Two weeks ago by the invitation of a former professor of mine, I had the honor of being a guest lecturer to a class of undergraduate students for an Introduction to Social Work course in Oakland University’s Social Work Program. This was a truly fulfilling experience for me for a few reasons.
One reason is that I attended Oakland and graduated with my BSW (Bachelors in Social Work) from their Social Work Program. It was there where I became increasingly interested in exploring issues of power, privilege, & oppression and how they show up in our lives depending on how we identify or are identified by others, and it was there where I decided to pursue a career in social justice work.
Another great reason this experience was so rewarding for me is the fact that there was a time in my life when I thought attending college was impossible. I believe in the concept of Ubuntu so much because along with some personal effort on my own part, there were and still are several persons whose influences and contributions enabled me to make attending college a reality.
Life is a continual process, and even during my time at Oakland University, as well as throughout my time as a student at the University of Michigan I encountered different life challenges that I was able to navigate and overcome with the help of a network of supportive individuals.
So, to be able to stand before those students, on the other side of those obstacles, in the classroom where many things began for me was very rewarding indeed! It was good to be back, and good to be in a position to be able to give back.
Much of my current work involves mediation, conflict resolution, and social justice education at the high school and collegiate level, although I have opportunities to mediate among community members as well.
I also spend a good amount of time working with individuals with developmental disabilities and their families, and was invited back to talk with students about developmental disabilities in Social Work practice.
My lecture entitled “Everyone Needs a Little Help” focused on social identities and issues of ability including discussing the importance of fostering self and other awareness, the social construction of disability, disability as a social justice issue, how the intersection of race, gender, class, sexual orientation, religion, age, and other identities can impact people’s experiences with power, privilege, & oppression, and ways in which social workers can use themselves as allies.
One of the great takeaways from this experience was my participation in an activity followed by a dialogue in which the students were asked one simple question:
“What did you do last night?”
During this activity, students were asked to write down step by step a routine that they performed during the night before, and later to rethink how their lives would be different if they had to operate through the lens of having a particular disability.
I went through this activity myself as a graduate student in a course I took on facilitating dialogue for Social Justice, and found the experience to be particularly powerful for me because it opened my eyes to a lot of unearned privileges that I wasnt paying attention to, and also the fact that I wasnt considering the everyday experiences of entire groups of people. I can also remember thinking that class session in particular was a pretty powerful one for everyone involved that day.
It’s funny because the session I facilitated turned out very similar to the one I experienced in my class, and I think my sharing with the students about my experiences going through it the first time helped others to be honest about their own thoughts & feelings about what they were currently experiencing.
“When you get, give, when you learn, teach.”
I think there’s something really special about sharing the things we have learned and experienced with others.
I enjoy engaging in this kind of work because I think that we can begin breaking away from ideas which ultimately prevent us from working together for the good of humanity through engaging one another peaceably through both dialogue and action. When I share about myself and my experiences, I teach others, and when I listen to others share about themselves and their experiences, I learn from them. The hope is that through continual engagement in this process, we will be able to see how our destinies are interconnected; that we can find ways that we all can contribute to problems as well as solutions, and begin to act in ways that are more helpful and humane towards one another.
I acknowledge that we are all works in progress, and have a vested interest in seeking out and creating opportunities for myself and others who would aspire to get into the helping professions that allow us to engage in raising self and other awareness because doing so can help ensure that we will not end up doing more of the hurting in our “helping” professions by contributing consciously or unconsciously to someone’s oppression.
After the students had left for the night, my former professor then invited me to teach the multicultural social work practice class starting in the winter. It’s the course I took myself in undergrad that really planted some seeds and got my wheels turning before coming to the University of Michigan and meeting two great teachers & friends of mine, working with them, and with high school students in the intergroup dialogue social change agents program, and taking the course on facilitating dialogue for social justice (taught by one of those teachers & friends): experiences that have really helped me and continue to push me further in my journey to become a better human being. As I continue my process of growing, learning and working to un-learn, I’ll never forget the gifts they’ve given me.
It would seem as if in my giving I have gained an opportunity to continue to give to others, and receive their gifts as well.
Here’s to the ongoing pursuit to become a better human being!
In what ways have you passed along things to others that have been given to you? In what ways have you taught others what you’ve learned?
Grace & Peace,
From Aspiring Humanitarian, Relando Thompkins, MSW
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