FROM THE DARK WOODS TO OUR OWN STORIES
Throughout most of my classes, I ask students to reflect on their own lives in relation to larger social forces, connecting the dots between their own stories with the narratives of their clients and communities. C. Wright Mills (1959) described such thinking as moving from personal troubles to public problems. Social workers describe such a process as moving from case to cause (Reisch, 1987). This thinking overlaps with core components of holistic social work practice, including presence with the whole self, and the individual's awareness of and interaction with the historical and current physical, social, and energetic environment. (See Chapter 2.)
For many of my classes, the step from individual awareness begins with in-class reflection and poetry. Such writing and cultural work helps make visceral breakthroughs more possible, connecting head and heart (Kahn, 1995). In my field practicum class, required of all undergraduate students, I ask students to read and write a small reaction to the first canto from Dante's Inferno (Alighieri, 1954):
Midway in our life's journey, I went astray From the straight road and woke to find myself Alone in a dark wood. (p. 28)
This short paragraph is usually enough to spark an inspired conversation about students' lives and struggles. Some students talk about what they did when they found themselves alone in dark woods or lost from their lives. Some describe moments when they lost partners or suffered abuse. Others talk about the need for empathy with others who may have lost their way, increasing their empathy about the feeling of being off track or astray.
Other classes, such as community organization, charge students with exploring the resources in their communities, connecting their own experiences of neighborhood life with larger policy debates and challenges. Along the way, some students find a path from their own feeling of being lost toward a closer engagement with the community. At least this was the case for a student who recently took community organization. The first assignment in the community charges students with going out to attend a meeting in their community and report back on the meeting. Sometimes students go to tenant meetings in their buildings or Occupy events (Writers for the 99%, 2011). Usually, they attend a community board meeting, as one student, Stephanie Samuals (2014) did, in between struggling with her own health issues. Here, she describes a meeting she attended in Brownsville, her own Brooklyn neighborhood:
Up until September 2013, I have to admit that it was not a community which I would say I was proud to claim. It's dirty, and aside from learning what it means to grow up struggling and always looking over your shoulder hoping you were not going to be the victim of the next violent attack, or a case of “wrong place, wrong time,”
I couldn't really see what it has to offer anyone. It's what any urban society would call a ghetto. I don't mean to sound shallow, but to me, Brownsville was like the halfway house. It was the place you stop in to get your life together until you can do bigger better things. Well, boy was I wrong. On this particular Tuesday evening of September 24, 2013, I attended my first Brownsville Community Board Meeting.
I went there with no intention of learning anything; it was just a class assignment I had to get done. As I sat there, I looked around and saw that the community knew and recognized each other. It seemed clear they realized how important the meeting was. The place was packed and people were even standing because the place ran out of seats. (p. 73)
There, Samuels saw a world of ideas, debates, and stories take shape in front of her eyes. In short, she found a community in which she could take part. She described what she took away:
The Community Board meeting opened my eyes to things in a way that I never
thought about before. I realized that Brownsville is a diamond mine. You don't just find a few diamonds here and there hidden around the neighborhood. They're everywhere—you don't really even have to look. At this meeting, there were so many educated people. These people included parents, teachers, retired people, business people, and even other college students. I didn't realize that so many people took such an active role in the attempt to live in and create a better Brooklyn. Until I attended this Community Board meeting, I think that though I lived in Brownsville,
I was just like any other outsider looking in. And as the chairperson, Mrs. Bettie Kollock-Wallace, closed on that night I will now end by saying “Peace Out.”
Stephanie Samuels, 1987-2014 (p. 73)
The bitter irony of this hopeful narrative is that Stephanie Samuels would only live for a few months after that community board meeting, the report of which was posthumously published in the school literary journal with her family's permission. But the community board assignment created a new narrative for her, offering a way out of a lonely space, perhaps a dark wood, into a welcoming community.