Excerpts from my speech opening the
Wyoming Social Worker’s Annual Meeting in Laramie September 22nd
I found a poem that gave me the idea for naming this speech “Living at the intersection of Maslow and Quixote.” The poem is entitled “Diary of an Intersection” and was written by Sarah Jackson.
I’m Commercial and Broadway (Can we use something more familiar to us? How about instead of Commercial and Broadway, we imagine ourselves at 24th Street and Capitol Avenue in Cheyenne? The site of the state capitol, the intersection between the Governor’s office, the legislature and many of the state agencies involved in delivering social services.) With that change, let’s start anew.
I’m Capitol Avenue and 24th Street….I’m frequented by…tin-bucket artists and styro foam nine-to-fives, and one way I can see the sky. But mostly, I see only the soles of shoes. Through practice, I have learned to read souls. I’m an intersection, & it doesn’t make much this or that way to me what you think of my musings. I’ve got a lot of time to think. I am a foundation for many things, a method for many purposes. Personally, though I haven’t changed much over the years …though God knows my shell has & I’m thinking that in a few decades, you may well be saying the exact same thing about yourselves.
You went into your profession for the same reason I did mine, to change something…something in others, something in the community, something about the world. That our epitaph may be “I haven’t changed much over the years” whether read to mean I haven’t changed myself or that I have done nothing to change the world is abhorrent to the commitment we made.
24th and Capitol is a metaphor for an intersection that exists not only in Cheyenne but in every community, the place where policies are made, laws enacted, politics played and the status quo adamantly defended. To avoid the admonition of the poet that in a few decades we will be saying of ourselves, we haven’t changed much over the years…let’s relocate to a different intersection, that of Maslow and Quixote.
We live out our professional lives not just on one street but at an intersection. The individuals we serve aren’t poor, addicted, abused, suffering from untreated or undertreated mental illness, hungry, homeless and hurting simply because of what is happening in their homes, on their streets, in their part of town. The causes always have their roots elsewhere in other parts of the community …intersections that don’t often get “social worked.”
Maslow argued the way in which essential needs are fulfilled is just as important as the needs themselves. Together, they define the human experience. Meaningful connections to an external reality are an essential component of self-actualization.
It occurred to me one day while I was the director at DFS, sitting around a large conference table, every seat filled with smart people, each holding bachelor’s, master’s, doctorate degrees…certainly degrees are a symbol of self actualization in our culture…all of us self actualized folks, sitting atop Maslow’s hierarchy…talking as though we knew what those still trying to survive at the bottom need.
We don’t. We may have taken all the right classes, read all the right books, hold all the right credentials…but we are back at 24th and Capitol if we think that affords us the right to decide for them what they need to reach the next level of the pyramid.
You cannot practice on Maslow Street unless you are willing to follow the research. Those folks over at 24th and Capitol have never moved beyond what they learned years ago, that with which they became comfortable. I had a professor at seminary who said he could always tell when a pastor graduated from seminary by the books on his or her shelf! That means we learned it once and refused to acknowledge how much the world of social science evolved.
You’re a part of a system where too many decisions are based on notions and what Stephen Colbert calls “truthiness” i.e. what a person claims to know "from the gut" that "feels right" without regard to evidence, research or facts.
You’ll be challenged everyday of your professional lives by those who refuse to acknowledge how much contemporary research can change what we do…it’s why Wyoming still jails juveniles at a rate far higher than the rest of the country. It’s why we place children outside their community in residential care when the research says that does not work. It’s why we accept the existence of a revolving door where people with mental illness and addiction fill prison and jail cells one day and reoffend the next.
This brings us back to the intersection of Maslow Street and Quixote Avenue.
Don Quixote is the book from which we get the concept of “tilting at windmills.” Don Quixote is a retired country gentleman who has become obsessed with books of chivalry. He reads hundreds of them and is inspired to don a suit of armor and go out as a knight to right the wrongs of the world.
The book chronicles his adventures, some sad and tragic, many humorous and all undertaken out of a deep conviction that he’s been called to make the world a better place. Those whom Don Quixote encounters along the way do not always appreciate him or his intent to disrupt the flow of their lives.
Having come to the aid of many, this self- proclaimed Knight has an epiphany. He says to Sancho Panza, “The greatest adversary love has in this world is hunger and continued need.” Hmmm. Sounds a bit like Maslow, huh?
Don Quixote’s family and friends believe him to be insane, try to “call him home” back to their reality. Even his closest friend Sancho is unsure but is always by his side. You’ll need a Sancho Panza if you are going to tilt at windmills and unless you are willing to tilt at the windmills of our culture, you will remain unchanged and the people you serve will as well.
If you live at the intersection of 24th and Capitol, you‘ll not have to concern yourself with that because everyone there thinks alike. They’ve built the windmills and don’t want anyone tilting at them.
But at intersection of Maslow and Quixote…you’ll find yourself deeply moved just as Don Quixote was you’ll be inspired to go out into the community as an advocate, and you’ll not be any better received than was he.
You’ll have to ask why the courts are satisfied with such poor outcomes, why they and others in the courtroom don’t use practices we know can make a difference, why they are more interested in output than they are outcomes. You’ll have to ask why treatment professionals do not do a better job of focusing on early interventions and the trauma experienced in the lives of the children they see or why they are not using the medications that have been developed to reduce the cravings of addiction and a lot of other questions that will cause you to be seen as a troublemaker.
You can’t represent the interests of the children and families without being an advocate for changing the way the courts, the schools, the mental health centers, the state agencies and others do business. Tilt at the windmills, ask the hard questions knowing those questions will get you crosswise with the powers that be…but unless you ask them you cannot change anything, yourselves or those you serve.
Caring more about your clients than about what judges, mental health center directors, county attorneys, and legislators think of you will mean your epitaph will read less like the one written by the poet for those living at 24th and Capitol…“Personally, though I haven’t changed much over the years” to that written for Don Quixote, the knight who chose to tilt at rather than erect the windmills.
Here lies the mighty gentleman…who rose to such heights of valor…that death itself did not triumph. He did not esteem the world, he was indeed a frightening threat to it…for it was his great good fortune to have lived as a madman and have died sane!
Here’s hoping you and I will have the great good fortune to have lived as troublemakers and to have died as change makers!