“It can feel overwhelming to shift how you operate in the world or accept something different into your day-to-day. experience. Such disruptions can cause the worst parts of ourselves to surface, but when we ask for support and form a team, these new practices and ideas can illuminate our potential and ability.”
In the fall of 2010, I attended my orientation for my Master’s of Social Work program. After hours of ice breakers and information sessions, I was handed a complimentary t-shirt. Contrasting the navy blue cotton, stately white letters spelled out the phrase, “SOCIAL CHANGE AGENT.” That was me. As I entered the field of social work, I became a change agent, a person devoted to advocating and implementing best policies and practices to improve the quality of life for under-served individuals and communities. I felt honorable. I felt exhilarated. I believed my spirit and goodwill were indestructible. I couldn’t wait to see what I could do.
After I graduating from my MSW program in 2012, I became a clinical case manager for a permanent supportive housing facility. Our program serves formerly homeless adults with co-occurring mental-health disorders. Although the salary offered was lower than I would have liked, I felt in my core that I was at the right place. After a period of sub-par social services, the administration decided to give the facility an overhaul. I was hired as part of a new social services team whose mission was to provide holistic, trauma-informed care. It was time to give the individuals in the program the quality of care they deserved. We began to change the language used in our policies from punitive to rehabilitative. We looked at the person and not the diagnosis. We offered more personal freedom. We suggested more personal responsibility. We believed in transparency, democracy, and accountability. We were ready to create a therapeutic environment which fostered empowerment and independence. Our team was ready, but were the residents?
When one’s life experiences are rooted in neglect, abuse, community and inter-personal violence, complex loss, and poverty, one likely develops a mistrustful and fearful view of the world. As my team and I did our best to model open communication and emotional intelligence, some residents thought it was a trap. They weren’t used to be treated like this. The change that my team and I so strongly believed in ignited a collective disturbance, and you could feel the current of anxiety, fear, and anger rippling through the corridors.
As our residents adjust to this new approach to living, I sometimes feel unsure and distraught. Maybe this will never work. Maybe we are moving too fast. But I believe in our choices. All we can do is practice consistency. Slowly, we are witnessing gorgeous little changes. People smile as they greet each other in the halls. Individuals participate in respectful mediation. Residents organize activities with minimal involvement from staff. Over the last few months, there have been moments where I feel truly collaborative in my work with our residents. But change is constant, and just yesterday our sense of calm was disrupted once again when two long-time staff members announced their immediate resignation. Instantly, I could feel the current of anxiety and fear resurface and pulse through our facility. We are a small staff, so two people leaving is huge for us. Many of our residents experienced a significant degree of abandonment in their lives, so they can’t help but take this loss personally. I am bracing myself for the coming months as we cope with our loss and face more change. New people. New ideas. New approaches.
There are times when we see change as this fresh opportunity to make our lives better. Frequently, however, change incites a feeling of uncertainty and risk that leaves us terrified. It can feel overwhelming to shift how you operate in the world or accept something different into your day-to-day. experience. Such disruptions can cause the worst parts of ourselves to surface, but when we ask for support and work as a team, these new practices and ideas can illuminate our potential and ability. We all must face change, but we don’t have to face it alone.
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