Dissonance & Duality

Four or so months ago, I was welcomed into the School of Social Work with a greeting that continues to deeply resonate with me:

You. Belong. Here.

We have all left our communities to come here. Yet, the thing is, often, the deeper our relationship with our communities, the heavier the burden. There are many of us here holding heavy burdens and deep pain. We want to acknowledge that and let you know, we’re here to help you unpack.

 

Belonging has always been a difficult concept for me to grasp – being a Third Culture Kid, the idea of “belonging” was very closely associated with a home. And for me, “home” has always been a very complicated concept.

Up until recently, I didn’t know how to respond when someone asked what being in Social Work School is like. The usual answer: it’s going great; I’m learning lots!

In reality, where do I even begin to summarize such a heavy experience?

These days, I have a more honest and transparent answer to help others better grasp what I’ve witnessed and gone through these past few months. Often, I begin by asking two questions:

 

Tell me, what truly breaks your heart?

How can we love deeper to defeat these things together?

 

Here are some things that personally break shatter my heart:

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Photo by Matteo Paganelli

Separated families at the Border, at my internship, and in my community. Lack of transportation and accessibility. Poverty. Homelessness. Child sexual abuse and maltreatment. Human trafficking. The Immigration Act of 1917 (that essentially still exists!). The Opioid Crisis. LGBTQ – targeted bullying. Tokenism. Mental Health Stigma. Emotional and physical abuse. Racism. Privilege. Sexism. Silent Sam. The horrible reality of White Privilege. Inaction. The lack of desire to want to understand and see another’s lived experience. Rejection. The Church. All forms of oppression, inequity, and hate.

Did you feel that? The heaviness? The pain? 

I hope so. If you really want to know what it’s like to be an active social worker in this day and age, that’s a pretty dang, good start. After all,

 

“[We] can’t experience things from a distance. We have to get close.

Proximity is truth.”

– Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy

 

Here are a few suggestions on how we can love deeper and whole-heartedly together (we as students are working on many of these right now):

Experiential education. Decreasing judgment. Mental health reform. Housing First. Non-profit work. Therapy. Free health clinics. The SHAC. Systematic change. Sex education reform. Reminding people they matter. Policy change. Advocacy. Checking in with those struggling. Multi-lingual cards to protect families. Normalizing. Apologies and acknowledgments. Stepping back. Raising each other. Rally. Protest. Speak. Show up. Radical love.

As Social Work students, my colleagues and I face these questions and concepts daily; some of us, we’ve faced our entire lives. There is a lot of unraveling of who we are now and who we were prior to coming here. Many of us are coming to our senses – myself included. And although our approaches, opinions, and experiences greatly vary, we face some pretty heavy and heartbreaking realities within our classrooms; our emotionally-charged internships; our sacred and rather fleeting free time; and our clocked-in hours at work. This is not an easy task.

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Photo by Leighann Renee

Although I was cautioned about triggers during the early onset of the semester, one can never truly be prepared. The exposure is unreal. Between everything we’re learning in the classroom and all that is happening outside of it, learning never stops. When you really think about it, I guess social work never does.

Until coming to this program, I’ve never had to walk out of a classroom to breathe. I’ve never been so challenged to face my conditioned beliefs as being only one part of the overall story. Never have I ever been on the brink of tears so many times in a classroom upon learning the roots behind many of our American laws and policies. Additionally, I’ve never so strongly experienced the profound loneliness that comes with being the only one that looks like me. I’ve also never felt so deeply ashamed of The Church and the dissonance and duality of supposed Christian love – yes, I’m calling us out. In many ways, I came face to face with my life’s worth of privilege and oppression for the very first time.

Yet at the same token, I’ve never been surrounded by so many incredible people from all walks of life. Folks deeply passionate about radically loving others and changing the current condition of our community, nation, and the world. Folks who have gone through incredible injustices, pain, and realizations who are continuously reminding others they are enough and they aren’t forgotten. People raising each other up. Heavy and healing hearts strongly holding onto the hope that things can and will get better. I’m surrounded by amazing individuals who make me belly-laugh; watch Star Wars marathons; eat pizza in a bathtub; invite me to church; cook amazing peanut butter vegan pancakes; sing “Chicken Fried” in the car and office; sit in the stillness alongside me, and encourage me to speak my truth and just be myself.

Here, strangers have become friends that I have grown to deeply admire, respect, and love. Where there is hatred, pain, and sorrow, these folks show me how healing and kindness can move.

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Photo by Ian Schneider

Professors, Second Years, and Alumni say the first semester is the most difficult. I can’t help but wonder if it’s because of the undeniable growth taking place. Facing the heavy burden and pain upon arriving at the program and what I believe now, it seems, the biggest challenge I faced this semester was:

Myself and my humanity.

Welcome to Semester 1 at UNC’s School of Social Work.

-A

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