Earlier this week, my school had a “Maintaining Our Commitment to Social Justice” day including a keynote address and three workshops of our choice amongst a selection of workshops.
It was a very informative and interesting day and I felt very appreciative of my school having hosted such an event. Kalima DeSuze, an African American Latina professor from Columbia University, gave a passionate keynote address about social work and social justice
Two personal stories that Kalima shared that stuck with me were how she became an activist and a black feminist already as a child. The first story was when she was three years old and she had the habit of becoming silent and not speaking when she felt slighted by an adult. She had basically learned at a young age that her only power as a child was her voice; hence she made sure to withhold it until the adult who had wronged her apologized.
The second vignette she shared was how her father decided when her brother was 9 years old and she was 5 years old to give them an allowance but he gave her brother $5 and her, only $1. She somehow realized at that age that she was given a smaller allowance not because of her age, but because of her gender. So how did she respond? She tore up the $1 and gave it back to her father in protest of not being given the same amount as her brother.
The main message that this wonderful speaker conveyed so eloquently was that as social workers, our challenge is to find our sense of power (we all have some power) and then do what we can to transform the system. “The personal is political.”
Kalima proceeded to then give one example of how social workers who are providing direct services may choose to connect their clients/patients with organizations that are working on their behalf to address racial, gender and ethnic inequities as part of their respective treatment plans. By taking such a step, we would be helping to educate the disadvantaged and oppressed as well as assisting in the process of changing the system.
After Kalima’s inspiring keynote address, I went to a workshop on Spirituality. The essence of this workshop was for us to broaden our understanding of what spirituality is so that it is far more inclusive than how it is usually defined and make sure to incorporate this in our work with clients.
Dr. Evan Senreich, Assistant Professor of Social Work at Lehman College, CUNY, proposed the following revised definition:
“Spirituality refers to a human being’s subjective relationship (cognitive, emotional, and intuitive) to what is unknowable about existence, and how a person integrates that relationship into a perspective about the universe, the world, self, moral values, and one’s sense of meaning.”
To gain an understanding of our clients’ spirituality, Dr. Senreich recommends that we ask our clients questions like: Do you believe in a higher power or God, or do you believe that things are more random? We could also ask: What do you think happens to people after they die?
Dr. Senreich also suggests that we note when a client makes any sort of reference to God or a belief such as “God-willing,” or “it was meant to be” and then take such opportunities to explore what the client means and what this says about how the client views his/her world.
Understanding a client’s spirituality, in turn, helps understand a client better. This, in turn, may impact both our choice and application of interventions.
This idea of incorporating the broader idea of spirituality into our work with clients makes a lot of sense. This reminds me of a podcast I had listened to a few months ago that had illustrated the importance of including this component with African Americans (see: Religion and Spirituality as a Source of Strength for African Americans).
This workshop takes that idea a step further and suggests that in fact, everyone, has some sense of spirituality, some feelings about their place in the world and how things work and that these feelings and understandings are important to find out.
Moving onto the second workshop, Koshin Paley Ellison, co-founder of the New York Zen Center for Contemplative Care presented “Connecting Empathy with Compassionate Functioning.” This was also a very interesting session, but it ended up being personally difficult for me.
After a brief breathing exercise, we had a discussion about the difference between empathy and compassionate functioning. Essentially, Koshin conveyed the importance of being able to provide empathic care for clients/patients while providing yourself with sufficient self-care.
Koshin also raised the idea of Jung’s shadow concept, the unconscious place that we don’t want to go. He explained the importance of our needing to know ourselves, to make sure that we do not manipulate our patients into making ourselves feel good.
He went on to say that all of us have the following three poisons (or shadows) of caregiving:
- Our feeling of lack of impact in the world (i.e., we don’t make a big enough difference in our personal life)
- Being a voyeur (lack of attention to our inner life)
- Healer/helper (desire to be a savior)
He then asked us take a few minutes to think about these 3 poisons and write our thoughts down.
Following this, we did another breathing exercise except that here Koshin took me by surprise… He asked everyone to partner up with someone that they did not know and to sit facing that person and then perform the relaxation exercise. As I was in this relaxed state, Koshin suddenly asks us to imagine that the person opposite us is going to develop cancer in the future.
In light of what is happening in my personal life, as mentioned in What Do You Do When a Loved One Has Cancer , this exercise felt too real and I essentially jumped up out of my seat and told Koshin: I can’t do this. This is too real for me. My X has cancer.
Koshin in a very calm voice told me that it’s good I told him, that it’s ok and he asked “What can we do for you?” I didn’t know what to do nor what to suggest. A part of me just wanted to run out of the room but I didn’t want to cause a scene.
I also felt uncomfortable with having stopped the class… Fortunately, a close friend of mine was with me in the class and she turned to me and asked if I wanted a hug. That was exactly what I needed and we hugged. That hug was immensely helpful and grounding…
After the hug, I went back to my “role” in the exercise which entailed imagining that our partner was going to die in the future and we were supposed to just be looking at our partner and not saying anything, but conveying empathy and caring via our eyes.
It was hard for me to get really into it because I had to maintain a separation between what I was being asked to imagine and what is going on in my real life but I tried my best for my partner’s sake. During the debriefing, I apologized for having disrupted the class…
Koshin said that I did the right thing, practicing compassionate functioning (taking care of myself) and then to my surprise, two classmates expressed appreciation for my having stopped the class. They had both lost their mothers to cancer a few years ago and my stopping the class was helpful to them to allow them to prepare themselves for the remainder of the exercise.
The class ended on this note which was a bit raw for me and then I had my third workshop to attend, “A Gestalt Therapy Toolkit for the Socially Conscious Practitioner.” This class was a great one to end with because it was much lighter than the first two I had attended and I needed something light after that whole cancer reality breathing scene.
Robert Mauksch, LMSW, from the Gestalt Associates for Psychotherapy, basically gave an introduction in this workshop to Gestalt therapy, a modality which I knew almost nothing about before and I have to say that it had really piqued my curiosity to delve into it some more now.
My key take-aways from this session were:
- our experience of self is always in process, changing (not static)
- who I am and how I experience the world doesn’t exist without the outside world
- who I am = the meeting of the organism and the environment being created at every moment
- social justice fits in with this via the contact (or cycle of contact); the ways in which the self interacts with the environment
- belief in creative adjustment – whatever happens in your life, you did the best you could to get your needs met
So this basically sums up the day…
Do you like this idea of a broader definition of spirituality? Do you agree that this is something to be explored and incorporated within one’s clinical work with a client? Or do you think that spirituality is a taboo subject?
Is there something that you would want to add regarding compassionate functioning or gestalt therapy? Please feel free to share any of your thoughts/reactions to the ideas raised here. I’d love to hear from you
Senreich, E. (2011). An inclusive definition of spirituality for social work education and practice.