Category Archives: Work

I’m a Social Worker, Not a Stereotype

I'M A SOCIAL WORKERBack in the early 1990’s when I worked for the WV AIDS Program, some people assumed I was a lesbian.

Now that I work for Catholic Charities, some people assume I’m Catholic.

Neither assumption ever bothered me even though they were wrong.

But when people make assumptions about social workers, I have a deep-seated desire to say “Dammit Jim, I’m a social worker not a stereotype.”

I don’t believe that giving handouts will save the world. I don’t believe that I have to hug and empathize with everyone I encounter. And most of all, I don’t believe anyone with a good heart can do my job.

In reality, most social workers I know don’t believe in just giving handouts. We also know that if we don’t provide people with the basic resources they need, they certainly aren’t going to be able or open to making tough decisions that may help them improve their circumstances.. What social workers do believe is that people can change and that we should never give up on anyone. We also believe that no one is more important or more “worthy” than any other person. Most of all, we believe that people are responsible for their own lives. Sometimes. they simply need more support to accomplish their goals.

Also, in contrast to popular opinion, not every social worker has a warm and fuzzy personality. We don’t see life through rose-colored glasses and we don’t always see the best in people. We realize that some people survive by scamming others, that there are individuals who will do their best to “manipulate” the system and that there are people who are just plain lazy. We also know that not everyone had the advantages of growing up in a family that treasured children, respected boundaries and believed in delayed gratification. Poverty isn’t just about lack of money but about lack of support. Being able to provide that support is what motivates us.

Most of all, not just anyone can do our jobs. This past week, I was in a meeting with an individual who helps low-income families. As she gave her report, the fact that she is not a social worker became obvious. She was discussing a situation in which an individual didn’t want to complete an application for assistance without his friend.

“Maybe he couldn’t read,” I suggested.

“Oh, no,” she said. “I’ve had people tell me they couldn’t read. He didn’t say that. He just said he wanted to wait for his friend before he completed the form.”

I wanted to scream. I’m pretty sure the other social workers in the room also wanted to scream but didn’t. That’s  
because social workers try very hard to be non-judgmental. And sometimes we fail miserably. I should know. T
here have been so many times over the past few years when I’ve wanted to scream at people who think doing nice things for poor people is social work. Being nice to low-income people has nothing to do with social work, which requires a college degree and a license. Many social workers help low-income people, but their job is not to be nice (although most are). Their job is to help individuals and families help themselves.

So instead of screaming, I strategize. I think about how we can engage low-income, middle class and wealthy individuals in supporting those who are struggling. I think about how we can educate all people about inequality. Most of all, I think about what I can do to convince everyone that all people matter.

And then, I act.

Because that’s what social workers do.

It’s Hard to Get Respect When Your Shoes Are Worn Out

I love shoes.

Unfortunately, I wear out shoes quickly. Very quickly.  And, I’ve found that when my shoes are worn out, I have to fight even harder to get respect.

I’m not sure that people who work in the for-profit world will understand, but anyone who works for a community-based nonprofit organization will – especially those who work for social service agencies.  Our shoes , just like us, are  often worked  and worn to the bone.

We  are a unique breed that must band together. Our biggest battles aren’t necessarily a result of working directly with the people who need help or of the perception that they are undeserving, lazy or simply crazy.

Sometimes, our biggest battles are with people who support our organization, a cause or a specific project.

I should know.

For almost twenty years, I’ve worked for community-based nonprofit organizations.  And while the work is exhausting, it’s also meaningful and educational.

But now, my career path is about to change slightly, so before I leave my comrades, I feel the need to share a few words of wisdom with our board members, our volunteers and our donors:

1.  We greatly appreciate you. We know the work we do wouldn’t be possible without you. We know you care, and we know you are compassionate.

2.  Your compassion doesn’t mean you are qualified to do our jobs.

3.  We do our jobs because we are both compassionate AND skilled.

4. Your bank account doesn’t mean that you know more about the issues than we do. Not only do we have the training and the work experience, many of us work in the trenches because we have ” been there.”  Sometimes, because of our salaries, we are still there. Please listen to us.

5. Don’t assume you are more educated than we are. Most nonprofit and social services jobs require, at a minimum, a bachelor’s degree for a position that often doesn’t pay as much as an entry-level, administrative assistant job in the business world.

6.  Don’t assume that our ONLY motivation is helping people. That’s a primary motivation, but we still need to pay the bills. Keeping agency administrative costs low is important, but keeping them too low may be hurting the people who are trying to do the most good. It may also limit your pool for people who can fill key leadership positions.

7. Don’t assume that staff doesn’t care about salary and benefits (or lack thereof) because we have spouses/partners who, in your eyes, have”a real job.” The work we do is “ a real job.” Many of our jobs require a license.  The helping profession is bound by ethical, legal and professional practices that have been put in place for a reason.

8. Don’t assume that just because we don’t get personally involved with clients that we don’t care. We probably care more than you will ever know. But because we are educated in our field and because we often hold a license, we have to behave in a professional manner that will limit liability while improving outcomes for the client.

9. We know that when you work with our organizations you are volunteering, and we appreciate your time more than you will ever know.  But don’t assume we are lazy or not committed to the cause because, at the end of the work day, we don’t have the energy to volunteer to do the same thing we do day in and day out.

10.  Disregarding staff in times of key leadership decisions only leads to poor morale. When a key staff person is leaving, other staff members should be consulted as to what skills and leadership style would fit with the team before the selection process even begins. Staff should even be consulted about their interest in a leadership position.

11. The nonprofit and social service sector is composed primarily of females.  Falling back on the “good old boys” network for leadership is taking a step backwards, not forwards. It doesn’t sit well with female staff, donors or volunteers.

12. Board members have to play an active role and not simply serve as a rubber stamp for decisions that may have been presented by someone with an agenda. You can always go back to the drawing board – don’t feel like your options are limited to what is presented to you at a board meeting.

These words of advice are based on my long-term work for community nonprofits.  That work will end when I walk out the door of my current employer this Friday and into the door of my new employer the following Monday.

As would be expected, my departure has led to an appreciation I never knew existed (see suggestions Number 10 and 11).

So for all the people who, over the past few weeks, have told me that I’m leaving some  really  big shoes to fill, I apologize if I haven’t accepted the compliment with grace.

It’s not that I don’t appreciate the sentiments.  I just know my shoes are really worn out.

Whoever takes my job not only needs to put on their own pair of shoes, they also have the opportunity to point those shoes in their own direction.

And I’m sure that direction will lead to a lot of great accomplishments.

It’s Not an Afternoon, or a Morning or Any Other Delight

I’ve never considered myself a snob.  Not an “I want to feel more important than someone else” snob, or a food snob or a music snob.

Especially not a music snob.  How could I  be when you can find me listening to just about anything on my Ipod? And when I say anything, I really do mean anything.  The music  on my beloved Ipod ranges from musical theater to punk and just about everything in between.

But even I, the person who knows all the lyrics to every song in  the musical “Oklahoma,” have my limits.

And they were reached this week at the local Sheetz station.

I admit that I generally enjoy the music playing over the speakers while I pump gas.  It tends to be fairly retro, so I can happily sing along to the Eagles or Lynard Skynard or  Bob Segar while ignoring the dollar amounts flying by on the gas pump.

I used to think it was a great marketing strategy dreamed up by someone half my age: “Play old-time music, and those middle-aged people with their gas-guzzling SUV’s will be so distracted they won’t care about the cost of gas. They might even buy a made-to-order food item because they aren’t paying attention to the cost.”

I was wrong.  Either that, or someone who developed the playlist for Sheetz had absolutely no clue what they were doing.

Because  this time, as I swiped my debit card, I heard the strains of a song that took me back – but not in a good way.  Instead, it was more like a fingernails scraping on a blackboard way.  (For those of you who don’t know what a blackboard is – it’s the prehistoric version of a smart board.)

At first, I couldn’t believe I was actually hearing it.  “Gonna f ind my baby gonna hold her tight. Gonna grab some afternoon delight. My motto has always been when it’s right it right. Why wait until the middle of the cold dark night.”

Really? It was only 7:30 in the morning and I was taking my 13-year old son to school.

Instead of putting me in a good mood, the song was irritating me. Really irritating me. Because, even though I don’t like the song, I know the words. So when I went inside to buy a coffee, I actually found myself singing along.

Singing along to one of the most obnoxious songs in history.

I tried voicing my complaint about the music selection to the clerk, but she gave me a completely blank stare, ignored my complaint and asked if I needed anything else. When I told her that what I really  needed was for her to change the music, I got another blank stare.

So I reverted to my only other option.

I posted my complaint about the music on Facebook.

By the time I got to the office, there were several comments about my Facebook post, including one trying to convince me the song was actually about the menu at a restaurant and not about an afternoon tryst. But others were eager to set that person straight.  And while I appreciated the support, none of the comments were helping get the song out of my head. It was just there.. repeating over and over again.

And since I was suffering, I felt the need to make others suffer. So, I brought the song up on an office computer and made my co-worker listen to it.

Not only was she not happy, but my boss, who had been in  an executive committee meeting, took that exact moment to leave the meeting and come into our office. He sauntered over to the computer and asked what I was doing.

What could I say? There, in all its glory  was the Starland Vocal Band, singing about  rubbing  sticks and stones together and making sparks ignite. If the lyrics weren’t bad enough, the band members’ horrible hair and the bell-bottoms were.

My boss glanced at my computer and said, “Hey, I remember that kind of music,” then walked away.

I decided Facebook was safer. I clicked off the video and back onto Facebook. I decided to “like” the comment from the person who said she thought she saw a blog coming on.

And, to her credit, there was.

Want to Be Successful? Try Living United Rather Than Living Divided

There are a lot of ways to define success.  My definition often depends on my mood and on the balance in my check book.

But most of the time, I fall back on the definition that just seems to make the most sense:  Success isn’t measured by the size of your bank account, by the number of people who admire you (or who fear you) or by the number of awards you’ve received. Success is defined by the positive difference you make in the lives of others.

I say that because I am extremely fortunate to be surrounded by successful people. These are people who humble me. People who make me want to be a better person. People who give far more than anyone would ever expect, and in many cases, far more than I am capable of giving myself.

I’m more than simply fortunate. I’m down right grateful. If it weren’t for these successful people, I couldn’t do my job.

For those of you who don’t know what I do, you aren’t alone. I’m not sure my husband even knows what I do.

Sometimes I tell people that I work in the community to address health and human service issues. Sometimes I tell people that I get to spend the money that others raise for the United Way of the Eastern Panhandle.  And sometimes I tell people that I herd cats.

But none of those simple descriptions defines the scope of my job:  every day, I get to work with a wide variety of community members who simply want to make a difference in the lives of others. And I get the privilege of watching them succeed.

During this past  week, when some of these committed volunteers were deliberating over the best way to invest donor dollars, an article that mentioned that United Way of the Eastern Panhandle was published in our local paper, the Martinsburg Journal. Twenty years ago, this article would have simply been an account of an event . But, thanks to the internet, people can now anonymously express their opinion about every article. Or the content of every article. Or their perceived content of every article. Or about any person, business, or organization mentioned in the article.

In this case, people took the opportunity to bash the United Way.  The comments ranged from claiming the United Way is a racist organization to claiming that we use donor dollars inefficiently. For anyone familiar with the United Way of the Eastern Panhandle, these individuals obviously don’t understand the organization. Or more importantly, they don’t understand WHO the United Way is.  Most likely, they don’t care.

While the internet has added so many wonderful opportunities — from  social networks that let us re-connect with people from our past to a wide variety of information at our fingertips – – it also provides the opportunity for people to hide behind anonymous names and cruelly attack just about anything and anyone. Not only do they spew their negativity as though they were are an authority on the subject of they day, but they seem to take pride when others take the bait.    And, unfortunately, these people mistakenly believe they are thriving.  But they aren’t – – quite the opposite, in fact.

Thriving  people are those  who spend their time and energy building others up  rather than tearing others down.  The kind of people who I’m surrounded by every day:

  •  Staff and volunteers who work for nonprofit, service and faith-based  partner organizations, and who have such  passion for a cause that they often put the  needs of the organization and the clients above their own.
  • Community members who raise dollars that are used to make a measurable difference in the lives of others, such as a  local businessperson who continues to ask for donations despite being turned down again and again and again.
  • Individuals who donate what they can, even when they are struggling to make ends meet.   These are people who, even when they don’t  have an extra penny in their pocket, will hold a fundraiser so they can still give something.  (Interesting, studies have shown that lower income people give a larger percentage of their income to charity than do the rich .  Some experts think this is because they have needed help or have a family member or friend who has received assistance, and they know how important giving back is.)

These are the most successful people I know.  Because, despite the size of their bank account, despite their educational status and despite the number of times they’ve been criticized, they are making their little corner of the world a lot  better.

And, ironically, they are so busy doing the right thing, they don’t have any time to do the wrong thing… or to post anonymous, critical  comments online.