The Springfield College School of Social Work
Fall 2012 Convocation Featured Speakers
Weekday Convocation - Emmi Schultz
Good morning and welcome everyone, it is truly an honor to be back at the Springfield College School of Social Work representing the weekday class of 2012. Now that I have graduated and begun my professional career as a Program Clinician, the past two years of graduate school seem so distant. I remember my first day of class so vibrantly as a Master of Social Work graduate student. I was anxious to meet my professors, classmates and begin absorbing the fantastic advanced generalist curriculum this school had to offer. The professors I had the pleasure of having as not only teachers but inspirational theorists and social justice advocates were exceptional in their teaching styles.
From day one, Professor Arce got us to learn every single one of our classmate’s names and opened our eyes to the world of social policy by letting us know we had the power to change the world! Dr. Fisher’s policy II class brought us to the Massachusetts State House for Legislative Education and Advocacy Day (or LEAD) which really inspired my passion for policy on micro, mezzo and macro levels. I had Dr. Mullin for both HBSE II and III and experienced his charismatic delivery of ideas, case examples and class material. Dr. Kokaliari, whom I’ve come to know as Efi, was always able to catch your attention, make you laugh (even in the case of an entire semester of class material focused on trauma) and somehow make psychodynamic theory seem simple.
Along the way, a multitude of papers were written and presentations delivered on topics of our heart’s desire. Two notable papers I recall being particularly passionate about were created for Dr. Fisher’s policy II class and the other for an independent study with Professor Habif. I researched Transgender Rights for policy II, since at the LEAD event members of Massachusetts Coalition for Transgender Rights held a small group on the current legislature they were working hard to get enacted: the Transgender Bill of Rights, which has since passed. My independent study focused on the stigma and stereotypes that envelop people experiencing homelessness, so I was able to thoroughly research this topic and began unearthing various latent systemic issues.
I was most thrilled to start my foundation year field placement at Communities for People, Inc. in Providence, RI. I worked as a clinician with young adults with severe and persistent mental illnesses living in a supervised apartment program. I found my second year field placement through the Mental Health Association of Rhode Island with the SSI/SSDI Outreach, Access and Recovery (SOAR) program in Pawtucket. We focused on helping people experiencing chronic homelessness obtain SSI/SSDI benefits in an expedited manner to utilize those benefits as a tool in their recovery from homelessness. Here I found my passion to help eradicate homelessness. I am elated to report the recent passing of the Homeless Bill of Rights in Rhode Island, and it is the hope that every state will begin to enact such legislature.
One of the most notable things I can say about this program is that there is a direct, reciprocal relationship between what is learned in the classroom (specifically theory, policy and research) and practice in the social work field. In this way, you feel more confident in your abilities as a social worker since you are able to draw on your classroom knowledge while practicing in the field and utilize case examples from your practice in the classroom to help clarify and inform theory. I enjoyed many aspects of this program, to be honest, as it truly allowed me to be creative and explore my interests. This expanded my enthusiasm for social work in such areas as homelessness, trauma-informed care, severe and persistent mental illnesses, LGBTQ issues and human rights.
Along the way, I had the opportunity to become the Vice President for the student organization. We invited several intriguing speakers to lecture on topics such as Attachment Theory and understanding transgender issues. I attended a conference on Borderline Personality Disorder with a fellow student and Dr. Kokaliari, which motivated me to select the adult mental health area of emphasis, as we were able to see iconic psychologists perform demonstrations utilizing Mentalization and Dialectical Behavior Therapy techniques.
All of the educational and direct-service experiences I had the opportunity to engage in prepared me well for my first professional position with Fellowship Health Resources, Inc. in Fall River, MA. I have obtained my LCSW and have started working on my next set of requirements to obtain my LICSW in the next few years with supervision offered through my agency. My responsibilities as a Program Clinician include creating annual treatment plans, completing comprehensive assessments, providing clinical supervision to case managers, attending weekly meeting with the Department of Mental Health and facilitating a weekly clinical meeting.
One thing you cannot say about the SCSSW is that there are not enough opportunities, so please take advantage of them! Get to know your professors and discover your passion in social work! In the words of the great female pioneer in social work Jane Addams, "Nothing could be worse than the fear that one had given up too soon, and left one unexpended effort that might have saved the world." Keep in mind as you go on your journey to increased awareness and education: we are all agents of change, so discover what it is you are deeply passionate about and start making positive changes, no matter large or small, for that noble cause. Thank you so much and good luck to you all throughout your journey here at the School of Social Work.
Weekend Convocation - Ron Fuhrmann
First and foremost, I want to say good morning to Springfield College's School of Social Work!
I want to thank Dr. Vecchiolla, the staff, and faculty of Springfield College's School of Social Work for the opportunity to return and speak to the soon graduating class of 2013, and to all those first and second year social work students who are listening to this convocation speech today.
As has already been stated, my name is Ron Fuhrmann and I am the Weekend Distinguished Graduate Student from 2012. As a weekend student, many of you will have no idea who I am, and in many cases, you will not remember me long after this speech. While the research varies, the typical attention span of a college age student is between ten and twelve minutes in length._ Therefore, I am not going to drone on, and on, about you "being the future of the social work field" or, "the importance of taking action in regards to social issues." If you are at Springfield College, then you have either heard or will be hearing these two themes from the faculty who are more articulate and educated about these themes than I.
Originally, I did not want to speak to you all about what I am going to discuss today. However, as I was writing, my wife Haylie asked me what the speech was about and I told her. Once I finished she looked at me and said, "That was good, but you know what I am going to say right?" When you live with someone for ten years you have a pretty good idea about what will come next.
She continued, "You need to tell people something about yourself. I know you hate talking about yourself but people need to hear your story."
I am someone who firmly believes in not making class time into therapy time, let alone a convocation speech. If you are nodding your head, or laughing, then you know exactly what I am talking about. My professors can attest to the fact that I kept my classroom discussion within the context of what we were covering in class. This morning however, I am going to break tradition. Today, I am going to tell you two inter-connected stories about my life. The stories that I am going to share with you all this morning I have not told my professors, or my colleagues.
My first story begins when I was between the ages of fourteen and fifteen years old. At the time, I was a freshman in high school going on ninety days worth of suspensions to finish out the school year. I was well known by my peers and my teachers for causing fights, being insubordinate and generally deeply involved in anti-social behaviors in school and in the community. At this point in my life, I was no longer living at home and instead, I was bouncing from friends homes, to park benches, to drug houses, to brothels, to abandoned homes, to homes where people were either on vacation, or in rehabilitative centers receiving treatment.
While my school attendance was lacking, I was receiving high grades in my "street education" courses outside of school. I could tell you that the best places to eat when you had no money and no place to go, was out of any pizza shop or donut shops dumpster. I could also tell you that spending the night in an all night laundry mat was much more preferable than sleeping outside.
During this time, I had associated myself with a small group of friends who had become quite adept at burglarizing homes. In particular, we would target homes that contained firearms and sell them on the street for profit. When I was younger, if you knew the right people, you could easily and cheaply buy a gun that had been used in a crime. However, guns that were from private collections, or in someone's home for hunting, or self-defense, could be sold for much more due to not having been involved in prior crimes. Thanks to these experiences, I can tell you what tools are needed to either remove the hinges off of a gun safe, or what tools are required to "peel" through the many layers of a gun safe that is made with internal hinges.
Just so we are all clear about something:
- When you steal guns, the local and state authorities take notice.
- When you steal guns and cross state lines with them the Federal Bureau of Investigations takes notice.
- When the Federal Bureau of Investigations takes notice, you get caught, and you get caught fast!
When the FBI came to my parent's home looking for me, my mother later told me that she answered the door with a mouthful of pork, thinking that Jehovah's Witnesses had come back to our home against her wishes. My mother later informed me that she knew that the gentleman at the door were not Jehovah's Witnesses since they both had guns holstered and at the ready.
Needless to say, I used to be in a great deal of trouble when I was younger and I have a juvenile record that would make most of the adults we work with blanche. While I am not trying to get into too much detail, I can assure you that I am only scratching the surface.
During the end of my freshman year, I had decided to come to school and learned that my homeroom teacher was sick and there was no one available to cover him. Therefore, my entire class had to go into a different classroom with tenth grade history teacher, Mr. Paul Coutu. While there, I viewed a copy of Joseph Heller's Catch 22 on his bookshelf and asked Mr. Coutu if he had ever read the book to which he looked at me and said, "I have Ron, why?" I then informed Mr. Coutu that I had read the book as well, and it was presently one of my favorites. Mr. Coutu looked skeptical, so we discussed a couple of the themes from the book and when we finished he stated, "I need to let you know something Ron, I am not going to let you scrape by anymore." I asked Mr. Coutu what he meant by this and he stated, "I will be going to the adjustment counselors office today and I will be asking for you to be put into college preparatory classes. I do not know what is going on in your life but you do not belong in the back of a classroom in my Current Events class. You are wasting my time there and you are wasting your potential."
This was the last time I ever spoke to Mr. Coutu.
Despite us never speaking again, Mr. Coutu did what he said he was going to do and I started my sophomore year of high school in college preparatory classes. Twenty years later, this story still stands out for me as one of the most important interactions I had with a teacher, or an adult, during this period of my life.
I had a reputation of being a "lost cause," "a criminal," and "a vagrant."
Does this sound like anyone you know? I am willing to bet that most of you have caseloads of people who fit these descriptions, however, we typically do not call them "lost causes," "criminals," or "vagrants."
We call them "clients."
Far too often, social workers use the word, "client" in a pejorative sense. Many social workers in the field, if you were to call them a "client" it would be equivocal to cursing out their mothers, or demeaning their children. The word "client" is often used equivocally to words such as "loser, deadbeat, drug addict" or worse. Oftentimes, when the word "client" is used it is in the context of someone engaged in a pattern of anti-social behaviors that does not want to change, no matter how much help or assistance they receive. "Clients" in this context are considered a "drain on the system" or "a waste of time" or a "lost cause" because "they" will not change.
Today, I am asking you to consider what the great philosopher, Martin Buber discussed when analyzing human relationships. Buber broke down human relationships into two distinct categories, "I - It" and "I - Thou." An "I - It" relationship is simply characterized as ones interaction with another through the use of the senses. These are surface interactions that are based on our experiences and do not consider the many systems at play in an individuals life or our common experiences as being fellow human-beings. Being a consumer in a Capitalist society is an "I - It" relationship. You are not a person, you are a consumer who pays x amount of dollars for a specific product.
An "I - Thou" relationship is simply characterized as ones interaction with the entirety of another. This relationship considers the whole individual, the mind, body and spirit (sound familiar?) as well as the common experiences shared by human-beings around the world, in terms of what it means to feel joy, sadness, pain, anger, or love.
When Mr. Coutu interacted with me twenty years ago, he simply told me that I was better than what my actions were showing him, and the world. This was an "I - Thou" relationship and even though it only lasted ten minutes, it had a profound effect on my life.
As social workers we need to assess the whole person and change the dialogue. Calling someone a "client" does not encompass who they are and does not set us up for success with our practice. This is an "I - It" relationship in which "clients" are reduced to a set of problems, behaviors and issues that need to be solved.
"Clients" are no different than you and I. As social workers we need to tap into that common humanity through our education and clinical acumen to produce real and significant change in their lives, and through changing their lives we will change the lives of those around them for the better.
My second story is about an interaction that I had while I was employed at a residential facility in Lancaster, MA. As things stand today, I have been in the field for fourteen years, as of June 5th, 2012. While working in residential, I worked with latency aged children and adolescents, both male and female. During my time at this agency I worked my way up from being a direct care worker, to a supervisor, to an assistant director, to a program director and finally, a school administrator.
Three years into my job experience I began working exclusively with adolescent males. During this time I met a young man, who for the sake of this speech will be referred to as "John." John had been in and out of juvenile detention facilities for most of his life. John only had familial involvement through a maternal uncle and his extended family. John did not know who his father was and knew that his mother was addicted to drugs and that he had been removed from her custody by the Department of Children and Families. When I first met John, I had gone to his room during evening routine time to ask him to clean it. I noticed that John's room was pristine, the bed was made with hospital corners and that he had his clothing neatly folded and laid out for the following day. I also observed that unlike most of the teenagers in the house, John had no personal affects in his bedroom. No pictures, no posters, no books, no nothing. After I looked around John's room, and praised him for how clean it was, I asked him where all of his stuff was.
John laughed and pulled out a large trunk from under his bed.
He then stated, "I keep everything right in here and ready to go. I know I will not be here long. I have been through seventeen of these places. I have learned that it is a waste of time to settle in, when a move is inevitably coming."
At the time, I did not know that John also had a reputation of assaulting male staff. John was large for his age and engaged in calisthenics through out the day, every day. John was also smart and charismatic and as a result, many of the teenagers in the residential facility wanted to either be friends with John or were very afraid of him. The same could be said for the staff members working there as well.
One day, I came into work and found a number of holes had been punched in the walls and was told that a staff member had been violently assaulted. I was also told that John had run off during the altercation and was presently being held in a closed door seclusion room, at one of our other facilities, for the safety of the staff members working with him. I was concerned to hear this and even more concerned when I was told that I would be his one to one staff for the remainder of the week. I was informed by my supervisor that John and I had a good relationship and that he had asked for me by request, to sit with him, much to the relief of many of my colleagues.
I arrived at the seclusion room and found John inside. When I arrived I opened the door, against the wishes of the staff member who had been sitting there prior, watching John on a video camera. I spoke with John about what happened. He informed me that a new staff member had "disrespected him" and "put his hands on him." John informed this worker that the staff member was "just trying to treat me like some kid he can push around because he is an adult who works here. He asked me to put my stuff away after dinner and I was not done eating. I am the cleanest person in the entire house, you know that! I do everyone else's chores in the house because they are so lazy and because I want the extra money. This guy doesn't know me Ron, he is just another person that works at these places and I am just another kid that won't follow directions when he wants me to." John laughed, and then for the first time since we had been working together, he had tears in his eyes. "I did not think they would send you here to see me because I asked for you. Ron, the only reason I asked you to come here is because you treat me like a human being. That is all I wanted. You talk to all of us like we are human beings."
I listened to John's story and when he was done we sat quietly for a long time and we just looked at each other. My mind was a flurry of emotions and for one of the first time in three years I was not really what sure what to do, or to say.
Then for the first time in nearly ten years I heard a small, familiar voice tell me, "I need to let you know something Ron, I am not going to let you scrape by anymore." All of the feelings and emotions of that time in my life flooded back to me and at that instant I was not there with John, I was back in that high school classroom speaking to Mr. Coutu about Catch 22. I remembered how important it was for someone to cut through all the circumstances in my life, no matter how egregious they were, and genuinely tell me that "I was important" and that "I was capable of better."
My brain was telling me that John was in a place where I could engage him in a genuine dialog about his circumstances and his situation. I knew that the conversation did not need to be complex, or lengthy, because someone had cared enough ten years earlier to have the same conversation with me. I simply looked at John and stated, "I need to let you know something John, I am not going to let you scrape by anymore." I worked with John for the next two years. At the age of sixteen, John had successfully completed two years of schooling, had been restraint free and was going to leave to live with his uncle in northeastern Massachusetts. I was not working the day John was discharged. In typical John fashion his room was immaculate and there was no trace of him left in the residential program. While I was sad that I missed his departure, I was also very happy for him as it was time for him to move on to bigger and better things.
Four years later, I was the program director at the same adolescent facility. Every morning I would come in and check my emails and my phone messages. I noticed that I received a phone message from an unfamiliar number that I would later learn was from Texas. I listened to the voice message, which was short and to the point:
"Ron, it is John. I just wanted to thank you. I did not forget what you told me so I wanted to let you know that I am living in Texas with some of my extended family. When I left, I learned how to weld and got my certification. I now work on an oil rig and I am making really good money. I won't be calling again because I am closing the door on that part of my life. I just wanted to let you know that everything turned out ok. Good luck, and thanks again!
The phone hung up.
I did not have to write this phone call down and I only listened to it once and erased it.
I will never forget that phone call.
In a strange turn of events, I had become John's Mr. Coutu. It was not until I wrote this speech and had everything laid out in front of me that I realized how all of the dots had connected. In a speech given by the late Steven Jobs at Stanford University he stated "You cannot connect the dots looking forward, you can only connect the dots when you are looking at the past."
As social workers we rarely get to view the fruits of our labor. Every now and then, we are able to get a glimpse of the profound power that we have on the lives of others and it is humbling.
The reason I am sharing these stories with you all, is that I feel it is important for us as social workers to breathe the humanity back into our interactions with the individuals, families, and systems that we serve. As advanced generalist social workers, we are the pinnacle of understanding the relationship, dependence, co-dependence and interdependence of many vast and complex systems that affect the individuals that we serve. Through our education and our skill sets we are the natural ambassadors of Martin Buber's "I - Thou" relationship.
If we want to change the future, then one of the most important things we can do as social workers, is to change our dialogue from "I - It" to "I - Thou."
Thank you all for your time and may God bless you, your family, and Springfield College.