In organizing, our causes and tactics may vary, but every effective movement begins with personal narrative. As Elie Wiesel once said, “people become the stories they hear and the stories they tell.” When we tell our stories, we give our struggles a name and a face and invite others to be part of our fight.
I’ve wanted to be a social worker for most of my life. When I was a freshman in high school, my history teacher told us stories of his time as a Peace Corps volunteer. I was hooked on the idea that someone could dedicate their lives to helping others; as I grew older, I realized that social workers did the same thing, only here in our country. I envisioned myself working with troubled youth as a case manager or a counselor, something where I could make a difference in someone else’s life, and I went off to college with that goal.
A month after graduation, I started working with kids in the juvenile justice system. I counseled teenagers who had been placed on house arrest as an alternative to juvenile detention. The clients were great. The job, however, was not at all what I expected. I got into social work because I wanted to help clients make changes in their lives, but everywhere I turned, all I found was barrier after barrier. One of my clients, a fifteen-year-old girl, resisted talking to me for weeks. One day, we had an emotional breakthrough. She agreed to start talking to a therapist about what she was going through. The problem: her mom refused to pay the copay for the visits. She could afford it, but she wouldn’t pay “one red cent” for treatment she didn’t think her daughter needed.
I was livid. I called her probation officer, I talked to the mom directly, I talked to everybody I could think of to try and get this kid some help. I ended up in my area supervisor’s office, insisting that there had to be something we could do. While she wasn’t unsympathetic, she shrugged her shoulders and said: “It is what it is, y’know?” And I swear to you, I have never hated a phrase in the English language more than I hated “it is what it is” in that moment in time.
I got laid of from that job because of funding issues. “It is what it is.” Kids lose their teacher. “It is what it is.” Legislators try to deprive people of their right to vote. “It is what it is.” ETCETC.
But here’s the thing. Things are what they are because people made them that way. But to paraphrase the great Nelson Mandela, our problems are not natural. They are man made. And if they are made by people, they can be fixed by people. Fixing them is called justice.
All around me, I see people who are refusing to accept that things just are what they are. Some of them caught the justice bug in their teens, some did it in college, some on the job. Our stories aren’t identical, but they have a common theme. That moment when we know that things can change and we’re ready to be part of making in happen. We don’t accept barriers at face value, and if our neighbor is suffering, we don’t let them go it alone. As the chant goes, “what do we do?” “Stand up! Fight back!”
Carrie Hallum is an intern at One Pittsburgh working on a dual masters in social work and public administration. Her blogs are dedicated to sharing her journey through social work and social justice here in Pittsburgh.