Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Who am I, and Where do I come from?

I’ve never really been much of a writer, and this whole blogging experience is quite new to me. Having just graduated from Ryerson’s bachelor of social work program this April, I am done with theoretical papers. The academics are done, and now the bulk of my writing consists of shift logs and incident reports. And now, when I do decide to write, it’s because I want to. What a nice change! I remember in my second year of the social work program, one of our program requirements was a course in Aboriginal approaches to social work. My professor, this absolutely amazing woman, asked us in our first class “Who are you, and where do you come from?” Of course, we all answered with fairly superficial answers, “My name is Chantal, and I grew up in the town of Whitby, about an hour East of Toronto”. That was it. But to this day, I still think of this question. Who am I, and where do I come from? And most importantly, how does this inform the work that I do? When it comes to the work I do, I’m now working two jobs in the social service field. I have an overnight gig as a mental health support worker in a transitional housing program for women aged 35-60 who have a mental health diagnosis and are, or are at risk of being, homeless. I also work as a relief client support worker in a community health centre, working primarily with homeless and marginally housed individuals, people from a variety of different cultures, those with mental health diagnoses, and because we operate a harm reduction program, I also work with many people who use drugs and do sex work. It can be difficult, especially being so new to the field. Witnessing the traumatic events many of the folks I work with are exposed to, watching as they are re-victimized by systems that perpetuate their feelings of powerlessness, and on occasion becoming the target of their anger and hostility as they deal with the frustration of navigating these systems, it can be exhausting. Regardless though, I couldn’t see myself doing anything else and am continually amazed at the resilience and strength that the human spirit carries with it. So who am I? Beyond just being Chantal, I’m a white, middle-class, university-educated, able-bodied, cis-gendered, queer identified woman in my early twenties. I’m a daughter, a sister, an aunt, a friend, an intimate partner. All of these identities shape how I experience and understand the world, and I’m still learning to navigate the implications these identities have on others. What does my physicality tell others about who I am, and what I am like? How do these identities shape the way I carry myself? How exactly do I have privilege in certain situations, while facing oppression in others, and work to not perpetuate those very same systems of power and oppression? Reflexivity has become such an important tool and I have to consider all of these questions, among others, during every interaction I have with a person. Where I come from is also such an important question to consider. This goes beyond the geographical sense of course, more so, it includes my experiences. There's a saying about social work practitioners, that often times we're wounded healers. We come to the work we do with our own experiences, pain, sorrow, and trauma, and often times through this comes some of our greatest strengths and our ability to empathize. Being somebody who has survived intimate partner violence, has been the loved one of a person with a mental health diagnosis, and has a history of substance use, I feel as though I can empathize with the people I work with now. My experiences have made me realize the importance of allowing people to create and share their own narratives, and to have a safe space in which to do so. The importance of allowing a person to be the expert of their own experiences, and to use my experiences in a way that supports them rather than takes priority in an interaction. My experiences have taught me the importance of being present in every situation, so that I can truly show caring and compassion. Most importantly, they have taught me that there is no easy fix to life's problems, that we are all on journeys, and that we need to work with somebody in a client centred way so that we can work from where they are rather than where we as workers think they should be. So who I am and where I come from has very concrete effects on the work I do in social services. These questions are so important to consider. Otherwise, how are we supposed to try and support others if we never look at ourselves in the process? If we don't address it, our own crap will get in the way. But if we do realize we are on a journey just as much as any of the people we work with, that will only make us that much more caring, compassionate, and empathetic. I know it definitely gives me an edge in connecting with others on a person to person level, and not just that of a worker to a client. And that is why I can't see myself doing any other kind of work.

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