Friday, 11 April 2014

Relationships, Crossing Cultures and Social Work

By: USP Social Work Coordinator, Lisa Tokpa

I have had a lot of humbling experiences during my social work career.  One such experience happened within my first year with International Justice Mission (IJM) as I walked through a Nairobi slum with a client’s grandmother.  I was ready to do a proper, efficient social work assessment – I came prepared to sit with the woman and ask her questions about her granddaughter’s progress, ready to point her towards some Kenyan counselors who we had identified.  Instead I walked with the older woman slowly and in silence (which I’m sure now was much more uncomfortable for me than for her).  Were we going to a confidential meeting point?  I tried to follow the lead of my Kenyan coworker.  The woman pointed out her granddaughter’s school along the way as she greeted friends that walked by.  Once she felt ready, she started talking about the rape of her granddaughter.  I asked some questions as we continued to walk, overlooking miles of corrugated roofs and stepping over sewage.  She went on to share with us that her granddaughter still had nightmares about the incident, but they were getting better.  I questioned in my mind if that was really the case since I knew she was not yet seeing a counselor.  The woman looked at me with her tired face and brightly colored head wrap, and said in Swahili “When she wakes up screaming, I just get down on the floor with her and rock her back and forth, singing hymns until she falls back asleep.”  Humbled, I thought: that is powerful social work.  

During another assessment I came prepared to see how the child was doing psychologically after the trauma of a past assault, but quickly discovered that he hadn’t seen or heard from his mother in several days and hadn’t eaten since then either.  The five-year-old asked me, “Do you have any food?”  This type of scenario happened more than once with IJM clients.  I realized I needed to quickly mobilize a different plan of action in the face of the more immediate needs of many of these young survivors. 

I didn’t do anything overtly wrong or unethical in these situations, but I was confronted with the naivety of my assumptions that I came with as North American social worker.  I don’t think I even had an awareness of my own assumptions that connecting people with resources in this context would mirror more closely what I was used to in my own.  My first few years as a social worker, as with any new professional, were filled with experiences that took my theory-heavy academics to their limit.  I laugh (and sometimes cringe) as I think about times when I used my social work theories and tried to apply it in ways that failed miserably.  Scenes go through my head of going door-to-door to obtain important “community-input and investment” in new initiatives in an apartment complex in Denver, when we were met with only suspicious glares or expletives that are not appropriate for this blog.  

With these failures also came successes, in part, because of those theoretical frameworks and host of internships within my MSW program.  All of this together captures the essence of social work learning; which in my mind is one of the most difficult professions that exists because at its core is relationships – which are sometimes messy and always dynamic.  I’ve learned that the minute we start to get prideful about what we know we step away from being a career-long learner, a core practice behavior within the social work profession. 

One of the reasons I love my role as the Social Work Coordinator with USP is that I get to walk with students through practicum experiences where theory meets practice in hard but incredible ways.  While I appreciate my domestic MSW internships, I envy the learning experiences and cross-cultural insights that USP students gain as a result of their practicums.  I wish I learned the importance of being present with people as a tool for effective social work when I was in college.  I wish I had more aggressively confronted my cultural bias’ including the value and worth we place on accomplishing tasks over showing compassion through relationships.  From my experience working in the US, there is not a shortage of social workers with solid theoretical frameworks of effective interventions.  I have seen a shortage of North American social workers working worldwide that understand the value of relationships as a powerful force of transformation.  I’m proud to be part of a program that doesn’t stop with theories, but builds on them in a dynamic, cross-cultural context that brings forth life-changing insights about what makes social work practice truly effective.

Lisa, far left with the junior and senior Social Work students, spring 2013


Social Work students at their practicum sites....


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