Yesterday, I had the distinct pleasure of delivering the commencement keynote address for Stony Brook University’s School of Social Welfare. Here’s what I said:
I’m supposed to tell you that today is not the end of your education, but the beginning, that everything you have done so far has been preparing you for this moment and that the future belongs to you. Then like most other commencement speakers, I’d challenge you to get out there and change the world. You’d clap and then you’d be one step closer to having a reasonable facsimile of a social work degree in your hands.
I’ll say all that, but we have to talk about something else first.
Today, it happened again. The last time, we said “not one more” and we offered our thoughts and prayers. Another ten young people lost their lives today and became the latest victims of a school shooting.
American needs you to whatever you can as social workers to address gun violence.
This fall, when candidates for public office knock on your door or grab you outside the bagel store on a Sunday morning, ask them where they stand on gun control. If you don’t like their answer, talk to their opponents. If you don’t like their answers, please – especially those of you in the first nine rows – run for office yourself.
America needs social work now more than ever before.
If you have any doubt, quickly hop onto Twitter any morning before – say 10:00AM – or tune into any 24/7 news channel for five minutes and you’ll receive immediate confirmation that in fact, our nation has lost its collective mind and could certainly benefit from the services of a social worker or a whole bunch of them.
Charles Dickens, in 1859, wrote that: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us….”
Those, of course, are the opening words to “Tale of two Cities.” Reconciling two very different cities, or better yet, rebuilding a single unified place that is stronger, safer, more prosperous and hopeful for everyone is the essence of social work. And given the challenges of today, there has never been a more important time be a social worker.
If we don’t address those challenges, who will?
Amazon disrupted shopping. Uber and Lyft disrupted transportation. Airbnb disrupted lodging. Apple, Tesla, Patagonia, Warby Parker and SoulCycle are all disruptors. Who will finally disrupt rampant poverty, inequality, homelessness, racism, sexism, homophobia, illiteracy, addiction and all the other problems that have challenged us since the beginning of time?
There’s no app for that. That’s why we’re counting on you.
I grew up here on Long Island and never left. This is an amazing place full of natural beauty, vibrant businesses and an unlimited supply of really smart and talented young people ready to make this place their home.
But America’s first and quintessential suburb has its fair share of problems and a trip from Elmont to Montauk tells the proverbial Tale of Two Cities.
While some school districts are handing out iPads to students, others are asking kids to share Clinton-Era textbooks that have been duct-taped back together.
Hempstead High School, for example, had a graduation rate last year of 37%, while 98% of Garden City High School’s seniors – just a few miles aay – received a diploma.
We see the same disparities based on race, ethnicity and gender when it comes to poverty, unemployment, homelessness, disease patterns, involvement with the criminal justice system and other key indicators.
In recent years, the upswing in gang-related murders, drug overdose deaths and all that comes with unchecked violence and untreated addiction have cracked Long Island’s suburban veneer. The common thread between gangs and drugs is hopelessness, sadness and despair.
Gangs create alternative realities – a new family, a sense of belonging, a sense of significance and a sense of power. Opioids, heroin and other drugs numb the pain, calm the nerves and allow a temporary escape. Without intervention, addiction is progressive and so is violence.
But there’s another common thread in how we approach both problems.
We talk tough, declare war on gang kingpins and drug dealers and double down on law enforcement.
A law enforcement response to public health problems like substance use disorders and community violence might tamp down public outrage and fear, but never reaches the root causes.
Young people join gangs because it’s easier to get a gun than it is to get a job. They use drugs because it’s easier to get heroin than it is to get treatment. Arrest one gang member or a drug dealer and two more will take their place. Despite outward appearances, they’ll do it somewhat reluctantly and after traveling a road that brings them to that place. That’s where and when we should be intervening.
Instead, we wait. Then we try to wrestle that gun or needle from their hands as they hold on for dear life.
As we deploy more cops, how about we also deploy more social workers? Let’s replace crime scenes with community centers and special investigations with job opportunities. Let’s combat gang recruitment tactics with equally aggressive exit strategies for kids who feel trapped. Let’s rebuild our community parks, make sure there are things for kids to do and help indigenous community leaders change the culture from inside. Let’s make sure that those who need counseling or treatment can get it on demand.
Our push for these things is what sets social workers apart from other disciplines. It’s that combining case and cause that differentiates us from Mental Health Counselors and other allied health professionals. It’s turning that shingle that others hang outside their offices into a placard we carry into the streets of Washington DC, Albany and right here in our own communities that makes our work unique. It’s our central belief that democracy is as important as the DSM-5 that makes our work vital.
Which leads me back to all of you. You will be asked countless times over the course of your career, “how did you get into that line of work?”
You’ll probably shrug your shoulders, look down and say “I just kind of fell into it,” before proclaiming yourself a “people person” and stringing together a vague narrative about how people have always been comfortable talking with you about their problems.
We often say we “just fell into it.”
I didn’t and neither did you. Social work isn’t anyone’s default career choice, nor should it be.
You’re here for a reason.
You probably didn’t go into social work for the money.
You probably didn’t do it for the fancy offices, the perks, the status or the prestige.
Here’s my guess…at some point in time you experienced or witnessed something that helped shape your path in life.
Maybe you watched a single parent work three jobs as they struggled to do their best for you or maybe you wondered why you and your friends were followed around a store by a security guard, while other kids who were actually stealing stuff were not.
Maybe you rode your bike between very disparate and segregated communities on Long Island and wondered what was so magical about those railroad tracks.
Maybe your world was rocked by a family member struggling with untreated addiction, mental illness or a chronic health condition.
Maybe you’ve struggled with those things yourself.
I don’t know what it was that got you here and perhaps you don’t know yet either, but there was something that made you to want to alleviate another’s suffering.
There’s a reason that you’re able to spot injustice in both its most subtle and overt forms and there’s something in here (heart) that compels you to speak up while others remain silent.
There’s something in here (heart) that allows you to hold hope for others, while they work to regain it and something in here (head) that allows you to find innovative solutions to complex problems, sometimes one person at a time.
That’s not to say it comes easy.
When we connect – truly connect – with that teen suffering from addiction, the young woman about to flee domestic violence, the homeless veteran, the family six months behind on their mortgage, the transgender kid being bullied or the recent immigrant facing deportation, we have to connect with something in ourselves that knows that feeling.
We may or may not have experienced childhood trauma or institutional racism.
But there’s undoubtedly been points in our lives when we felt scared, alone, uncertain, like we didn’t fit in and vulnerable. And each interaction with another human being in that place brings us right back there, even if only momentarily.
Maybe someone helped you during a time of need and that’s how you came to understand the value of social work, not as a career, but as a calling. Maybe nobody was able or willing to help you and that’s why you’re here.
Either way, our willingness and ability to connect so deeply with another person, to win their trust, and to share perhaps the most challenging moment in their lives is truly a gift.
Social worker and author Brene Brown reminds us that “Our willingness to own and engage with our vulnerability determines the depth of our courage and the clarity of our purpose; the level to which we protect ourselves from being vulnerable is a measure of our fear and disconnection.”
At a time when Americans are more disconnected than ever before, we need your willingness to go to places that make you uncomfortable and push your own limits.
If it doesn’t challenge you, it won’t change you. If you can’t change yourself, I’m not sure that you’ll be able to change anyone else.
When someone asks you what you do, imagine that you are putting on that imaginary social work super hero cape with the big SW on it, look them in the eye and tell them that you are making Long Island or wherever you choose to work, a better place one person, one family and one community at a time.
When they ask you why you do it, take a chance and tell your story. Odds are, they’ll tell you theirs’. Then quietly remind them that those who are closest to the problems are also closest to the solutions. That’s how we build a movement.
Once again THANK YOU for the privilege of sharing these very best of times with you and your families. Good luck and god bless you all.