MSW, CSW. Community Practice Social Worker

What are we willing to do to solve a problem?

As change agents, what is our role and how can we move to respond to the moment we are in with so much violence and grief? What are we willing to do to solve a problem?

a sign that reads "emergency signal stop on red" hangs on a line between two traffic lights against a blue sky

We have check-in prompts in our live sessions for classes. Some of them are like “what is one of your favorite summer activities?” or “pick a fictional character that describes your desired leadership style?” Others are more like “there should be a law…” and it can be serious (like “there should be a law that all utilities are free”) or more playful (like “there should be a law that you can’t just call anything you want ‘gumbo’”). Still others are like tonight’s check-in for my planning and implementing social change course, which was something to the tune of this (I’m paraphrasing):

Given what is going on in our country (Uvalde, Buffalo, Laguna Woods…), what is our role, what are we to do as change agents on a community level and the individual level? If you’re in the room with some influence, what can you do?

And we were given a few minutes off camera to think about it, to try to make sense of our place within all this and how to move forward. We weren’t asked to fix it now. Just how we can use ourselves in this moment (this moment we always seem to be in) for good. I imagined, as I looked at the black rectangles of my teacher and classmates off-camera and jotted down notes of what I could think, I imagined that we were all wrestling with this on multiple levels, in multiple ways. Because we are supposedly change agents. And we are parents, aunts, friends, spouses, community members who have seen this play out over and over again.

Then we came back on camera. And I think it’s safe to say, I was correct in my belief that we all struggled with it. I know I did. I won’t share the words of my classmates or teacher (though they were all useful, heartfelt, needed). I will share what came to me in that short time. It actually began coming to me right before class. I was considering that I don’t know how to grieve these things anymore, that we are not afforded space to grieve in a barrage (we have to claim it anyway), that I have wept and written letters and fought my shadow and shut it out and shut it in and tried to escape for a minute and held on tighter. I had a tab in my browser open to this week’s assigned reading – a chapter called “Powerful Planning” from a book titled Promoting Community Change: Making It Happen in the Real World. A bolded section heading grabbed my eye: Belief that Plans Won’t Have an Impact on Decision Making. Speaking directly to this long moment.

This section said that many of us have had that experience where you go into a planning process and the person in charge asks everyone for ideas and acts like “I’m listening, taking notes” and you feel like “okay, so we’re going to do this stuff!” Then that person turns around and ignores what you all came up with and does whatever they want. So you carry with you this sense that whatever you input, whatever you contribute: It doesn’t. @$!& !$*. Matter. Because the people in control are gonna do what they want anyway no matter how it negatively impacts others or doesn’t produce the desired outcomes. That lives in my flesh.

So I said my role on the individual level is, if I’m in those rooms, I have to create space where people feel listened to and can trust they actually have some ownership of the planning process and decision-making. Not just hope they have a say and get let down again. Really have a say. I have to value the information I ask for and apply it.

Another header was Defining the Problem in Terms of the Solution. That’s a mistake we all make at some point where we believe a particular thing should happen so we consider the absence of it the problem. Instead of sitting with the weight of and agreeing upon the actual problem, we skip to our proposed solutions as being the problem because they haven’t been implemented. The example in the reading was “children in your neighborhood are threatened by cars speeding down a busy street they must cross on their way to school. This is something the neighborhood takes action on.” It goes on to say someone chimes in that the problem is there’s no streetlight at the intersection and people agree when actually “the problem is that your kids may get killed.” In defining the problem as the lack of a streetlight and resting on that “you will close yourself off from thinking about any other approach to achieving your goal.” And the goal, after all, is keeping kids from getting hurt or killed.

The example was vivid and almost too close home at any moment in modern American history. It reminded me that throwing around solutions as problems then leaving the problem unimpeded (because decision-makers are doing whatever the &!*@ they want anyway) because someone got the outcome they wanted is how we do. “The problem is there are not enough guns!… The problem is there are too many guns!… The problem is we shouldn’t make it hard to get a gun!… The problem is it’s easy to get a gun!…. The problem is we need police in schools!… The problem is teachers need guns!… The problem is mental health in this country is bad!… The problem is everything is pathologized!… The problem is police need money!… The problem is police have sooo much money!… The problem is communities need money!… The problem is places don’t have enough security!… The problem is security can’t do anything against someone outfitted for war!… The problem is radicalization!… The problem is free speech is being threatened!….

I agree with parts after “the problem is” in many of those claims and vehemently disagree with many of them as well. And, to my mind, the central problem of this particular thing is PEOPLE KEEP GETTING KILLED. At schools, churches, grocery stores, concerts – people keep getting killed. And that ties in to many other massive problems (we can and do have multiple problems simultaneously) like poor mental health, too much corporate/lobbyist money and influence in politics, courts that seem to serve the personal interests of a few (including people sitting on them), poor media ethics, social stratification, white supremacy, and more. Yet to address any one of these problems when it is on the table, we have to focus on that problem, bear its weight and meaning, and ask “What are we willing to do to solve it?” And “put up a streetlight” can’t be the only answer up for serious consideration. Not when, as the reading suggests, speed bumps and crossing bridges also exist.

What are we willing to do to stop people from getting killed?

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