Tuesday, December 2, 2014
The Sunday after Thanksgiving, Ann and I went into New York City to see the musical The Book of Mormon. Afterwards, we searched the Times Square area for our favorite bar: The Marriott Marquis’ large-windowed eighth floor bar. We didn’t know the name of the hotel that offers us views of flashing 20 story illuminated ads and people like a scatter of ants on the streets below, but in the past we’ve always just stumbled on it, and laughed, “Here’s our favorite bar!” Sunday, however, we walked up and down crowded Seventh Avenue before a bored man holding a sign noticed that we looked lost, asked us what we were looking for, and told us where to go. We had walked past bar’s lobby but hadn’t recognized it because its lower floors are being remodeled.
As we walked up and down the long blocks, me holding Ann’s arm with one hand and my cane in the other, I struggled over uneven sidewalks and crosswalks. Similarly lost tourists and impatient locals bumped me without noticing how hard I was working. Eventually, guided by the bored stranger’s directions, we found our spot and had West Side Cosmopolitans, a Caesar salad, and quesadillas while ads blinked a kaleidoscope of colors outside the window.
Afterwards, we re-entered the crowded streets and made our way to the subway station and to our hotel for the evening. As we walked, my arm in Ann’s and my head down, navigating the cracks, I said to Ann, “I am a trooper.” I have been a trooper since these brain tumors and my disabilities—in fact, I was a trooper even before my disabilities—but I’ve never recognized it before. This identity as a trooper is new to me. I have so many identities that are new to me.
I am now a disabled woman, a survivor, and a social work student. I am no longer an athlete, a hiker, a driver, or a teacher. I am still an adventurer, a yogi, a lesbian, a deep sleeper, and (I now see) a trooper.
In my years redefining my life after brain tumors, I have discovered in myself new selves. This quarter, my research class at the University of Washington’s School of Social Work has inspired in me yet another new identity. Before this class, I had thought of myself as moving from being an educator to a social worker, and I had decided to become a practitioner rather than a researcher. However, in this research class I read about the merging roles of practitioner and researcher, and I’m noticing my past and present identities begin to merge in me. I am beginning to identify as both practitioner and researcher, both educator and social worker.
I came to the University of Washington’s School of Social Work (UW SSW) from my previous career in secondary education. I left that first career because of disabilities derived from brain tumors, neurosurgery, and radiation to my brain. Though I had to leave that career, my education career continues to inform my identity and my beliefs about work for social justice, the cornerstone of both fields.
When I left my career in secondary education in order to become a therapist for people with life-changing health conditions, friends suggested that I not get a degree but simply hang out a shingle. Being a therapist didn’t legally require any specific education, and going right into the work seemed reasonable to them. After all, I had personal experience with life-changing disease; experiences as a teacher, instructional coach and curriculum development leader that could guide my therapeutic work as a new kind of teacher; experience as a consultant with a national education reform organization that would parallel this new work for social justice; an advanced degree in education as well as several certificates that would lend me legitimacy; and 27 years in high school education, where I had sometimes felt more like a therapist (for my students, their parents, and colleagues) than like one who taught the subject of literature and reading and writing skills.
However, I did not take my friends’ advice because I thought it important to be educated about peoples’ experiences and available therapies. I believed in the importance of research-informed practice from the beginning, and I had assumed that I would read expert analysis from research professionals and apply the research to my work.
I am glad I decided to go to graduate school. I think differently now about my upcoming work than I did when I started. One difference is in the way I think about research-informed practice. Though I often used action research as a teacher, critical action research is new to me.
As an educator, a change agent who worked for social justice in schools, action research informed much of my work. When there was some challenge in, say, expanding the cultural perspectives that my curriculum taught or reducing my students’—and my own—stresses, I researched new curriculum and new school schedules to inform actions my colleagues and I might implement.
At that time, however, I did not know about critical action research, which would have strengthened my work for justice. Had I known, I would have encouraged students and their families to lead research with my support rather than my always leading research with their support. Students and their families could have defined the agenda rather than me defining it.
My current work to increase disability content in the University of Washington’s School of Social Work involves this critical action research. The project goes beyond being “community-derived” and is, as researchers DePoy, Hartman and Haslett describe, “community-initiated” (1999). This work’s foundation is in trusting and collaborative relationships.
My work at the UW SSW builds on critical action research’s strengths, but I have only recognized this since being in this class. Previously, I sometimes suspected the Associate Dean and Program Director of encouraging me to do research that they should be doing, but now I suspect that they recognized the strengths of research that is “community-initiated.” I have legitimacy and passion in this work because I am in the oppressed community for which I’m advocating. With more understanding now, I have more trust. I believe that with this increased trust, we will work together more collaboratively and more successfully.
My identity as researcher and clinician, a social worker who is also an educator, begins to tie together my past and present lives. Now, instead of feeling like a puzzle’s many parts, I am beginning to feel like the puzzle whose picture is emerging as the pieces fall, slowly, into place.