What I Need to “Leave at the Door”

Recently, I found this blog post when searching the “social work” tag on wordpress.  I can’t seem to get it out of my head, and I knew I needed to write about it after some reflection.

I’m currently an MSW candidate and will be starting my second and final year in just a few weeks.  It’s kind of overwhelming (and so exciting!) to think that this will be my last fall semester ever… unless I really lose my sanity and decide to pursue an additional degree sometime in the future.  A little low-down on how MSW programs work: you go to school full-time (12-15 credit hours per semester) while also partaking in a practicum/internship 14-21 hours per week.  The students in my program get to choose the area of practice we’d like to work in, and we’re matched the best we can be with an agency in the area that serves our desired populations.  As is to be expected, sometimes you don’t get a placement in an agency that serves the population you wish to work with.

A cornerstone of our profession is cultural competency, inclusion, and recognizing bias.  We’re expected to be prepared and willing to work with any population.  The phrase “leave it at the door” feels like the social work mantra at times.  Any bias, discomfort, preconceived notions, and negative feelings about our clients or our served population(s) cannot, under any circumstances, affect the quality of service we provide to them.  In addition to “leaving it at the door,” compassion, understanding, and empathy must rule our practice in order for us to best help our clients and serve our agencies.

There was something I noticed in my first year that always seemed to bother me.  Instead of working on recognizing bias and leaving those biases at the door, many of my classmates seemed to prefer to just not work with certain populations at all.  I eventually lost count of the number of times I’d heard the laundry lists of populations my classmates refused to work with: homeless individuals, those with mental illness, and people battling addiction were the usual suspects.  The more of this talk I encountered, the more frustrated I became.  We all, even me, have populations that we’d prefer to work with over others, but the downright refusal to work with certain populations because of stereotypes and preconceived notions of that population’s defining characteristics?  Beyond frustrating.  On a regular basis, I’d say to myself something along the lines of, “so-and-so doesn’t deserve to be a social worker”  I lost all patience for that kind of exclusionary attitude.

Then I read the post at The Direction Not The Destination, and I was humbled.  While I was silently berating some of my classmates for not being willing to leave their biases at the door, I was doing the same thing to them.  In my work with clients, I strive to approach them with an open heart and open mind.  I became so focused on being the best social worker I could be that I was not treating my future colleagues with the same kindnesses.  I was holding them to an unfair standard – a standard that could only be met if they weren’t human.  I still believe that discrimination (particularly from those in a profession whose code of ethics explicitly decries such practice) is wrong, unethical, and unacceptable.  However, I’ve learned that transforming discrimination into compassion and understanding requires compassion and understanding – not condescension.

After all, we all have something to leave at the door.

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