The Stories We Tell Ourselves: An Introduction to the Series
Theologian Frederick Buechner described vocations as the ‘place where our deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet’. Throughout our mentoring relationship, Dr. Kelly modeled being in and doing social work from that place. He was particularly committed to our professional community’s collective ability and obligation to abolish white supremacy. In this vein, he received my concerns about school social work history with seriousness and enthusiasm. Throughout our conversations about this series, Dr. Kelly encouraged me to balance a critical eye with a humble eye and to call social work in.
This series is dedicated to Dr. Kelly’s legacy and to everyone in our professional community who is called to the place where gladness and hunger meet.
When I am asked to explain the value of history in social work practice I often paraphrase my colleague Justin Harty-“How can we meet a client where they are if we don’t know where they have been?” followed by a story from my own practice experience. When I moved to Chicago 5 years ago from central Texas I knew nothing about the city. When I took the position as a school-community social worker in Bronzeville it became obvious that anti-oppressive, trauma-informed practice would not be possible without a historical lens. Bronzeville is a historically Black neighborhood on the Southeast side of Chicago that has been shaped by decades of racist city policies and generations of community resistance. For example, in 2017 when I began practicing in Bronzeville Chicago Public Schools (CPS), despite community protest, had recently closed dozens of schools in the neighborhood. The feelings of collective grief, what Sociologist Dr. Eve L. Ewing calls institutional mourning, were palpable. Further, the non-profit I worked for was housed in the historic Roberts Temple, the location of Emmett Till’s 1955 open-casket funeral.
It quickly became obvious, before I could meet Bronzeville’s students and families where they were, I needed to know where they had been.
More recently I have recognized that having a historical lens in my practice requires learning about the history of the profession I am a part of. What history was I carrying with me when I walked into a school? How did this history impact the way students and families perceived me? How was this history linked to my social position as a White woman? Furthermore, none of the history I had learned about school social work and even the profession more broadly had critically engaged with race, gender, politics, class, and place.
While there have been efforts to reexamine the history of social work, little attention has been dedicated to the history school social work. School social work history is mostly told and understood through a shared commonsense understanding amongst practitioners. This vague understanding of our own history creates an opportunity for unsupported tales to spread. It becomes reasonable to claim that school social work has a universal legacy of social justice projects. It becomes acceptable for our profession to predominantly focus on changing individual students. It is commonly understood that school social work has been impacted by shifts in policy and politics even if we can’t place how or when. This lack of historical knowledge is limiting and potentially dangerous. It limits our ability to know ourselves as a community of practitioners and limits our ability to recognize how we may be perceived by the communities we practice in. It is dangerous because it helps us forget the harm we have caused and makes us vulnerable to possibly repeating that harm. Lastly, it obstructs our ability to recognize the value of independent community mutual aid projects.
‘The Stories We Tell Ourselves’, came from a desire to contrast commonly held ideas about the school social work against the profession’s archives.
In this series I call these ideas ‘stories’ because they are the histories that form our professional culture and identity. When a story about who we are and what our impact has been becomes widely circulated it changes how we see our profession and how we present ourselves in daily practice.
I want to offer counterstories to what may be considered common sense stories about school social work. In the tradition of critical race theory (CRT) some counter stories focus on the untold histories of marginalized communities, whereas others interrogate privilege. This series intends to do the latter by examining how Whiteness and class privilege are often obscured in broad, commonsense understandings of school social work history.
About the Series
In this series, I will focus on school social work in the early 20th century. Commonly known as the Progressive Era, the early 20th century was a period of major change in the United States. The turn of the 20th century included the development of social services, mass urbanization, an influx of European immigration, and the start of the Great Migration. I will revisit our professional archives during this period. Notably, this is the period when school social work professionalized, meaning it was the period when boundaries of professional knowledge and competency were drawn.
To truly reconsider the ‘stories we tell ourselves’ we must revisit school social work’s period of professionalization.
In this series, I will contrast four ‘stories we tell ourselves’ against the early 20th-century school social work archives:
Since the professionalization of school social work in the Progressive Era direct practice has been shaped by what was considered the ‘best’ or most legitimate forms of scientific evidence. In this article, I will examine how Progressive Era notions of science were rooted in the White supremacist eugenics movement. Additionally, I will explore how eugenics ideology impacted casework, the standard method of practice during the early 20th century. Read part 1.
School social work has been engaging with the topics of immigration and citizenship for over a century. This story will reexamine the archives to unpack the complex and contradictory rhetoric school social work used to describe immigrant families during the early 20th century. Read part 2.
Despite Supreme Court rulings and various subsequent desegregation programs, racial segregation in American public schools remains a pervasive problem. In this story, I will revisit the role of school social work in constructing school segregation during the Progressive Era. Read part 3.
Our profession has been dominated by White women. I do not use the word ‘dominated’ simply as a nod to the demographics of school social work in the Progressive Era and presently (though that would not be entirely unreasonable). Rather I use it to describe White womanhood as a structural force that has impacted our professional knowledge and identity. This article will first offer a definition of White womanhood before describing how White womanhood influenced school social work. Read part 4.
Method: Behind the Curtain of the Series
The archives I used for this series are not materials written about our profession, but rather materials by our profession. This includes journal articles, conference proceedings, professional association materials, and reports. These archives were circulated nationally and were a site of professional dialogue. Through these archives school social workers shared case examples, formed professional knowledge, applied for membership to professional associations, and published opinion pieces. The archives were gathered, organized, and shared by Mr. Randy Fisher. This series is indebted to the efforts of Mr. Fisher, a longtime school social worker, former Executive Director of SSWAA, and dedicated “school social work historian.”
Thinking about Place
By 1924 school social work had a presence across the continental United States. The archives include conference proceedings from annual association meetings around the country as well as reports of regional school social work practice. Even with attempts by early 20th-century school social workers to have a national dialogue, for two reasons the Upper Midwest and Northeast regions were still privileged throughout the archives.
First, the private foundations and wealthier municipal governments that were able to employ school social workers were located in the Upper Midwest and Northeast. As a result, the densely populated cities of the Upper Midwest and Northeast were able to develop a robust school social work presence. While cities like New York City and Chicago had several school social workers, rural districts often had one school social worker for the entire county. Second, the archives were published in Philadelphia by the White-Williams Foundation which likely furthered the regional specific focus of the archives.
Given the importance of place in historical analysis, I made an effort to give the location and date of archives when possible. Further, though the archives mainly reflect the Upper Midwest and Northeast, I did purposively engage with archives situated in the South and West to provide a more robust understanding of school social work history.
Answering Historical Questions Through Critical Discourse Analysis
In this analysis I draw from critical discourse analysis (CDA), a qualitative method often connected to Sociology. Within CDA discourse is defined as the alignment between talk, text, and action. For example, the school social work archives I am using reflect professional discourse because they reflect public speech and professional practice. CDA is concerned with what discourse does in the world rather than what it means to the individual (van Dijk, 1993). My use of CDA in this series aims to shift our focus away from individual practitioners to the profession’s relationship with power.
To demonstrate, CDA contrasts with the practice of process recordings. In MSW programs, students often use process recordings to analyze how language (verbal and non-verbal) impacts the therapeutic relationship. Rather than seeking to understand how a practitioner or a client makes meaning of language, I am concerned with how school social work’s discourse in the early 20th century engaged with and reproduced inequitable distributions of power.
Limitations of the Series
As stated previously these counterstories will interrogate Whiteness and class privilege during school social work’s period of professionalization in the early 20th century. As a result, the focus of the series will be the visiting teachers’ movement between 1906-1935. While I think it is important to interrogate Whiteness, this series has several limitations.
First, while the visiting teachers’ movement was the first professionalized school social work movement, it is not the origin of school social work. If we understand school social work to be the link between the home, school, and community for the purpose of protecting students’ access to a meaningful public education, then we could consider the Freedman Bureau during Reconstruction as the beginning of school social work. While this series will not investigate school social work during Reconstruction, I think it is worth examining the period of professionalization in the early 20th century. Since professionalization includes cultivating professional knowledge and identity, it is reasonable to think that the visiting teachers’ movement continues to impact school social work today.
Second, this series does not reflect the histories of Black, Indigenous and Practitioners of Color (BIPOC) during the early 20th century. As I will examine throughout the series, the visiting teachers’ movement was an exclusionary movement that reflected the labor, ambitions, and interests of select White women. Therefore, this series should be regarded as reflective of one movement within school social work during the early 20th century. In this series, I aim to not center Whiteness but interrogate it. While I think interrogating Whiteness is important I also acknowledge that it is limited. Wherever there is oppression there is resistance. Therefore, while the interrogation of Whiteness requires a critical eye, we need to couple a critical eye with a humble eye. Though the traditions and practice knowledge of BIPOC social work histories are not reflected in the archives, they were a source of liberation and support during the early 20th century. Below are some books and resources that center Black and Indigenous histories in social work:
- Black Contributions to Mutual Aid, Social Welfare, and Social Work History by Justin Harty
- Indigenous Social Work Practice Traditions
- Indigenous People and the Social Work Profession: Defining Culturally Competent Services
By revisiting our own historical archives I hope to offer clarity, nuance, and context to school social work’s professional knowledge and identity. While this history impacts school social work broadly, it is important to note that practitioners’ relationship with this history will be different depending on their position. For some, this may be totally new information. For others, this information may confirm what you already know to be true. Ultimately I write this series to hold school social work accountable and to engage in a conversation about our profession’s history in a way that is meaningful to contemporary practice.
We want to thank Justin Harty LCSW for his editorial work on these pieces.
Articles in this Series:
van Dijk, T. A. (1993). Principles of critical discourse analysis. Discourse & society, 4(2), 249-283. https://www.cda20plus.humanities.uva.nl/wp-content/uploads/2014/05/van-Dijk_1993-Principles-of-CDA.pdf