If you say that you want to be a social worker because you want to help people: you should be a crossing guard, or volunteer to rock babies in your local hospital.
Social work is not an easy way to help people. It is messy and hard and sometimes dangerous (if you want to think about the number of times I have has knives pulled on me, guns flashed at me, found people waiting at my car in the parking lot, had my car vandalized). If you don’t factor in the messiness of meddling in the lives of others, then factor in my band aid budget because the paper cuts here are gross.
Social Work requires that you become familiar with all of the “bad” qualities you were told to suppress.
Contrary to everything you learned in polite society – you need to be judgmental. If you can’t swiftly evaluate the approachability of a stranger – you will fail.
If you don’t successfully evaluate (judge) a person’s chance of success at the goal you give them, they will fail and that means you will too.
Judge with your eyes as well as your ears. Are they dressed and clean? Do they look uncomfortable being dressed and clean? Are they constantly looking to someone else for approval and permission before they speak? Look closely to see evidence that something is going on that they have not told you about yet. Are there bruises? Is it 110 degrees but they are in long sleeves or a turtle neck?
Your client has been left alone to make their choices, and somehow those choices led that person to you. Clearly there is some poor decision making going on. Maybe your client is making the decisions – perhaps they are being controlled by someone else. I don’t care. You need to find out where the power is and then take it. Eventually you will give the power back to your client – but only when they are ready to use it for their own good.
Unless your client is into some serious sadomasochism; the idea of giving up control to another person will be foreign and your client will fight it. Use your charm, smile, be nonthreatening and most of all; be transparent. You are meddling and rearranging their life and guiding their choices because it is necessary. If they spend all their energy fighting against you instead of working with you – well, you have done no good for anyone except the makers of Aspirin because everyone will have a headache.
Know More Than Everyone Else
Knowledge is power. Power is handy.
Take an economics class and learn how money really works. Trust me – you will never get rich off of social work, but you can survive if you know what to do with your money. Once you have mastered economics – teach it to your clients. Use coupons with food stamps. Save money in bonds. Put money aside for the future and NEVER touch it. Poverty can be temporary.
Sit through a basic computing class. I became the IT director of two different nonprofits and all I took was one computer class in 1999. Most of my job is paperwork and Excel spreadsheets … and I rock at that stuff simply because I familiarized myself back when DOS was still heavily used.
Read. Stay current in your areas of interest. I follow Facebook pages and blogs and read articles about poverty all over the world and especially in Los Angeles.
Network. Meet the people you have been reading about. I realize I come off as a super-fan and meddling suburban soccer mom when I talk to great leaders in Homeless Services. I don’t really care. People who are serious about their work will value anyone willing to learn about it and support the cause. Go to symposiums. Follow Twitter Feeds. Show up. Become someone that other people take seriously.
Be Outrageously Enthusiastic
Your client may not have a cheering squad or support group. You will be all some people have. After judging and controlling and manipulating them, they will achieve some small success. It may be “grab a microscope and look for the change of attitude” size success – but it will be there and you need to cheer it on. I have kept pom-poms in my office, have a bulletin board of folks holding a “I have a job!” sign, and occasionally I stand up and clap when someone calls me with good news so they know that someone gave them a standing ovation. Your client has many empty chairs in their cheering section and if you can make up for those absences, you and your client will be happier and better off. Be sincerely enthusiastic and watch things turn around for everyone involved.
Smile in the face of danger. Hug the person who is screaming at you. Trust that the super-angry person who is posing a threat also understands that you can’t help them if you are dead or in the hospital. This takes more than a little faith – in you, in humanity – and in God. Fear only works when you are afraid – so don’t be afraid. You will think clearly and react better if you see the person at the center of the crisis and are not distracted by the noise and sideshow they are putting on. Breathe. Smile. Look them in the eye and talk to them as if you are chatting up your grandmother’s best friend : politely and clearly. This is how I made payment arrangements with a local drug dealer in exchange for him not showing up at the shelter shaking down the clients.
Be a Snob
Prioritize situations, crisis and even people.
Have a discerning eye keep out of the fray.
Don’t ever dress down because you are going into a poor neighborhood. Don’t learn and attempt the slang of the people you are helping. You have to be a solution and a door out of their current lives. If you blend in and become part of their world – well, then you are now part of their problems and not the solution. Be yourself and don’t change to make anyone more comfortable. The thing about social work is that it will change you ; but the goal is for you to be making the change in someone else’s life. This is not about your personal journey to self-discovery. You are a tool: An instrument of destruction and construction. You have be different and unchanging because supposedly you have special secret knowledge of how the world can work and that makes you special in the eyes of your client. Be special. Be above the pressure to conform and blend in with their norm.
When I started at LAMP Community I was given an office filled with roaches and cardboard boxes and a 3 legged table (that was supposed to have 4 legs). I turned around and went directly to Office depot and ordered all new furniture because I deserved a better appointment office. My clients – who were living in boxes and tents and shelter beds – deserved a clean and nice place to sit comfortably and talk with me. Form follows function.
After 15 years of being a spectacularly terrible person, I think I have become a good social worker. I wish someone would have given me these ideas when I started. Some days I just come to work because my job comes with medical, dental and vision benefits. Usually I come to work because I love watching people make really good choices and eventually break up with me because they don’t need a controlling and manipulative snobby cheerleader any more. I did not help them – I showed up and let them help themselves. That is what you should want if you want to be a social worker.