for us all to see, because he has tried EVERYTHING and he is standing in the middle of a frickin’ race war. (I don’t want to say frickin’).

And I heard that right after Charlottesville, a FAMILY MEMBER who teaches about the Holocaust, had received a death threat from someone because they thought he was Jewish.

And then my writing sister who is black, said of her white colleagues, “don’t come to me with your fake tears and your prayers and your hugs. I can’t do it this week. This sh*t is not new. Charlottesville … is all of us. It’s killing us.”

She’s right. She’s right, and we don’t want to see it.

I remember feeling so proud when the Confederate flag came down, and one of my social work mentors (African-American) said, “I don’t care where they flag that ole rag. Taking it down don’t change nothing.”

Yeah, maybe I’m starting to get that now.

After the slaughter of the Emmanuel nine in Charleston, I participated in a workshop about combatting hate. I hoped it would help some of us heal. But when a HBCU professor projected a photograph of a Klan rally, it offended me. “We’re not all like that,” I wanted to scream, but that wasn’t her message. We’re not all like that, but the specter of those white pointed hats is there, is always there, and, like my wise friend said, it’s killing us.

According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, America has 276 armed militia groups, extremists like the gun-wielding pretend-soldiers in Charlottesville. 276. Let that number sink in.

I don’t want to be a racist, but I can never truly understand the black experience, no matter how hard I try to be an ally. And if I don’t want to be a part of the problem—via action or inaction—then I must confront and accept the ways I have been complicit in this mess. I don’t get to close my eyes to the ugliness that is around me.  I can vote for different leaders, march in rallies, carry signs, write blogs, and be a great social worker but none of that puts a dent in the crap storm we keep denying.

I’d love to end this with some hopeful message, something that makes you feel good about our potential (and about me).

But I got naddah.

So I’ll end with this. My eyes are open. I will fight to keep them open, even if what I see disturbs the hell out of me. And if you see me closing them, get in my face a remind me.

This is ALL OF US.

And we have to fix it.

Alabama’s Legislature Continues to Wage War on the Poor

19680790-standard

Alabama made headlines last week over a dispute between the Democratic City of Birmingham and the Republican state legislature on whether the city can pass a law to increase its minimum wage higher than the federal mandate. Last summer, the Magic City passed a law raising it’s minimum wage to $10.10 an hour by 2017.  The law would have been enacted incrementally beginning in July 2016 by raising the current minimum wage of $7.25 to $8.50. 

However, lawmakers have since fast-tracked a bill that would prevent any municipality from requiring employers to provide benefits such as paid leave, vacation time, or even a marginally livable wage not already mandated by federal law. On Thursday, the state legislature sent their obstructionist bill to the governor who signed it into law an hour later. 

Anyone familiar with Alabama politics shouldn’t be surprised. It appears Alabama’s state government does not care about poor people–nearly 20% of its population which is over 900,000 people including 300,000 children are living in poverty. With only 30 meeting days left in the state’s legislative session, you would think there would be more pressing concerns than thwarting the will of the people. 

Alabama has cut funding for education, social services, and continues its refusal to expand Medicaid. And while this is all evidence of the state’s complete disregard for impoverished residents, its efforts to block Birmingham’s minimum wage increase is a direct assault on the very notion that citizens might govern themselves. Alabama has nothing to lose by allowing Birmingham to implement a $10.10 minimum wage.

You can make all the political arguments you want about how a similar statewide increases might deter businesses from coming to Alabama or result in layoffs–results not seen after wage increases in other states—but Birmingham should be a win-win. There’s no political liability to allowing Birmingham to set a higher minimum wage, the extra income means more tax revenue for the state’s anemic budget, and any perceived negative consequences–let me reiterate that empirically there are none–would only affect the city.

The leadership in Birmingham is hardly radical. The fact they stood up to the state legislature by attempting to put their minimum wage law into effect before the state could take action to delay only furthers evidence of how needed the increase really is. The proposed wage increase still isn’t enough to afford a 2-bedroom apartment, child care, or eliminate the need for other forms of assistance, but it could mean a little more food on the table for working families.

 Alabamians have endured the ridiculous priorities and imaginary fears of the Republican-dominated statehouse for far too long. Alabama residents must begin to organize themselves to bring change to the state. Academics understand the scope of the problem, churches and service-based nonprofits see the real-world impact, and everyday people experience the constant struggles of living on poverty wages. 

It won’t be easy, and it won’t happen in a single election. However, if people concerned about a living wage start talking to one another to come up with solutions–including running for office–then we can start to see change in Alabama.

What is Identity Anyway?

If you’ve read about Caitlyn Jenner, Rachel Dolezal, or just about any story of social importance lately, you have heard a lot about identity. Caitlyn Jenner identifies and is a transgender woman. Rachel Dolezal identifies as black but as Kimberly McKee, et al, aptly state, one can not simply choose to identify as a different race or ethnicity.

Everyone has an identity and as discussions of what facets of one identity really means, it is extremely important for social workers to know what identity means as whole for themselves as well as for their clients whose identities are certain to differ from their own, simply because no two people can possibly have the same identity, even if they both fall under one or more of the same cultural sub-groups.

Identity in the dictionary is “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is.”

art17035wideaIt includes how you define yourself and to a much more limited extent how others define you. It includes both ascribed traits, which we have no control over, achieved traits which we do, and some that appear might initially at least appear a combination of the two. Identity is a pretty broad concept, with layers of nuance, as one might expect from such an obtuse definition as provided above. For the purposes of defining identity here, we will borrow the ascribed vs. achieved trait/status model developed by sociologist Ralph Linton as a shortcut through flushing out nature vs. nurture, ecological systems, and free will.

Ascribed traits are outside your control and can include who your biological parents are, where you were born, your age/date of birth, what you look like without modification, your biological sex, parts of your health history, and slightly more fluid but nevertheless ascribed characteristics like sexuality, gender, and automatic thoughts and feelings when exposed to certain situations and triggers. It can include the socioeconomic status of your family as you grow up, because bootstraps are not provided until a certain age, what with our child labor laws and all. It can also include statuses related to those traits, such as the institutional racism afforded people of color, or the relative likelihood that a white individual will not be arrested for a similar legal transgression.

Achieved traits are up to you, at least in part, and can include your perception of who you are and others’ perceptions, as they related to things you do. It includes your beliefs and paradigms of how things work and how you interact with them. Sometimes it includes your choice of education, fashion, activities, literally everything you do and your behavior in general, how you vote, where you volunteer, and where you work, if you have the resources and awareness of options to be so picky. It include skills you practice, books you read, and subjects you study in school or elsewhere. An importantly overlooked achieved trait or status is how we specifically express our gender or sexual identity. More on that later.

Your identity includes your environment too. You can not separate your environment from your identity, whether it is chosen, like where you go to work, or not. Even if you are a child, are in prison, or economic factors prevent you from leaving a place you don’t want to be, where you are is part of who you are and may be an ascribed or achieved trait. A quick look at literally any survey based on geographic region (read: all of them, unless one is doing the biggest, single characteristic meta-analysis ever) and differences from locale to locale prove the role that location has an influence on, or is at least correlated with, who we are.

Some identity traits can be a combination of ascribed and achieved, or at least appear to be. In a non-scientific review of potential identity traits, many that initially appear combined may be more accurately separated into separate ascribed traits and achieved traits developed in response or as the result of an ascribed trait. For example, the all too common talking point used when denigrating individuals who are not heterosexual: They choose to act on it [with the assumption that it’s wrong]. To unpack this further, sexuality is an ascribed trait. Who you decide to have sex with, how you decide to sexually express yourself may be an achieved trait, but it’s no more reasonable to herald that as proof that sexuality is not ascribed than it is to expect any heterosexual individual to not find a way to express their sexuality.

To separate sexuality into an ascribed trait with achieved statuses may be technically accurate, but hollow in that the argument is not extended to individuals with heterosexual identities. The idea of sexuality as a choice or achieved status has already been appropriately eviscerated in other forums, with good reason. The fact that how one expresses it is a choice while technically accurate, is similarly hollow. It’s ridiculous to expect anyone to not make choices to express their relationship to such a deeply ascribed trait as sexuality.

Many other characteristics are clearly not chosen even when conventional and later fringe wisdom said they were, such as  gender status, including transgender status, but may have connected, achieved traits or statuses. The argument is frequently made that the ways available to express a transgender identity (surgery or literally any other way anyone else expresses their gender identity such as through pronouns, how one fills out forms that ask your gender, grooming habits, fashion choices, etc.) falsely asserts that the decision to express one’s gender identity is separate from the ascribed trait of gender.

The same as a cisgender people can choose a variety of ways to represent themselves, can decide on a variety of ways to identify or not identify as their gender, transgender people can too. And the same way it’s not okay for you to judge the way a cisgender person interprets their identity as it relates to their gender without directly harming others, it’s not okay to assign expectations and judgements to how a transgender person expresses their transgender identity, whether that be through surgery or any of the other number of ways everyone or no else expresses their gender identity.

Race, is now curiously up for debate as being not wholly ascribed, under the guise of being “just a social construct.” This recently popularized argument tends to ignore that it was and is a social construct connected directly to skin color and other physical characteristics, which are traits ascribed by biology. We made race, but we based it on ascribed traits and even if we had not, the society at large ascribed our races to us. While it is accurate to say we play in a role in the continuing cycle of oppression and our race identities, it is not accurate to suggest they are not ascribed anyway.

The fact that we made it up doesn’t mean it’s not connected to other identity characteristics we can not change at will. To suggest that one can simply decide is to completely negate the experience of individuals of color who did not get to choose, and have dealt with the consequences of racism. And even this is a dramatic oversimplification of race, as it does not take into account individuals of mixed race who do not clearly fit into one phenotype or the other. As noted previously, Kimberly McKee, et al, eloquently state why we can not choose our race in their recent article, “Why Co-opting Transracial in the Case of Rachel Dolezal is Problematic.”

Identity in the social context: One of the most challenging thing about identity is that our most true sense of our identity is our own, but the way others perceive our identity still impacts our lives and functioning. We can not arbitrarily decide that the intractable, ascribed pieces do not exist, but we can choose to not focus on them when we think of who we are, or minimize their importance compared to other parts of ourselves.

We can choose to focus on whatever we want to focus on when we describe ourselves or in how we act around others, and that is likely to impact their perception of our identity. It’s not a solid guarantee that this will impact how others’ identify us though, or necessarily should. To say “my identity should be only decided by me”, while appearing to be the most moral and reasonable determination, is not practically achievable because we can not divorce ourselves from all social interactions. All social interactions are reflections of the views of the people interacting in them.

In the cases in the news, it includes what we choose to highlight about all of the above when we represent ourselves to others. Caitlyn Jenner could have had transgender individual as part of her ascribed identity, and to her credit chose to be a transgender individual discussing her experience with her identity publicly. Her transgender status may have been ascribed, but how she expresses it is the part of her identity over which she can and has exercised volition.

The intersection of how identity includes your perceptions as well as those of others can be further illustrated with this example. Perhaps your identity includes being very confident in some situations (crisis intervention situations at work), but very insecure in others (large social gatherings). You prefer to emphasize your confidence, and think of yourself as a confident person. However, some friends of yours primarily interact with you at parties where you communicate that you are insecure through nonverbal communication. Which is your true identity? Can any really be excluded?

So identity is as broad as “the fact of being who or what a person or thing is” but with lots of facets:

  • What you have control over and what you do not (ascribed vs. achieved traits and statuses)
  • How you think of yourself and perhaps to a lesser extent, and in very specific ways, how others think of you
  • Where you are, whether you chose to be there or not
  • Your beliefs, thoughts, feelings, and actions
  • Parts are concrete (like your birthdate) but others are more fluid by design (your age) or through your decisions (new job, new hobby, new friends)

Identity is as complex as all of the possible things that can make up what you are.

So who are you? When analyzing the identities of those in the news and those around you, which parts are up to your interpretation, which parts are up to theirs, and which parts just are whether the two of you agree or not?

Our Social Responsibility in Combating Oppression

As a Social Worker, I am committed to social justice. However, as I have always been on the frontline doing day-to-day work with individuals and families, I left political intervention and macro social work to others. I have spent too much time thinking and feeling that someone would come along and help improve the state of Black America, but I can not stay silent any longer.

We have spent too much time having the same conversations ending with the same list of demands that will never be achieved; and they won’t be achieved because they are unrealistic. As a 33-year-old woman of color, I have heard these demands, but I am more concerned with creating our system of justice than I am with getting others to amend theirs to suit the needs of my community. The Black community in America should consider the following:

Stop believing anyone owes us anything

screen-shot-2010-02-01-at-16-14-521If this is true for individuals trying to succeed in a chosen career, why isn’t it true of a community? How many oppressed people sit back waiting for their oppressors to correct the system of oppression they created for their own benefit? I am aware that the government promised 40 acres and a mule.

What I am not clear on is why we continue to expect people who don’t even see us as human beings to honor a promise that was quickly repealed? It gave with one hand and took it back with the other. Have these demands for a repealed “promise” prove productive or prosperous for us? No. What it has done is keep us locked into poverty and a slave mentality. It is no longer a valid argument and we do ourselves no justice trying to change a system built to deny. We need to move on and forward.

Stop addressing each other as n***ers or any variation of the word

The argument is that by using it we take the power away from the word. The truth is that argument is a blatant lie. What we’ve done is give others not only permission but license to use that diminutive word without any context to its damaging nature. The truth is, I doubt anyone who uses this word (besides those who aren’t people of color) would feel so confident as to walk away from a Caucasian person using this word. The truth is, if they heard this shouted when they were out on their own in the middle of Mississippi, they wouldn’t bother sticking around for an explanation. As long as the word precedes an attack on my person, either physically or verbally, it is unacceptable. We need to stop using the word and stop accepting it from others. We are better than that.

Establish a national Black Caucus

I know there is a congressional caucus that is looking at the representing the interests of the African-American community. However, I am proposing an expansion or a separate entity. The remit would be calling our prominent figures that are doing things that are counterproductive to change, prosperity and/or progression within the community. We would manage public relations of national community issues – sending representatives to rally locals and improve media portrayal of the community. We would prepare local political candidates to represent the community and create local caucuses to help them address the issues prevalent in their own communities. It would be a coming together of local and national leaders.

Local lobby for fair and appropriate representation in communities where we are the majority

We need to work with our young people to help them understand and get into politics. We need to support our own who want to get into politics. We need to support those with track records of supporting or being involved in initiatives that address local concerns. We need to understand politics and the dynamics of representation on a larger scale.

Get our young people involved

We need to get our economists, political science majors, policy makers involved in local government early. Create local internships and fellowships etc so they are talking, strategizing and creating actions plans to move forward locally.

Take notes from other communities on building and circulating wealth within the community

We continue to need educating on finance. Not only on the use of money, credit and the like, but also on investments, financial planning, equity and other issues. We need to build up the work ethic and sense of community/communal assistance. We need to own more and to be educated on how to do this so that we hold on to it. We need to know more about possible tax breaks, write-offs and rebates for volunteer work, pro-bono work etc.

Take responsibility for our own wealth and prosperity

We need to stop relying on “others” to move our community forward on a local level. There are many national programs looking at the bigger picture but we need to empower the “impoverished” so they learn to help themselves. Stop being so comfortable with “others” buying in our neighborhoods when we own nothing. Stop blaming anyone except ourselves for our lack of progress because in truth we haven’t done all we can do. Start accepting the responsibility to ourselves, to each other and to our communities.

Teach and accept social responsibility

We need to help our children and young people gain work experience within their own neighborhoods first and foremost, encourage volunteerism from a young age as a means of community building, developing social skills and local pride while also developing employable skills. We need to make local investments in restorative justice and reparations to discourage crime and rebuild what has been broken. We need to, as adults, model this behaviour for our children and volunteer to help each other and each other’s children.

Understand that if we want change we have to create it. We can’t depend on our oppressors to help us progress. No one will give us anything we haven’t taken. Discussions are important but only as predecessors to action which will facilitate change.

If Janay Rice Was My Friend, I Would Tell Her…

My thoughts have been spiraling since the elevator footage was leaked.  I’ve been trying to imagine what I would say to Janay Rice as a friend or the conversation we would have if she were to walk into our office in search of help or support.

janay
Ray and Janay Rice

I would do my best to remind you that you aren’t alone — that nearly two out of every five Black women have experienced rape, physical violence and/or stalking by an intimate partner. If you lived here in Louisiana you’d have a 33% chance of being sexually assaulted by your partner in your lifetime.

I’d remind you that this isn’t just a Black issue or a Southern issue, but that it’s happening in communities all over the world — one in four women will be assaulted in her lifetime, and nearly 5 million instances of intimate partner violence occur every year in this country alone.

I would remind you that this isn’t your fault, and I would say it again. This Is Not Your. Fault. Despite all the victim-blaming and claims that you brought this on yourself or deserved it, this is not your fault.

No one but you and your husband will understand or fully know the dynamics of your relationship and how the cycles of abuse, power & control play into those dynamics. To counter those who question why you’ve chosen to marry him and to stay, I would give you a Power & Control Wheel to show them.

I would talk with you about how partners use male privilege, intimidation, blame, denial, guilt, and especially fear to keep you from leaving: fear that you won’t be able to make it on your own, that you’re not good enough for anyone else, or that no one will believe you if you choose to report it.

I would remind you that there is always help. There are people available to support you and who can help you develop a safety plan or talk with you about the red flags of abuse. And if those people aren’t around, there is a 24-hour crisis hotline that is always available to you (1-800-799-7233). I would remind you that there are organizations, such as Women With A Vision, that will give you a safe space to breathe, figure things out, and develop your path forward.

And, I would finally give you encouragement and remind you that no matter your decision, whether you decide to leave or stay, you are still an intelligent, competent, beautiful, vibrant, and strong woman.

After #Ferguson: Taking a Stand in Governance

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In the wake of #Ferguson, we can all agree that something needs to be done. I think we can all agree that we need to stand in a way we haven’t for many years. We need to take responsibility for what is going on in our communities. We need to do better and there are ideas as to how to do this.

According to a recent article in The Root, it argues that “Black America Needs Its Own President”, and I wholeheartedly disagree. For years, we had something akin to this in the likes of Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson but then we are still having the same conversations. We are still reactive and not largely proactive. We are still asking for the same things and making the same demands.

We don’t need our own president what we need is to take responsibilities for ourselves and form a coalition to directly address behaviour, policies and practices that are detrimental to the way we are viewed globally and treated locally. They need to be able to directly and assertively lobby for changes that obliterate racial disparities.

We need to develop a caucus that goes into our communities where there are issues and organize strategic action that doesn’t include violence or destroying our own communities. We are a people of immense and immeasureable talent and potential. We need representative voices that are not only saying something new but are about real action – strategic and targeted that would uplift and empower our communities.

Having one person we look to when things go wrong isn’t the answer. We are a diverse people living in diverse communities all over the country. If we had a caucus where individual leaders from Black communities could come together we can start having the conversations that lead to action plans. We need to address our economic needs and start to build community wealth so we are in a position to help each other instead of relying on others.

There is no reason our community shouldn’t be as prosperous as others. It isn’t about amassing wealth as much as it about being able to help our own through crisis. So many have been doing it for so long, meanwhile we are still waiting for our 40 acres. I can’t stand people who continue to perpetuate a myth. We are the only people who rely on our oppressors for progress. Are we serious? This is why we have made progress but have not become leaders and drivers of changes in our communities.

I agree that there needs to be a Black presence to represent our interests but it does not need to come in the form of one person who is on the media stage. It would be more empowering to go into communities and help develop local leaders who can then come to the table to represent their communities.

The problems individual communities face are problems our community faces on the whole. There are those who still see our problems as the problem of “Black Americans”, having amassed their own wealth through hard work and dedication and I believe this is what is needed. But we also need to realise that the resources to achieve this are not readily available to everyone and there are communities that are systematically disenfranchised and would benefit from assistance and motivation from their peers in order to see and experience success. We need to help each other out of the trenches and onto the the path of prosperity.

There is no reason for us to rely on others to take us out of the shadows; we have everything we need within. It is about having the conversations (new one because quite frankly, there have been apologies for slavery, we need to stop expecting our oppressors to help us progress – i.e. move away from the fairy tale of our 40 acres and a mule, and we need to wholly understand the impact of racism ourselves) that will lead to strategic plans to impact the world around us so it will change in favor of us.

A coalition of communities leaders could do this. Yes they will come with their own agendas and understandably, so they come from varied communities. However, it doesn’t change the fact that there are some issues that are pervasive and need to be addressed. We can balance the two, addressing issues of the Black community as a whole while helping individual communities develop.

To be more specific I think the remit of a caucus or a coalition could be:

  • making “community call outs” on any prominent figures – local, nationally, or internationally – who are doing or saying things that are counterproductive to change, prosperity and progression.
  • manage image of the Black community in the media
  • manage community issues before they become national statistics and fodder for stereotyping
  • sending consultants to communities to help in times of crisis (public relations, organizing, creating strategic actions plans for change led by local leaders)
  • sending consultants to communities where leaders appeal to the caucus for assistance
  • training of local community on change management, building community resources, and training local “champions” to manage local political processes
  • aiding in ensuring there is equal political representation and policing in communities where Black people dominate the population (to start)
  • re establishing town hall meetings as a means of addressing local issues and manage them independently
  • building of funds to fund community interventions
  • financial drives: possibly local drives to address their own issues
  • national drives: appeals to organizations and representation for national crisis fund

We have all the talent and ability to unite and do better. Having a national voice is part of it but listening to local voices is the bulk of it. Let’s build on what we have to increase what we have.

Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Milwaukee Community Journal

For the Love of Money: 5 Observations on Social Workers & Money from the 2014 NASW Conference in Washington, D.C.

The climate of social work is changing. Over the last several years while businesses have moved towards embracing greater social missions, more and more social workers have begun to embrace the field of business and entrepreneurship.

From conversations about money and finance to the increase of social workers starting their own for-profit ventures, social workers are expanding their knowledge on the monetary side of helping.

In fact, in the last two decades we’ve seen a rise in Schools of Social Work like the George Warren Brown School of Social Work at Washington University in St. Louis and the School of Social Work at the University of Michigan offering advanced training in entrepreneurship, management, and business, and contributing to new models of business within the corporate environment.

Founder of The Center for Financial Social Work, Reeta Wolfsohn, makes the observation that it’s taken some time for social work to embrace the importance of money and financial education, stating that for years the majority of participants certified by the Center have  not been social workers but other members in corporate America.

However, evidence of this increased interest on the topic of business and entrepreneurship by social workers was most notably apparent at the recent NASW Conference in Washington, D.C..

During the four-day conference, and especially among the conversations at the Financial breakout sessions, I personally observed several nuances that indicated an increased readiness on the part of social workers to talk openly about their not-so-secret desires for more money and increase their prowess in making it.  Specifically, I left the conference with five observations that I hope will help us all feel more comfortable when speaking on the topic of money and business.

Observation #1. Social workers struggle with feelings of unworthiness and shame around money

One might assume because social workers spend so much time talking about self-worth and actualization, we’d have those topics in the bag, and we do on many subjects. We pride ourselves on being able to move our clients from disabling feelings of shame and guilt to more empowering feelings of confidence and pride that enable them to make progress in their development.

However, many social workers struggle with feelings of shame and unworthiness when it comes to the topic of money.

Sometimes it’s because social workers don’t feel like they have enough money and are in debt, other times they may feel ashamed to even desire more money or that it doesn’t align with social work values. And many times social workers just feel incompetent to handle their money or have more of it in their lives.

Social work researcher Brené Brown says that “shame is the most powerful, master emotion. It’s the fear that we’re not good enough. Shame erodes our courage and fuels disengagement,” and while we agree with this statement and work with our clients to eradicate it in their experience, many of us allow these same disabling feelings to fester around the topic of money.

I was able to note this in many of my fellow colleagues because I’ve seen it in myself. However, the second thing that I noted gave me hope that our approach to money within the profession was changing.

Observation #2. Social workers want to stop feeling guilty about wanting to be rich

There are hundreds (possibly hundreds of thousands) of social workers who want to talk about money and who want to be rich – and  I mean really rich. And not only are these social workers ready to talk, they’re ready to revolt.

At the Conference, I watched brave social workers stand one-by-one and voice their desires to talk about wanting to be wealthy. They were tired of feeling lonely and ashamed, they said, of having aspirations for wealth but feeling as if they had no safe place within the profession to explore and express these desires.

I personally found it interesting that, despite all of the sparsely attended Financial breakout sessions at the conference throughout the week, the one containing the  “Rich Social Worker” presentation, which was held on the final day of the conference, packed a full-house. This was confirmation for me that, when given a forum to talk about money and wealth, social workers are ready to be included in the discussion.

Observation #3. Social workers (generally) don’t know how to make money, but they know that it can be done

One of the things I love about social workers is that we’re tenacious – we don’t give up – and even when we don’t know a thing (which can be quite often), we know how to persevere until we do.

At the Conference many social work entrepreneurs I met shared stories of how they had used their social work skills to create success in their various ventures. And while their stories differed, what was constant was the drive and determination to figure out how something could be done.

When faced with a problem of competency, social workers know that  if we ask enough questions, conduct enough research,  and experiment with enough theory we’re bound to move closer and closer to our goal. Not only was this the story of conference presenters Merry Korn, founder of Pearl Interactive Network, and James Townsend of the Townsend Group, but it’s the story of countless social workers who have ventured into the business world and found success.

Observation #4. Social workers are very generous and want to use their wealth to create more good in the world.

The fact that social workers are generous is not a new idea, but many are limited in their ability to be as generous as they want to be simply because of their financial resources and limited expertise in the way of massive giving.

I personally spoke to social workers at the conference that admitted their financial challenge in being able to attend. This had nothing to do with their desire to attend or the value they felt they had received, but was entirely connected to their income.

For the social worker the question is not about whether or not to give, but about how much he or she can afford to give.

This should not be. And of all the professions that use money to make the world a better place, social work is a shoe-in for “Most Likely to Succeed.”

Observation #5. No matter how successful they become in business, they fully embrace themselves as social workers

Because many social workers are venturing into entrepreneurship and for-profit businesses it’s easy to imagine that they would get so caught up with the for-profit side of things that they lose their connection with social work. But on the contrary, the social work business professionals that I spoke with strongly revered their social work identity and hailed their social work competency skills as the major component in the success of their businesses.

This theme was emphasised over and over at the conference and stood out as a reassuring beacon of hope for those contemplating entry into entrepreneurship, but fearing disconnection from the profession.

What this all means

In light of the observations made, I strongly believe that social work is experiencing a revolution, and that in the next few years, more and more trained social workers will seek options that not only create better conditions for their clients, but allow them to build business models to support them. They will have open discussions about wealth and entrepreneurship, and demonstrate confidence when quoting their rates. If enough are prepared to do this, not only will we impact the overall pay scale, but we’ll change the course of history forever.

Perhaps – just maybe – we will even be able to afford that trip to Cancun. Radical self-care, anyone?

photo credit: ignatius decky

Letter to the Editor: A Social Worker’s Thoughts on the Killing of Michael Brown

This is a Letter to the Editor that I received from a member of the social work community. Although I disagree with the opinion and facts of this reader, I believe this Letter to the Editor provides a perfect example of how conservatives and non-minorities conduct their analysis of the events in #Ferguson. I will be writing a response in order to open a dialogue on the competing viewpoints. You may also want to view “Social Work Appears Absent from Ferguson Global Conversation”~Deona Hooper, MSW

Here is the Letter to the Editor in full:

Hi I’m a licensed clinical social worker who has been working in the field since 2000. I read your latest article “Social workers Appears absent in #Ferguson Global Conversation”. I appreciate your opinion on Michael Brown’s shooting & I know there is a tremendous amount of pain in the communities of color because of years of experiencing prejudice & discrimination. At the same time, different opinions need to be discussed openly for the conversation on race relations & police brutality to progress.

I consider myself a very socially liberal person, but I strongly feel most of the media, far left wing activists, & some prominent members of the black community were quick to label the PO a murderer without hearing all the crucial evidence from both sides.

surveillance_mike_brown_1I know Brown’s friend (Dorian Johnson) was a key eye witness from the beginning, but since the shooting, it has become clear he has a history of lying to the police. For example, Johnson told the police & the media after the shooting that Brown & himself were not doinganything wrong when they were confronted by the PO.

The video from just minutes earlier proves that Johnson was with Brown while Brown was committing the robbery & nearly assaulting the shop keeper. From my understanding, if Brown was still alive, he might be charged with a felony. We also now know Brown had marijuana in his system at the time of the confrontation which might help us understand his mindset at the time.

It’s also really difficult to take Johnson’s testimony of the shooting seriously. It was widely reported that in the past, he was accused of stealing a backpack & I believe lying to the police regarding the incident.  The PO also experienced a swollen face with a possible broken eye socket from his confrontation with Brown.  This information flies in the face of Brown being called a gentle giant.

Of course, Brown did not deserve to be killed at only at eighteen years old & I feel very sorry for him & his grieving & traumatized family. At the same time, there is a strong possibility that the PO would most likely not get charged with homicide because of some of the contradictory evidence I described.

I think one of the most important things to remember right now is for people to continue protesting for justice in the case, but at the same time not be so quick to jump to conclusions about the PO being a murderer & a racist. I’m aware there are still very racist cops throughout the country, but it does not mean the PO was not within the law to protect himself if Brown used physical force against him.

No matter if the PO is found guilty or not, we must allow our criminal justice system to examine all the evidence & make a final verdict. I just wanted to express my opinion to you & I hope I was respectful because I did not mean to be insensitive to anyone. I’ve never written an email to a social work site, but I’ve been following the Brown killing very closely.

Giovanni Forcina, LCSW

Be Anything You Want to Be and Learn How To Define What You Want

White House Summit on Working Families-Panel on Career Ladders and Leadership
White House Summit on Working Families-Panel on Career Ladders and Leadership

From the time we had our first memories, many of us can still remember what we wanted to be when we grew up. Childhood was a time when dreams did not have boundaries and were not obscured by societal challenges and barriers many of us would come to know as we got older. Somewhere along the journey from childhood to Adulthood, we stopped asking ourselves “What do I want to be”, and we began asking ourselves, “What can I do” under the circumstances.

Recently, I had the distinct honor and pleasure of listening to a panel of powerful women discuss their journey in climbing the career ladder and the challenges they faced along the way. I hung on their every word while trying to gain some insight into my own path and future career aspirations. What was it they did, what were their commonalities, and what were the resources these women had access to that catapulted them to the top of their fields?

There were lots of nuggets and jewels of profound wisdom that were left on the ears of the participants in the room. However, one of the statements that resonated with me the most came by way of Debra Lee who is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Black Entertainment (BET). Debra Lee stated as a child, she was always taught that she could be anything she wanted to be, but she didn’t know how to define what it was she wanted. Lee stated that she had always accepted what was given to her as a result of her hard work. Unlike her male counterparts, she didn’t seek out opportunities to advance her career.

She had reached the ceiling of her current position as Chief In-House Counsel for the network, and there was no higher position for her to aspire as an attorney. It wasn’t until the former CEO presented Lee with an opportunity to move into a newly created Chief Operating Officer position that the ceiling she was previously under was removed. Before the position had been offered to Debra Lee, three men had already gone to the CEO seeking the position to be created for them.

There are several things I garnered from this anecdote and other insights from the panel of women that I would like to share with you, and here are the most important:

1. Know Your Value

We live in a society where we are trained to want more for less. Jobs want to offer part-time work or unpaid internships for the possibility of earning full-time employment. Even though you are set to work a certain amount of hours, the expectation is for you to work in excess to prove your worth. This makes sense when its a symbiotic relationship where the employer is investing in your development instead of only extracting your skills and abilities as cheap labor. How many of us stay on abusive jobs because we fear a worse outcome or a bad recommendation to keep you there? How many of you are waiting for someone to acknowledge your hard work, worth, and value with a raise, time off, or promotion? What is this doing to your self esteem? Self-esteem and self-worth, is the difference between “what I want to do” versus “What I can do” under the circumstances.

2. Identify Your Challenges and Barriers

Challenges and barriers are very real no matter where you fall on the socioeconomic scale. However, those challenges may be exacerbated by the lack of resources, opportunities, and education at your disposal. Before you can change your situation, you have to identify the barriers and challenges you are up against. Admitting that your skin color or being a woman is a barrier in obtaining leadership positions is not playing the race or gender card, but its the unfortunate truth. Once you acknowledge your barriers and challenges, you can develop strategies, create partners and allies, and skills to reduce the impact of those same barriers.

3. Mentorship Is A Necessity

After listening to the women on the panel and other speakers, there was a re-occurring theme of mentorship and re-investment into creating other leaders that rang throughout the day. Not one person took sole credit for their own success. They all acknowledged someone or several someones who invested into their growth which inspired a symbiotic relationship of loyalty and hard work in return. These days, mentorship is harder to find as we continue to evolve into a “What’s in it for me” society.

More and more people who are in leadership positions aren’t necessarily there because they have the requisite skills and abilities rather than the availability of more access and opportunity at their disposal. In the past, we have expected mentorship to happen organically and naturally occurring from jobs, schools, and internships. Today, you must be more purposeful in seeking out mentors to assist your career aspirations. But, there are some pitfalls you may want to avoid on your quest to find mentorship.

Breathe…success may not happen overnight, and there may be many barriers on your path to success. However, you must keep in mind that your journey is preparation for when your moment arrives.

Another School Shooting…. Millennial Anger?

Virginia Tech in 2007 Largest Mass Shooting in US History
Virginia Tech in 2007 Largest Mass Shooting in US History

School shootings are on the rise and are seemingly becoming a common occurrence within today’s society. Yesterday, an Oregon high-school freshman was gunned down at school after the shooter entered through the gymnasium.  The shooter was later found in restroom with a self-inflicted fatal gunshot wound.

In looking at this week’s tragic events, I would be remised if I didn’t speak on the other recent school shootings that occurred at UC Santa Barbara on May 20th, and last week at Seattle Pacific University.  Within a week’s time span, we had two university shootings by assailants who appeared to be angry at something, someone, or, suffered from a mental health issue that may have gone unnoticed, undiagnosed, or clearly overlooked.

Though lives were lost at both institutions and people were injured, one contrast was the admirable actions by the students at Seattle Pacific University who unselfishly risked their own lives to subdue the shooter.  Notwithstanding the horrific occurrences at UC Santa Barbara where law enforcement were the first line of defense in that instance; Seattle Pacific University students were apparently in a position to intervene, and quite frankly, did! Imagine what could have occurred if the shooter was able to hurt more students.  We have unfortunately seen how such heartbreaking events end.

For the students, faculty, staff and administrators at both institutions, my heart goes out to those who were killed, injured and affected.  As a faculty member myself, I often ponder those “what if” scenarios at my respective institution.  Are we prepared? Am I prepared? Do I notice my student’s behaviors, changes, and shifts?  Each time I hear of one of these unfortunate stories, the media commonly reports that no one knew, noticed, or paid attention.

As social workers, we are trained to pay attention, to notice, and to probe the behaviors of the people we interact with on a daily basis.  Even with such training, things are overlooked.  For the shooter at UC Berkley, and his video manifesto of sorts, it was clear that he had anger issues. More importantly, he presented with major insecurities and possible developmental stage delays.  He was concerned with how people viewed him, treated him.  For the recent shooter at Seattle Pacific University, it is still too early to gauge his motivation, but the behavioral trend is quite consistent with these shooting typologies.

Since Columbine in 1999, there were three additional shootings that year and in the 21st century there has been at least one school shooting each year to 2009.   As school and university systems work towards reacting to such horrible acts, I often am left with that proverbial question, what are we doing to prevent these shootings?  Unfortunately, history, data, and the general community sentiments prove that we are missing the ball and not doing enough on the front end.

There was a period in my career where I would argue that maybe some media source or outlet influenced the violence, etc., and to a degree, there is some relevance to that ideology.  But for these individuals, their anger and actions were more deliberate, methodical, and calculated.  In my research of adolescents from a criminological and social work perspective, the theoretical explanations are somewhat similar in how we describe these lost youth.

My criminology hat could explain these shooters’ behaviors through a myriad of theoretical explanations. Classical theory conveys that such behaviors are made of rational choice, where the perpetrator is weighing the pros and cons of their actions.  But this couldn’t be rational, even though planned, so maybe some trait theory better conveys it.  Maybe there was a biological reasoning behind their anger and propensity for violence.  As a behavioral theorist, I tend to lean more towards learned behavior, though for these two young men, it was more than just learned behavior.

Looking at these shooters through my social worker lense, I tend to focus on the “whys” as opposed to the “hows”.  As a clinician, depending on the age, I attempt to gauge whether there was some conduct disorder diagnosis earlier in their lives.  How was their school performance, was there any medically related condition that impacted neurological/psychological development?   If older, than some possible attachment disorder or antisocial disorder may be an explanation.

The undeniable fact is that these two young men experienced mental health issues and were still able to obtain firearms.  That continues to be a problem in our country.  But that’s for another column and discussion.  My questions is: What continues to make young people so angry that they can easily kill another person with no regard, no remorse, and no accountability?  Most recently in Wisconsin, two 12 year old girls stabbed their friend 19 times because of the alleged influence of some internet phenomenon “Slender Man”.  In this case there was no premeditated anger per se, but the willingness to commit a heinous and violent act and blame it on some fictional character.

To avoid sounding like a cliché, is this a wakeup call? I can’t say that it is, why, because it’s happened consistently almost 20 years since Columbine.  So then I pose to the readers, what do we do?  Do we assess and evaluate all middle schoolers for such behavioral traits; do we evaluate high schoolers for similar violent patterns?  If we find evidence of such propensity to violence, then what?  Therapy, who pays for it, the school, families, insurance…. I honestly can’t say whether that would even prevent future acts of violence, but shouldn’t we at least try.  It has been thoroughly established in the literature the importance of early intervention, both clinically and socially, so why not push the issue further.

Recently, the National Association of Social Workers discussed the continued move into home medical models as a viable solution to preventing such violence.  I recall participating in this model many years ago as a therapist when I worked with adjudicated youth and their families.  It was quite effective and the cost was then covered by the county and the State of Maryland.  If we can implement more community based treatment options early on, then we could possibly prevent future acts of violence.  The problem that is often discussed is missing those earlier cues.  This is where school social workers are critical.  But depending on the school system, they are not always present in schools, but are the most qualified to notice irregularities in children, adolescents and adults from a biopsychosocial perspective.   On the university level, most campuses if not all have counseling services, but do students really utilize such services?

By today’s standards schools, colleges and universities need to do better in informing students of their options and services to prevent this continued pattern of violence on school campuses nationwide.  In a place where young people should feel safe, these recent acts of violence do not reinforce that concept.  We must utilize social media aggressively to get the word out, more importantly, to let students know that there are mechanisms and resources in place to advise school officials when their peers appear to be going through trials and tribulations.

It sets an unfortunate and sad precedence when we continue to see continued violent episodes in our schools.  More needs to be done; clearly, what has been done is not working.  These are not isolated incidents. Such a minimization of events is counterproductive and not a constructive approach to addressing youth violence….

Ageism and the Anti-Aging Industrial Complex: What Does Wisdom & Beauty Look Like?

How do you feel when you sit down to unwind in front of the television at the end of the day and you are bombarded with ads that tell you to “Stop the Hands of Time with Mrs. Smith’s Anti-Aging Formula 801”?  Or, you may want to try a little cosmetic surgery to lift that chin, or maybe some Botox to iron out those wrinkles.  This reminds me of laying my head across the ironing board while taking my mother’s two-ton steam iron to my long curly hair to straighten out the curly tresses that I obviously inherited from some mutant gene, but that was in the early sixties before curls were in.

Now, I am in my sixties, and they are telling me to leave the curls while erasing the lines of wisdom and experience from my aging face. I just don’t look good enough—code for “I don’t look young enough”.  What don’t I look young enough for, I ask myself.  I am fortunate to still be part of the workforce, but maybe if I looked younger I would get that raise I’ve been wanting.  Alas, the people that pay my salary know how old I am and assume that I’m not going to make any waves when so many of my peers are shipwrecked on the shore praying that a job, or maybe a little Botox, will arrive to save them.

anti-aging-creams-1Back to the TV ads. Every time, I see Debbie Boone touting the wonders of Lifestyle Lift, a company that provides facial and neck cosmetic procedures, I wind up in front of the bathroom mirror pulling my obliging skin back to see what I would look like if I just took a little from here and a bit from there.  Ugh, I am so mad at myself for even considering for a moment to alter the face I was totally comfortable with only 10 minutes ago.

It’s all about ageism.  It’s all about the youth culture in which we’ve been immersed.  It’s all about the message from the girl whose hair was spread across the ironing board: “Do not trust anyone over 30!”  So many retouched faces that we admire are telling us that we can look younger too. But, can we really trust anyone who looks older than sixty or seventy?  It’s all so familiar. Remember all those air brushed waifs that were presented to us telling us that we also could become “walking x-rays”?  All of a sudden anorexia and bulimia became part of the American lexicon.

I didn’t know if there was a term for people who are addicted to plastic or cosmetic surgery, so I looked it up.  This is what I found:

There is not a term for the addiction, but there is a recognized psychological disorder that affects some surgery addicts. It is called “body dysmorphic disorder” (BDD), and sufferers have a distorted image of their own appearance. This is sometimes manifested as disapproval after surgery is performed, leading to another surgery to correct the apparent flaws. Because of the high costs of plastic surgery, this disorder is usually apparent only in the very wealthy.  Read More

Whew, that’s a relief.  I am definitely not rich enough to have BDD.

A number of years ago I attended a “Wise Women’s” conference and participated in a workshop led by a Native American Elder.  To this day the image of her stunning lined face stays with me.  I thought of how I hoped to look like her when I became an elder myself.

The signs of age that mark our bodies are badges of wisdom, something that we need to be proud of, not something to be to be ashamed of—and certainly not something to erase.  I don’t want to go back to the age when my skin was perfectly smooth and taut and my mind was empty.

It’s time to let advertisers know that we want to see people we can identify with—people (especially women) who look like us. Wrinkles can be beautiful and we need to create a culture that sends the message that lines of wisdom are in.

Abortion in the Heartland: What’s the Solution

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The South Winds Women’s Center in Wichita, Kansas has been open since April of 2013, and they just celebrated their 1st year of being open. Opening the clinic was a long and difficult journey that took a lot of fundraising and hard work from the Trust Women Organization and their director Julie Burkhart. Burkhart worked with Dr. George Tiller, an abortion provider, who was assassinated at his church in 2009.

wichita3n-1-webIn the first 7 months, they performed 650 abortions which is almost 100 a month, and a majority of those women were low-income living under the poverty line. To me this is proof that income and poverty have a major impact on reproductive justice. If they are performing almost 100 abortions in Wichita, KS a month, how many more do you think that are actually wanted? People come from states all over to get access to services. Kansas women have 1 choice in Wichita and a few are located in Kansas city, 200 miles away or a few in Oklahoma City, which is also 200 miles away.

Texas recently shut down a huge majority of their clinics. Now, the entire state relies on 5 clinics that provide abortion care. Of course the South Winds Women’s Center offers a whole lot more than just abortion, but once you say abortion, many people stop listening especially in Kansas. Trust Women and the South Winds Women’s Clinic do not necessarily share my views about everything I’m writing, but I wanted to offer an overview of the services we provide here in Wichita, KS.

So, I offer this question to all who are anti-abortion: What is your solution?

In states where the laws are harshest about sexual health education, the teen pregnancy rates are highest. This can not be a coincidence. There are many opinions about sex and very strong opinions on reproductive justice. However, we seem to have no problem profiting off porn and sexual advertisements. But, when it comes to talking to our youth about sex education with options other than abstinence, many people are against it.

It’s time to speak up about sex education and reproductive justice! If you truly want to decrease abortions, we need to get on board with comprehensive sexual health education and access to affordable reproductive health services. According recent studies, abortions have decreased and not it’s not due to the increased anti-choice legislature according to the Guttmacher Institute.

Getting Social Workers Out of the Closet

There has been much talk recently about who can legitimately call themselves social workers. What training is required? Which licenses are needed? And, there have been many discussions about the variations of social work licenses that exist in different states. License or no license, we know that many social workers are “hiding” in non-clinical environments where it doesn’t seem much social work is happening in places like Congress, the World Bank and federal agencies such as the departments of Labor, Housing, Education and Health and Human Services (HHS). In many of these settings, social workers operate under cover. They often do not identify themselves as social workers and they have little or no connection to professional social work organizations. Yet, they are trained social workers with a B.S.W, a M.S.W., or a Ph.D. from an accredited social work school, but you would never know.

The subject arose this week during my lunch with three very special social workers who are at the forefront of promoting greater emphasis on macro social work practice. Darlyne Bailey, dean of the Bryn Mawr School of Social Work and Terry Mizrahi, a professor at Hunter’s School of School of Social Work, are co-chairs of the Special Commission to Advance Macro Social Work Practice formed by the Association for Community Organization and Social Administration (ACOSA).

With us was Jenifer Norton, a doctoral student at Bryn Mawr who provides administrative support for the commission. The commission’s mandate is to examine the state of macro social work practice and offer recommendations on how to strengthen the macro dimension of social work. To date, 46 schools and departments of social work and two organizations have donated funds to support the commission’s work. In addition to 21 commissioners, there are about 50 allies who are participating in the effort by working with one of five workgroups.

The ACOSA group was in DC for a meeting with representatives from the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE) and the Association of Social Work Boards (ASWB) to discuss the current state of macro social work practice. It is encouraging these major social work organizations are finally paying more attention to macro social work practice. This new found interest in macro social work practice was triggered by a 2011 report by Jack Rothman that concluded macro social work practice was being marginalized at many schools of social work. He and Mizrahi followed that report with a published article quantifying students who are pursuing macro practice.

While discussing the working group I have joined—Promotion and Public Support of Macro Leaders and Practitioners—Terry suggested that identifying social workers in macro settings is often difficult because many of them are hiding in the closet. Whether this is intentional or just a byproduct of being in a non-social work setting, we need to know who these social workers are, where they are plying their trade and how they are providing leadership. Many are operating at high levels and have very inspirational stories that need to be told. Why? Because many are in the closet because they feel their work might be devalued by colleagues who may not appreciate the value of social work.

My favorite example is Jared Bernstein who I have written about on several occasions. Bernstein is the former chief economist for Vice President Joseph Biden and a member of President Barack Obama’s economic team. Bernstein earned his Ph.D. at Columbia University’s School of Social Work and chose to hone his economic skills and practice in that arena. He proudly self-identifies as a social worker but when he is introduced on television programs and in settings where he is discussing fiscal and monetary policies, he is introduced as an economist. Would listeners value his input if he were identified solely as a social worker? His commentary would have the same value, but I doubt that his audience would give it the same weight if they thought his ideas were those of a social worker and not an economist.

We need to identify more social workers like Bernstein. NASW has agreed to work on identifying social workers in these settings. That should help much. If you know of social workers in macro settings—working at the Supreme Court, leading corporations, working in the media and other arenas—please shoot me an email at celewisjr@gmail.com.

Advocate or Vacate: LAUSD Students Protest for Science Teacher

LAUSD Student Protest
LAUSD Student Protest

Some things simply aren’t written into our public school curriculum. There aren’t established standards for compassion, integrity, authenticity, and standing up for what you believe in. However, this doesn’t mean opportunities for such teachable moments do not present themselves, but they’re often avoided due to fear or retaliation. Fear of offending someone, fear of negative consequences, fear of judgment are several ways in which fear manifest. During the time of human development when we are the most impressionable, most creative, and most in touch with our core selves and passions, we are often robbed of those traits in order to adhere to fear-driven preset standards that create conformity.

Fortunately, teachable moments have a way of unexpectedly inserting themselves into our lives creating standards for morals and conformity is wholly disregarded. I had the pleasure this week of personally witnessing such a moment. On my morning commute, I observed students outside a Los Angeles public school protesting what they deemed to be the unjust removal of a beloved science teacher. Seeing these students passionately picketing for something they believed in, in order to help someone they believed in, almost moved me to tears.

According to KTLA,

Greg Schiller was suspended from the Ramón C. Cortines School of Visual and Performing Arts (map) in February when another employee raised concerns that two of Schiller’s students made projects that looked like weapons, the Los Angeles Times reported.

The projects, which were designed to launch small projectiles, have been confiscated by LAUSD as evidence, one parent told the Times. Schiller said he did not get a chance to grade the students’ work. Read Full Article

The lump in my throat signified how inspired I was by these students standing up for themselves and their beliefs. It is so easy at any age to simply sit back, complain, and not lift a finger in effort toward that which is right. Yet, here were high school students who are taught daily to respect authority and their decisions. Often by remaining silent and doing what they’re told, they adhere to the set standard. However, in this instance, they took a risk and fully expressing themselves. The protest also occurred one day after another LAUSD student-led protest, in which the students were successful in securing their desired student position on the school board.

It was a moment of personal and universal reflection for me. As a therapist it’s my job to advocate for my clients and motivate them to advocate for themselves, yet I frequently struggle with that both professionally and personally. There are moments every day where I-we-have the opportunity to speak up for ourselves and others in an effort to create a more kind and just world. Yet, we often shrink back out of fear and the opportunity passes. We may not always be right. There may be an infinite amount of opinions. It may not even make a measurable difference. However, if we remain silent and still for too long we’ll never know. We’ll never have the opportunity to be a part of the many tiny or humungous steps that do create a difference. If Freedom Fighters hadn’t made the first move to literally climb steps onto buses, the Civil Rights movement may have been quite different.

We are blessed to live in a world where opportunities continue to present themselves until we learn from them. I’d like to think I learned a little something from these youth and the next time I’m presented with the choice to remain silent or advocate, I remember them and choose the latter. I hope that the next time they’re presented with the choice they’ll continue to have that same courage I witnessed, and I hope that everyone who reads this has that same courage. If you have to fear anything in life, fear silence and immobility not compassionate action.

Social Work School Separates from National Association of Social Work

Catholic University of America’s (CUA) National Catholic School of Social Service (NCSSS) has long been a well-respected social work program, with the Gourman Report placing it in the top 11%. Its web site states: “Our commitment to supporting traditional social work values while responding to today’s educational and practice developments continues to make ours a highly regarded program both within the academic world and the practice community.”

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Catholic University of America

Despite this statement, NCSSS’s new dean,Will C. Rainford, LMSW, Ph.D. announced in October that the school was severing ties with the National Association of Social Workers (NASW), the largest membership organization of social workers in America, basing his decision on what he referred to on Twitter as an “overt public policy position that social workers should advocate for access to abortion.”

A Google search for NASW + abortion brought up two hits; arguably a less than overt position. The announcement was made without either informing/meeting with students and/or alumni to discuss the implications of this step. Confusion regarding concerns such as accreditation has inevitably ensued.

It is unclear what prompted this action since NASW issued their Family Planning and Reproductive Health policy statement in 2006: “Self-determination means that without government interference, people can make their own decisions about sexuality and reproduction. It requires working toward safe, legal, and accessible reproductive health care services, including abortion services, for everyone.”

The press release on NCSSS’s web site boasts that its newest Dean was NASW-Idaho Social Worker of the Year with his CV adding that he also served as a member of the same chapter’s Legislative Advocacy Committee between 2005 and 2007. Given Dean Rainford’s previous affiliation with NASW it is hard to believe that he was not previously familiar with the 2006 policy statement, making his stated motivation for NCSSS’s resignation from the organization questionable.

Dr. Frederick Reamer, a highly respected professor of ethics at NCSSS, wrote in Social Work Values and Ethics that NASW is not a pro-abortion organization; rather it is a pro-choice organization (2006). The NASW Code of Ethics does not directly address abortion; rather it states that social workers have an obligation to foster self-determination. However, Reamer writes that the Code of Ethics does state that social workers should refer clients to other professionals when they are not able to provide assistance or be effective.

It is difficult to understate the significance of this membership organization and the state chapters within the social work profession. The NASW Code of Ethics, sacred to the practice of social work, is integrated into educational curriculums. It helps practitioners learn the difference between right and wrong as well as to help them apply that understanding. NASW adjudicates when social workers violate this code and applies sanctions when necessary. Although state licensing boards do not require membership in NASW, they do require adherence to the NASW Code of Ethics. An education that excludes this code clearly puts future practitioners at a disadvantage.

NASW also accredits CEUs; an annual necessity for licensed social workers. NCSSS itself offers CEU workshops throughout the year and it is unclear what impact no longer being affiliated with NASW will have on these continued education opportunities. Discounted CEU workshops have also traditionally acted as an incentive for field instructors to take on students in field placements and if discontinued may impact the field placements NCSSS is able offer.

To understand the motivation behind seceding, the school of social work must be placed within the context of CUA as a whole. CUA isn’t the average regularly religiously affiliated school, it is a pontifical university established and approved by the Holy See and governed by the Pope. It was established in 1889 with the mission of the instruction of Catholicism and human nature with the goal of furthering strengthening the Church via scientific and humanistic research as informed by the Catholic faith. Since 1889, tremendous advances have been made in science contributing to mankind’s understanding of both reproduction and the prevention of disease including the scourge of HIV/AIDS. The intrinsic humanistic benefits of this progress have been ignored by a Church still dwelling in an era with a primarily agrarian economy and high infant mortality rates.

With this decision, Dean Rainford has shown not only poor judgment but poor timing as well. Pope Francis has reinvigorated many who felt the Catholic Church was no longer relevant, recently writing that the church has grown “obsessed” with abortion, gay marriage and contraception, putting dogma before love. Although remaining pro-life, Pope Francis has conceded that the church has done little to help women who were in need of it. However, the Vatican also recently distributed a survey designed to assess the difficulty of practicing the church’s preachings in a modern world, asking Catholics about their use of contraceptives, feelings on homosexuality, and divorce. This is remarkably progressive for the church and while it has taken a step forward, NCSSS has simultaneously taken a large one back.

Dean Rainford has also potentially tarnished the high regard in which the program has been held by assigning it more of a religious mission and less of a social service one. Religious schools are not legally required to be accredited. Lack of accreditation has typically been associated with schools that award degrees with little to no coursework to any “student” who can pay the price. Should NCSSS slide down this path, it is sure to devalue the substantial financial investment associated with getting a Master’s degree.

The process of NCSSS’s resignation from NASW can be seen as a metaphor for the arguments over reproductive rights. Those who hold the power (the administration at NCSSS), have made an important decision on behalf of those do not (the student body). Self-determination, so prioritized in this field, has been ignored by the administration at NCSSS. As Dr. Reamer wrote, if a practitioner is unable to assist a client, they should make an appropriate referral and excuse themselves.

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