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Currents - Jan/Feb 2013 Message from the President
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Message from the President

 

We Are our Brothers’ and Sisters’ Keepers

A Disaster, A Massacre and Ongoing Poverty

 

 

Martha Adams Sullivan, DSW

 
Within the last two months, we have experienced two catastrophic events. Hurricane Sandy hit the east coast destroying neighborhoods in New York City and New Jersey. Just over one month later, twenty six people, including very young children, were massacred at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut.

Is there anyone whose heart is not broken at the sight of a person walking in the rubble that had been their family home now realizing that they are homeless? Is there anyone who did not cringe at the thought of a kindergarten child being shot? No doubt, these events are community traumas. However, I mention these individuals remembering a rabbi who spoke at a healing gathering after 9/11. He reminded us then, that in that mass disaster, one person died. Three thousand times.

Collectively, we experience anxiety and fear, then grief and loss. We are reminded how vulnerable and how interconnected we truly are. What if the hurricane had hit my home? How safe are children in my neighborhood’s schools? In hindsight, we recognize behavioral flags that we missed. Or, we observe inequities in our responses to those who are affected. And we are also reminded that some are more vulnerable than others, safer than others and/or better able to rebound than others. Would my family and my community receive help if help was needed?

Our natural desire to make sense of our environment coupled with a fast moving, pervasive and nonstop media feeding information can lead to legends and misinformation. While it is tempting to comment on the details of the shootings at the Sandy Hook school, it may be some time before we really know what happened. For now, the discourse, understandably, has focused on mental illness and gun control. As social workers, how do we enter this discourse and expand it? These terrible events cause immense human suffering. They also raise questions about social policy and public health policy, as well as treatment and prevention.

The NYC Chapter had determined to focus our work in two areas: 1) addressing the state of the poor in New York City including understanding the impact of the present economy on social workers' lives and 2) addressing Multiculturalism, Diversity and Oppression in New York City. Elsewhere in this issue and in future issues of Currents you will see a fuller and continuing discussion of our work in these areas. For purposes of this discussion, suffice it to say that these issues are pertinent and they provide an expansive lens through which to move foreword as we try to figure out how we can better prepare for a recurrence, in the case of a natural disaster or prevent mass violence and how we can better respond. To do this honors the victims’ suffering and sacrifice.

To be clear, in no way does it diminish our concern about the horror of the killings at Sandy Hook to be mindful that everyday across this nation people, especially young men of color and other innocent victims, are dying on our streets due to senseless violence.

In no way does it diminish our concern for the families made homeless by hurricane Sandy to be mindful to avoid inequities in our response to affected communities.

To the extent mental illness may have been a factor in the Newtown killings; we know that mental health treatment, which happens to be largely provided by social workers, is effective. Mental health care needs to be more available, and accessible, not less. Agencies that provide this care need to be supported and provided adequate resources to provide quality care. We also need to work against stigma on all fronts, because stigma impedes access to care. We need to keep in mind, that people suffering from mental illness are much more likely than the general population to be victims of violence than perpetrators.

We need to work toward eradicating all forms of violence in our families, communities, the nation and the world, for that matter. How do we begin teaching our children how to resolve conflicts without resorting to physical and psychological domination of others? What do we teach children about how to protect themselves in environments that really are not safe?

When do we begin to address difference and work to deliberately create communities that affirm all and embrace difference without value judgments? Social work’s social justice ethic requires that we recognize and address all human suffering and vulnerabilities and take action to create a more just and equitable society. Perhaps the pain these families are experiencing and the sadness we all are experiencing along with them will motivate us all to raise our collective voices in whatever networks we find ourselves to broaden the discussion. That would honor them.

Here in New York City, many social workers were directly affected by the hurricane, with their homes and workplaces destroyed or uninhabitable. Yet, agencies and social workers found creative ways of maintaining services to clients despite significant hardship. I’d also like you to know that the Chapter also responded to the needs of victims of Hurricane Sandy. We were prepared to respond as we have had an active Disaster Trauma Committee since 1996, ably chaired by Madelyn Miller, PhD, LCSW. Our Executive Director, Robert Schachter, DSW and Madelyn Miller had the foresight to establish this Committee sixteen years ago after the TWA Flight 800 disaster. I suspect that few professional associations can claim to have a longer commitment to this field of practice. The Committee’s work incorporates a social work perspective in the approach to healing individuals, families and communities and provides much needed support for social workers who do this work.

I want to acknowledge Christine Quinn, Speaker of the New York City Council who recognized the expertise social workers bring and reached out to us to enlist more social workers to work with the City’s Medical Reserve Corps. The response was excellent with thirty members responding immediately and more continued to respond. The All Healers Mental Health Alliance, responding to a need for more volunteers of African Descent also reached out to the Chapter and we have supported their efforts beginning with co-sponsoring a training session to provide more volunteers. Similarly, the shelter at Hunter College reached out to the Chapter and the Committee for support and guidance and the Hunter School of Social Work publically expressed their appreciation of the expertise provided them. I doubt that this is an exhaustive list of the Chapter’s involvement. Certainly, as the effects of these ‘ripple out’, we will continue our efforts.

As we move forward from these terrible events, as we will, we will remember our collective responsibility to build a more caring and just society, especially for the most vulnerable.

 

 

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