How Did We End Up Here?

Normally I would never start anything, especially a series of blog posts, with a negative tone, but I think it’s important for people to understand why I left direct services for this new venture.

For my entire career, I have worked with clients in crisis, first as an advocate, then as a teacher, and finally as a therapist. My clients were domestic violence survivors, children struggling to overcome being many years behind in school academically, socially, and emotionally, and adolescents involved in juvenile justice. I have met people on the worst days of their lives, the morning after their partner attacked them violently, or on the day they received an autism spectrum diagnosis for their toddler, or on the day they were locked up and taken from their family for months. I loved the work I did; I got to actually see people benefit from working with me. I saw them able to make changes in their own lives that allowed them to never need to see me again. But I kept encountering major structural barriers to success.

Everyone knows that direct services providers (meaning advocates, teachers, and social workers, usually in low-income communities) are overworked, underpaid, and can find themselves in dangerous situations. No one does that work for the pay or the praise. However, the only way to survive in those high-stress positions, where it can feel like the entire world is set up to keep your clients down, is to be surrounded by great colleagues and supervisors. I have always been lucky to have amazing colleagues. I have learned from them and alongside them.

But because of the way the system is set up, I saw people who were amazing at their direct services jobs be moved into administrative positions that did not use their talents and skills appropriately. As a result, there seem to be fewer great supervisors. It started to feel like when I found one, the countdown began to when they would realize they were a diamond in the rough and move on. Either a supervisor was great at the direct services work but lacked administrative knowledge or skills, or the opposite: people who knew everything about paperwork, deadlines, compliance, and policies, but nothing about the soft-touch skills necessary for working with clients. Don’t get me wrong - these skills are indispensable. But when you are a new service provider, you are on your own in the community, classroom, or office. You are all by yourself, hoping you are saying and doing the right things. What you really need during that time is a supervisor who can hear your concerns and really let you get it out, validate you, and then guide you to focus on implementing positive solutions without feeling patronized. It’s a skill that takes years to cultivate and too many direct services providers are moved out of their positions before mastering it, which creates a cycle of service providers feeling all alone out there, not sure if they are getting any better at their skill, flailing, or worse, harming clients.

As someone whose skill set lies in seeing the big picture and breaking it down into manageable pieces, I often stepped out of my frontline role to offer suggestions for ways to improve systems in whatever organization I worked. Unfortunately, this was sometimes met with resistance and an assumption that I was positioning myself to take an administrator’s job. Remember those few and far between great supervisors I mentioned? Those were the ones who gladly and readily took any suggestions I made and ran with them. People who are confident in their skills love hearing good ideas because it is one less thing they have to do. People who lack confidence in their positions, who feel like impostors in their jobs, will more often than not turn on anyone below them who tries to make a suggestion, because they think “If this person can do my job and theirs, what am I doing here?” Unfortunately, the people hurt most by this kind of attitude are the clients.

For me personally, the straw that broke the camel’s back came about 6 months ago. After months of making suggestions for simple systemic improvements in my organization and being met with resistance that served no purpose except to remind me of my place at the bottom of the totem pole, violence broke out with our clients. Children and adults were physically and psychologically harmed, and it could have been directly prevented by implementing my suggestions. I looked around and realized that I worked with fifty people who had direct contact with children and their families, and that every over 40 of them was amazing at their jobs. My heart broke when I realized that none of that mattered, because three people in administration could prevent them from doing their best work. Three people at the top could dismantle everything and harm kids despite everyone else’s best efforts. No matter how hard we on the ground worked to build it up brick by brick, those few were in the back of the building tearing it down brick by brick. And we just couldn’t build fast enough.

However, never one to dwell in negativity, I can thank that experience for being the push I needed to evaluate how I wanted to impact the world. Great employees who care deeply about clients are leaving the social services and education fields due to burnout and poor working conditions. My passion lies in improving people’s lives, so to that end, my mission going forward is to help organizational leaders improve what they do so that their employees can serve clients to the best of their abilities.

Thank you for reading and for supporting me as I embark on this journey to repair the world, one piece at a time. (And I promise the blogs won’t always be this long!)

“You know, people often ask me, at this age, who am I passing the torch to? And I always say, first of all, that I’m not giving up my torch, thank you very much. But also, I’m using my torch to light other people’s torches. Because...if we each have a torch, there’s a lot more light.” - Gloria Steinem, National Press Club, 11/18/13