Another brick…

My head is pounding. Probably because the emotional brick wall I keep encountering just won’t yield no matter how many times I hit it. Stop hitting it, you say? If it were that easy…

I’m inspired by a recent Facebook distraction where a friend of mine tossed a Batman quote in my direction, and it may have been slightly misconstrued by those reading who may not have had the requisite Christopher Nolan watch history to bring understanding. (So props to P, good quote. No worries, mate.) Applying the quote to teaching, he made a joke about me being the teacher my students need, but not the one they deserve. Ok, so maybe that sounds a little weird taken out of context, but I’ve been spending some time thinking about why I continue to be a teacher, especially when I encounter so many of these amazingly stupid, redundant, madness-inducing larger-than-life Joker-inspired walls.

I became a teacher by accident. I don’t know if that is a common story for teachers but that is what happened in my case. I spent all of my schooling never thinking I would become a person standing in front of a room while people wrote down what I said.

Here’s the thing: I’d been spending all my graduate work focused on becoming a better therapist. I left my master’s program thinking my egg hadn’t hatched yet, so I wanted to incubate a little longer. That was a good decision. A lot of important things came together for me and at the conclusion of my program, I was definitely a much more skilled and capable counselor. But being the philosopher I can’t avoid, I also noticed the irony of counseling work that I still haven’t escaped to this day.

If you ever apply to a counseling program, at some point you’ll be asked, “why do you want to do this.” And what admissions committees don’t tell anyone is that we are looking out for the “because I want to help people” answer. We look out for it because this is what most people will write; it is also nearly meaningless. What does it mean to “help” people? What is helping? Before any of us set foot in a classroom, we all held rather naive ideas about helping and our ability to do it. Most of our ideas are illusions, props we tell ourselves to believe we are more powerful, effective, and important than we really are. Somewhere in there exists altruism, but this is in reality a very small piece. We are usually interested in helping ourselves, and even there we don’t really know what that looks like either.

So after a few years of deconstructing all this, we find that we can’t really “help” anyone, and we adopt a new language of “facilitating change.” This is step one towards accepting we can’t actually make people do things, no matter how much we try. But counselors come to realize they don’t want to make people do things, because we appreciate and value this thing called agency – someone’s ability to be active in their own life and work from their own will. However, the flipside is we can make things happen, and often when we don’t intend to. Unfortunately our history is filled with such examples where our good-intentioned selves managed to hurt large groups of mostly disenfranchised people by subjecting them to lousy research or prejudiced, discriminatory practices. Thus we do know we can make a difference, but more often we see the results from when our differences create more harm than good.

I found myself caught in the sideliner’s observation that while I am witness to the experience of pain, I am rarely present to the experience of change. We have all kinds of phrases about “the process” and when it works, it means we are working ourselves out of a job. This means “change” doesn’t usually manifest in front of my eyes; rather it is inferred from the stories a client shares with me, and I usually fan the flames of hope that it moves in preferred directions. For a person to become responsible for all they have done, they aren’t changing because I’ve said a magic phrase, but because they have made change a part of their life. Thus when I do a “good job,” I’ve also erased myself from the picture. It means at any particular moment when I’m counseling, I am simultaneously influential and non-influential, powerful and impotent.

Damn you existentialists.

purple_manThis is a frustrating state of being. But it is also core to how I work, because I am always balancing this dilemma, this ability to do and not do. You could say this is why we have to pay attention to ethics, because it becomes very easy to transform into the Purple Man.

All of this exists in the world of teaching, too. My role as a teacher isn’t to make people learn, but to create an environment where learning becomes possible. That is similar to how we talk about counseling, but in the classroom, my chances of being present to learning are much higher. Conversely, if learning isn’t occurring, I will see it immediately, and not just in test scores. Any teacher who has ever seen 30 faces check out all at once knows exactly what I’m saying.

For me to be a teacher, I’ve had to do a lot of work that includes regularly challenging myself and stepping well outside my comfort zone. I find myself influencing the potential for learning every time I’m in the room and I am always shifting between stepping into the mix and stepping out. Every group is different, every class forming its own personality and way of interacting. I never give the same lecture twice, and I never know where the class will end up. This doesn’t mean I take an “anything goes” attitude; rather learning morphs towards the path of the learner instead of forcing students into one identical mold.

That may sound a little weird since in recent times many think of school in a very business-oriented student-learning-outcome way and have reduced education to just memorizing times tables and spelling words. But education doesn’t end with basic skills, it starts there; ultimately education is about exercising and shaping a mind, a spirit, a being who is capable of interacting intentionally in the world. We’re not telling our students what to think, but how to think; the tools they must learn are the tools that empower them towards active freedom, not towards quiet subservience.

So when I say I get more chances to be present to learning, it means I get to see what I just described on a regular basis. Or at least, I am more likely to see it if I’m doing my job ethically, effectively, and earnestly. And I get to watch these students become counselors, people who are able to see the worth inside each person they work with. People who can sit in that existential dilemma so much more comfortably than I can because if learning took place, it taught them the most important lesson: they too are valuable because they exist, because they mean something and have a right to be here.

But this isn’t easy, and it is often thankless, and the obstacles to doing this work come from places you’d never imagine. That means I spend a lot of time banging my head against walls, and I’ll likely keep banging my head against walls. You’d think I’d have a thicker skull by now. But eventually there may be enough of us who’ve rediscovered our value as people to break through the wall, or maybe we’ll just walk off together and the wall will fall into obsolescence (Roger Waters was on to something, I think). I don’t know really; after all it’s just a metaphor. Enough speculation though, I have a lesson to prepare…

 

 

 

 

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Oh yeah, that job thing…

instagram-do-amor-snoopygrams_16Hey, so I managed to write something that got published on a different online platform*…Go check it out:

http://wp.me/p2BxKN-4sq

This is an edited version of a longer piece I wrote and I was going to put the longer piece here, but I decided not to because I’m lazy. In truth, I do have this job that pays the bills, and occasionally I have to, you know, do stuff. Some think I should blog more about the behind-the-scenes of that work environment, but that Shakespearean tragedy (comedy?) belongs in a different dimensional plane altogether. So enjoy this little diversion into an aspect of my professional self.

*Published at CT Online (http://ct.counseling.org), the companion website of Counseling Today

Transitions…

…are a bitch.

There, I said it. I know, counselor-types aren’t supposed to say things like that. We’re supposed to be all, “it’ll be a difficult time but you’ll get through” and “it’s a normal phase of life” and “you have the resources” and blah blah blah blah. Bullshit. Transitions are rough, unpleasant, unpredictable, and overpowering. Transitions demonstrate how very little control you really have in your life and how most of the control you think you have left is really  just an illusion you’ve created to console yourself. Transitions are Nietzsche’s wonderland, pools of existential angst bubbling like primeval mud ready to suck the reason right off your puny little soul.

So it’s safe to say this hasn’t been the easiest of changes…although as I’ve said before, this is a problem I am happy to have. I am glad to be in a process of transitioning because it does mean things are changing; in fact they are transforming right before my eyes and the real problem is my brain simply can’t keep up. The landscape is moving too quickly so I have no idea where I am at any given moment.

It is interesting how easily though my mind is removing itself from what I’ve known for the last 10 years and relocating itself into my new west-coast world. It is very easy to let go of the problems that I no longer have any involvement in and say, “well, you get to deal with it now” and go dancing away like a pixie. I recently found myself driving through southern California repeating to myself, “I am actually going to live here” and found it remarkably simple to forget that I had ever lived in Texas.

Yet it is still an angst-ridden experience; I’ve realized I’m not really moving me, I’m moving a family, and the home I’m trying to create isn’t about me but about the life the little people I care for will be able to have. Now that is brand new, and fills me with hoards of nightmares regularly. The logistics of finding schools, homes, neighborhoods, where the nearest grocery will be, is there a park, will there be a place to play soccer or swim, what will the high school that they’ll attend in 5 years be like, where is the pediatrician, who will be the band leader, and on and on, fills up my head before we’ve even figured out who the internet provider is going to be. I’ve no idea what my new email address will be, how could I possibly be expected to know whether or not my children will be secure in their attempts to get into graduate school?

So it’s a little upside down. I have been touched by the outpouring of grace and generosity exhibited by those who seem truly sad to see me go. As much as I shun ego, I do like hearing that something I did or said made a difference. The goodbyes have been more difficult than I’ve experienced in the past. This time I’m going, what will happen to these relationships, will they continue, will I make new ones where I’m going, will I be able to make a difference there too? Or was the last 10 years just a collection of luck and happenstance?

In spite of being someone who teaches about the power of influence, I still have tremendous incapacity for connecting my own efficacy to the influences occurring in other people’s lives. I would prefer to simply not know if I’ve done anything. It is therefore gratifying to hear that I’ve done something that was effective, meaningful, even just entertaining. And yet I do quietly fear that I won’t be much of anything as I start this new phase of my life.

I suppose the reality is I won’t be much of anything. No one will know me, I’ll have nothing to show for myself, it will need to be built. What is different now though is that I’ve got some experience having built things, and more importantly I actually know who the builder is. 10 years ago I was still figuring myself out, still deciding what “team” to play on or if I would play at all. I’ve come to some very difficult understandings about myself and had to make hard decisions, and I think what I’ve figured out is the stuff that actually matters to me. It is so much less about accolades, recognitions, fame, even principles, and so much more about people. Who is important in my life and how do I make it clear to them that I value them too. No work should get in the way of such things, and if it does then that tells me it is time to do something different.

So to those who have taken this transition as a time to take last minute pot-shots at me, fuck off. To those who have gone out of their way to let me know that our time together mattered, thank you. You have affected my life in ways you likely have no idea about as well; I have had a chance to meet some really amazing and interesting people and that has taught me more than much of my years in school. I hope whatever I do next will continue to make you proud.

And on a complete side note, I’ve found that my questions about my career have either been so shelved that I’m not thinking about it, or I’ve managed to find some answers. The most interesting answer I’ve found recently is I’m tired of asking the “what if” questions. So rather than ask what if, I’ve just been doing whatever it is that I’ve wondered about. I think what has changed is I’m willing to find out if it’s no good or if I can’t do it. I think I’ve finally learned that I’d rather make the attempt and learn that I suck rather than spend years asking if I could’ve done something to begin with. Oh, and I’ve found out that some things I thought I was good at aren’t that good after all. Or more fairly, sometimes I produce things that are good and other times I produce things that are crap. That’s a pretty typical thing though, isn’t it? We in the USA do this absurd thing to ourselves, buying into some ridiculous notion that everything we do is supposed to be superb, producing peak experiences ad infinitum. But getting knocked off your feet isn’t so disastrous as we let ourselves think. It hurts the pride, and it does create self-doubt. It is not fun to hear that what you made is ugly. But that doesn’t mean that everything you make is ugly, or that the ugly thing is without merit. That’s the newest lesson, that there are still many things to learn and that doesn’t mean you didn’t know something to begin with. Which means during my transition, I find myself yet again, confronted with the phrase I’ve shared with students:

“Why do we fall…”

“So we can learn to pick ourselves up…”

IMG_5300
Damn you, Batman

What the heck is social justice, anyway…

It is probably an oddity that, coming up on almost 3 years of blogging about a social justice-themed film, I am just now putting out the question of “what is social justice.” I teach it, study it, practice it…yet I find myself back to the place of asking that question. Will I answer it here? Unlikely. But as is my habit, I write here to try to work this stuff out in my head…

Social justice gets a bad rap. When it is talked about on the news, it is usually paired with words like, “communist” and “progressives” and the newly-made bad word, “liberals.” Detractors try to associate it with anarchy and chaos, government overthrow, and the dismantling of society.

So in fairness, that’s because when social justice work is happening, it usually is calling out forms of oppression that occur at larger levels, such as in law, institution, policy, government. Social justice will look at educational systems, business practices, social practices, and just about any other existing system and how it serves to empower and disempower. Social justice attempts to address systemic injustice that results in the oppression of historically marginalized groups; thus it tends to focus on people who have experienced racism, sexism, heterosexism, ableism, and so on. When social justice activism works, you get things like marriage equality, which is a pretty big upheaval of the status quo.

So yes, social justice workers do tend to be loud rabble rousers who get people riled up. That’s because when you’re pointing out that someone is benefiting at the expense and exploitation of others, that person usually gets kinda pissed off. And they work really hard to shut you up, especially by trying to make you look like the crazy one doing all the shouting.

However, social justice workers can get pretty confused about their purpose too, which leads me to why I’m writing this today.

In my particular field, I’ve recently seen lots of work connected to social justice. What exactly is social justice? I think that question has a varied answer right now. It has referred to altering systems and the status quo to promote equal access to resources. I’ve also seen it connected to the process of dismantling harmful expressions of privilege and promoting privilege for those historically denied that status. Most closely associated with my own work, social justice emphasizes the reclaiming of voice that was robbed from communities rendered impotent from colonizing processes.

That’s a lot of big words. I think a simple point of view is that social justice attempts to correct social injustice. It requires acknowledgment that injustice does and will occur at systemic levels – social, political, governmental…injustice can be executed through law, policy, social discourse, normalizing practices, interpersonal dynamics…In other words, injustice can be enacted by a single individual, but it is also enacted by many individuals making up a larger social sphere. The injustice occurs because the acts undertaken maintain power for certain groups while diminishing the power of others. And this is not based on a merit criteria, but rather arbitrary distinctions like race, gender, class status, etc.

Really, I don’t think it’s that hard to understand. My students will kill me for saying that, because it’s one thing to understand the concept and another to see it live, and then even more to recognize that we are all affected by this process.

So the real question is “how do we do social justice?” That’s a much harder question, one that I’m struggling to find the answer to.

Here’s a snapshot of recent events in my life: Led a workshop for counseling students/new professionals about a process of reclaiming identity from oppression. Those participants created work that demonstrates their preferred identity and we held a gallery exhibit showcasing the work. Our student social justice organization has decided to become a regional organization to include people from many different fields and backgrounds. I’m working to change a professional organization from the inside out so it better reflects social justice principles. I recently went to Ferguson, MO to show the film and launch a project for declaring personal truths. Oh and I have that other job, the one where I teach class, interact with students, and occasionally supervise and counsel people. Am I “doing” social justice? There’s a big part of me (likely my inner rebellious punk that sits lazily in a chair flipping everyone the bird) that just isn’t interested in proving whether or not my work is work. So perhaps the real question for me is, does the work that I do accomplish what I hope it accomplishes?

Is there any one way to do social justice? Is it just one big act that gets lots of attention or is it lots of little acts? Does it matter if everyone follows your lead or if the few you’re affecting have experienced a change for the better? How do you do social justice in a way where it doesn’t inadvertently rob the voice of those you’re trying to support? When does social justice tip over back to just another form of colonization? How do you make sure the focus of social justice is on people and communities who need and want that support, instead of on the need for the worker to become the great “savior” of those people? Who “owns” social justice?

I don’t think those are easy questions nor do I have ready answers. I do think that whatever the method, we have to make sure that the people we think we are serving actually want what we’re offering, and that their voice is front and center in the process. Does what I’m attempting to do fit the context? How do decisions get made? Am I invited or intruding? Does it matter if it’s me who is required to get the job done, or is what I’m doing something that the community can take, learn from, and then build upon to suit their changing needs?

I used to shout a lot. Now I realize sometimes you need to shout, and sometimes you can do something else. Sometimes you can even do nothing. So while I’m still figuring out the answers to these questions, I’ll keep experimenting, I’ll get it wrong and maybe I’ll get something right. I’ve complained in the past that I feel like my generation of social justice workers is having to re-invent the wheel. It’s a complaint rooted in the desire to have someone help, have someone guide us. But now it seems it isn’t really a complaint; perhaps it is actually stating the obvious. We’re not “re-inventing” but inventing, because the context of today is different than it was 20, 40, 100 years ago. Racism still exists, but it looks and acts different and we have grown up getting to know it in a way that our ancestors did and didn’t. So we are finding our way, trying to learn from the past while plotting our own course. Maybe the real trick is to accept we don’t have all the answers and likely won’t.

So what is social justice? Still working on that one…