Embracing the Wisdom of 'We'

Elizabeth J. Clark, Ph.D., ACSW, MPHFrom the Director

A few weeks ago, I had the singular privilege of leading a delegation of social workers to South Africa. We went as part of the People to People Ambassador Program that was started by President Dwight D. Eisenhower who believed that people can make a difference where governments sometimes cannot.

While in South Africa we had the opportunity to meet with social workers who were doing remarkable work under remarkable conditions. For example, we visited a center for children orphaned by AIDS; a residential social crime prevention program to develop at-risk young adults into strong community leaders; a hospice which serves the affluent as well as those living in terrible poverty in a shanty town; an inner city drop-in center that provides vocational training as an alternative for young girls living on the streets; and a prisoner re-entry and crime victim support program.

We visited the Apartheid Museum and Robben Island where Nelson Mandela was held for 18 of his 27 years in prison. We met with social work faculty from the University of Pretoria and the University of Stellenbosch.

We attended numerous cultural events and had dinner with local families and in a tribal village. Everywhere we went we heard about apartheid and how the country has worked to come together in the last 14 years.

There are 11 official languages spoken in South Africa. The national anthem is sung in four of them. The people seem uniformly friendly and helpful and they are quite open about the apartheid era and issues still facing them as a country. They easily identify as black, white and colored and quickly explain that the word "colored" does not have the negative connotation that it does in the United States. They spoke of their need for a new flag after apartheid and how the new flag represented all of the peoples in their "rainbow nation." There is both great wealth and extreme poverty in South Africa. The country also struggles with the migration of hundreds of thousands of immigrants from war-torn Zimbabwe and the incidence of and mortality from AIDS is staggering.

As we visited different social work agencies and NGOs, we were struck by the similarities of social problems facing both of our countries. At the same time, as social workers, we were also struck with how hard it must be to provide social services there. They work without adequate resources and with an inadequate social work workforce. Salaries are so low, one wonders how they manage at all. We were saddened to learn of the financial hardships many programs face and were overwhelmed to learn that in many places they even lack pain medication for those who are dying. It is hard to take it all in during a short visit.

At the end of our trip, one social worker from the U.S. summed up what she found most remarkable about the people of South Africa. She said that the "we" in South Africa superseded the "I." Everyone spoke about how "we" are making progress, or of "our" problems, or how "we" are working together to make things better. It was a sense of community and commitment to the common good and welfare of all.

In early November, we elected a new president of the United States. During the election rhetoric and among the campaign promises, we frequently heard statements about bipartisanship and "reaching" across the aisle, about choosing unity over division, about working collaboratively to bring about positive change and to build stronger communities and to ensure better lives for all of our citizens.

Perhaps 2009 will be the year when our country truly embraces the wisdom of focusing on the "we" rather than the "I." That is a change for our profession to celebrate. Happy New Year to each of you.