A presentation I gave at the Minnesota Social Services Association (MSSA) in March, 2014. This was the first iteration of an ongoing series of presentations and writing on the political economy and infrastructures of “data”, as well as the concept of #DataJustice.
The goals of this session were to: (1) spark conversation, debate, and collaboration around the use of open data in social services and social change; (2) engage participants in actively considering how open data might change their work; and (3) empower participants to take leadership in the growing open data and data justice movements within their field!
Social work practice and research are divided, contested spaces. There are many divisions in social work, and in my education at both the masters and Ph.D. level, these divisions occupy an incredible amount of our time and energy. In the arena of practice, we construct arguments between micro and macro practice; between different models of case work, individual, and group therapy. In research, we argue about qualitative and quantitative research, about our values, and about Evidence-Based Practice. In fact, we are so wrapped up in these conversations that I think we often forget (or maybe even choose to forget) that all of these debates are based on a lot of assumptions. We argue about research based on social work values and practitioner’s wisdom versus evidence-based practice, but we forget in both of these frames, social work is still most often about working for people, rather than working with them. Working for is a synonym for “working on behalf of.” It can be seen structurally in the relationship between practitioner and client, where the practitioner is in a position of power over someone else, regardless the ways they attempt to mediate that power in their relationship. Working with is a way of struggling with other members of the human race to create a society that is more just, peaceful, and healthy. This is not simply a distinction between micro and macro level social work. Many community organizers work for people when they go to oppressed communities and try to mobilize them (this is common with union organizers). While some social workers might be comfortable with the idea of working for people, I see working for as another way of living out the hegemony of wealth and social class. I’m not the first to make this argument, in fact it is an argument deeply embedded within the history of the pre-profession and profession of social work (Reisch and Andrews, 2002).
I was sitting this evening with a small group of students that are working as TAs for one of the classes I am teaching this Fall semester. On one of our many tangents, we spoke about one of our students and talked about how we had each relayed information about our interactions with this student to each other. The interaction reminded me of a paper I wrote a while back which I called “The Educative Committee.” My idea was that every student, every young person, should have a number of different people looking out for their learning and growth from a number of different perspectives. These people should be in constant communication, updating, supporting, and challenging each other to help each individual student grow.
At the time I wrote the paper, I recall feeling like something of an idealist. Yes, it was a great idea, but honestly, how could this ever happen? The simple logistics of having such a conversation are impossible, not to mention all the work that would be done to have to convince anyone that this was worthwhile. Impossible. Yet, here we were, doing just that. I quickly realized that this is what we do in our program generally. Once you are a student, you are welcomed into our community, and then each of us is looking out for your growth and development as much as possible.
So, why not do this more broadly? Maybe teachers should act less as instructors and more as conveners — bringing together the people necessary to move each person forward in their own learning trajectories. Certainly, there are many adults (and youth) interested in helping in our classrooms. Why not bring them in as learning mentors? Why not start building “educative committees” (though I suppose I like the term learning committees more).
I also find this inspiring because it puts everyone in the position of being an educator. If we are in someone’s life, we are also a part of their “learning committee”, and therefore are responsible for thinking about how they might grow, or what we might teach them.
Rather than engagement, which evokes a sense that we are focusing on something static, completed, or defined, my experience in community work has centered around engaging – an ongoing and fluid process of engagement. In my experience, engaging involves a process of defying social expectations in ways that provide real space for connection. This can happen in coffee shops, community centers, or lecture halls. I notice it with a particular barista at a favorite coffee shop who asks, ―”What are you doing today?” rather than ―”How are you?” This change of question invokes a profoundly different interaction. Engaging comes in many forms. After a violent shooting at a community center in which I was working, a young person who had prior barely spoken a word to me for months asked if I was scared. Answering ―”yes” was engaging, taking a stand of my own (rather than the stand I was expected to take) and revealing my own weaknesses and vulnerabilities. Opportunities to engage are everywhere, with people of all kinds, in any context. While these opportunities may be planned, engaging is an active choice, made in the moment, to be vulnerable and open.
I believe that community is constituted through stories. Four stories about my understanding community:
Community – an attitude and orientation: Framed by cubicle walls and the front desk, the office I work in looks similar to any other at a university. What makes it a community is its residents’ attitudes. Every staff member is woven together, mutually indebted through help offered, requested, and received. Abundance, not scarcity— of time, energy, and compassion—is the operating default.
Community – a ritual and practice: Every Sunday morning, my housemate and I made breakfast and baked bread to share. This ritual allowed space and time to deepen our relationship. It also became an open invitation to welcome others into our space.
Community – an organization of inclusion and exclusion: All communities have boundaries, but some invite while others exclude. A good community is sustainable in the face of movement, but through openness, grows kinder, broader, and more compassionate.
Community – a location and place: Living on a farm, I experienced community of location: our lives centered around the land. Also a place: as a teenager learning to write creatively, my closest community was a message board that provided a welcoming, supportive place for growth.