By Alex Kotlowitz
When I was getting started in journalism, making $110 a week as a reporter, my mother pulled me aside. “You know,” she said, “you could go back to school to become a social worker.” She was speaking from experience; in her forties, she had gone back to school to earn her social work degree. I considered her advice, and then stubbornly continued on with my writing (and my low wages). But in the end I have no doubt about it, I’ve inherited some of my mom’s sensibilities: her understanding that the only thing holding us together is a social compact, and it’s a compact whose foundation in these times is in particular need of maintenance. Some may look at social work as a benign profession, but I know better—from my mom, I suppose.
Here’s the best kept secret: social workers are subversive. I don’t mean that as a profession they upend the social order, but rather that they attempt to bring order to people and to places for whom life hasn’t been fair. I don’t mean this as some dime-store philosophizing, but rather to suggest that given the growing inequality in this country, the state of our schools, the treatment of new immigrants, the place of race, the neglect of the mentally ill (I could go on), our community isn’t doing well. Social workers know that better than anyone. They don’t feel compelled to shout about it, to order us around. They don’t lob diatribes. Rather, every day, they quietly go into our schools, into our neighborhoods, into our homes, bearing witness and fortifying the human spirit. They know.
For social workers, their centripetal force is empathy, the ability (and desire) to place themselves in someone else’s shoes, to be able to look at the world through the eyes of others. Social workers, more than anyone, understand that empathy is the thread that holds the social fabric together. It’s what connects us. It’s what binds us. Social workers imagine what it’s like to be a young African American on Chicago’s west side, or an undocumented worker trying to raise a child in Phoenix, or a daughter of a drug-addicted mother in Seattle. Social workers know the forces that bear down on the human spirit, and so better than anyone know what it takes to strengthen the soul.
Clearly, my mom failed in her efforts to lure me into social work, but she taught me the essential place of empathy. And she left with me with what I believe to be the essential notion guiding social workers: if the community isn’t doing alright, neither am I.