Hull House: Inspiration and Warning

Hello Friends- whether active in social work or considering the profession, I hope we can use the internet for it’s best purpose-to connect and share meaningful ideas.

Now it is only fitting that the first post on this blog should center around Jane Addams, the mother of Social Work and the first American woman to receive the Nobel Peace Prize. Like Jane Addams, and many of you I am sure, I am driven by an idealism which imagines a world in which “the good” is “secured for all of us.”

“The good we secure for ourselves is precarious and uncertain until it is secured for all of us and incorporated into our common life.”
― Jane Addams (Twenty Years at Hull House)

I would often reflect on the  life and work of Jane Addams as I was working towards my MSW at University of Illinois in Chicago, Jane Addams College of Social Work (more on my experiences of social work in Chicago to come). As I would exit the blue line train at the UIC stop, I would pass the historic Hull House each day on my way to class. I would think about how every inch of that street was saturated with the history that has made social work what it is today.

In my curiosity, I pulled Addam’s book Twenty Years at Hull House from the library. While I recommend the full read, I’ll tell you that I felt an immediate kinship with this woman who passed out of the world more than 50 years before my time. We had a similar origin story into the social work world. Addams witnessed a scene of grueling poverty as burned and scarred women carried boiling brew down the streets of London, being scalded as they worked for a beer brewer. The injustice of the scene awoke the spirit of social work. For me, it was when I first witnessed homelessness in my small, rural, town in Eastern Oregon. The scene of the man I met sleeping along the Umatilla River, shocked something inside of me awake.

Do any of you have a moment that awoke the spirit of social work for you?

The second element of kinship was the call to give myself to an usual degree (measured by the norms of society at the time) to rectify or make better the situation that caused the awakening. For Addams, it was the conditions of Chicago tenements. For me, homelessness, along with the isolation and detrimental life effects that come with lacking the basic need of safe housing. I say to an unusual degree, because one looks around and sees that mainstream society has accepted these issues as a given. Therefore, if one steps out to drastically improve the living conditions of a Chicago tenement or end homelessness to a degree that may effect “the good” one is able to have for oneself, one will often be alone and told that one has simply not accepted the facts about life yet.

Addam’s book still remains so strongly in my thoughts because she demonstrates that social workers should not forget that at it’s birth social work was a revolution. It was  revolutionary because Addams chose to do something with her life that did not compute with the realities of her time. Are social worker’s today committed to this same revolutionary spirit or are we more interested in maintenance and compliance of current systems even when they may not serve those most vulnerable in the best way?

The hard truth that Addams shows us through her example, is that to produce extraordinary change, one must be willing to break with what is expected and may be expected to give of self to an extraordinary degree.

 

The warning of Hull  House is that our work must also be tempered and grounded in the reality that often times we are outsiders, with no personal contact, to the  social issues that awaken our spirit. I was awoken by homelessness, yet I have never experienced a night on the streets. Addams was awoken by the hunger and poverty she saw on the streets of London, yet she was a wealthy white woman of education and privilege. As one of my favorite feminists, Eleanor Humes Haney wrote, “charity is a luxury.” Social worker’s should take care to understand that their role as a “giver” should be understood as a luxury and not touted as a something pointing to our own personal goodness.

How do we remain true to our own experience and simultaneously to the service called for by the realities that awaken us to the change we seek. I believe this is one of the central questions social workers must wrestle with. Have you found a path to walk between these two equally important truths?

Read Twenty Years at Hull House Here

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socialworkcompanionblog

An MSW growing in the profession, working in rural Oregon.

2 thoughts on “Hull House: Inspiration and Warning”

  1. Yes- the critique of Addams is that she has elements of the “white savior” complex. But I like how you highlighted what there is to be learned from her.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Jodi- that is definitely the balance I was speaking of. Knowing that you are an outsider and being true to that but also being true to the experience that “awoke your spirit of social work.”

    Like

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