From the Director
Embracing the Wisdom of 'We'
By Elizabeth J. Clark, Ph.D., ACSW, MPH
weeks ago, I had the singular privilege of leading a delegation of social
workers to South Africa. We went as part of the People to People Ambassador
Program that was started by President Dwight D. Eisenhower who believed that
people can make a difference where governments sometimes cannot.
South Africa we had the opportunity to meet with social workers who were doing
remarkable work under remarkable conditions. For example, we visited a center
for children orphaned by AIDS; a residential social crime prevention program to
develop at-risk young adults into strong community leaders; a hospice which
serves the affluent as well as those living in terrible poverty in a shanty
town; an inner city drop-in center that provides vocational training as an
alternative for young girls living on the streets; and a prisoner re-entry and
crime victim support program.
the Apartheid Museum and Robben Island where Nelson
Mandela was held for 18 of his 27 years in prison. We met with social work faculty
from the University of Pretoria and the University of Stellenbosch.
attended numerous cultural events and had dinner with local families and in a
tribal village. Everywhere we went we heard about apartheid and how the country
has worked to come together in the last 14 years.
11 official languages spoken in South Africa. The national anthem is sung in
four of them. The people seem uniformly friendly and helpful and they are quite
open about the apartheid era and issues still facing them as a country. They
easily identify as black, white and colored and quickly explain that the word
"colored" does not have the negative connotation that it does in the
United States. They spoke of their need for a new flag after apartheid and how the
new flag represented all of the peoples in their "rainbow nation."
There is both great wealth and extreme poverty in South Africa. The country
also struggles with the migration of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from
war-torn Zimbabwe and the incidence of and mortality from AIDS is staggering.
visited different social work agencies and NGOs, we were struck by the
similarities of social problems facing both of our countries. At the same time,
as social workers, we were also struck with how hard it must be to provide
social services there. They work without adequate resources and with an
inadequate social work workforce. Salaries are so low, one wonders how they manage at all. We were saddened to learn of the financial
hardships many programs face and were overwhelmed to learn that in many places
they even lack pain medication for those who are dying. It is hard to take it
all in during a short visit.
At the end
of our trip, one social worker from the U.S. summed up what she found most
remarkable about the people of South Africa. She said that the "we"
in South Africa superseded the "I." Everyone spoke about how
"we" are making progress, or of "our" problems, or how
"we" are working together to make things better. It was a sense of
community and commitment to the common good and welfare of all.
November, we elected a new president of the United States. During the election
rhetoric and among the campaign promises, we frequently heard statements about
bipartisanship and "reaching" across the aisle, about choosing unity
over division, about working collaboratively to bring about positive change and
to build stronger communities and to ensure better lives for all of our
2009 will be the year when our country truly embraces the wisdom of focusing on
the "we" rather than the "I." That is a change for our
profession to celebrate. Happy New Year to each of you.
To comment to Elizabeth J. Clark: firstname.lastname@example.org
From January 2009 NASW News. © 2009 National
Association of Social Workers. All Rights Reserved. NASW News
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