Defining social work…

If ten days ago you had asked me to define “social work” or “social worker”, I would have given you some textbook definition filled with big words and academic jargon.  Today though, my definition is very different, very simple, and much more human; and I have two amazing social workers to thank for it.

Five days ago, I began a mini internship at Puebla’s very busy Centro de Salud (health clinic). I tried to go into the experience with an open mind and zero expectations, but I unfortunately failed. On my first day, the clinic’s two daytime social workers, Laura and Lulú explained to me and my fellow students what exactly it is they do. DSCN0031The answer: paperwork and references. They explained step-by-step how they receive references from doctors, input the information from the references into a large yellow book, and then give a copy of the reference to the patient, who then takes it the hospital to which they were referred. At the end of the month, the social workers compile a report and file away all the references. It shames me to admit, but I left the clinic that day feeling discouraged, disappointed, and thinking that Laura and Lulu were in no way social workers, but rather mistitled secretaries. I wish I could take back those thoughts, because after five days of working with them, I now know that I was completely and utterly incorrect.

Deep down, I knew my thinking was wrong; so when I had a chance, I reread my favorite page of Paulo Freire´s, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (page 60). “Those who authentically commit themselves to the people must re-examine themselves constantly.” Those words stood out to me, and forced me to reevaluate the way I think about social work and social workers. The next day, I returned to the clinic with only two goals: be fully present and be fully open to learn. I dove in head first, and I’m so glad that I did.DSCN0027I quickly realized that hidden amongst the paperwork, the references, and the files, were the true roots of social work. The paperwork revealed macro social issues within the community, it highlighted groups who were still in need, but most importantly it was the means by which Laura and Lulú could help patients navigate an otherwise cold and disorienting system. I paid close attention to the faces of the patients who came into the office. They looked nervous, confused, disoriented, and frustrated. Laura and Lulú would greet them with a smile and with warmth. In no more than a moment or two, they would help them feel at ease; all because they treated them like human beings. Not like patients, not like clients, not like customers, but human beings.

Laura and Lulú’s examples humbled me and taught me a valuable lesson. Social work isn’t defined by textbooks and dictionaries. Social workers aren’t just those with a title and degree. The definition is found in subtle acts of compassion and empathy. It’s hidden in expressions of kindness and understanding. It’s discovered in the essence of human connection.

In a world that is so incredibly cold, so scary, so confusing, and so overwhelmingly disorienting, what is often needed the most is a smile, and kind greeting, a gentle touch, a reassurance, a laugh, a few moments of you’re the time. What is often needed most is a recognition from one person to another that they are a human being; that they are worth something; that they matter. All of us, not matter where we might find ourselves, have the capacity within us to be social workers. From the taxi driver to the doctor; the waitress to the baker; the police officer to the teacher; the child to the most poor.

When I arrived in Mexico ten days ago, I thought I knew what it meant to be a social worker and perform social work. I thought I knew what it meant to be a human being. I was wrong. When we are fully present, when we take the time to truly be with someone; listen to them, hear them, laugh with them, cry with them, feel with them – then we will know what it is to be human.

Paulo Freire says, that “conversion to the people requires a profound rebirth. Those who undergo it must take on a new form of existence; they can no longer remain as they were.” I am not the social worker I was before, and I cannot perform the same social work I did before. I am reborn. Thank you Laura. Thank you Lulú.

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