I Am Both the Oppressor and the Oppressed
It is interesting that I am a child of the 60’s, yet in those formative years I found it easy to “talk the talk”, but avoided direct involvement in such important movements as civil rights and equal rights for women. I could articulate my support for racial equality, and, of course, equal rights for women; yet my unconscious programming was so firmly in place I could only conceive of obtaining the “American Dream”. For me, that meant finding a husband, having children and living happily ever after in a little house in the city, complete with picket fence. This came with the expectation that merely by attrition, I would be availed this experience in life without much work. This was a posture so deeply buried in me that I didn’t even know it existed.
Remarkably, I can look back now at the attitude I carried into my adult life as both oppressive and oppressed. I was left to an empty experience of life, endlessly striving to be someone as defined by what I could extract from life. I engaged in conversations supporting oppression, as well as expressing disdain for other’s experiences of oppression…“If only those people who complain about discrimination and feeling oppressed would ‘get with the picture’, work, quit having children, get off welfare and make something of themselves, we would all be better off.”. I resented affirmative action efforts, and I participated in the ugly game of victim blaming.
This unconscious beast of oppression followed its natural progression. I became fundamentally disconnected from not only other people and my environment, but from the possibility of my own worth as a fully functioning human being.
I married (twice), bore two children and have owned 2 homes to date. Yet, after the experience of 2 failed businesses, 2 divorces, a bankruptcy and a foreclosure, I was faced with the question of my life. What happened to the promise of happiness?
This was an emotional and spiritual turning point in my life. I was beginning to recognize the result of my “learned helplessness” and irresponsible attitudes. In effect, I got a glimpse of how I’d been living an apathetic, system drugged and “programmed” life.
Driven by this new awakening, I found a sense of belonging in the world. I also gained the freedom to give up having to be perfect. This was a significant step for me.
I returned to school and earned my bachelor’s degree. Here too, I began to recognize the value of a connection with others, and their experiences as well as coming to value my inherent personal skills and how I could make a difference.
I have learned that it is in the course of working together that we are connected and fulfilled. Being attached to the outcome and failing to be aware of the progression itself is, in my opinion, a recipe for emotional collapse. It is important too to acknowledge that failing to admit things aren’t working, and continuing to throw resources at a “dead horse”, tends to result in a failure in the long run. As an example, I live in Austin Texas and the community clinics, in my opinion, reflect such short sightedness. Patients wait months to see exhausted and inadequately supported physicians. Communication is virtually absent; and patients suffer the consequences of that failing. Therefore, I see it is vitally important to review the direction of any effort and find out what might be missing or not working in order to move toward any goal.
Yet, I may be made privy to experience the result of my efforts upon occasion. Often, those results prove to be greater than I could ever have imagined on my own. For example, I faced a difficult situation my last semester of undergraduate studies as a psychology major. I was required to complete an internship successfully in order to graduate. I was initially perplexed at the prospect of having to dig up my own internship (all students were charged with this task). As a matter of tradition, I presumed that any given department in a college or university shoulders such responsibility. However, accepting what was set forth, I took on the task.
My internship duty was to co-facilitate cognitive therapy groups. It soon became clear to me that I was no longer co-facilitating the group, I was the (inexperienced) sole facilitator. Additionally, I was not afforded the benefit of supervision by either the field supervisor or my school faculty supervisor. Instead, the faculty supervisor made a suggestion for another internship where I was assigned to co-facilitate groups directed at helping the non-offending parent deal with the pain of having had their child sexually violated.
I was an enthusiastic student in my internships. Besides understanding the value of proper supervision, I asked lots of questions in the field. Ultimately, both my questions and my insistence that I be supervised clashed with the reasonability of their world. Eventually, I found a third internship on my own.
In the meantime I asked that the previous supervisors and the clinic director to fill out the supervisory forms necessary to validate the time I had put in at that facility and send them to the school. This prompted a call to the college and now a response from my school supervisor. They wanted to meet with me. In fact they were going to withhold my degree unless I agreed to meet.
Eventually I met with the group. I quickly understood the purpose of the meeting was to bully me into realizing my “place” as a student. My response was that I felt like I was the customer, having paid $8,000.00 a semester to get what was promised and had failed to deliver. Additionally, the cost of unleashing an unsupervised therapist upon their clients was abhorrent to me.
After several attempts to bully me, there was a complete turn around on the part of everyone in the room. Everyone apologized acknowledging their part in the process. I was both stunned and relieved. As well, the impact of the incident was not left within the walls of the room where we met that day. The psychology department re-evaluated how students were being supervised in the field. The result was such that a new system of actively supervising students in the field was put into place.
As a recent student now in the field of social work I appreciate the opportunity to integrate my personal experience with my education into a community practice of social responsibility guided by the core values of humility, integrity, knowledge and my own sense of self-worth. This I believe is indicative of what it takes to be an effective organizer and agent of responsible social change. I see how crucial it is to not only develop a critical consciousness, but to acquire such skills as communicating our knowledge and commonly held values to others, listening and accepting others experiences and needs as valid…and interacting with colleagues and community officials, as well as oppressed populations. Furthermore, in my opinion, it is vitally important to be trained in the process of personal insight, as well as cultivate the necessary skills needed to distinguish where changes in social and family systems may make a difference in our lives and our communities. For me…knowledge is the key…but humility is the receptacle. Only the presence of both opens the door to meaningful action.
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