Conversation and Dialogue in Social Work Education
The path from neighborhood to subway to the re-zoned and rapidly transforming downtown Brooklyn neighborhood where our campus sits can be a precarious one. It is worth contemplating, as it informs the kinds of experiences our students bring into their education as social workers. Just a stone's throw from the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, it connects students' lives, from their homes, to the bus routes and subway rides. It marks a path between the spacial inequalities of the streets through cultural and political histories of the residents of our global city. Some of our students are immigrants; others have been here generations. Our classroom is a microcosm of the city, a living lab stretching from our campus to Bedford Stuyvesant, Fort Green, Gowanus, and the South Bronx, from Wall Street to City Hall, and back to the waterfront, where ships once sailed, factories created jobs and pollution, and today people enjoy riding bikes and playing while contending with the violence that is still part ofliving here. For many of our students, their lives and life stories are drawn from eastern Europe, the Caribbean, South America, and East Asia. The space around our campus, our students' lives, and their engagement in human services tells a story that is anything but linear. This space also applies to faculty, connecting them with students. After all, faculty end up in the same classroom, the same university, many of the same special inequalities at the same time, with equal access to that often uneven space between classroom, university, and the street. Yet, as a part of a post welfare neoliberal city, we are all impacted by the changes between the campus and community, the city and government, Wall Street and civil society. Through each class, we discuss how this is transpiring, as we share through dialogue.
I teach in the Human Services Department at City Tech, an undergraduate senior college at the City University of New York, where I have taught associate- and baccalaureate-level students for 7 years after a career as a social worker working in harm reduction and AIDS-based settings. Throughout campaigns from Chicago to Atlanta, San Francisco to the South Bronx, Yonkers to the Lower East Side of Manhattan, my activism connected struggles to save community gardens, with efforts to secure housing, nonpolluting transportation, reproductive autonomy, freedom from police abuses, AIDS medications, and global justice, bridging a gap between direct action and direct services, social movements and social programs (Shepard, 2014). Here, seemingly dispersant movements and issues were somehow linked, if only we listened with openness to making connections.
I bring this perspective to the classroom, beginning every class by asking students what brought them to this place in their lives where they would like to take part in efforts to secure a better life for others. I invite them to share their motivations and histories, and I help them to bring these stories into our classroom and their subsequent practice, transforming this experience into lessons for their work. Throughout each class, students are charged to take on the complicated circumstances of urban poverty, organizing, community development, as well as services provision. Here, students are given the opportunity to compare their hopes and desires with the realities of life in the streets of New York's neighborhoods.
Students are charged to become reflective practitioners as described by Schon (1987), connecting doing and thinking, participant observation and engagement, theory and practice (Freire, 2000; Gramsci, 1971). In order to deserve Schon's designation, students are asked to contemplate their lives and history vis-a-vis their chosen profession. Not a static place or a one-time destination, reflective practice is a dynamic, ongoing developmental progression. To get there, students are asked to connect the pulsing work taking place in neighborhoods and communities with their budding development as practitioners. This interplay between the streets and classroom infuses vitality into their practice. This dialogue begins with the individual and the class, connecting self, culture, and other. This analytic third reminds practitioners that culture is always in the room, inviting students to step away from detachment toward engagement as participant observers of their own practice (Sullivan, 1954).
Here, students are asked to make sense ofwho they are, where they come from, how they are reacting to their clients, and the struggles they encounter. Learning to notice and pay attention to the culture becomes a critical part of the unfolding dialogue. While faculty and student live in story with community, with each other, the aim of each class is to integrate awareness of the interactions between self, culture, and other, building their story as the guiding concept. Students are encouraged to see their story in relationship to others while recognizing that storytelling involves a reciprocal process of empathy and active listening, opening new directions for alternative narratives of their and their clients' lives (Cohler, 1982).
Contemplating the biopsychosocial-spiritual functioning of each client, students must make sense of who their clients are, how they feel about them, and what connects and separates their lives and needs. This holistic perspective charges students with contemplating their whole lives in relationship to their social work education. Sitting in a circle, each class takes shape as a conversation and exercise in reflective practice. This is a pedagogy that engages the whole self, connecting bodies and ideas, awareness of difference, with culture, ambition, jobs, stories about where we come from, and what we aspire to be. At best, each class is a conversation. This chapter explores the concept of dialogue in social work education, in relationship to holistic social work practice, conversation, community engagement, and the ways we connect awareness of our whole lives with our practice.