Saturday, November 23, 2019

Reflections on Narrating Practice with Children and Adolescents Book Talk at #City Tech Nov. 5th, 2019. And why can't we hear them?

Sakamaki photo of Sascha Altman  Dubrul at Tompkins square Riot, 1991.
and other subjects from Narrating Practice with Children and Adolescents.  

Chris Flast photo of Sascha 1989.

Sascha and this blogger at a book reading in San  Francisco earlier this year. 

Kate Barnhart then and now. 

If you're in NYC/BK come by tomorrow evening for a book talk with Mery Diaz on her new book with Ben Shepard, with a panel featuring Yasemin Besen-Cassino and me, among others. We'll talk about doing research with and writing narratives with/about children....and building up their voice!"

Kat Gregory is with Mery Diaz
"A four-year process of writing and editing comes to fruition with Narrating Practice with Children and Adolescents
Congrats to Mery Diaz and Benjamin Heim Shepard."

Mery Diaz, photos and caption:  "November 6 at 1:20 PMSome photos from last night’s book talk and our wonderful panelists of contributing authors bringing interdisciplinary perspectives to the discussion on Child and Youth issues. Benjamin Heim Shepard Stephen Ruszcz Yasemin Besen-Cassino Deborah CourtneyNarrating Practice with Children and Adolescents! #citytech #columbiauniversitypress"

 Seven years ago, I walked into the office of my colleague Mery Diaz.
Sitting on her desk was a copy of Stanley Witkin’s Narrating Social Work Through Autoethnography. A common interest, we talked about hoping to give our students something more engaging, a better story.  Over time we realized we shared affinities for activism as well as interest in the intersections of narratives that our students and clients tell us about the problems and social movements around us: the DACA students struggling to find a voice in our democracy, the Honk Kong activists putting their lives on the line, the students of the Civil Rights movement who would not go along to get along, Emma Gonzalez and  the Parkland students calling  BS, changing the conversations -  Not passive actors but active agents in their worlds, taking control of their own  lives and stories.
            In the development of this book, we asked a few core questions about the experiences of children:  
       How do we define and construct childhood?
       How do poverty and inequality affect child health and welfare?
       How is childhood lived at the intersection of race and class and gender?
       How can practitioners engage with youth in service through more culturally responsive and democratic processes?
 “The answer, of course, depends on what informs your perspective,” explains Professor Dias at our book talk November 5th. “Very often we start with personal experiences. We all have emotionally laden memories of our childhood, usually in relation to the time and space in which our childhood took place, and our relationship with others during that time and space. For me, it was the 1980’s for example. The best childhood era, of course. Coming of age between the analog and the digital. Living and growing up in Washington Heights and in Ecuador. No seatbelts, riding in the back of pick-up trucks. About 20 family members seeing us off at the airport. Fire hydrant summers. Paraguas. Graffitied subway trains. Crack cocaine vials on city sidewalks. Do you know where your children are? Translating for my mom during parent-teacher conferences. Walking to school in 3 feet of snow. 3 feet and no snow day. These are my memories.
She  continues:“I often hear folks from my generation talk about “these kids today” as they compare to the children of their memories who they remember as respectful kids, who knew their place, more innocent but also with more grit.  
“We live in a world of extreme and widening inequality,  rapid climate change, uncharted technological advances, active shooter drills, virtual bullying, unprecedented access to knowledge, and force global migrations.
“On the other hand, our understanding is driven by theoretical frameworks which carry limitations. For long, the most dominant paradigm in child research and practice has been grounded in psychological developmental theories. This paradigm understands children in terms of their progress through determined age-related stages. Here, how children are studied and intervened upon is based on the ideas of normative characteristics of childhood, and their progress in the process of becoming well-functioning adults. The paradigm has assumed universal experiences of childhood development and deficiency.
“Consider the impact in framing: students who drop out versus students who are pushed out of schools. Kids who are responding to chaos in their environments versus kids who are labeled with a conduct disorder.
“Research has predominately been quantitative and experimental, positioning children as objects of study, and decontextualizing their experiences.
 “Traditional sociological position too has influenced how we have come to understand children and childhood. Viewing the child’s role within social institutions such as family or school and how they shape children..
“Contesting old paradigms, this book is informed by integrating perspectives to explore children’s experiences: the ecological perspectives and the more recent social study of childhood.
 “Taking an ecological perspective we look at children in their environment and the transactions that take place between them (peers, family, school, law and policy, culture and society).
“In the collection of chapters in this book, these concepts emerge in the stories on and about children.  Quantitative data can tell us who, how many, how much, or how often. For example, we know currently in the US about 1 in 5 children live in poverty, and this poverty disproportionately impacts, Black and Brown children. But we also want to know how these children negotiate the complexities in their circumstances and what these experiences mean to them. To learn more, we need research approaches that represent the perspectives and voices of children, that help to unpack the tensions between “needs” and “rights” of children and their “protection” and “control.” All this brings us to narrative approaches.
            I follow elaborating on our journey through the narrative turn in social science.
 “We tell stories to give life meaning. We impose structure on chaos,” I begin, quoting novelist Amy Hoffman. “We choose a beginning and an end; we elevate some details and discard others; we try to find lessons and useful information”.
 “Through narrative, we make sense of the world. We explain who we are and where we have been while providing direction for the future. Doing so, we tell the stories of our lives. The big we, of course, extends into the lives of children, who spend their childhoods weaving tales, stretching truths, and making meaning with stories, getting through the more playful and difficult times of our lives. As we get older, we tell different kinds of stories, often less interesting ones. Sometimes we remember those old stories, elaborating on them to make sense of things, retracing details of who we are and how we got here.
“After all, one of the prominent cultural narratives of our time is that of childhood. “Childhood was a story adults made up about themselves,” writes Adam Phillips (2014, 43).  “It was to be the story that caught on. And psychoanalysis would catch on as a story about why stories about childhood matter...Freud was to make up a story about adult life out of a story about childhood; a story about development out of a story of assimilation. A story about civilization out of a story about immigration,” (p.43).
“We collected countless narratives for  the project,  some case studies, other autoethnographies, testimonios, practice reflections. And  the process was anything but simple or easy. We come to this project from different perspectives and experience in the field. We are both social workers with kids. I (Shepard) never thought I’d work with youth. The task always seemed too daunting. As a child, I suspected I would never have kids, writing a manifesto on the topic fifth grade. Yet, the stories about children’s lives kept me wondering what happened to kids, wondering why kids end up as they do.
“Half of ethnography is confession Clifford Geertz (1973) writes in The Interpretation of Cultures. Reading Stanley Witkin (2014) paraphrase these words in his Narrating Social Work through Autoethnography, I started feeling less guilty about my ambivalence about working with youth. “[A]n autoethnography is an ethnography of one’s self-usually focusing on a particular experience or life event – from a social and cultural perspective,” concludes Witkin (2014, p. 2).
            For myself, the event in question happened in 1975, when my godfather who’d been dad’s best friend, put a gun to his head and pulled the trigger.  In the years to come, the son he left behind took to setting fires. No one knew how to reach him. And we certainly could not bring his father back. None of us really knew why he left. But the wound lingered in most of our lives. Something was terribly wrong. Work was not right. Life was not right. But the world kept moving. Everyone just moved forward, with few answers forthcoming. I never thought much about what any of these decade old memories meant until I started thinking about this book.
“As a social worker, everyone I knew in the field had their stories. A woman who directed a child welfare agency confessed to playing with dolls to cope with the stress of a child welfare system with too many gaps and wounds. Over and over, the stories of providers and the troubled kids they worked with gripped me. I was drawn to their stories, trying to figure them out.
“When social work crossed the path of my life, I found myself working with people with HIV/AIDS years before treatment. Many of my clients were adolescents, living in single room occupancy hotels, in and out of the streets, in a world of adults. My clients died every day. In between shifts at work, I bussed around town tape recording the life stories of people with HIV/AIDS, trying to make sense of this experience, trying to capture the experience of a cohort of people living with AIDS before their time ran out. Two years into this, I took a break to go to grad school. I had completed and transcribed some sixty life stories with people with AIDS. But I did not know what to do with my box of oral histories.
“Over time, I continued to grapple with various approaches to thinking about people’s stories, client narratives, and  community practice. Through the life story people bring together disparate parts of their experiences into coherent narratives, noted my Human Behavior in the Social Environment Professor, William Borden (1992). No story exists in a void.
            “Over the next two years, I started collecting oral histories of organizers during the Great Depression six decades prior. My challenge was how to justify my research approach in the increasingly conservative, positivist steeped social work department. I wandered through the library, reading as much Chicago ethnography as I could, and perusing the stacks at the Seminary Co-Op bookstore.  One afternoon, I found myself looking at pile of books assigned by Bertram Cohler for his oral history research seminar. Cohler, who had worked with Bruno Bettleheim and Heinz Kohut was something of a legend at the University. He seemed to understand what I was trying to do with oral histories, or at least it looked like it from his writings which seemed to synthesize the psychology, philosophy, and sociology of life stories. Linking questions about  meaning and coherence Max Weber grappled with in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Cohler (1994:171) argued that the life story account could provide insight into the depth of a social condition: "The human science is the most appropriate mode for understudying development and social change as forces impacting the study of lives over time." Over and over again, he suggested forces impacting lives also impact communities. Life stories offer insight into needs and expectations, adaptation and development, highlighting areas of abundance and scarcity, demonstrating identity formation, growth, and, in some cases, metamorphosis.
“Cohler owned the classroom like few I have ever known.  He’d just walk in, sit at a desk, not a lectern, and drop a question. “How was Weber?  What problems did it pose?” Several students would respond and the conversation was on. I was moved by the empathy Cohler showed for all the students in the room. My first day in class, he suggested we all read the diaries of Alice James, the sister of Henry. He sympathized with the struggles of mothers and daughters, as well as the compromises we adapt to to make sense of our lives.  He seemed to care what we all had to say, bringing out great things in all of us.  
“When we read John Bowlby’s 1979 The Making and Breaking of Affectional Bonds, I made my first comment in the class, reflecting on the impact of my parents’ divorce and the many other family dislocations of those in my cohort. Cohler acknowledged my sentiment, noting that children adapt. Pain is real but people cope in countless ways. If people are knocked down, they tend to find ways up. Resilience is like water in a creek, leading to a river. If it gets stuck, it moves in other directions, he continued, echoing a theme from his 1982 paper “Personal narrative and life course.” When affectional bonds break, it is not always easy to repair them. But you can never count kids out, Bert elaborated. They can cope with a lot. Nothing is determined. This is part of what is important about studying people’s lives. Bert and I went to get coffee after class. Cohler talked about his experience at the Sonia Shankman Orthogenic School, a residential treatment center and therapeutic school for emotionally disturbed youth run by Bruno Bettleheim who became a mentor for Bert. Cohler lived in the Pirates Dorm. We all need essential others, he explained. They help us through.  And sometimes we have to defend them. I shared my experience in San Francisco, looking at the stories of people HIV and AIDS. Resilience was a theme that ran through out conversations.  Both his work and mine addressed themes of stigma and adversity, as well as adaptation, looking to the life story to frame these dynamics, integrating changes, bringing these struggles to bear, integrating pain, and offering coherence. Still, there are broken stories, he explained.
“Editing the project, Bert was always there. Listening to the stories,” I conclude.
            “My chapter considers narratives of homeless youth in New York City.  To do so, it utilizes the ethnographic and life story methods explored in the introductory essay as a means to consider the needs of this vulnerable population.  It traces the personal stories of three service providers who coped with institutionalization and chemical dependency in one way or another themselves as adolescents before joining the organizations New Alternatives for LGBT Youth, as well as the Icarus and Streetwork projects. These life stories provide us with insights unavailable through other methods, detailing themes of adaptation, resilience and coping.  Such narratives open spaces for social action, personal agency, change and meaning creation.  “The stories people fashion to make meaning out of their lives serve to situate them within the complex social ecology of the modern world,” writes Dan McAdams (2008, 242).  These are narratives of survival, traced between public and private selves, contending with both who one might be or dream of being, and an unforgiving external world of judgements, punishment, and homophobia, leaving many in the streets or locked up.  “The stories we construct to make sense of our lives are fundamentally about our struggle to reconcile who we imagine we were, are, or might be in our heads and bodies with who we were, are, and might be in the social contexts of the family, community, the workplace, ethnicity, religion, gender, social class, and culture writ large” says McAdam (2008, 242).   Thank you for taking the time to consider a few of them.  Thanks for being part of the project everyone,” I conclude turning to the panel.
            Following  our introductions, the authors tell the stories of  their work, highlighting the narrative approaches they used in  their chapters, describing the ways they illuminate the lived experiences of young people.
            Kristina Baines highlights a theme that runs throughout the  book.  Kids are caught in between traditional practices and modern autonomy, she explains, with conflicting narratives.  And that impacts their health. For adults, they look the same. But kids know it’s a little bit different.  
            The  world changed; jobs changed, says Yasemin Besen-Cassino. The services sector changed. Narratives reflect the lived perspective of inequality.
            A diagnosis is not just a diagnosis, says Deborah Courtney.  They happen because of stories.  Understand a story that manifests symptoms, notes Courtney presenting a narrative case study, of Kim, from her practice applicable to the emerging field of  trauma studies. A medical model offered one intervention, a trauma informed perspective offered another. Experiences in trauma was the common theme of Kim’s story.  No matter the situation, there was a  trauma in that history.  I could see beyond symptoms to get  to a trauma narrative. Looking at how her trauma continues to act on the brain.  It said you are not safe.  Self-injuring alleviates the intensity of the emotional pain.  We all need to be trauma informed practitioners. We need to  educate ourselves about this.  Hold a safe space.  Kim presented  a lot of symptoms.  She wasn’t crazy.  A lot of triggers from her current moment opened up past wounds over and over.  She needed another way to respond. Over time,  Courtney used trauma informed  practice to  educate and treat Kim. And her world shifted.
            Stephen Ruszczyk follows telling  the story of four undocumented students who he got to know.  It was meaningful for them to tell their stories, he says, referring to the Hawthorne Effect. There was a beneficial element of helping them co-narrate a narrative. Co constructing  a story, bringing him into  the process his interviewees were going through. Telling  a story in the context of the American dream, undocumented youth are limited, two  returned to Mexico.  Another graduated early.  Another needs help.  We need to move beyond heroic narratives, allowing immigrants to live ordinary lives and succeed.  Sharing a counternarrative creates a way to show young people as full humans.
            Elizabeth Palley talks on the process of writing  her chapter.  It was hard to write, she confesses.  A lot of reflection was needed. Why don’t we have a better system. We need a mass  movement?
            A central  theme of the book  is that youth are speaking but not being  heard, I follow. 
What are  they trying to tell us, I ask the panel.

            “They are showing us they are in  pain,” Courtney replies. “With active shooters and drugs, we are not hearing them. Why are our kids in so much pain?  We are not creating  spaces  for them to  hold the pain.”

            “Just let them know you see them.  Say you’re proud of them,” says one of my students in attendance.  City Tech students are the best. They always remind me. 

            “What did you learn from it” I ask Mery.

            “…from this entire process of writing editing and having discussions about the stories in the book is how important it is to have theoretical frameworks, perspectives and methods that capture the complexities of the human experience, and in particular children and youth who are so often understood in such two dimensional ways “ mature/ immature”. An important overarching question in this book is  “how can we explain the lived experiences of children, the circumstances of their lives, and how can we respond?”  Because the book is interdisciplinary and pushes to look at these lived experiences ecologically, we move away from rigid theorizing about the causes of social ills and how we should address these. We move from away from the false dichotomies of the self vs environment and engage with the different systems at work. I think this is extremely crucial. seeing kids as both social actors that interact with and respond to larger social forces that can determine their circumstances.

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