Monday, May 18, 2020

Looking at Gardens, Social Workers in the Fog, Plague Diary

Scenes from New York, Garrison and Tompkins Square Park, East River below. 

This is from two months ago. It's only gotten weirder as it's gone on. Looking down the barrel of something that may take months or years.

Skating in the park. 

“The fog had grown so dense that though it was growing light they could not see ten paces ahead.  Bushes looked like gigantic trees and level ground like cliffs and slopes.  Anywhere, on any side, one might encounter an enemy invisible ten paces off,” Leo Tolstoy, War and Peace, P. 288

No one knows from where.
The last few days the whole world has felt like this, even when its sunny, its hard to see ten steps ahead.

Certainly, it looks like this in Brooklyn.
Some moments, it feels wondrous, blue skies and open roads.

On Friday, we heard activists had won a three-year battle to beat back at natural gas pipeline.
Birds chirping outside.
A tree we planted in 2012 now brings friends from parts unknown, chirping outside our second floor. We could be in Belize or Vieques, at least in our minds.
I guess its just how we look at it.
As Frances Hodgson Burnett puts it in The Secret Garden:

“If you look the right way, you can see that the whole world is a garden.”

Others see it differently, inequalities exasperated:
“75 residents of NYC shelters are known to have died of COVID yet DeBlasio is opposing hotel rooms to get people out of crowded shelters,” writes Kate Barnhart.

Marnie Brady calls out the Mayor:

“I hold you responsible for the violence, the trauma on the mom, the kid, and on the moms & the kids watching the video of the mom & the kid. Get your police out of this public health issue! Put that NYPD funding into the hands of trained public health workers to hand out masks with a smile, and gloves... and in masks themselves. History will not absolve you. And although I hold the dummy prez and the posing governor accountable for much of the pandemic losses-- my neighbors did not need to die-- this, this NYPD violence, it's on you. I throw up on your hotline.”

It can all feel suffocating.
It's only gotten weirder as it's gone on. Looking down the barrel of something that may take months or years.

In other moments, the city feels bountiful.
At night, the whole block opens up and we cheer for the healthcare workers.
One man brings his world cup horn, playing from the his eighth floor window.
A newly married couple wave.
I'm busy as ever, canceling the trips we’d planned, the summer camps now online, writing new books, on the roof every night looking at Brooklyn.  The teenager and I bike to Greenpoint, Sunset Park, Manhattan, and back on the East Side, looking at the water. 
I get a flat and a man stops to helps me on the Manhattan Bridge.
The little one and I read War and Peace, “TolstoyTogether, later watching The Long Goodbye, and then  I travel to parts unknown with tony b. Last night his show was about people who lived in a tunnel for six years as the us bombed their town in Viet Nam.
I’m glad there are still parts unknown out there to explore says my friend Marnie.
We can't complain. but I'm glad we've had the adventures we've had. I'm not sure what its going to look like when we come out of this.

Hopefully our paths cross.

Looking around, I am glad to see what my friends are up to.

Some are thinking about education.
I'm not sure what will happen with teaching next fall (nothing official has been announced). But I do know that I miss seeing our students, teaching in real time, and taking part in our community in the classroom. I think many feel this way. This sentiment is beautifully articulated by City Tech English Professor, Caroline Hellman. Our students are lucky to have her, Caroline Shepard points out. Online learning is not the future of education. It is limited and flawed, and denies that so much of learning comes from our physical interactions with one another.

Some are leaving town to go to their country homes during the NY Pause.
Others glad to stay in the mess of it all.
We've loved being in Brooklyn, riding over the bridges, watching the public spaces shift and evolve. Blair Fell writes:

Be here now, I say to myself.
So many lessons... thousands and thousands... each week, I trace a few in my thoughts in these weekly plague journals and reflection logs, reading student papers, looking at my life and dreams. trips to Sweden, Havana, Amsterdam, Brussels, and Mexico City planned, now all canceled.  My dreams have been everywhere, crazy dreams... friends suffering, one breaking down in tears…
Seeing friends there.
Hoping we are able to find some peace and joy out there.
A man following me onto the Subway trying to tell me something.
When a stranger knocks on the door, sometimes it is useful to find out what they are looking for.

“It was the worst two months of my life”
says a friend who works in the Emergency Room.
He’ s worked two months in a row without a day off.
Were social workers around, I ask.
Not really.
I saw like 40 or 50 people die in front of me.
I don’t feel like a hero.
Our hospital had something like two workers there to clean all the rooms immediately after someone died.
Their job involved exposing themselves to Covid 19.
As a social worker by trade, the conversation left me wondering, how have other social workers
risen to the occasion? Were we there to help?
Certainly, we’ve provided some supports, work around entitlements and mental health counseling.
Social workers could have been there to support essential workers.
We provided mutual aid.
But could we have done more?
I wanted to hear more.
What have our students done?
I posted a question the BDP social work list serve on May 14th.
The following are a few of the responses I got.

David C. Droppa, Ph.D Associate Professor and Director
Social Work Program at Seton Hill University replies:

“One of my students, a double major in SW and health sciences, raised nearly $800 to provide energy drinks, purified water, and health snacks to front line workers at a local hospital system. She didn't do this as a course requirement; just because she has a social worker's heart.  And our GPIII class of 11 students had to give up on work in a high risk community near Pittsburgh (New Kensington) focused on what the community told them they needed: help to establish a place for youth to hang out, to design a website full of resources for that community, ranging from food to counseling to a host of activities that could be done with preschoolers. It wasn't what they had planned, but school closed and they had to go home and isolate, so this was the best they could do.” 

Jessica Rosenberg, of Long Island University, writes
I am thinking about my daughter-in-law, a medical social worker in a Staten Island Hospital. Each day, she helps grieving families who have loved ones dying of covid - 19. She provides the missing link between the hospital structure and loved ones who are desperate for information. She consoles and comforts. She helps patients get ready to leave the hospital and ensures that they have the essential resources they need. She fights for patients being prematurely discharged and who are not ready to leave the hospital. She is an advocate.  Because of the dangerous of her work environment, she contracted coronavirus. Her hospital lacks tests for her and her co-workers. Nor did they have enough protective gear for the workers.
Everyday she puts her life on the line for others. Despite the threats to her well-being and to her life partner, my son. Social workers do this and more every day, yet we rarely get profiled in the media. This is an old story. But one still begging for a solution.”

Nancy Kusmaul notes:

“The University of Iowa School of Social Work and Mercedes Bern-Klug run a listserve for nursing home social workers, and during these times of COVID are running bi-weekly support groups for practicing nursing home social workers. More information can be found here.”
Machelle Madsen Thompson, of Florida State University, writes:
“Our team is writing weekly research-informed resilience briefs for children and families.  They contain the latest information about the disease and how kids can decrease fear and increase protective factors.  As of now, several national trauma organizations and people who are helping with COVID issues are posting and using them.  See, for example,  and One social worker, a dear friend, is using them with children living in poverty in a rural north Florida area that is in a health-care and food desert. She works so hard.  She gets them food every day because they no longer have school lunch. She helps them get e-access (none had working computers), medical testing, and services.
I am proud to work with such outstanding social workers, pediatricians, and other human service professionals. These professionals and the affected children work so hard to be resilient. They are my heroes.”

Suzanne Badawi, MSW, LCSW, of Ramapo College of New Jersey, replies:

“Thank you for continuing to challenge us as professionals. Sharing what I did during this time as mutual aid:
  • My partners and I created a 'Bergen County COVID Support Group' on Facebook and conducted live talks on multiple issues to help our community get through these difficult times. We took questions and responded by crafting our next talks based on community needs that were verbalized.
  • As part of this support group, we are conducting weekly fundraisers, in order to send food to the frontline hospital workers. We started with Holy Name Hospital in Teaneck as it was deemed the 'epicenter of the epicenter' in northern NJ. We moved on to Englewood Hospital and will continue as this pandemic continues.
  • I wish I could do even more, although my duties as field director and therapist to my clients, as well as mommy duties to my 8 and 3 year old, only allow for this.  I am inspired by you and all of our colleagues.”
All over the country, mutual aid is thriving.
Feels like it is everywhere.
My friend Michel Coconis is one of many involved in the practice.  Coconis writes:
“My mutual aid activities have included (or so I believe):
1. Trained as a volunteer with AARP and making and taking calls to folks who want them
2. Dropping off food and diapers at Little Food Pantries in several locations in Columbus Ohio
3. Delivering food for LifeCareAlliance (meals on Wheels)
4. Putting masks together with our local Emergency Management
5. Getting on Nextdoor app and driving folks to the store or shopping for them
6. Putting stuffed animals in the windows for walkers/passersby to notice each day
7. Reading newspapers and magazines to ppl who cannot get them from the library or other access

I'm actually not sure which of these is technically mutual aid - three came from a FB group in Columbus and two from next-door app but others were responses to requests for volunteers.

I got 2 nurses to go to NYC to volunteer and helped with their gas and food since I could not go or be useful myself.
I have been to one driveby rally on releasing ppl from Ohio's prisons and jails - we could do much better at that …”

Louise Murray, of the College of Saint Elizabeth, is involved in Macro level advocacy:
“We are working remotely to promote voter registration.  While our state passed a bill authorizing online registration in January, procedures have not been developed. I offer to print out forms and mail them to students.   Students are completing and sharing with family members. I hope to continue this effort as I continue to see guidance about vote by mail.  The League of Women Voters in each state is a great resource.”

All over Brooklyn, kids are painting. People are writing manifestos, novels, poems, planning mutual aid projects, reimagining what it could all mean.
People offering recipes and food recommendations,
Bike repairs and yoga workshops,
Movie picks and empathy,
Solidarity and food,
Mutual interests and care.
Community groups are doing as much as they can.
Housing Works has been creating services and housing for homeless kids in a shelter for people with COVID.  Volunteers, such as New York writer Tim Murphy, have been working to get kids in these shelters food and supplies, as well as medical workers protective equipment.  To help out, he asks that people reach out to @CutRedTape4Hero, a group that puts personal protective equipment directly into the hands of NYC coronavirus workers. 
“Since March 25th, we have delivered over 191 community kits of non-perishable food items and household supplies to community members living in the neighborhoods of Bed-Stuy, Brownsville, Bushwick, Canarsie, Coney Island, Crown Heights, East Flatbush, East New York, Flatbush, Fort Greene, Kensington, Marine Park, and Mill Basin.
Any and all Brooklynites who need grocery/supply deliveries, medication pick-up/drop-offs, tenant/rent-strike organizing support, and other forms of material aid, can please feel free to contact us.
With revolutionary love and solidarity,
Equality for Flatbush and The Brooklyn Anti-gentrification Network”

New Alternatives writes:
“Thanks to the people of Bay Ridge Fight Back who collected all these items for our client’s soon-to-born baby and to New Alt volunteer Ben Shepard who delivered them.”
Each week we take more food from New Alternatives to the Bronx, more sharing, and support, more mutual  aid, the only thing that will save us, each other. 
“I’d rather be taking food out than sitting at home,” says my teenage daughter who joins, helping navigate the pickups and drops.
Its better than letting this consume us.
Jocelyn Sue offers a note of useful note of caution:
“Ben, perhaps I'm misreading your email, but I am wondering, what exactly did you want social workers to do? A lot of medical units are restricting access to high risk areas. Social workers on other units who went in to counsel the staff, would be increasing the risk that their assigned clients would be exposed when they return to their own units. 9-11 taught us that counseling during a crisis has to be delicately done, because first responders need denial to go back on the front lines. High risk individuals might sop up all sorts of medical resources if they needlessly expose themselves.”

All over the country, people are participating in bringing food to homeless and immune compromised people, volunteering with a food pantry, advocating for the unemployed, researching, supporting and speaking out for immigrants.
Each Friday, I have take part in #FreeThemAllFridays car and bike caravans.

“As COVID-19 spreads across the country, immigrants continue to be locked up in ICE detention without adequate medical or sanitary facilities. The undocumented community is shut out of state relief even as they provide the essential labor that keeps New York running.
Join us EVERY FRIDAY in the month of May by car or bike to say ENOUGH IS ENOUGH.
We demand that Governor Cuomo use his emergency powers to order the release of all ICE detainees locked up in NY State to safeguard human life and public health. We also stand in solidarity with all prisoners and call for their freedom amid COVID-19.”

As usual, we’re involved in policy advocacy, helping fighting unemployment, supporting co workers, looking at health disparities, bridging the gap from direct action and direct services.
Hopefully, social workers can be creative problem solvers, collaborating with researchers and community providers to be part of the solution. I see a lot of community work.  I see mutual aid, counseling, and in some circles reluctance to look at macro level issues around civil liberties.

  The new (or old depending on your experience) wrinkle is grieving friends and colleagues, such as Georgiana Glose, who have been lost to this.

I'm not sure what it is going to look like when we come out of this.

Hopefully our paths cross.


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