By: Natasha K. Nalls, MSW
I entered an MSW program immediately following the completion of my Bachelor of Arts degree. I did not personally know any social workers, yet I had a vague, optimistic perception of why I was entering the social work profession. Although I was unsure of my long-term career aspirations, I was sure of one thing: I wanted to help people. More specifically, as a young African American woman, I wanted to use myself both personally and professionally to have a positive impact on the African American community. I wanted to be an agent of change. Throughout my academic social work training, I closely identified with the profession’s core ideals, principles, and values. The ecosystems model especially stood out to me, as I believed that individuals could not be assessed in a vacuum, but rather as a direct product of their social environments. In terms of program planning and administration, I found myself captivated by my courses on program evaluation and grant writing. I knew that I was being introduced to the theoretical frameworks and concrete practicum experiences needed to fast track my career aspirations and really help people. Combined, my field experience and coursework gave me invaluable insight as to what I could expect once I entered the field as a professional social worker. I graduated on May 16, 2007, in New York, NY. By June 1, I had moved back home to Miami, FL, and was working on a per diem basis for a community-based mental health agency that served highly at-risk children. Shortly thereafter, I acquired a full-time position working with juvenile delinquents who were facing adult sanctions for felony law violations.
As I reflect on my past year as a recent post graduate and new practitioner, my immediate concerns reflect age-old debates that our profession and practitioners have confronted. These include the micro work versus macro change debate, case work and management versus clinical intervention, social workers’ competency to be both line workers and agency leaders, and lastly, maintaining social work principles and values while working within host agencies and non-social service systems.
While these issues remain at the backdrop of my professional experiences, what continues to amaze me most is the experience of working within my own community. I am working at home. The background here is the fact that I had been “away” for some time. I had left Miami to attend college in Southern California. Following college, I moved to New York to obtain my MSW. Although I had spent most of my summers in Miami and visited home several times a year, returning home as both a professional and young adult was something totally different. Being a social worker afforded me a particular lens through which to understand and examine my community’s problems. I believed this experience was exacerbated by the fact that I worked with the city’s most vulnerable population—children who had come from some of the most difficult family circumstances imaginable. Moreover, Miami is a very special space in which to practice social work.
Like any other major urban metropolis, Miami is a space wrought with its share of social problems, including substantial crime and poverty rates, high HIV/AIDS incidence, and low high school graduation rates. Although Miami often conjures up images of palm trees and South Beach, the city is largely racially and culturally segregated, as well as economically and socially stratified. Miami’s economic and social diversity aggravates its stratification, as haves and have-nots live within close proximity of each other, but in very separate worlds. In this way, the poorest of the city are highly exposed to the glitz, but have zero access.
Given this context for my work, I began to think about the idea of “community social work practice” and what the term meant. I began to reflect upon my co-workers’ perspectives on clients and consider why I sometimes felt differently. What I also noticed was that most of my professional colleagues, and a majority of my co-workers, were transplants, or non-native Miamians who resided in various suburbs of the city. I concluded that this at least somewhat accounted for their experiences of clients and largely accounted for their “othering.” Often, for example, even their verbal accounting of their work included language such as “these people” or an emphasized “they.” I, on the other hand, often found myself saying “my kids.”