Empathy: Walk in My Shoes

IMG_4999Shoes are powerful markers of a person; shoes tend to hold the presence of the person who has worn them. In The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion addresses this phenomenon. After the death of her husband from a massive heart attack, she finds herself holding on to his shoes. She writes, “I could not give away the rest of his shoes. I stood there for a moment, then realized why: he would need his shoes if he was to return. The recognition of the thought by no means eradicated the thought.”*

(…) It was the red sneakers Essie was wearing that drew me to her at the women’s shelter earlier that day. This was the second time in the past several months I had run into Essie at one of our foot care clinics. She wore an orange polyester shirt with a green chiffon scarf tied around her dreadlocks, a pink pleated skirt down to her ankles, and the red sneakers. She told me she only dressed in bright, Caribbean colors: “They keep me happy. I can’t be all down in the dumps when I got these colors on.” Essie had a perpetual and slightly crooked smile, the crookedness perhaps the residue of a stroke.

The women’s shelter is located in a church basement in downtown Seattle near the main shopping district. It is a day shelter, a safe zone for women and children, that serves homeless and marginalized “near homeless” women, especially women dealing with domestic violence. The shelter has multiple case managers, social workers, and volunteer nurses who try to connect women with health, housing, and social services. The shelter workers lend the women a hand, bend an ear to hear their problems, offer a leg up the socioeconomic ladder, a toehold on life. Empathy is their main tool. Empathy is what we try to cultivate in our health science students.

Empathy is “feeling with” as opposed to “feeling for,” which happens at arm’s length sympathy. “Walking in another person’s shoes” is how empathy is most commonly described. But can we ever walk in another person’s shoes? And is it always a good thing to try?

* quote is from Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking (New York: Vintage International, 2006), p. 37.

Note: The above excerpts are from my essay, “Walk in My Shoes” in my book Soul Stories: Voices from the Margins (San Fransisco: University of California Medical Humanities Press), pages 11-12.

Students Rock

IMG_4490This is why I continue to love my academic work: smart, creative, compassionate students who see what is needed in our world and find ways to ‘just do it.’ They ask the hard questions, like “well, why not?” and they help keep us honest about what we are supposed to be focused on within higher education—and especially at public institutions in our country. As the University of Washington Vision and Values statement puts it, we educate a diverse student body “to become responsible global citizens and future leaders,” and “we discover timely solutions to the world’s most complex problems and enrich the lives of people throughout our community, the state of Washington, the nation and the world.”

This past academic year I’ve had the pleasure (most days) of directing the Doorway Project, with the aim of creating an innovative community cafe/navigation hub for young people (including, unfortunately, many of our own students) who are homeless and/or experiencing food insecurity in the University District of Seattle. It has not been without its many challenges, but also satisfactions and delightful surprises. It is swamp work, as in real work on real-world problems. (see my previous blog post “Life in the Swamp: Float, Don’t Flail” from April 28, 2018 for an explanation of the swamp work reference.)

What gives me hope in terms of the real-world wicked problems like homelessness? I was asked a version of that question recently in a Seattle Growth Podcast with UW professor of business Jeff Schulman. “Our students and young people,” was part of my response.

Here is a hot-off-the-press news article “Student volunteers help expand UW’s outreach to homeless youth” by Kim Eckart (UW News, August 20, 2018). Enjoy a ray of (smoky here) sunshine and hope for the future. And here is the latest new and improved design for the Doorway Cafe (design credits: Hope Freije and Delphine Zhu).

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Homelessness: A Very Wicked Problem

IMG_4766Wicked problem: a term coined by two UC Berkeley professors of urban planning, Horst W.J. Rittel and Melvin M. Webber, to describe difficult social policy issues such as poverty, crime, and homelessness. This is included in their still surprisingly relevant journal article “Dilemmas in a General Theory of Planning” Policy Sciences (4), 1973, pp. 155-169. Rittel and Webber write, “As distinguished from problems in the natural sciences, which are definable and separable and may have solutions that are findable, the problems of governmental planning–and especially those of social or policy planning–are ill-defined; and they rely upon elusive political judgment for resolution. (Not ‘solution.’ Social problems are never solved. At best they are only re-solved–over and over again.)” (p. 160)

That last parenthetical comment is worth repeating until it sinks in. Homelessness as a prime example of a wicked problem will never be solved. The most we can hope for is that it will be re-solved. Our U.S. healthcare system is another example of a wicked problem. Therefore, unless my basic math fails me, health care for the homeless is a wicked problem squared. That does not equate with a reason to give up and not even try to address the wicked problems of homelessness and health care. It means that all of us are called upon to have the resolve to figure this out together.

Having a seemingly never-ending assortment of expert panels and reviews of evidence-based practice aimed at finding solutions for the crisis of homelessness may be necessary, but it will never be sufficient. Having a place-based, grass-roots approach and one that is supportive of critical reflection has greater potential for being more broadly effective. And this isn’t mere consumer or community-member token representation on policy committees as is so often practiced.

“Place oriented inquiry and practice emphasizes bottom-up strategies for the adaptive,
sustainable governance of complex dynamic landscapes. Adopting a spatial or place-based perspective helps with recognition that most knowledge is, to a significant degree, local or context-dependent, as all knowledge-holders occupy—by virtue of their biography, training, and geographic experiences—some particular, delimited position from which to observe the world. Wicked-problem conditions, the argument goes, require the cultivation, transmission, and application of existing bottom-up knowledge held by embedded actors in the landscape.” pp. 18-19.

Source: Weber, P. & Lach, Denise & Steel, S.. New Strategies for Wicked Problems: Science and Solutions in the 21st Century. Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 2017.

 

Homelessness: Native Seattle

E23611D1-BEFE-4A2D-AC70-C0BD4D09CA1EI offer these images of Seattle Pioneer Square from my Skid Road street hauntings, alongside powerful quotes from Coll Thrush’s important book Native Seattle: Histories from the Crossing Over Place, second edition (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2007). Even though it is not specifically about homelessness, it is essential reading for a deeper understanding of homelessness in Seattle.

“In 1991, The Seattle Arts Commission launched an ambitious program called In Public, a citywide set of installations designed to inspire dialogue about the role of art in everyday life. (…) In Public was edgy and controversial. One of the most confrontational pieces, by Cheyenne-Arapaho artist Hachivi Edgar Heap of Birds, was installed in Pioneer Place Park alongside the Chief-of-All-Women pole and a bronze bust of Chief Seattle. Called Day/Night, it consisted of two ceramic panels inscribed with dollar signs, crosses, and text in Whulshootseed and English that read ‘Chief Seattle now the streets are your (sic) home. Far away brothers and sisters still remember you.’ Dedicated to the city’s homeless Indians, Day/Night challenged Seattle’s other place-stories.” pp. 173-4.

Note that the images included above are two photographs, a juxtaposition of a “modern” street art image of Chief Seattle from a Pioneer Square alleyway, as well as one panel of Day/Night in English and reads “Chief Seattle now the streets are our home.” The day I took this photograph the second ceramic panel of the Day/Night art installation was not there. Vandalized? Being repaired?

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The second image and quote from Thrush’s Native Seattle have to do with the earliest days of the white American settlers/Pioneers who staked land claims on what is now Seattle’s Pioneer Square—an area that was known as the Little Crossing-Over Place by Chief Seeathl (Seattle). The Little Crossing-Over Place had a source of fresh water and had been an old Indian fishing village. The photograph above is of a Pioneer Square saloon alleyway doorstep (and nighttime sleeping place) located near the Chief Seattle Club, a terrific multi-service agency “providing a sacred space to nurture, affirm and renew the spirit of urban Native people.”

“Indeed, well before the day when Bell, Boren, and Denny decided that Little Crossing-Over Place would be their new home, the indigenous world of the Duwamish, Lakes, and Shilsholes had been irrevocably transformed. The ruined longhouse at Little Crossing-Over Place, overgrown with wild roses (and, according to oral tradition, only one of several that had once stood there), spoke to the abandonment of towns in the wake of epidemics and slave raids. In Whulshootseed, similar words described both houses and human bodies: house posts were limbs, roof beams were spines, walls were skin. Just as sweeping a house and healing a body could be expressed with the same verb, related words spoke of illness and the falling down of a home, and so the ruins were testaments of loss.” p. 38

Below, is a photograph of the native plant, the Nootka Rose, mentioned in the quote above. I took this photograph recently while walking through the University of Washington Botanic Garden’s Union Bay Natural Area— which is built on top of a large Seattle landfill that long ago had been an important Native American fishing village. Thrush concludes his book with these words:

“… in every college diploma earned by an Indian, in the restoration of urban nature and in the willingness to challenge narratives of progress, there is hope that Seattle’s Native past—or, more accurately, its many Native pasts—can be unearthed. These place-stories, linked to urban and Indian presents and futures, will not simply be cautionary tale, smug jokes, or nostalgic fantasies but will be dialogues about the transformations of landscape and power in the city and about strategies for living together humanely in this place.” p. 207

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Homelessness Visible

IMG_4667Our latest point-in-time count of people experiencing “absolute” homelessness in King County tallied 12,112 homeless individuals on January 26th, 2018 (see the All Home King County‘s 2018 report “Count Us In”). By the term “absolute” I refer to the fact that they use the strict HUD definition of homelessness, which excludes the considerable number of people (especially teens and young adults) who are couch-surfing, doubled-up with friends or extended family members and who do not have a safe, stable, affordable place to live. In this respect the HUD definition differs from the official definition of homelessness for healthcare services funded through the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (see the various definitions compared here by the National Health Care for the Homeless Council).

The 12,112 homeless individuals counted for 2018 represent a 4% increase over the 2017 homeless count (which represented a 19% increase from the 2016 count). Some politicians claim that the slowing percentage increase in people experiencing homelessness can be counted as progress—although as a reality check, the 4% increase in homelessness is much larger than the total population growth for King County. The most recent published statistics show a 2.3% population growth for King County for 2016-17 (source: Washington State Office of Financial Management). As another significant reality check, the homeless count survey methodology changed considerably for 2017 such that comparisons with 2016 numbers should not be made.

Significantly, the 2018 homeless count found that over half (52%) of homeless people were unsheltered the night of the count, with many people living outside in tents and in vehicles. Having participated in the survey this year, I can attest to the difficulty of finding and assessing whether or not parked vehicles are being lived in between the 2-5 a.m. timeframe the day of the count. It is much easier to count the number of people staying overnight at an emergency shelter. And homeless people living in tents tend to find thickly wooded areas in which to live—and not, as in the photograph above, more visibly along well-lit streets and bike paths. But for all of us who live, work, study, and play in Seattle and throughout the rest of King County, we didn’t need the official homeless count to tell us we have a growing problem. We have homelessness, abject poverty and despair, quite visible.

Note: In a series of subsequent posts I will address intriguing, intelligent, and excellent questions which I have received lately about our homelessness crisis. They were too numerous and complex to address in one post.

 

 

Life in the Swamp: Float, Don’t Flail

P1020499Community-engaged scholarship is mucky business. It takes a high tolerance for—and even delight in—ambiguity, lack of clear paths, no solid ground, simultaneous decay and incubation, annoyingly loud squawking ducks, tail-thwacking beavers stirring the mud, and skunk cabbage. Oh yes, the putrid smell of skunk cabbage. Skunk cabbage reminds me of the people who seriously pluck my nerves, who irritate me, yet somehow must serve a useful purpose (for instance, as food for bears coming out of hibernation in the case of skunk cabbage).

Community-engaged scholarship is not for the faint of heart or the fastidious or the unprepared. I’ve learned and re-learned these lessons many times over my thirty-plus years of such work. There always comes a point of crisis, with the inevitable interpersonal and inter-agency power plays coming to a head. In these times, (which I am in the midst of currently with the particularly complicated Doorway Project) when my default mode is to fight back against the stealthy, submerged weeds of the swampland territory of this work.

But then I remember my Red Cross swimming safety instruction as a teenager. When swimming in swampy rivers and the underwater fingers of submerged plants begin to grasp your limbs, threatening to pull you under—instead of fighting them (thus tightening their hold), you are instructed to relax and float. The threatening underwater plants will then release you to the surface where you can gently scull your way back to the safety of shore. Float, don’t flail.

It is useful to have wetlands and swampy areas near at hand to visit and remember these sorts of lessons for life and for community work. (Not to mention, of course, the myriad positive environmental aspects of wetlands.)  I’m fortunate to have Yesler Creek in my (literal) backyard and Yesler Swamp (where the creek empties into Lake Washington) only a mile from my home. Yesler Swamp has undergone a restoration process (ongoing) spearheaded by a campus-community group (Friends of Yesler Swamp and University of Washington Botanic Gardens) and is now a refuge for wildlife—and for humans who need a respite from the bustle and hassle and skunk smells of academic and city life.

Swamps are terrific metaphors for community-engaged scholarship, especially scholarship that deals with wicked problems such as homelessness. I return time and time again to the wise words of Donald Schon, author of The Reflective Practitioner: How Professionals Think in Action (Basic Books, 1984) among many other important works:

….The research university is an institution built around a particular view of knowledge, as the following dilemma helps to make clear:

The dilemma of rigor or relevance.  In the varied topography of professional practice, there is a high, hard ground overlooking a swamp. On the high ground, manageable problems lend themselves to solution through the use of research-based theory and technique. In the swampy lowlands, problems are messy and confusing and incapable of technical solution.  The irony of this situation is that the problems of the high ground tend to be relatively unimportant to individuals or society at large, however great their technical interest may be, while in the swamp lie the problems of greatest human concern.  The practitioner is confronted with a choice. Shall he remain on the high ground where he can solve relatively unimportant problems according to his standards of rigor, or shall he descend to the swamp of important problems where he cannot be rigorous in any way he knows how to describe.

Nearly all professional practitioners experience a version of the dilemma of rigor or relevance, and they respond to it in one of several ways. Some of them choose the swampy lowland, deliberately immersing themselves in confusing but critically important situations. When they are asked to describe their methods of inquiry, they speak of experience, trial and error, intuition, or muddling through. When teachers, social workers, or planners operate in this vein, they tend to be afflicted with a nagging sense of inferiority in relation to those who present themselves as models of technical rigor.  When physicists or engineers do so, they tend to be troubled by the discrepancy between the technical rigor of the “hard” zones of their practice and the apparent sloppiness of the “soft” ones.

People tend to feel the dilemma  of rigor or relevance with particular intensity when they reach the age of about 45. At this point, they ask themselves, “Am I going to continue to do the thing I was trained for, on which I base my claims to technical rigor and academic respectability? Or am I going to work on the problems — ill formed, vague, and messy — that I have discovered to be real around here?”  And depending on how people make this choice, their lives unfold differently. (Donald Schon, “Knowing-in-action: The new scholarship requires a new epistemology,” 1995, Change, November/December, 27-34.)

Here is to all of the swamplands and swamp workers of the world. Let’s keep mucking around together and remember: when things get particularly tough—float, don’t flail.

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Listening to Skid Road

IMG_4007Listening to Skid Road: Join us for a lunchtime panel discussion on the intersections of health, homelessness, and racism in King County, as well as explorations of the moral responsibilities of the University of Washington in addressing these issues. Hear from panelists who participated in the oral history collection for the Skid Road project, currently on display in the University of Washington Odegaard Library. Panelists include Krystal Koop, MSW; Nancy Amidei, MSW; Sinan Demirel, PhD; Rebekah Demirel (author of the memoir Nothing’s for Nothing: Transformation through Trauma) and Eric Seitz, RN; with Josephine Ensign (PI of the Skid Road project) as moderator.

Date: Tuesday February 6, 2018
Time: 11:30am-1:30pm
Place: University of Washington Odegaard Library, Room 220
Light lunch and beverages provided
Open to the Public

4culture_colorSpecial thanks to public historian Lorraine McConaghy, PhD for her support and mentorship throughout this project.

This project was supported, in part, by an award from 4Culture. Additional support for the audio portion of the DS videos comes from Jack Straw Cultural Center. My Skid Road project was also funded, in part, by the University of Washington Simpson Center for the Humanities, the University of Washington College of Arts and Sciences, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Humanities Washington.

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