Sunday, January 25, 2015

Remembering Melissa

2493 Richton, in Detroit, is the oldest place I know. It’s not the address that I was born into, but when I think of “home”, the place my roots lead me to, a place where I always had a place, it’s that house that I think of.

Richton was the home of my Aunt Bernice, my mother’s sister, and her family. It was also the hub of my extended family; the place my brother Rhett and I vacationed almost every summer after we moved to New York, and where so many other family members – some so distantly related that the connection was not always clear – lived for a time when they came north from West Virginia or the Carolinas.

Aside from Aunt Bernice, the person I most associate with this most cherished home of my heart, is her daughter, my first cousin, Melissa. Melissa was the eldest of the small bunch of us cousins growing up together. Her brother Jeff was the youngest. In between them were Rhett and I, and Linda and Terry, whose father Earl was our mother’s closest cousin. The six of us spent so much time together, mostly on Richton, with Melissa presiding over and guiding us. She was only three or four years older than Rhett, but her maturity and confidence made her almost adult in our eyes. Certainly, she was the intermediary between our childhood worlds and all that lay beyond.

I have three standout memories of Melissa. The first dates from our earliest childhood, when the six of us, and a couple of the Spielman kids from across the street, would gather at Richton on a Friday night, left by our parents into Aunt Bernice’s care. Melissa was, among other things, a great entertainer and story-teller, and the bunch of us never tired of Melissa taking us into the basement, turning out the lights, and thrilling us with a scary story.

Our favorite, for which we clamored every time, was about Johnny & the Liver. Looking back, it’s such a gruesome and ridiculous story, but we never tired of Melissa’s re-telling. It’s about a kid who is given a dollar by his mother, to go to the butcher’s for a pound of liver. Johnny decides to keep the dollar, to buy candy or something. So, spying a bum lying unconscious in an alley, Johnny takes his utility knife and cuts out the man’s liver, wraps it in paper, and takes it home. After dinner (and no, I can’t remember how Melissa covered that part!), Johnny goes to bed, where he’s soon unsettled by disturbing sounds outside his window. After awhile, he hears a hoarse whisper, rising to him from the back alley that runs beneath the sill. It says, “Johnny! I want my LIVER back, I’m on the FIRST step!” This was the point at which we kids started to squeal and quake and poke each other in the dark. Melissa would build up the tension, with details of Johnny’s efforts, first to ignore the voice, then to somehow barricade himself against the inevitable retribution stalking him in the night. I won’t even try to duplicate the level of gleeful terror that Melissa would have inspired by the time the vengeful spectre reaches the tenth step, and Johnny meets his fate. Ah, what fun that was!

My second memory finds me at about fifteen, during one of our summer stays in Detroit. Melissa had blossomed musically, and was playing piano and singing in the church choir. I’d started dabbling in music myself, and was sitting one day, trying to pick out the piano part of “O Happy Day”, the gospel tune by the Edwin Hawkins singers that had become a hit on top-forty radio. Melissa heard me going at it, and sat down and taught me a wonderful version of the tune, with the left hand banging out the strong, rhythmic baseline that made the piece so dynamic. Melissa was so patient with me, but also, as excited as I was, as I gradually caught the energy and flow of the song.

My third memory is from just before my 20th birthday, when I’d dropped out of college to bounce around the country for a few months. Over the years, 2493 Richton had seemed to diminish, somehow. We cousins were branching out, trying to discover our own paths, the elders were older and less active, and I remember a feeling that perhaps something that had been alive and beautiful was now dead and done. But I arrived to find Melissa, not long married, and with her baby daughter, Ramana, just on the verge of learning to walk. I instantly fell in love with Ramana, and seeing my cousin, now married and a mother, was transformative. She’d always been like an advance scout for my generation, into the world of maturity and adulthood. And here she was – ARRIVED! Melissa was still the same young spirit, loving and fun and creative as she’d ever been, and at the same time, she was a married woman, with a child, and an entirely different future to grow into.

But the key thing about that visit was seeing how Ramana’s very presence created that future, not just for Melissa, but for the entire family. We were all in love with Ramana. And I remember my mother, also visiting, and aunt Audrey, the matriarch of the family, great aunt to both Melissa and I, who was living at Richton at the time, and so many others in the family, sitting around for hours at a time it seemed, watching Ramana’s every move, commenting on her every gurble, delighting at every expression and exploration, seeing the future emerging in front of our eyes, bringing new life, new hope, new possibility.

So yes, my strongest memories of Melissa aren’t just about her at all. They are embodied in her children, in those of us she taught, and those of us she guided and cared for. Her life was never just her life, it’s always been the life of an entire family, of a community, of a place that was home for so many. And so, of course I will miss Melissa. But she’ll never be gone, really. She, like love and life, is everywhere. She’s as deep as roots grow, as long as memory, as eternal as hope and possibility, and as satisfying to the spirit as being scared and thrilled in the dark, because, after all, it’s your mother/sister/cousin telling the scary story,  and you know that the light is just up the stairs a way.

Thank you, Melissa.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Where Do We Go From Here?

It's the day that we remember Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
And in the face of Boko Haram, ISIS and the Paris killings, and the reactionary attacks on Moslems in so many places, I long for a resurgence of Dr. King's spirit.

King, Gandhi, Mandela.... These are the leaders we need today. Those who show us that an eye for an eye, hate for hate, violence for violence, dehumanization for dehumanization is not the sustainable formula for peace or justice, nor for freeing a people from oppression.

The answer also doesn't lie in fear. Particularly not in the kind of fear that, in the name of defending a free and democratic society, keeps those we fear detained, tortured and stripped of all those rights fundamental to that same democratic society. That's the ugly hypocrisy of Guantanamo. Our fear of hate, revulsion for the haters, leads us to actions that only generate more.

The problem with commemorations such as today's are that they make it so easy for us to pay lip service to principles we will not stand for.

Not just pointing a finger. Also experiencing the shame. Of what we allow to be done in our name.


Thursday, January 15, 2015

Social Work, Sports & Teamwork

I love Social Work. Its essence is about connecting, about reaching out, about recognizing human need as something other than failure, lack of character or being "bad". Social Work, at its best, acknowledges that all human beings are fallible, but also that all human beings have aspirations to be better, whatever form those aspirations may take, however difficult they may be to discern at all. Social Work is about taking judgement out of the equation of whether or not one deserves to have a good life.

But, one of the glaring misses that often manifests in the practice of Social Work is that the principles applied in the service of clients are too often withheld in the management of those delivering service. This is in part because social workers often identify so much as givers, that they struggle with the notion of receiving support, as though life were a zero-sum game, in which receiving would somehow invalidate, or somehow dilute, the quality of their giving. This, of course, is nonsense.

But unfortunately, the business stylings with which Social Work management increasingly constrains itself - in the name of professionalism, efficiency and accountability - can cause it to overlook the sector-specific needs of its work force, succumbing to an accounting method of evaluating the work.

What generated this post are thoughts about Teamwork; about how Teamwork can improve the delivery of social services, but how so many agencies and institutions fail to embrace two of the most useful methodologies inherent in Teamwork, those being: the division of labor and the matching of abilities and interests to the tasks at hand.

This is where Sport comes into the discussion. Professional sports management is substantially about maximizing the effectiveness of talent. Coaching focuses on the development and matching of skills. Social Work management, on the other hand, is often about normalizing and standardizing a work force, partly so as to have a uniform and predictable delivery of services. There are lots of reasons for this, not least of which are the influence of unions and the need to avoid liability. So, while Sports Managers and coaches seek out and build on the unique qualities of athletes, and match them for optimal effectiveness, Social Services managers are more likely to seek to eliminate differences in work styles, and to create predictable norms for its service delivery. Coaches tend to view unique qualities as gifts, to be developed. In competition, these are advantages that catch opponents off guard and disrupt their plans. In social work, unique qualities can undermine consistency in service delivery, and can create expectations that cannot be met.

These differences between the two management approaches are appropriate to the fields to which they apply. And yet ... possibilities are sometimes missed.

In my social work career, I've experienced plenty of very appropriate specialization on the level of job description and duties. For example, a group home I worked in employed several frontline workers to manage the day-to-day activities of residents. In addition, there were managers, an intake coordinator, a case-manager, a life-skills teacher, and a counselor. This level of specialization and division of labor is common in the field. But there was another level of specialization that took place among the frontline workers. One of the staff was into physical fitness, so developed outings and activities that built on this passion. Another person was into cooking and nutrition. A third loved music and movies and organized entertainments. Yet another was passionate about education, books and learning, and was able to form special bonds with residents open to his influence. But the only way this could happen was with the encouragement and support of managers who were willing to allow flexibility in the sharing of duties. The sharing of duties related to the different temperments and interests of the staff spilled over into such things as handling the conflicts that erupted on a daily basis, writing log entries, dealing with parents and teachers and case-workers who phoned and visited the facility, assigning and monitoring chores. Certainly, these were areas of shared responsibility, but in most instances, individuals with particular abilities took disproportionate rolls in areas of their strength and/or interest.

In larger institutions, this type of personalized job functioning is much harder to find. Job descriptions are more standardized, and often, everyone is expected to do everything. What is often lost is the benefit of freeing up the incredible diversity of human personality, skill and passion.

The reason Sports comes to mind is that its focus on Team Achievement generates a perspective from which the development of individual talent is freed from standardization. There's not quite so much need for the human parts to be interchangeable. Role Players who specialize are appreciated for their expertise, and are not relied on for what they cannot do, don't do well, or don't do at all. (Of course, they are compensated accordingly, which, if they lack the required skills, could mean no compensation at all).

I find myself wishing that there was more, explicit currying of talent in social work, or, at least, more acknowledgment that workers are unique and that their development and contribution needn't fit a mold. I'm overstating my case, but to make a point that I think is useful. Human Services work depends on the face-to-face expression of humanity. It depends on staff who bring their full, multi-dimensional selves to work every day, sharing their passion and the richness of their experience. It is the human quality, moreso than the professional, that gives Social Work its heart and vigor. The technical skill and knowledge base that derive from professionalism are able to flourish because of the human connection that the best workers are able to make. And sometimes - only sometimes, mind you - the idiosyncratic is discouraged or squeezed out, where it might be of tremendous value.

Think of your favorite teacher. Chances are - if I'm right - that special teacher in your life was quite different than others, had some unique gifts, was maybe even weird. Most of my favorite teachers were. And I understand that this is precisely where the great risk comes in. One of my best teachers ever was probably a bit psychotic. He sometimes went on rants about conspiracies being hatched against him, and he was a bit too hands on with some of the girls. He was fired, eventually, and should have been. At the same time, he had a talent for teaching that I'll never forget. I'm not suggesting for a moment that such an individual belonged in teaching, or in social work. But I do believe that efforts to prevent such dangers can go too far. And when uniqueness and idiosyncrasies, and personal passions, and imbalances in skill, and expressions of affection are weeded out, it has gone too far.

As the French say, "Vive la Difference!"


Wednesday, January 7, 2015

Je Suis Charlie

I don't know that I'd have been much of a fan of the magazine Charlie Hebdo, and of their brand of humor. I prefer respectful humor to its mocking style.

But I'm so angry about the killings in Paris today. I want to rant against the arrogant ignorance that is so self-righteous about its point of view that it would kill innocents in defense of its pitiful sense of honor.

What an ugly sense of God one must have, to slaughter while proclaiming that God is Good. This has nothing to do with Islam. Whether one calls oneself Christian, Moslem, Jew, or by any other designation, if the highest that a person's God calls them to is random and symbolic slaughter, that person's God is no more than a reflection of that person's own inadequacy and fear.

I don't order my life around religious concepts. But I value the notion of God, as representing a basic and essential goodness in creation, as representing our longing and desire to be bigger and better and more loving than we are. I find it a perversion of the very concept of God, to wrap it around our baggage of longing, need, loss and our fear, and use it as a weapon.

I hope that the essence of Love - which, so far as I can determine, is the motivating power is all true faith - will seep in and calm my own vengeful, angry heart ... and the hearts of all of us misguided fools, who do so much that is hateful in God's name.