Bryn Mawr College 2009 Convocation
GSSWSR Address by Wanda R. Moore
Good Afternoon Graduating Class of 2009! Greetings to President McAuliffe, our distinguished faculty and administrators, parents, friends and family guests and a special greeting to our keynote speaker, the Honorable Michael Nutter, Mayor of the City of Philadelphia.
It is with great pleasure and honor that I deliver this convocation address on behalf of my colleagues at the graduate school of social work and social research. Today I ask us to consider the question what does it mean to do justice? I ask this question because it occurred to me that while our education has undoubtedly prepared us to launch scientific inquiries, analyze policies and systems as well as assess, diagnose and treat individuals, families and groups, doing justice is apart of our ethical code as social workers and yet we often do not wrestle with what it means.
Today I want to share with you an understanding of doing justice that led me to my work and this school. For this understanding I draw upon the works of a respected 20th Century community organizer, Saul Alinsky, and 17th Century poet and philosopher, Kalil Gibran.
Saul Alinsky said that power plus love equals justice. By his definition power is simply the ability to act and love is the ability to see God in others however, he warned that power alone can lead to domination, love alone can lead to sentimentality; it is only the joining of both power and love together which brings about justice.
While this may seem strange to some because we did not spend much time philosophizing about what it means to love or have power during our tenure here, our code of ethics mandates us to three values among many which are to value the inherent worth of every individual, to do no harm and to work for social change or justice.
It is not hard then to make the connection between seeing the inherent worth of every individual and Alinsky’s definition of love or seeing that of God in others. The 17th Century Lebanese poet and philosopher Kalil Gibran said that “work is love made visible.” Making love visible through our work is an opportunity to make a unique contribution to this world by doing the work that only we feel called to do. Thus, this path will be different for each of us as we bring our individual hopes, dreams, insights, talents and skills to bear on the work we do. Our academic accomplishment here today will make that journey to fulfilling work all the more possible.
And yet we are also here because not everyone gets that chance. Too often, the vulnerable populations with which we work have their life success cut down by injustices like poverty, racism, sexism and homophobia. As I strive to do work which makes my love visible, I also aspire to do what I call spiritual justice, and that is, to not only see that of God in others but to ensure that the others I serve have access to the resources and opportunities they need to live out the purpose for which God created them, that is to ensure that they too have the opportunity to make their unique contribution unhindered by oppression. While this ideal of spiritual justice is based in love it takes power or the ability to act.
Before we act we must know ourselves and the source of our power for power has many sources and can be carried out in one of two ways: as “power over” or “power with.” As Alinsky warned those who seek to dominate or in this case, have “power over” others are unjust and by social work standards “do harm.” We know the harms of “power over” all too well for many have lived them and we all watched these harms unfold daily as a result of the policies of the previous executive administration.
However, while it is too easy now to pick on Bush and Chaney, power over exists anywhere there are policies which keep an elite in control of rules which govern a majority. This can mean many places we practice such as boardrooms, agencies, universities, administrations in public and private settings to name a few as well as any place individuals are conferred special rights and privileges. While there certainly is no inherent harm in these structures, there is harm when those who have the responsibility to represent others deem themselves more worthy and entitled to superior status than those they represent. Elitism by definition connotes superiority.
Our country has a long history of conferring superior status based on characteristics such as the color of one’s skin, the religion one practices, the language spoken, the sex and sexual orientation into which we are born and the amount of education achieved. Those who seek to have power with, stand alongside the groups deemed inferior instead of erecting barriers against them. We often call those deemed inferior vulnerable populations. Having “power with” means we stop to think why they are vulnerable to begin with. Power with means we must not accept large prison populations, neglected and abused children, financially struggling families and marginalized races and ethnicities as unchangeable facts. Power with means we look at who holds the power and challenge them to do good and more with it. This may mean looking in the mirror.
It is very easy to get caught up in how good it feels to be recognized. It is also easy to get caught up in being the righteous spokesperson and advocate who speaks for vulnerable populations. “Power with” means we use the privileges conferred by our education, our race, our gender, our class, and sexual orientation to stand beside and open doors for oppressed groups. It is not enough to speak for them. We must create the opportunity for them to speak for themselves.
Again, our code of ethics mandates inherent worth, do no harm and do justice or power plus love equals justice. This means we not only have a professional obligation to understand oppression but also not to replicate it. If we use our professional identity to create barriers between us and the people we serve, then we are doing the work of injustice. When we use that identity to do the work of not only helping individuals but deconstruct the barriers that prevent us all from achieving our destiny we are doing the work of justice.
What an exciting time to be a social worker with the mandates we have. Today we have that opportunity more than ever as we have a president who espouses the democratic ideals to which this country has aspired but fallen short in recent years. Now we have a president who is committed to change, admits that he cannot do it alone and has asked us to have power with him.
I will end with a metaphor frequently referenced in my policy practice class this year: social work is the step-child of the professional world. If we believe this metaphor then we have much work to do. However the good news is that we all, social workers or not, have much to learn from a young child who feels neglected. Often they stand up and act out persistently until they get what they want.
So as we go forward to receive our degrees and then on to make our love visible in the work we do, I charge you as I charge myself to also do justice by standing up, taking action for what you know is right and being persistent until every individual has the resources and opportunity to be who they are called to be. Thank you!