Last Monday, a group of students I work with, my field supervisor and I went on a field trip around significant places in Detroit. The tour was hosted by a community activist from the Boggs Center who has been re-envisioning a better Detroit for over thirty years. As young leaders at the school, and as part of this group at the school called the Welcome Committee, the students are the vision for a better future. The mission of the Boggs School is to “nurture creative, critical thinkers who contribute to the well-being of their communities.” I hope that these young people are receiving new messaging of who they are and the value they have to create a better world. Working with them has been a growing process for myself as well, and is a major part of my reflections throughout the final project.
My final project is actually something that I’ve wanted to do at my field placement, but am still trying to figure out why I want to do it, and if I have the capacity to do it. With the time that I have left in field alongside the work that I’m already doing, it may not be something that I can commit my time to. With the semester coming to an end soon, I’ll be increasing the number of days that I’m in field, even if the number of weeks in the semester diminishes. In the next few months I’ll be compiling the work that I’ve been doing and pass on my reflections to the next intern or interns. The focus is meant to be on the process of “Entering, Engaging & Exiting” communities well, but this project has been more reflective in nature. I talk a lot about myself and my role at the school, and how that intersects with the work that the school is doing. If I were to have a complete do-over, I would have approached this final project differently, maybe not even focus on my work at the school but on other communities that I’m passionate about, and perhaps completed interviews in those arenas instead. But delving into the “Why” of this project is an important part of the work that we do too, as social workers and social justice workers. I hoped I honored that process to the best of my ability.
What is your understanding of how community and social systems can play a role in improving the well-being of individuals, families, organizations, and communities and in promoting greater social justice in your area of interest?
I begin my project with “the importance of narrative,” a major theme of my thought process and this course. The role of the Boggs School is in shaping a new narrative, which is part of “improving the well-being of individuals, families, organizations, and communities and in promoting greater social justice” in Detroit. The school is a unique community that one student has lovingly referred to it as a glorified one-room schoolhouse. While that may seem like a derogatory statement, the student makes the point that in this school, everybody knows everybody. Because of the community’s small size, with many students growing with each other over the past five years, everyone is educated together, regardless of the grade level they are a part of. I’ve learned so much from being a part of this school about the complexities of engaging with community and the multiple systems of support that hold community life together. When each person does their part to the best of their ability in contributing to the overall system, students are better served. But not only is each person doing their part, they are also moving forward with this shared vision of “nurturing” students to think critically of their sense of place and help find creative solutions for their communities.
How does gender, racial, religious, economic, or other diverse characteristics of a community affect the needs and assets to be mobilized in your area of interest?
In an interview with Jasmine, a therapist and original “pioneer teacher” who helps students with their socio-emotional learning, she identified three primary family groups that compose the school. One group can generally be defined as the students from the surrounding neighborhoods. These families are sometimes referred to as “pioneer families”, many of whom first joined the school when it opened in 2013. They can often have the deepest investment to the well-being of the school because of their historical and geographical tie to the community, but may not be able to commit as much time or financial resources as other families. Another group of students come from predominantly African American families who have been deeply involved in Afrocentric education and African American social justice. Many of the parents of these students have higher economic security than many of the pioneer families, and may be activists and/or artists, often with affiliations to the Boggs Center, which is only a little over five minutes away from the school. Some of these families may even commute from suburbs around Detroit because of their belief in the school’s mission. A third group of students come from families are also involved in social justice, or food justice, who are predominantly white with higher economic security. This population at the school is growing because of how the city is changing, partly through gentrification. Many of these families are drawn to Grace Lee Boggs’ legacy and philosophy that has had a wide influence in the city.
The three groups described are loose characterizations of the different demographics of students and families represented at the school. Because of the social justice-minded nature of the school, much of the classroom learning is place-based education that ties lessons with the community’s history and present issues, exploring history from different perspectives than what is traditionally taught in the classroom, bringing in people to talk about food justice and serve students meals. However, special attention is also given to students from the surrounding community, who have often experienced trauma related to losing family members to gun violence or even encounters with the police. Because of the size of the school, more relational interactions are possible to help students work through their trauma and difficult issues. The school has people on staff who work one-on-one with students such as a behavioral interventionist, a special education coordinator and a social worker. Restorative Practice is also being incorporated into the curriculum as an alternative to more punitive measures such as detention or suspension. Everyone is on board with the highly relational, social justice-focused model of the school, with the vision of a radical way of doing education. They live by the statement made by Grace Lee Boggs “We are the leaders we’ve been looking for.”
What are important skills for engaging community systems and encouraging the participation of community members with attention to their diversity and for reducing barriers to that participation in your area of interest?
Much of the work that my field supervisor and the school staff do is in the form of listening with compassion, building rapport, and just getting stuff done. In community organizing, these are crucial ingredients to addressing diverse groups, as well as reducing some of the barriers to participation. I have seen how my field supervisor works very patiently with parents and maintains composure even in the midst of confusion. People trust her, not only for her kindness and inclusivity, but because she follows through on what she says that she is going to do. And she’s not afraid to be assertive. Although she is the principal, she fits many of the descriptors of a community organizer, identifying culturally and racially with many of the stakeholders at the school, a familiarity with the language of the area and being a native Detroiter, her leadership style and how she empowers others, to name a few (Rivera & Erlich, 1998).
Of course, she doesn’t do the work alone. The other core staff also add to the diversity that matches the populations that engage with the school. Engaging all the stakeholders at the school can be challenging, especially for pioneer families (the first families who were recruited to attend the school at its inception) that are less resourced, but I’ve seen how the school respects the diversity of its population even in how events are conducted. During the annual auction that happened quite recently, sponsored tickets allowed for more families to participate who might otherwise not be able to afford to go, and there was a relatively wide range of auction items that appealed to not only native Detroiters, but also the more “hipster” transplants and others. There were items for singles and families, as well as items that reflected the entrepreneurial spirit of the Boggs network.
How do social work ethics and values guide practice with community and social systems in your area of interest? What did you personal learn from this assignment?
Everyone at the Boggs School is a social justice worker. Within the school, one of the roles of a social justice worker has been operating not only at the micro level through one-on-one and family interactions with students and/or parents at the school or at the mezzo level facilitating groups, but also engaging as an intermediary between the micro, mezzo and macro levels. Taking school policy seriously is one of the major ways to create durable change, both positively and negatively. Engaging school policy as a social justice worker expresses each of the values and principles outlined in the NASW Code of Ethics (NASW, 2017). For example, it honors the dignity and worth of all persons to advocate for gender-inclusive bathrooms, something that the Boggs School takes seriously. It also calls on social justice workers to emphasize the importance of human relationships across levels, not just through mobilizing support on the micro level.
As a social justice worker, there are many opportunities to demonstrate the values and principles of the NASW Code of Ethics within schools. This is especially important in Detroit, in which activists and community members have advocated for better quality schools for African American students (Mirel, 1999). The school is part of a movement to re-imagine Detroit, and strives to unite a diverse group of people into that vision.
What is your assessment of your ability to engage in practice within your area of interest?
Within praxis, between action and critical reflection, reflection can often be easier for me than action. Reflective supervision with my field supervisor has been helpful to her and the school, but in terms of creating deliverables, I feel like I have a long way to go. Trying to act on this community interview project has been something like stumbling through a fog for me, an incredibly frustrating position to be in when also trying to meet deadline. It has certainly been a learning experience, and an incredibly humbling process. Learning to have compassion for myself, to take time to care for personal needs and be okay with the messiness of confronting limitations and developing new skills, has been more of the journey here than anything that I could give to the school and its community. But as an intern at the school for a brief amount of time, that is the expectation, and if I don’t exceed it at the present moment, it’s not going to be the end of the world, or the end of the school. Ultimately, I am one person and in communities and social systems, it’s really not all on me to succeed. Each member plays their part, and that really, truly, can be enough.