The most interesting and controversial social work assignment I’ve completed so far in my MSW coursework at UBC is the Cultural Artifact presentation.
It was for First Nations Issues (SOWK 510) – and it represents the first time I emailed a university instructor to discuss her grading procedure. I didn’t care about receiving a “B” on this assignment because grades aren’t my first priority, but I was upset that I didn’t know what she was looking for until after the assignment was marked.
In case you don’t know – I’m a Master’s of Social Work (MSW) student at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver, Canada.
Here’s the assignment:
- Identify a cultural artifact that is meaningful to you, your family, community or nation. You may either bring the cultural artifact to class or show a photo of it.
- Describe the importance that the cultural artifact holds for you, your family, community or nation (historical, social, economic, political, familial, etc).
- Briefly respond to the question, “Are there ways that this cultural artifact might represent a barrier or challenge to your development of an effective social work practice relationship with First Nations peoples?”
- Briefly respond to the question, “What is one strategy (or way) that this cultural artifact may assist you to develop an effective social work practice relationship with First Nations peoples?”
Here’s my response:
The Cultural Artifact and Its Importance to Me
I’ve written in journals for about 32 years – since I was 10 years old. The personal artifact I’m sharing is my diary from 1983, when I was 13. It’s meaningful to me because it was the journal I wrote in when I was in my third foster home.
My mom suffers from schizophrenia, and I spent my childhood moving to different cities and provinces – including two reserves in Saskatchewan. My mom could only hold a teaching jobs for a short time; we almost always on welfare, going to food banks, and living on the street. I’ve slept in cardboard boxes in the alleys of downtown Toronto and on the steps of churches in Saskatoon. My mom was in and out of hospitals, getting shock and other treatments. My dad wasn’t in my life at all; I didn’t meet him until I went to Israel when I was 29.
This diary represents my experience in foster care, growing up in poverty, and living with a severely mentally ill mother. It represents my shame, helplessness, and pain. It also represents the sadness I feel for my foster siblings and their experiences, and the loss of not knowing what happened to them. I had good and bad experiences in foster care, and my diary tells those stories.
Barriers Represented by My Diary
I’m a happy, optimistic, positive person. I love life, and I believe even the worst obstacles can become opportunities. I always wished I had a supportive, loving, present mom and dad, but I’ve accepted my childhood for what it is – and my parents for who they are. I earned two undergrad degrees, lived and taught in Africa, make a living as a freelance writer and blogger, travel widely, am married to a great guy, and own a beautiful home in North Van. The smallest things in life make me happy – a Slurpee, squirrel hunting with my dog, taking a nap, reading a good book. Of course things aren’t perfect – Bruce and I can’t have kids, and we’re disappointed and sad about that. But I believe every life is bittersweet.
Perhaps the biggest barrier to connecting with First Nations people that my journal represents is my tendency to think, “If I can do it, you can too!!” I struggled to overcome the powerlessness, stigma, exclusion, marginalization, and internalized oppression I felt because of how I grew up. We all suffer in some way; more than 2,000 years ago Plato said “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” I don’t think any one type of pain or oppression is “worse” than another, and it’s pointless to compare them because it doesn’t help move us forward. Sometimes I think this perspective may be an obstacle to effective social work.
Another barrier is that I have mostly positive childhood memories of Social Services – overall, my foster homes were good places to be. When I was 15, I called Social Services to say I couldn’t live with my crazy mom anymore. I asked for help, to be put in a foster home, group home, or even juvie – anywhere. A social worker came over, listened to me, and helped me find a better place to live. My perspective that social workers can be very helpful may be a barrier because many First Nations people don’t have good experiences with Social Services.
Strategies Represented by My Diary
I know what it’s like to be taken away from my mom and placed in foster care. I understand the stigma of being a “foster kid.” I know what it’s like to walk away from a home with everything in it – clothes, posters, toys, homework, a cat once, a dog another time – and never be allowed to go back. I think my experiences will help me be more accessible, approachable, and helpful to First Nations people who are struggling with poverty, mental illness, stigma, marginalization, and oppression.
I think this assignment for SOWK 510 should be Pass/Fail, and that the instructor should have told me in advance that she’d be marking me down for things she hadn’t mentioned in the assignment or in class. When I emailed her my thoughts, she didn’t respond by email or in person.
What about you – has a university or college assignment (or an instructor!) given you second thoughts about “higher education”?
If you’re a university or college student, you may find Getting Good Grades in Grad School – 6 Tips From an MSW Student helpful.
And if you want to learn more about my experiences in foster care, read Help for Foster Kids – 6 Ways to Overcome Shame and Powerlessness.