The following is an excerpt from my unedited draft of The ART of Change memoir. The names and details have been changed as a matter of confidentiality however the impact of language that empowers the worker or the academic whilst disempowering the recipient of those words is a significant problem across human services and the legal system.
Words ~Swords on the Cutting Edge.
The language and politics of homelessness and social work theories and practices changed many times over the years that I worked in homeless and domestic violence shelters.
Buzz words came and went as words like empowerment, agency, self determination and the words consumer and stakeholders replaced shelter resident and workers crept into human services through out the 90’s.
People stopped ‘talking’ and entered into dialogue, we would no longer ‘catch up for a chat’, we would debrief with one another and instead of ‘talking about things’ like we did in the old days we would be invited to unpack complex issues and investigate multifaceted causes that underpin marginalisation and disenfranchisement.
With each new turn of phrase the culture of homelessness and service provision changed.
Discussions about the importance of using ‘professional’ language were bandied about during training sessions and statements we would have once made like ‘I think the family is doing it really hard right now’ were spoken by the new young social workers as It seems that the high and complex needs as a result of the multiple issues facing the family as a unit will require external intervention and on going support to be put in place.
Many social workers and counsellors, health workers and researchers came in and out of the shelter on a weekly basis and the newspeak and jargon was so pervasive at times that we would chuckle as one of our residents, when asked if she had met her new social worker would say: “Yes, she seems okay but I can’t understand what she is saying”.
When offering support to a heart broken, confused teenage mother, our staff might say amongst ourselves ‘she needs a hug and to know she is loved’ or it’s a shame her mother has too many of her own issues to be able to support her daughter. Those internal state altering, mood changing words were nowhere to be seen in the mountainous pile of service agreements and policy documents.
Reassuring an upset teenager with a hug may be considered inappropriate and unprofessional. Physical contact had become almost outlawed in a society traumatised and made paranoid by the horror stories of paedophiles and child molesters. There was a vast new language landscape that accompanied the hyper vigilant (freaked out) policies. Terms such as non-physical client engagement and maintaining professional integrity and non self disclosure was the cultural indoctrination for the new generation of social workers and counsellors.
At times the newest theories and current research findings were far more complex and controversial than the complicated lives of the people whose lives they were designed to improve!
The distance and differences between grass roots service delivery in shelters and the academic institutions that conducted research into the lives of homeless people was so vast that our role as shelter staff was to be an interpreter of the newspeak as it gushed out of the government departments, and landed in the lives of the young women who spoke a very different language, developed from within a very different reality than the world of academics and researchers.
I came face to face with an adaptation of the newspeak in the late 90’s. I was visiting a member of SAYM (Strength As Young Mothers) who was living in our outreach accommodation. Rosie had the great misfortune to have been born into a volatile and abusive family who had inflicted neglect and violence on her through out her childhood. She had a shattered self concept, outraged ego and hair-trigger temper that could erupt anywhere at any time, especially when she had to deal with people in authority. Her anti-authority trigger might include anyone from a bank teller to the social security staff and it definitely included the midwives at the hospital where she gave birth to her daughter. People she thought looked at her the wrong way in supermarkets, especially older women who she thought were judging her, would be on the receiving end of Rosie’s wrath. Both of Rosie’s parents were in and out of jail throughout her childhood and her family were well known to many government departments, including correctional services, welfare and the education department.
Under the surface of her volatile and recalcitrant behaviour there was a bright, funny, thoughtful young woman who was a very quick learner. She had been identified as having learning difficulties and ‘behavioural challenges’ during her school years, labels that followed her from class room to class room. Rosie had a reputation as a disruptive and difficult student and she made sure to live up to the way she was perceived!
It was very apparent that Rosie’s perceived learning difficulties were most likely a result of the relentless stress and chaos of her family home and her many trips in and out of foster care every time one of her parents went to jail. Her bright mind and astute grasp of new environments kept her afloat amidst the chaos of her family life but her reputation and the limitations of the education system to accommodate and nurture traumatised and volatile students meant that she spent her entire school years repeating the negative behaviours she learnt in her family home – and developing some new ones of her own. She left school at 14 and I am sure more than one or two teachers would have breathed a sigh of relief to be free of her hot temper and disruptive class room dramas.
It was no surprise to her social workers and former teachers that Rosie had her first baby at 16 and her second two years later.
There is an old saying ‘you become an expert at whatever you practice… so be careful what you practice’ and like many of the young women who came to our shelter, Rosie had great expertise in enlisting social workers, youth workers and counsellors to help her to get food vouchers, taxi vouchers, Christmas hampers and other kinds of assistance that is available to people in need. Her family had lived on welfare for several generations and Rosie had inside knowledge on getting the most out of the system that she was born into.
On this particular day she was trying to convince me to give her a taxi voucher from our very limited resources so that she could travel to the northern suburbs to catch up with an old friend. She didn’t like using public transport and would often end up arguing with strangers when she was out and about. Conflict was so deeply ingrained in Rosie’s mind that it was inevitable she would find it – or create it –where ever she went and putting all analysis aside, who wouldn’t prefer to catch a free a taxi rather than enduring a hot bus trip to the other side of town?
During her time at the shelter, Rosie had learnt that, unlike with some of the less experienced social workers and younger youth workers she had been allocated over the years, she couldn’t manipulate the shelter staff. We weren’t intimidated by her outbursts or threats to report us to human services for treating her unfairly. Like many of the young women in the shelter who had learnt to use aggression instead of assertiveness and believed that life victimised them over and over, it took many months before we developed the degree of trust that is necessary for a partnership on the journey of change. We kept our rules constant and allowed her to return to the groups after an outburst or dramatic exit and for someone who was very familiar with inconsistency and rejection the firmness accompanied by friendliness eventually allowed her to settle down and think about her future for the first time. The other young mothers weren’t impressed by her disruptive behaviour in the group room and the mirror of Rosie’s peers and their influence reflected far more to her than the staff of ‘geriatric grannies’ as she once called us with a dismissive slam of the door.
Rosie had been pleading her case for a taxi voucher, for almost half an hour. She lived on a direct bus route, the bus stop was half a block away and the weather was sunny and fine. I wasn’t prepared to give her a voucher, preferring to keep it for more important needs such as assisting a pregnant woman to get to the hospital or a mother with a sick toddler to go to the doctors. Rosie could see that her battle for the free taxi ride was just about lost when she drew her last resort weapon to the fight.
“Carol I need that taxi voucher cause it’s important for me to maintain my social networks. I am marginalised cause I am a single mother. I am socially isolated in the community and my social worker told me I need to integrate more and explore new options. It’s not just a taxi voucher you know, I’m not just trying to scam a free ride, it’s a social justice issue cause I need to see my friends”.
Rosie’s words took me completely by surprise. I was both delighted by her new strategy and highly suspicious of her motive. She demonstrated that by adopting the language of her oppressors, she believed she stood a much better chance of getting what she wanted and whilst it didn’t get her the taxi voucher she was lobbying for, it was a very levelling moment that show cased how astute Rosie was in spite of the myriads of case notes, files, police reports and hospital records that stated the opposite.
I kept our taxi voucher and gave Rosie a lift out to the northern suburbs delighted to reward her sharp mind and creative use of the gobbledegook that had surrounded her since the first day welfare authorities began to interpret who she was and what she was capable of, tattooing her tragic history in files and reports through out her precious growing years.