I need to know if there is still resolve in this union between me and the field of social work.
Fatigue eventually sets in, especially during these trying times.
Sometimes I desire to just work with my hands to get an “honest day’s pay for an honest day’s work” as my grandfather, uncle and countless other men in my family before me. I long for a commercial driver’s license to travel and own my time, to leave the nuances of the struggle to professors and students with more vigor.
The other day was one of the better days.
I worked my shift at Cook County Hospital, had a delightful conversation with a co-worker and even got to joke with two of my favorite nurses. There was the occasional call for ambulance setup; a family had questions about disability benefits; and a homeless man needed assistance getting to a shelter. I even helped a friend in crisis through Facebook messenger.
All in a Sunday’s worth of work.
I feel good.
I was told never to make decisions on bad days, no matter how long the stretch. I was advised to wait until I had a good day to evaluate this journey.
Here it goes.
Two internships, five hospitals, a hospice company, two nursing homes and two out-patient dialysis centers later I’ve concluded the field of social work only works properly for the affluent, upper-middle class with generational wealth.
It makes ordering durable medical equipment a breeze. It allows for the swift placement to an outpatient dialysis center in a patient’s zip code almost as easy as ordering a car sharing service. The doctors are more available to these populations than to some of the lower socioeconomic populations and the undocumented.
Departmental meetings are often composed of seven Jodie Fosters, four Katy Perrys, an Angelina Jolie and maybe a couple of Whoopi Goldbergs. Black men were absent in my experiences.
Even in this professional environment of cultural competency I became bequeathed with the mission of explaining the anger of traditionally marginalized black and brown people. I became the decoder of systemic mistrust by highlighting the tales of the Tuskegee Experiment, demonization of an opioid crisis that pre-dates gangster rap and President Obama’s Administration.
I was the starring role in a production of how black men get treated in nurturing professions from the trailer of graduate school.
This social work journey started in the spring of 2011. I first learned about it on the sixth floor conference room of Loretto Hospital. I decided to apply to Loyola University Chicago to pursue a master’s in social work.
I was scared as hell. My sister and I talked about this. “It’s free to apply, right?” my sister asked.
I couldn’t believe the same block, seven miles east from where I spent a considerable time of my life, I would be working toward a master’s degree. I felt inspired all over again.
I was late to orientation due to the CTA running behind schedule. I asked the person at the front desk the Water Tower campus where the class was. He pointed me to the elevator. By the time I reached the right classroom, the teacher was talking to students already.
I peered into the room and noticed something very peculiar.
There were no black people.
This would stay with me the rest of my studies and into my career. I would find more black people, still disproportionate, but they would occasional spring out of the well of obscurity. I’m pretty sure they were also relieved to see me in those classes as well, as evidenced by the subtle head nod black people give each other in a sea of white folks.
The uneasy feeling was a constant companion through the graduation ceremony on May 8, 2014. I didn’t get the memo reading the higher you go in education as a minority, the fewer of you there will be.
The education I received would become priceless compared to the price tag, though I dread looking at my monthly student loan statements.
My love for the education at Loyola extended to the LGBTQ community and those living with HIV, AIDS and other chronic illnesses. My favorite professor pushed me beyond the confines of situational thinking into the mezzo intersectionality of marginalized people without race. It brought memories of my sister coming out to me.
The winters of discourse with white classmates often triggered a feeling of otherness described in writings of W.E.B. Du Bois. These classmates exacerbated my anger during discussions of the perils of black people from their perspective of privilege and pity. Historical context of redlining and financial disinvestment was all but negated.
Ida B. Wells, Harriet Tubman, Willie Dixon, Buddy Guy, Fred Hampton, Angela Davis, Paul J. Adams III and countless other trailblazers who could be classified as social workers were omitted from my education in social work.
I refuse to believe that my classmates were malicious in any way. They encouraged my input. At times they sensed my hesitation in disputing a textbook or another peer’s perspective, yet they still yearned for my contribution. I hold dear that one summer day when classmates brought cupcakes to a Sunday study session the day before my birthday.
I absolutely enjoyed my time as Loyola Rambler. I grew in thought, intellect, interpersonal skills and network. Those years were the most challenging and rewarding days of my life.
I tie my professional experience to an education that seldom ventured into a sociological phenomenon, where the lack of educators reflecting the subject matter remained sparse. It concerns me in this millennium we still argue the worth or contributions of black, brown and LGTQ lives.
It remains the responsibility of an institution of higher learning — especially one that carries the sacred Jesuit title — to be leaders in inspiring and encouraging culturally specific conversations that will one lead to good and just policies.
As I found myself searching for a purpose, I explored that school of social work. Stories of strife, mental illness, hopelessness and the prison industrial complex were already kin to me. I knew about social struggles that rarely get told.
I learned that policy analysis and human behavior was essential to the strivings of black folk in America through my own journey as a social worker. I sat in classrooms viewing these experiences from the lens of the other.
I became aware of white privilege and privilege of my own.
I love you, social work. Please tell me what the mile markers are for a practitioner such as myself?