Using Non-Traditional Field Placements to Meet Student Needs

Julie Richards of Mothers Against Meth has led a campaign against methamphetamine abuse on reservations in South Dakota. Photo courtesy Julie Richards

As a master level social work student, I had the opportunity to visit the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota through an Immersion Program offered by the University of Southern California.

While the field of social work provides students avenues to explore different concentrations and interests, there still is a major lack of representation in academia for our Indigenous populations in North America. Colonialism and the lack of representation of the Indigenous population have led the public to believe Indigenous populations have “vanished”.

Our nation was built on Colonialism, assimilation, cultural genocide, and inevitably the widespread decimation of our Indigenous populations, yet this assumption allows society to turn a blind eye to the current socio-cultural-political environment of Indigenous populations.

Coming from the field of religious studies, I truly had to augment myself personally, professionally, and academically. The clash between my academic background and professional experience left me wondering if I was even in the “right” field. I struggled with the concept of intervening, implementing Western interventions, and just feeling forced to interact with people.

Eventually, my struggle was not with the concept of being a social worker, but rather with the fact I was being pigeonholed into a traditional social work environment with my current field placement. The trip gave me a taste of freedom within the field of social work and the interactions I had with the population left me wanting more. I knew moving forward that I had to return to the Reservation in South Dakota because I have been sitting on my hands throughout my entire MSW program.

I previously viewed my religious studies background and social work experience as autonomous and dualistic, but it never occurred to me that I could merge these two personalities together. The turning point in my academic and professional career monumentally shifted was when I went to South Dakota with USC. The experience was both personally and professionally transformative for me as a social worker because I struggled with imposter syndrome throughout the entire duration of the MSW program.

The interactions and moments that I shared with folks on the Reservation fully defined the concept of a social worker to me. For the first 7 months of my field placement, I was working with adolescents and young adults. To be honest, I had no idea what I was doing because I came from a completely different field and I was in the Children, Youth, and Families Department.

Also, I quickly started to feel burnt out because the subjects that I was learning in my classes didn’t align with the clients that I was assigned to. Since I never had the opportunity to work with children in my placement, I started to believe that maybe I didn’t want to work with children after all. This narrow-minded view of what I could do in the field of social work significantly changed after I met a child named C (renamed for article) on the Cheyenne River Reservation.

The funniest thing about children is that they choose you. From the minute C laid eyes on me, she chose me- even when I was unsure about my own ability to be a social worker. C and I proceeded to spend the afternoon creating lanyards and friendship bracelets. C was loving, abrasive, and unapologetic in her efforts to communicate and interact with the students on the trip. C’s mannerisms and stature significantly changed when we were approached by another student on the trip. The student was non-native and male. C immediately had an emotional reaction and felt the need to “protect me” from the male student. C’s affect and demeanor immediately changed from loving to protective.

The most shocking aspect of it all was that she was not acting out to defend herself, but rather to protect me. C believed with her entire heart that no men were to be trusted whatsoever and most needed to suffer the same fate as her father because of the violence he had inflicted on her mother in the past. C’s response toward the presence of another male in her immediate environment is simply a reflection of how America has forgotten and silenced Indigenous folks on Reservations.

The immersion experience with USC opened my eyes to the wide array of possibilities in the field of social work. As a white-appearing individual and outsider, I was welcomed and embraced by the Lakota. The members within the community shared their experiences, stories, and tears with me. After returning to Los Angeles, I felt like I left a piece of my soul behind on the Cheyenne River Reservation.

Upon my return, I was able to coordinate with my professors and the University to finish my last semester on the Cheyenne River Reservation. The next thing I knew, I was packing up my life in Los Angeles and I drove over 24 hours to return to South Dakota. This past summer, I was the first social worker to provide services at Camp Marrowbone in Eagle Butte, South Dakota.

The opportunity to live and work with the Lakota population would not have been possible without the integration of Indigenous Studies and Social Work. It is our responsibility as social workers to hold our academic institutions accountable in order to advocate for marginalized and silenced populations.

Environmental Justice for Indigenous Populations

Climate change has an inordinate effect on vulnerable populations.  The EPA has published multiple fact sheets outlining the effects of climate change on various vulnerable populations, all of which are populations that social workers encounter.

As just one example the health of indigenous peoples are affected by climate conditions because their culture relies on their local environment and natural resources for food, cultural practices, and income. Many live in isolated or low income communities such as rural areas with limited access to public services and healthcare, or they live in places most affected by climate change like communities along the coasts. The people of several Alaskan tribal villages are facing relocation due to rising sea levels and coastal erosion.

The EPA cites examples of food, water, air, land and infrastructure, and health risks to tribal populations. In the Upper Great Lakes Region, Ojibwe communities may be affected by the impacts of rising temperatures and changing precipitation patterns on rice-growing conditions in lakes and rivers.

Indigenous people along the West and Gulf Coasts rely on fish and shellfish for food, livelihoods, and certain ceremonial or cultural practices. Higher sea surface temperatures increase the risk that certain fish and shellfish will become contaminated with mercury, harmful algal toxins, or naturally-occurring bacteria.

For Alaska Native communities, rising temperatures and permafrost thaw threaten traditional methods of safe food storage in ice houses, and increase risk of food contamination. Climate change may also affect the abundance and nutritional quality of local Alaskan berries that are an important source of traditional diets.

A prime example of environmental injustice is that American Indian/Alaska Native infants are more likely to be hospitalized with diarrhea than other infants in the U.S.  Many remote tribal households, primarily in western Alaska Native Villages and the Navajo Nation, do not have adequate drinking water or wastewater treatment infrastructure, increasing the risk of water-borne diseases like diarrhea.

Current revival of the Dakota Pipeline construction may pollute the water supply of several indigenous tribal communities. In addition, projected increases in large wildfires, as a result of changing weather patterns, threaten air quality for tribes in Alaska and the western United States.

Although the health and welfare of children, elders, indigenous peoples, and persons living in poverty are disproportionately affected by environmental negligence, we all will be struggling for survival if we don’t prioritize climate change and environmental collapse as the ultimate social justice issue.

The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) recently published five social justice priorities outlined in a new initiative for 2017 which are:

  • Voting rights
  • Criminal justice
  • Juvenile Justice
  • Immigration reform
  • Economic justice/Equality

Although each of the priorities are important, they mean nothing if environmental justice is not achieved.  Similar to Maslow’s hierarchy, if basic needs, in this case, air, water and sustainable resources, are not protected, other priorities become less exigent.

There is a small faction of our profession dedicated to ecologically conscious social work, but the profession has been slow to jump on the environmentalist band wagon, as exemplified by NASW’s social justice priorities.  It’s urgently time to reconsider. If you are interested in the nexus of social work and environmentalism, check out the Facebook page Ecologically Conscious Social Workers. Learn more about the effect of climate damage on the populations you serve.

The health impact of environmental crises varies with age, life stage and location. And consider the environment as one of the filters you use to assess the person or situation you are facing.  Yes, we know all about person-in-environment…but let’s also focus on the environment-in-person!

Who Has Rights When It Comes to Racial Discrimination

Black Like Me by John Howard Giriffin via Woordup
Black Like Me by John Howard Giriffin

Australian Attorney-General, George Brandis has created controversy by proposing changes to Sections 18C and 18D of the Racial Discrimination Act relating to race, colour or national or ethnic origins. Brandis wants to remove the words “offend, insult and humiliate”, define “intimidate” as only fear of physical harm, “vilify” as inciting a third person to hatred, and change “good faith” to “reasonable likely”, to allow the right to free speech. He proclaimed everyone has a right to be a bigot. According to media reports, this move stems from a promise made by the government to conservative commentator, Andrew Bolt, who ended up in court after writing about his views on Aboriginal people.

Debates have pitted a right to free speech against the right of people to be free of discrimination and racial hatred. In my view, no one has right to harm another person physically, psychologically or socially and we do have a responsibility (as opposed to a right) to be respectful to others even if we don’t understand their experiences. I do agree that the law does not hold all the answers and education and social expectations hold the key but two key points are missing in the debate. The first is white privilege and the second is the social construction of community norms.

White privilege, understood through Critical Race Theory and Whiteness Studies, explains how discrimination towards others and one’s own privileged position are difficult to see by those who have it. Understanding the position of others is beyond the daily experience of the privileged, and as a child I read the book Black like me. I have not read the book again, and I do understand it has attracted criticism in a contemporary context. Despite this, the profound effect this book had on me is important. What I do remember from this reading is a very clear understanding of how badly people treat other people based on difference and its legacy has probably contributed to the perspectives I hold important today. The book does show that sometimes people have to experience something themselves before they can gain just a glimpse into the experience of others.

Social attitudes are constructed. If we accept the vilification of others or assume that mere words do no harm, we are establishing and building a particular kind of society, contributing to the acceptance and promotion of division and hatred, and giving voice to the worst in society. There needs to be some sort of minimum standards about what society deems acceptable after all we do this for most other things. When one right is pitted against another, the most privileged always wins. Australia has an appalling human rights record. We don’t need to make it worse.

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