“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” (Walt Whitman) In the last two years I am grateful that I have learned how to start being comfortable with my largeness and my contradictions — to sit in ambiguity and reflection.
I started this journey with great trepidation. I was going back to get my MSW as a middle aged gay man who felt like a cross between Mary Tyler Moore and Rhoda Morgenstern; I was scared to death no one would like me and feared it was too late to reinvent myself as a social worker.
I have learned a lot about dignity — how to help people retain their dignity and keeping mine, which means working with resistance and understanding how people need resistance to protect something.
My first experience after being accepted into the program was my visit to the IT Department. You see, I did not know how to access my student account. I explained this to the very nice young woman who was trying to help me in earnest. She very politely explained that she did not have the answer to my query, but would make a phone call (she was standing no more than two feet from me). She picked up the phone and said: “Yes, I have an elderly gentleman here from the MSW program and he can’t get into his account.” Of course, I looked around to see who she was referring to, and it dawned on me that she was talking about me. I had become “the elderly gentleman” just two days before the term had started. Of course, I wanted to take the tennis ball off my walker and throw it at her, but decided just to walk away and appreciate that she was genuinely trying to help.
While I am exceedingly grateful for my professors and their time, dedication, and belief in me, I have to say that I am also in awe of and grateful for so many members of my cohort. I listen to their individual and collective narratives full of passion and reflection and I have learned a great deal from these absolutely lovely people. It would be remiss of me to not acknowledge and thank these people for also embracing me and making me feel so welcomed and integrated into the community.
There have been many times during the last two years that I have submitted to my misanthropic woes and have often reflected: “Maybe I can’t do social work. I don’t know that I do believe everyone is capable of a transformative experience — what if I’m not capable of a transformative experience?” Then I hear one of my peers talk about standing in solidarity with me around marriage equality and I get verklepmt and I reflect: “How lucky am I? How on earth did I get here?” I must confess, I don’t always feel worthy of being in such amazing company and I hope I have been able to add just a tiny significant gem to those I have touched and have touched me.
In the larger scheme, I know most of us are desperately wanting to change systems that are wholly unfair. We are wanting to eradicate poverty, racism, homophobia, and ageism and underscore the power of interconnectedness and interdependency. The energy and dedication to creating equity both locally and globally is palpable. One can feel that amazing energy walking down the halls of the school of social work, or running into each other at the Occupy Movement, or posting activist events for us to attend. When I look around me today, I feel so much optimism that maybe, just maybe we can actually do it!
I have been fortunate enough to have many “social work” heroes through my lifetime: Bayard Rustin, Nina Simone, Gloria Steinem, Howard Zinn, bell hooks, several of my professors and peers here at PSU, and of course Walt Whitman. The common thread that ties all of these folk together is that they are all radical progressives — the gatekeepers of truth. None of us can remain neutral. If we do not work to interrupt oppression, we are as culpable as the oppressors. As radical progressives, we must not give into systems that collude with oppression, but rather we must stand in solidarity with all who are oppressed. Collectively and individually, we are the Bayard Rustins, the bell hooks, and the Walt Whitmans.
Whitman also wrote, Failing to fetch me at first, keep encouraged. Missing me one place, search another. I stop somewhere waiting for you. I find at this point in my life, I am both searching and waiting and I could not be in finer company to do so.