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Helping In the Midst of Our Hurt

As the CEO of a nonprofit organization, I’ve spent years working with staff members navigating through crises – struggling to make sense of the unimaginable while engaging in healthy dialogue to try and understand other points of view.

The events of October 7 and the aftermath have certainly been no exception. Once again, I am confronted with watching many of our staff members wrestle with what it means to work for a Jewish organization. The expectation, and my belief as well, was that we needed to address this as part of our work life and create a safe space for all points of view to be shared – and there were many!

This led me to reflect on my own social work background – particularly my graduate school days at Columbia University. Back then, mental health was my official “concentration” with a focus on clinical health: learning to assess and counsel individuals, groups, and families.

A large part of my education was spent understanding the role a person’s emotional challenges play in the struggles that they face.  While I developed an appreciation for the systems in place around healthcare, housing, mental health, and more, I also began to see clear inequities in service and access to care which led me to pursue a career in mental health care. A part of my experience as a social worker has been around meeting clients where they are and helping them reclaim agency (and freedom) in their lives. This requires empathy, active listening, clear communication, authenticity, transparency: qualities that are developed and nurtured over time and, it turns out, essential tools when it comes to leading an organization.

With that in mind, I worry about the changes I’m seeing in today’s schools of social work. In many cases, there seems to be a pre-determined definition of the oppressed in our society – with little to no room for dialogue around the many ways individuals can experience marginalization and/or trauma.

I’m also growing increasingly concerned that we are collectively losing the ability to hear different perspectives in a respectful way. Those who have been raised with more privilege (which is a subjective definition in and of itself!) are often told they will never be able to understand one who has been marginalized. In fact, some are even told that they have no business being in social work because they will never understand.

But in a field where each person’s trauma is truly defined by their own experiences, where is this leaving room for each individual’s path and unique struggles?

When the events of October 7 unfolded, and I saw my own staff hurting and divided, I arranged for two facilitators from the Penn Center for Restorative Justice to host support groups. I wanted to create a safe place for colleagues to spend time together, to listen to and provide support for each other.

Shortly before these safe and supportive  groups commenced, I was having coffee with my Board Chair and discussing my reasons for hosting these sessions, when a young woman sitting next to us leaned over and expressed how remarkable it was that our organization was facilitating these discussions. It turned out that she was a social work student at a local university, and she wished that her school would provide opportunities for students to discuss their political differences in a supportive and safe way. I found this remarkable.  If we are not teaching our future social workers how to hold space for differences, what are we teaching them?

As our students (and future social workers) venture out into the world as direct service workers, advocacy specialists, and administrators, I hope they do so while placing value on differing points of view – even when they differ vastly from their own experiences. Effective communication and active listening are tools that are essential to model in the midst of differences of opinion and a diversity of life experiences.

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