“Just tell me what to do!”
These were dreaded words for me to hear in my roles as a teacher or supervisor. It signaled an internalized belief that only an expert in power could dictate the terms of their life, their work, and their studies. The question implied that the speaker had either been successfully colonized or domesticated, at least superficially, or they were unwilling to take risks to chart their own course – an absence of vision and passion that was deadly. They were willing to wait for someone else, someone smarter, someone with higher “status,” to tell them what to do.
It’s never been easy for me to follow orders, so I am very cautious about giving them. Whether it was in a classroom or a work situation, I have always preferred to explore options through dialogue with the people who were most directly affected by issues and those who had to implement tasks, solutions and innovations. I have often wondered why so many people unquestioningly follow leaders and are unable or unwilling to simply decide for themselves. This inability to recognize one’s own ability to transform at least some parts of one’s environment perpetuates the status quo. We wait for those in power to do what is more effectively done on a local level through face-to-face engagement. Why can’t we decide how to address homelessness or hunger in our own communities? Or end racism and discrimination? Improve schools that don’t teach students what they really need to know? Change hospitals or prisons that don’t help heal people? Or improve social services that don’t even provide effective band aids let alone cures?
Too often, we willingly accept the pronouncements from above that social problems are not due to structural inequalities, they’re due to poor decision making, bad personal choices, deviant people, or deficient cultures.
The generic process of Blaming the Victim is applied to almost every American problem. The miserable health care of the poor is explained away on the grounds that the victim has poor motivation and lacks health information…. The “multi problem poor,” it is claimed, suffer the psychological effects of impoverishment, the “culture of poverty,” and the deviant value system of the lower classes; consequently, though unwittingly, they cause their own troubles. (William Ryan, pp. 5-6)
I remember serving on a technical review panel to uncover the causes of alarmingly high infant mortality rates for Native Americans in Wisconsin. As the only Native American on the review panel, the only one without a medical background, I read the medical records from a different perspective. Where others quickly detected patterns of poor health decisions and potentially criminal behavior, I saw consequences of the legacy of poverty and colonial oppression. The solutions to address deviance and criminality are to increase surveillance and enforce compliance with professional or legal dictates. As the boundary spanner on the panel, my role was to translate another paradigm. My staff and I developed alternatives – programs that worked to reweave connections to support families and create services that community members found welcoming and culturally appropriate. We needed to convince nonbelievers on the panel that this was really a more effective approach. We needed to convince tribal communities that it was possible to be partners in creating new health service paradigms. And we needed to find funders.
Instead of relying solely on medical records to find underlying causes, we asked tribal staff and community members: “What has changed as a result of colonialism?” We listened, observed, and reflected on what we learned and designed a series of projects to respond. If colonialism has disrupted traditional community bonds, diets, governments, spirituality, education, where do we begin? How can we help families so their infants can survive their first year of life?
Our challenge was to walk in two worlds – to reweave traditional community informal supports and re-envision the role of health providers. Our goal was not to change individuals but to work in partnership with each community to rebuild networks of support for families. We created a network of nurses and paraprofessionals with the “dream catcher” as the symbol of our work together. Like the strands of the dream catcher, we would work together to screen out the harmful influences in the lives of children and families and only allow the good influences to come through. With maternal child health nurses, family advocates, and community mentors, we built a network across nine geographically dispersed Algonquin nations, drawing from traditional cultures to create ceremonies that brought people together to share and honor their work.
Our critics were not convinced that this was the best approach. The federal funders for the project wanted to require all of the infant-mortality reduction projects located in poor communities across the country to force participating families and infants to “comply” with medical appointments scheduled in clinics at times that were convenient for healthcare providers. As the federal staff noted at the national meeting in Washington DC, “Those people need to learn how to be more responsible for their own health.” I looked around the room and noticed that the directors and evaluators of the other 35 projects in the room did not appear to be ethnically representative of the communities they were hired to serve. I watched as the majority nodded their approval of this new requirement. I nudged my evaluator, a nationally-renowned child welfare researcher, and whispered in his ear. “I’m sorry if I embarrass you, but I can’t let this pass unopposed.” I stood up and responded. “I’m not sure about the other project directors, but the families I work with are my people. The goal of our project is to help infants survive. We don’t care how families and infants access the services and supports they need, we only care that they do. Let me tell you a story that explains our approach.”
I proceeded to tell the story of a tribal family advocate on her first day of work. She went to a scheduled home visit to check on a newborn. When she pulled into the driveway, the house was quiet. All the curtains were drawn and it looked deserted. Knowing the community, she got out of her car and walked toward the front door. Suddenly, she heard a loud whisper, “Carrie, Carrie, come to the back door. Hurry!” Carrie hurried to the back and walked in. “Duck”, said the mother. “We’re hiding. The health department is coming.” Carrie laughed and replied, “I am the health department.” It makes a difference when communities are able to hire staff that community members trust, people who are welcomed into the homes of community members. As I ended my story, hands went up around the room. All of the project directors had changed their minds. This requirement would have to go.
There were other stories I could have told about the benefits of working in partnership with communities on the projects that affect them. Staff in one community asked elders to make dream catchers for a small honorarium that helped offset their extremely low incomes. Traditional healers blessed the dream catchers and presented them to each new infant. Staff in another community created a women’s crafting circle. The women gathered together to knit, crochet, and sew gifts for infants. As a group, the circle of women presented their gifts to newborns, each holding the new child to welcome him or her into the community. The staff person explained the significance. “By holding the child, each woman creates a promise that she will always be there to watch over the child.”
If we create opportunities and spaces for communities to reweave connections, I’m convinced anything is possible. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist. It takes heart and vision.
William Ryan (1976). Blaming the Victim (revised, updated edition). New York, NY: Vintage Books.
This post appeared on Carol’s blog VOICES FROM THE MARGINS HERE