By: Daniel Bergerson
People bring their fights to the community center because they can count on the social workers there. Sahra was fighting to keep her three-bedroom apartment after a Section 8 reform forced her family into one bedroom so that her 70-year-old mother with dementia would not keep her teenage son awake at night. Mohamed was fighting to get his money back from a towing company that targets Somali refugees who are unaware of their parking rights and charges them for made up violations. Abdirahim was fighting his eviction after police found his sister-in-law’s khat, a drug legal across East Africa but illegal in the United States, in his apartment. (It didn’t matter that he was the one who reported its presence in the first place.)
We often talk about teachers as social workers, but two summers ago I learned the difference between the two because I actually worked as both. In the mornings, I assisted a math teacher at Lincoln International High School, a charter school for recent immigrants and refugees. In the afternoons, I assisted a Somali social worker at the Brian Coyle Community Center, hub of Somali-American politics and programs in Minnesota. While the teaching was part social work, I found the social workers could better contextualize students’ academic struggles within community-wide struggles.
Take discrimination, for example. The fact that xenophobia pervades Minnesota was no secret to my students from Somalia, Iraq, and Mexico. They often swapped stories in hushed tones when the lead teacher turned his back on the class to write on the whiteboard. I heard of a high school brawl allegedly sparked by ongoing tension between Somali students and their Black peers. I heard of racism on social media and Somali-led student walkouts. I heard that some kids tried to drown a Somali boy in the playground pool outside the community center.
Inside the community center, however, I heard much more. Working with social workers and their clients sharpened my fuzzy view of the ways in which the Somali community battles against discrimination in Minnesota.
“I work twenty hours a day for my children.” That was the first sentence I typed as Yusuf dictated to me his application to an advocacy program for parents of children with developmental disabilities. He continued to explain how frustrating it was to bring his ill, eighteen-year-old autistic son kicking and screaming into a clinic only to be told that doctors cannot reach a diagnosis because they are not willing to restrain him after sitting in the waiting room for three hours. Jama routinely endures these futile visits to doctors, who are said to go “the whole nine yards” (including the use of restraint) to diagnose the illnesses of white autistic children. Community-based researchers attribute this difference in professional practice to discrimination against Somali immigrants.
Following these afternoon consultations, I would often think back to that morning. Was one of Jama’s other nine children in my class? If so, would the lead teacher know about the father’s twenty-hour work days? Other Somali parents of multiple autistic children referred to their life as a “24-hour trauma” because they are too busy caring for their family to keep a paying job, visit other relatives, or take care of themselves. How do they feel when teachers ask them be more active at school?
Sometimes this domestic stress surfaces in classroom conversation. Someone leans over to a friend and whispers, “My mom’s gonna chew me for losing the water bill,” and they laugh rebelliously. There are offhand comments of “Somali-style” punishments involving thrown shoes and long time-outs spent facing the wall, hands up, standing tiptoe. One hijabi complains that she has to remove her nose piercing, another about how her parents say she must marry within her tribe.
Sometimes students share their stories, but so many don’t. Are us teachers ever able to see the full picture? Social workers at least get the parent’s side of the story, which can shed light on what youth deal with.
The preservice teacher in me could not stop thinking of what the stories of Sahra, Mohamed, and Abdirahim mean for the youth in the community. Is this why some students snooze off during geometry? Why last week’s smile disappears over the weekend? Why some don’t trust white teachers?
We don’t always know the root of students’ problems, so we snip at the individual branches. It’s easy to jump to conclusions about kids’ “bad choices” or students not “applying” themselves, but that runs the risk of blaming the victim, all the while ignoring the underlying reasons. Socials workers don’t always see the full picture either, but the family workshops, personal interviews and letter writing start to fill it in, piece by piece.
I was constantly reminded I lack this comprehensive understanding when the social workers conducted house visits, leaving me to staff the office on my own. Clients would poke their head through the door, eye the empty cubicles and ask, “Where are the Somali people?” They would leave before I could say, “Back soon, but how can I help?” It takes serious study, dialogue, and reflection for a young, white, atheist man from a wealthy Minnesotan family to understand the struggle of a Somali refugee mother. Of course clients feel safer and more comfortable turning to someone closer to their own experience.
That summer in Lincoln International High School and the Brian Coyle Community Center left me with many questions, some of them pedagogical, others more sociological. Do charter schools make refugee students spend so much time on Khan Academy in hopes of teaching independent learning skills before they age out of the system? Or was that an executive decision to cut costs? When a student says, “America doesn’t have any culture,” should the class discuss multiculturalism or continue learning left from right? Finally, why did we drop a math lesson for a classroom viewing of the United States vs. Germany in the World Cup? Was it…
(a) responsive to students’ interest in soccer,
(b) a shameless attempt to instill patriotism,
(c) a respite for a tired teacher or
(d) all of the above?
Can a question phrased like a multiple-choice quiz even lead to meaningful answers?
Between my work at the charter school and the community center I would take a lunch break. As I ate veggie samosas, I would file away my graph paper, open my client notebook, and remember all the educators who told me teaching is like social work. Sure, teaching is like social work, but there is an important difference. As teachers, we, too, are mandated reporters of child abuse. We, too, are trained in violence prevention. But amid the lesson planning and high-stakes testing and whatever reformers throw at teachers next, can we too take the time to find out what social workers know about our students’ families?
This fall I am full-time student teaching. That means no more community center every afternoon. That means less face-time with families, less context for students’ academic struggles. I have to do what I can, despite not being paid for such social work (or student teaching, for that matter), because you can’t teach someone you don’t understand.
Daniel is a student teacher at the James Baldwin School and a fourth-year history major at Columbia University. You can read more at The Dandruff Report and follow him on Twitter at @DanielBergerson.