I was thinking back about my first few weeks officially “doing social work.” Specifically, I was remembering back to the first time I hit THE perimeter-the place when you realize as a helper that you cannot “make it okay” for everyone experiencing suffering that comes into your life.
I was 23. I was halfway through completing my MSW degree at Jane Addams College of Social Work. Of course that meant I was also completing my practicum hours. Working at a grassroots community center on the Westside of the city was a phenomenally eye opening experience. Coming from the culturally homogenous rural area of Eastern Oregon to practicing social work in a minority-majority community in Chicago, I obviously learned a lot of lessons and skills that contributed to a more well rounded practice experience. I also got a lot of practice bumping up against the edge of help I could provide and was left, almost every day, feeling that what I could provide was so inadequate to what I wanted to be able to do.
I wanted to make magic happen for people, and while sometimes magical moments did happen, I had to come to terms with being ok with saying “I did my best today, if nothing more.”
It was in this context, that I experienced one of the major differences between rural and urban poverty. Urban poverty is exposed. It’s in your face. The sheer density of persons means there is literally less space to experience poverty in privacy. For a social worker, rural poverty is actually very difficult for this reason, because to engage with someone you must first find them-out in that secluded encampment or on the riverbank covered in dense brush-but mostly if a person in a rural area doesn’t want to be found by a social services worker, they won’t be. You have to develop eyes to see poverty in a rural community.
Coming from this background, it was jarring to live in Chicago. I felt at times that I was surrounded by suffering- on my walk to work, at work, at my internship,in my neighborhood, going to class, coming home from class…I had to find my perimeter. I had to learn that I couldn’t react to every situation of suffering I encountered. There was just too much.
On my way home from class around 11 one night, I was bundled against a frigid wind waiting at the blue line stop for my “L” train. I began a conversation with a women sitting on the platform. I was 23. She was 22. We were both fairly new to the city and we both talked about our boyfriends, we were similar in a lot of ways-except that she was pregnant. And, she was living under that “L” train platform. Sure, I had a crap apartment-with sporadic heat, no hot water, and some infestation problems (still can’t help but cringe at cockroaches) but our lives were night and day.
Unlike me, she didn’t have friends or family. She didn’t have safety, stability, food, warmth and 1,000 other things she needed. When my train pulled up and I left her there, I felt so low. What was the point of an MSW degree if I couldn’t help Megan?
After that, I always came prepared with something for Megan. Snacks, socks, gloves… we also had a conversation about getting WIC, nearby shelters and getting on the city’s master housing waitlist-the Chicago Central Referral System (CRS). But, it never felt like enough. I had to wrestle with my perimeter every time I saw her. To be honest, I still do most days.
I think the discomfort of hitting up against your perimeter as a helper is both something one has to come to terms with to remain in the social work profession, and it is also a gift. It is a reminder of a vision – what we as a community (whatever community you live in) need to be doing better. In my vision for community, Megan has a safe place to have her baby and live her life to the fullest. I strive for that while learning not to be paralyzed by suffering.
If you have mastered this, you’re already my hero-drop me a line.