Community Social Work Practice

Grace Under Pressure

Jonathan Kozol's Amazing Grace: The Lives of Children and the Conscience of a Nation tells the story of one of the poorest neighborhoods in both New York City and indeed in the entire United States. Mott Haven, in the South Bronx, is home to just under 48,000 people, about two-thirds of whom are Latino and about a third of whom are African-American -- groups who live radically segregated from each other. Perhaps even more importantly, over one-third of the residents are children. It is the living conditions -- the barely-fit-to-be-lived-in conditions -- of these children that most concerns Kozol.

The book is written as essentially a dialogue between Kozol -- as a sort of combination of reporter, anthropologist and social worker -- and the residents of the neighborhood. (One of the greatest strengths of Kozol as a writer and social critic is the fact that he is capable of presenting the views of people with far less education than he has without being patronizing or implying in any way that their views are not the most important ones about their own lives.) In between these sections of dialogue with the residents that Kozol allows us to overhear he also speaks directly to us as readers, guiding us to see what he understands to be the larger issues involved.

He wants us both to see what is systematically wrong with this neighborhood. And there is a great deal that is wrong here in addition to poverty and segregation -- high rates of HIV / AIDS, drug addiction, barely functional schools, white flight, and high rates of crime. He asks us to consider how we as the larger society around has failed Mott Haven and ways in which this neighborhood (and others like it across the country) can heal itself.

Systems Theory

Kozol's description of Mott Haven presents us with the opportunity to consider how we might approach such a neighborhood if we were social workers or some other form of human service worker. His description of the neighborhood suggests several possible approaches that we might take in working with the neighborhood residents to help them gain greater agency and health (defined in the broadest terms). I will discuss two of these possible models and suggest how they might best be applied to Mott Haven.

The first of these models is a systems approach. Different theorists and clinicians mean different things when they refer to a systems approach but they agree -- as do I -- that the key element of any systems approach is that any group -- from a football team to a neighborhood to the United Nations -- can best be understood by examining the dynamics among the different components or subsystems as well as between each of the individual component and the whole system. This approach essentially argues that no person (or subgroup) is an island: It is impossible to understand the nature of human relations in isolation. We cannot understand any one of the individuals or families or blocks or schools or racial groups in Mott Haven unless we consider them as part of an organized whole.

This does not mean that we cannot examine the individual parts of the system in the same way that a physician might focus on the heart or the liver for conditions specific to those organs. However, at some point the social worker must look at an entire neighborhood just as the physician must look at the entire body in order both to understand the nature of the problem and to come up with solutions to it. Moreover, and this is inherent in a systems approach, it is imperative to examine the system as a whole and the ways in which the different subparts interact if one is going to be able to identify the strengths that reside in both the whole and the parts.

A social worker could actually use systems theory to analyze Mott Haven as well as to offer possible solutions to some of the neighborhood's problems in several ways. I should make it clear that while systems theorists are concerned about whole systems, this does not mean that they do not also consider the dynamics of subsystems. For example, a social worker might well consider the nature of the dynamics in a particular family, the dynamics of the neighborhood as a whole, and the relationship between the two systems.

One of the important issues that a social worker would have to consider in devising any interventions for the subjects in Kozol's book that the social worker does not impose his or her own values onto the families or the community. Systems theorists can sometimes err on the side of functionalism -- believing that there is a certain way in which families should work and in which communities as a whole should work. For example, a social worker (who is more likely than not to be relatively liberal in her or his values) will probably believe that racism is bad. One would like to think that this is in fact a shared American value. Except -- except that in the context of this neighborhood racism may simply be a method of survival. For any given individual on any given day in Mott Haven, it may well be safer -- may even be the difference between life and death -- for people to associate with only other people of the same race.

With subgroups (defined in this neighborhood by race) as segregated as are Latinos and African-Americans in this neighborhood attempting to create harmony between the groups cannot be a first-level intervention. To try to create dialogue between Latinos and African-Americans as the first form of intervention would in all probability lead to lethal violence. It would also ignore one of the most important rules of social work -- or any form of counseling service -- which is that one looks to an individual's (or group's) strengths first. The strength in this community is obviously not harmonious race relations. This is in fact one of the greatest weaknesses in this community. This is not to say that racial tensions are not a problem -- in Mott Haven or wherever they occur. But rather that interventions have to be modulated to the concerns of the moment.

And the greatest concern at any moment is safety. Thus the first interventions must be those that increase the safety of each individual and family in the neighborhood. And safety arises from honoring people's understanding of their own strengths. For example, in one scene in the book Kozol is talking with a boy named Anthony. Anthony is blessed with two major sources of strength. One of these is his religious faith. In this he is not alone: Many of the people that Kozol talks to have a deep religious faith at the core of their lives.

A social worker who uses a systems approach would focus (in part) on this religious faith. This faith is a characteristic of Anthony (and of others in the book) as an individual. But it also connects him to other people in his neighborhood. Churches are one of the important components of this system. People who are connected to each other gain strength from these connections. These connections also help provide meaning to each person's life. A systems perspective would help Anthony (and his social worker) to build on his personal faith to gain connections and tear down the forces of anomie.

Anthony also has a significant amount of strength drawn from his ability to see the truth about his neighborhood. At one point he challenges Kozol's assessment of a group of playing children as being happy, asking Kozol if he would be happy living in such a place. Anthony's question, and the insight behind it, demonstrates that he himself has an understanding of the dynamics of the situation. A social worker coming in to the neighborhood who is not familiar with the complex dynamics that obtain in it would make a good start by asking the people she is working with for their understanding of who the most relevant groups and individuals are within the neighborhood and the ways they interact. Simply because the people in this neighborhood are living desperate lives does not mean that they do not understand why their lives are desperate or that they do not have valid ideas about how they might improve their lives.

Power and Conflict Model

A power-and-conflict model of social work bears some relationship to the systems model described above but adds an important element. A systems model is a relatively neutral model in terms of what we might call an ethical stand. Systems theorists recognize that the dynamics of systems may well be dysfunctional and that there may be major adjustments that have to be made for all of the participants to benefit from the relationships in the system. But systems theorists believe that it is possible for systems to be functional; that is for…