- Discuss your educational history (undergraduate and/or post undergraduate) and the ways in which it has prepared you for graduate education in clinical social work. What are your academic strengths? What are areas you can identify for further growth?
In the mid 1980s the formal study of what is known within the academy as “creative writing” was still uncommon. As a middle-school student I began writing poetry with a dedication that surprised and pleased my teachers and my family and which continued throughout high school; my subsequent choice to attend a very small liberal arts college that would allow me to pursue this aim and vocation was supported by them. My nuclear family background is white, urban, upper-middle class, with an emphasis on good grammar and hyper-individualism. The family belief system is implicitly relativist and conviction-free. At Bennington College I became aware for the first time of the concept and the feelings of privilege, although for a long time I did not have a name for the discomfort I experienced in the context of this highly privileged environment, which was in stark contrast to the democratized arena of the streets of New York City in the 1970s and 80s, which had been my true schooling.
It is hard to discuss my early life without mentioning that at the age of sixteen, as I was preparing for college, I experienced a trauma when a brief period of engagement with hallucinogenic drugs ended in an extraordinarily bad trip, severe effects of which were lasting, abating only over time, and which had an outsized hand in determining many of my early choices. I do wish to include this information given that the help I received and the efforts I made to surmount the difficulties surrounding this experience are inextricable from my understanding of, to put it plainly, the things that people go through and the ways in which they need support when going through them. At sixteen I entered traditional talk psychotherapy, which provided me with much needed support though it did not fully intervene in the complex interior challenges I faced. My early academic career was deeply informed by these challenges: everything I wrote, read, thought about, encountered, and pursued was to a large extent inflected, even circumscribed by the concerns awoken by this trauma, and although overall I was able to progress with a great deal of success, in hindsight it is easy to see how much I missed in my chosen course of study.
At Bennington I majored in Poetry, and pursued mainly a self-guided involvement with my own creative impulses. I studied literature, aesthetic philosophy, and some music. Each semester I participated in a poetry workshop, and this crucial difference in emphasis between writing poems and reading poems—critically and historically appreciating the artform—is a defining feature of, essentially, where I went wrong. This course of study might have been a solid preparation for a career as an academic—and I think this is what my family thought it was—but I had no true interest in formal scholarship, and so really what I was preparing myself for was to write poetry, which is not a career, and in my opinion ought not to be perceived as such, but is rather a vocation, to be practiced in combination with whatever work one finds in the world.
Bennington College offers winter Field Work Terms, and during my second FWT I spontaneously decided not to return to college. That January I was in Boston, interning at a publishing house. I found a job at a bookstore and a room in an apartment through the newspaper. I had an incoherent but vivid sense that the insular and highly privileged experience being offered to me at Bennington, the feelings of isolation that accompanied this privilege, were not only emotionally difficult for me but also represented a version of society that did not jibe with what I unconsciously sought, i.e., a more inclusive, more egalitarian society; what I knew as “the real world.” At the time Bennington had been made famous in the press for being the most expensive college in the United States. I was a scholarship student and worked at the lunch counter, making grilled cheese sandwiches for my fellow students and getting to know Anne, the very kind Christian Scientist Vermonter who ran the counter. While I have regretted that I was not able to enjoy the intense art experiences made available to students at Bennington, I have understood that this is to some extent really who I am: a person who does not like the feeling of raw privilege, and therefore cannot enjoy the benefits of same. I cannot be happy in circumstances that do not allow others to be happy, or to equally pursue that happiness. As I have continued in life I have come to believe that this is true for everyone, intersectionally; happiness is less and less possible when there is more and more inequality of access.
After a couple of years of working at the bookstore and a health-food store and living in Boston, I decided to apply to go back to school at U-Mass Amherst. I had heard that they had good poets there. UMass has a program called “Bachelors Degree with an Individual Concentration,” which allows students to create their own academic program out of existing courses plus individual tutorials, and I created a program called “Poetry and Self-Consciousness.” My program included courses in literature, philosophy, religion, psychology, and creative writing. My concept for the program was to explore the Self from these varying and related perspectives, while still concentrating on my own poetry through regular workshop courses. Notably absent from my curation of these perspectives on the Self was a sociological, political, or economic one; at this time it was my privilege to have immersed myself in a vision of the world in which systemic conditions of oppression were nothing compared to the agonies suffered by the individual. I read Marx and other theorists but I read them as disconnected, ahistorical, basically literary texts, to be analyzed with reference not to their applications in easing suffering or interpreting human experience in the world but for their poetic merit and the degrees to which they validated my own perspectives. I was interested in studying a kind of psychology that I could hardly articulate to myself, which would help me to interpret the interpersonal world with a dose of the kind of wonder and intensity that I found in literature; what I found when I sampled psychology courses was more of a topical, ripped-from-the-headlines approach that did not speak to my interest in an a-historical, humanistic self.
Throughout all of this I continued to write poetry and to study with poets, many of whom were mentors of sorts. In my final year one of these suggested that I apply to the Iowa Writers Workshop, a prestigious graduate program in creative writing. I did, and received the highest teaching fellowship they offered. In my two years at Iowa studying poetry I continued to work out the problems I encountered in texts and in-between myself and the world. Unwittingly I prepared for a career in teaching poetry, and also began to learn the skills and formulate the impulses that then led to my starting an independent press, Fence, which has turned out to be my career thus far.
My academic strengths and areas of growth are, as it turns out, closely related. My strengths lie in a strong curiosity and independence of mind that lead me to question status quo ideas or systems and work within them and outside of them to effect better human and artistic experiences. An area of growth that I can most clearly identify is toward cultivating a greater humility with reference to texts and bodies of wisdom; finding what is there already and learning how to work with it, rather than feeling that I must invent new forms and ways at every turn.
- The capacity to understand the experience and perspectives of other individuals or groups and use this empathic connection as a basis for productive professional relationships is a necessary component of effective social work practice. Describe a significant interpersonal interaction you have experienced in an academic, volunteer, or work setting. Discuss your interaction and the ways in which your actions reflect your capacity to work empathically and effectively.
Having completed a training for working as a labor doula, a few years ago I volunteered my services to a woman I know in the birth of her first child. Elly had become pregnant unexpectedly at the age of 43. She was not planning on having any children, but she and her partner Steven decided with some trepidation to go through with the pregnancy, despite warnings from her doctor that she was of “advanced maternal age.” Preparation for being a doula involves learning about ways to provide support and comfort to the laboring woman as well as to her birth partner, and to interface between them and the other caregivers in the labor room, including the midwife or doctor as well as family members. My training as a doula had come about after my closest, oldest friend, a single mother-to-be, asked me to be her partner in the home-birth of her son, my god-son. I felt so good in that role, and appreciated the calm and strength I felt I was able to lend to my friend so much, that I wanted to see if I could bring this to other birthing women. My attitudes about birth and the medical-industrial complex surrounding birth are influenced by my readings of texts such as Spiritual Midwifery, by Ina May Gaskin and Home/Birth, by poets Arielle Greenberg and Rachel Zucker, as well as by the important film The Business of Being Born. Additionally my own experiences of giving birth have instructed me that the more birth is approached with a sense of “the extraordinary ordinary”—honoring its deep magic and deep commonality—rather than as a medical problem, the fewer medical interventions will be called for.
My conundrum was in how to sensitively approach the birth of Elly and Steven’s child, given that from the start they went down the path of a medicalized birth, choosing to use an obstetrician rather than a midwife, and to give birth in a hospital rather than a birthing center, despite the availability of these options. In my first meetings with them it was clear to me that if I were to try to influence these decisions, it would require me to bring a lot of new ideas to them at a time when they were already in a state of some disturbance given their unexpected new roles as parents-to-be. Elly had accepted the idea that she was “high-risk” on account of her age—although she was in very good health—and Steven stated his anxiety at the idea that Elly would be in a great deal of pain during the labor and birth. They expressed to me that they were open to the idea of natural childbirth, forgoing interventions like anesthesia, but that they were also open to the idea that Elly would not be able to deal with the pain, and that because she was older, and also quite petite, childbirth would somehow be beyond the range of her capacities.
In my experience it is very hard to change someone’s mind, and to do so often requires a complete paradigm shift. The convictions we hold and the assumptions we operate on based on those convictions are deep and chain-linked to precedents and antecedents. In this case, the paradigm of medicalized birth is that giving birth is a risky medical procedure and calls for hypervigilance in order to produce the highly prized outcome of a live birth. The paradigm of natural birth is that birth is a highly variant process that the birther’s individual body is prepared to do, and which can be presumed to result in a good outcome. Somewhere in the middle of these two paradigms, of course, is where we might find our contemporary birthing medium; we live now in a super-challenged childbearing environment in that our fertile and birthing bodies are surrounded by substances, conditions, and effects that our grandmothers and their midwives never dreamed of. To measure how all these different factors are contributing to challenges a woman might encounter in birth would be . . . a worthy study, and might conclude that, as many like to say, indeed we are lucky to have the miracles of modern medicine to aid in birth when aid is truly needed.
Helping Elly and Steven deliver their son turned out to be a question of allowing them to be who they had already decided they were, in this process, and to go forward with their birth as planned. In fact I never said a word about the risks they were incurring by choosing a doctor and a hospital over a midwife and a birthing center. They were already nervous, but choosing a doctor seemed to make them feel more secure, and although I have since reconsidered ways that I might have neutrally offered more information and statistics and reassurance about the norms of birth, I feel that they had in some sense made clear to me their own agency in the process, which is actually what the primary task of a doula could be considered to be: to clear the path for the birthing woman to feel that she is in harmony with her own choices. Elly called me from the hospital a week after her due date to say that her doctor had instructed her to come in for induction, which is often the first step toward cesarean section. Induction produces contractions that are not in sync with the body of either the mother or the child to be born, and often do not produce adequate dilation of the cervix. I spent thirty-six hours in the room with Elly and Steven, helping Elly during contractions, bringing take-out food for Steven, keeping Elly’s mother out of the room (at Elly’s insistence), and staying on top of Elly’s needs and requests for water or a shower. Their son was born by cesarean section and while I do not at all conclude that, as many people say, “all that matters is that they have a healthy baby,” and strongly resist these kinds of relativist statements and am instead in favor of articulating systems that are broken so that they can be improved, I did in this case conclude that my work with Elly and Steven was not to try to pry them away from their own clear choices but to support them in finding their peace with them.
- The capacity for self-reflection and self-management in situations that challenge one’s values and beliefs is a necessary component of a professional social work practice that supports the dignity and worth of others. Describe an experience you have had in an academic, volunteer or professional setting that required you to demonstrate the capacity for self-reflection and self-management in a role that placed you in service to others.
For twenty years my professional and artistic concerns have been co-actualized in my work as a small press publisher of contemporary literature with an emphasis on poetry. I publish an internationally known and distributed print literary journal called Fence, and several books per year with Fence Books. Additionally I publish an online poetry criticism site called The Constant Critic, which features long-form criticism of new books of poetry. My own poetry has been published in four volumes with three different presses including university, major, and independent presses. Within the culture of poetry I personally am a public figure.
As the fledgling director of the nonprofit organization that publishes Fence, and which has relied largely on public grants for funding, at the start I learned about the concepts of “cultural diversity” and “inclusion” from the perspective of the demands of grant-writing, and the need to fulfill explicit requirements in that mode. As a publisher and an active reader of the literary culture during the 2000s, I became increasingly aware of the inequalities of this culture, in terms of the representation of marginalized voices within our different venues and spheres of influence. Fence was formulated explicitly with an aim to gather power in order to redistribute it more fairly: my concerns have always been with attempts to de-couple new writing from the systems that elect or select via social connection (known variously as “nepotism,” “coterie,” and “community”), a connectivity now distorted—some might say “disrupted”—by algorithmic curation in social media. Because of its emphasis on publishing from outside and across systems, Fence has always maintained its outlier status as regards all systems, including the academy and the literary establishment as represented by the New York publishing culture.
In 2010 I wanted to work more directly on inequality in Fence, and by an “affirmative action” style hiring process I brought on six new editors to join the six already in place. These new editors were all people of color and/or queer, and joined a formerly 75% white editorial board. My hope and goal was to share the inherent power of editing the platform we have in Fence more equitably, and I also hoped that this representation would spread into the actual publications we as a group would produce. I hoped that Fence would become known not only for the aesthetic diversity we had claimed to produce all along—which had been largely found within what has been identified as a white space—but for a renewed form of consensual aesthetic democracy across identity as performed, lived, and in what one of our authors has called the “racial imaginary,” a term that identifies the fact that our imaginations too are colonized when our bodies live in a colonized space.
One day in 2015 I was on Facebook, and added a comment to a thread a friend had also commented on. The thread was in response to news that two white poets (both of whom Fence had, in the past, published in our journal) had produced a video in which they, as a sort of conceptual performance, told each other racist jokes about Mexican people and laughed uproariously. The performance went on for about 11 minutes. In the thread, which was expressing outrage, I commented something to the effect that I wondered if these poets were high, and that this is what allowed them to think that this could be acceptable. I had encountered one of the poets personally at a recent event and observed erratic behavior; she was quite young and it was revealed to me that she was abusing alcohol and prescription drugs. I did not share this personal experience on the thread, but what I did share, I saw later, was essentially whiteness. My comment was one that showed empathy or sympathy not with the violated and the oppressed, but with the white oppression and its agents. The lens I turned on the experience was one that was flipped to represent and support whiteness.
The response to my comment was fierce and uncompromising, and took me very strongly to task for positions and assumptions that, despite my basically good intentions and long residence in a position of power, I did not understand at all until, finally, I did understand them. The original poster of this thread was a young poet of color who I knew only slightly, but who, I came to understand, had been taking on the tremendous labor of basically renovating the dialogue of an entire literary culture, all in the confines of Facebook. On Facebook, the venue most available to her and most accessible to the most readers, she had been loudly and brashly, in all caps and without what is called (often as a means of delegitimizing critiques) “nuance,” critiquing institutions of white power and privilege within contemporary American poetry, from the smallest press run by a well-meaning adjunct poetry professor to the largest, most well-funded and staffed nonprofit institutions, those that give out substantial prizes, awards, and canonizations. My casual comment was an interjection of my whiteness into a space that had been identified as safe and stable for poets of color to speak the truth of experience and history and to uphold a demand for, essentially, justice.
Although in my personal and community life I had for almost a year prior to this event been a member of a local chapter of an organization called SURJ (Showing Up for Racial Justice), a group that provides space for white people to work out their own obstacles to dismantling white supremacy and move toward antiracist mobilization, I still had not fully experienced the paradigm shift necessary to innately understand or relate to what was wrong about my statement. I had offered it in what I thought was a spirit of commiseration, and foregrounded what I thought was my shock and amazement that these white poets had been so insensitive. I was still conceptually ready to defend their aesthetic intentions, to myself and privately to other white poets and/or poets of color who I thought might be sympathetic, and to thereby occupy that space of white privilege.
My favorite of SURJ’s tools for decentering whiteness is the practice of “calling in” rather than calling out. I believe that the practice allows for a resiliency to white antiracist work that is immeasurably important as we allow for white people and institutions to make mistakes and rather than run from them, learn from them. The shame I experienced at being called out by this poet of color produced instant defensiveness, which through my experience in SURJ I knew to bring quietly to friends and close colleagues rather than to the site of contention, where I might enact a dialogue of defensiveness on the continuing thread on Facebook. That thread went on for a long time, publicly calling me out as a “gatekeeper” in poetry and as a racist white poet, and it was not until I had gone through quite a few interior revolutions of understanding and lens-flipping (I picture one of those tools an optometrist uses to measure one’s ability to read better with this or that prescription: “Can you see better with this? or this. Now? or now.”) that I was able to frame an apology on the internet that included a felt understanding of my error.
- Social workers are called to enhance the well-being of populations that are vulnerable, face forces of historical and structural oppression, and live in poverty. Describe any experiences you have had serving members of such populations or addressing issues pertaining to such populations. Discuss what you learned about yourself, others, and society from those experiences.
Hudson, New York is a small city—population 6,000—on the Hudson River which has for the last century or so been home to a low- and middle-income racially diverse population, including African-American, Caribbean, Bangladeshi, Muslim, Mexican, and white citizens. Originally a Dutch farming and whaling town and until relatively recently a center for prostitution serving the politicians of Albany, in the 1980s and 90s Hudson fell on generally hard times and a drug trade was active. In the 1980s Hudson experienced urban renewal, and “slums” were razed right along the banks of the river; in their place high-rise low-income housing projects were built, called Bliss Towers. Much of the African-American population of Hudson was and is concentrated there. The powers-that-be of Hudson, in the form of government, business leadership, and higher-paying social service and education jobs were and are almost exclusively white. Still there was a black middle class, and family and church structures of support were present. Waves of gentrification began arriving in small numbers in the 90s, and a trade in antiques was established; by the time I moved my small family to the area in 2005, it was not hard to see that this architecturally beautiful and low-key city was going to change due to its proximity to Brooklyn and what I sometimes call the “artisan apocalypse”—the growth of small, sometimes cottage industries producing high-end food, garments, and other products, often agricultural. Typical of gentrifiers, I am an artist who could not afford a home in my hometown and took advantage of conditions in someone else’s hometown, buying a house in a neighborhood that had been “blighted” and in which many dwellings were abandoned or run-down, and thereby changing that neighborhood.
Having grown up in Chelsea, in Manhattan, I had already witnessed a thorough and, to my eyes, destructive gentrification process. My childhood neighborhood was a mixture of Puerto Rican and Greek-American families and middle-income white people with an emphasis on artists and gay men. The streets felt mixed and open, and there was a lot of communication on them, both desirable and undesirable. People spoke to each other and the fabric of society felt loose, with space in the weave for surprise and curiosity. (Hudson felt this way to me when I first arrived; a simultaneous space.) Rent-stabilization kept Chelsea what it was, and is now largely gone, replaced by cooperatively-owned buildings with shareholders. Chelsea is now inhabited largely by people with high incomes, and while my 82-year-old mother still sits out on the stoop in the summer evenings with a gin-and-tonic and chats to those she recognizes (and some she doesn’t), I do not feel or observe a sense of class fluidity or of encountering an other in a shared context that might produce, however fleetingly, a deeper understanding. The understandings feel rigid and terminal.
In Hudson, through a connection at SURJ, I joined a small group of people who wanted to work on issues of affordable housing. I had joined SURJ because even before the election of 2016 I knew that I could not happily live in this small city without doing something to actively work on situations affecting the low-income people of color in Hudson. Daily, high-end shops and restaurants are opening on the main street, and more and more people like myself—and now, not like myself in that they are actual real estate developers—come to town to buy properties and set up amenities that would signal to themselves and others like them/me that this was a safe space for them/us: yoga, coffee, wine, you know the drill, and now a deeper drill involving further rarifications of the art-world and fine dining sort. What is lost in this process: affordable apartments for low- and middle-income citizens. Airbnb has become a dangerous agent in this extremely clear displacement. No longer is Airbnb a friendly way for struggling people to make a little extra cash and meet interesting travelers; it is a multinational corporate entity that encourages developers, large and small-scale, to develop what amount to illegal hotels—short term-rental spaces for tourism where there formerly were homes for citizens. In Hudson there is a waiting list for subsidized housing, a significant number of low-income people have left their hometown due to the inability to find an affordable apartment, and now middle-income people also cannot find affordable apartments and are moving outside of the city. The situation has emerged in a very short time, and people’s heads are spinning.
In 2016 we formed a group called Affordable Housing Hudson, and, as local elections loomed in Hudson we decided to hold public forums to call direct attention to the issue so that anyone running for city office would need to address it as part of their platform. This has proved, thus far, a successful tactic. More than 70 people attended the first forum, and we have built from this into what constitutes a movement and a political bloc. Every politician in Hudson now feels required to speak to the issue, and as Hudson undergoes what is a state-funded Downtown Revitalization Initiative, the public comments solicited represented virtually unanimous prioritization of affordable housing and affordable groceries, alongside public access to the waterfront. These comments are being built into the mission statement for the $10 million dollar state grant the city has received, and will I hope influence what projects are identified as viable and proposed for funding. The Mayor also formed a Housing Task Force, which I am on, and which is intended to provide a parallel to the DRI committee.
This sounds like a happy ending, but what I have (re)learned about myself in this process is that I am both idealistic and naïve. I see a problem and I see the solution, and I don’t as easily see the obstacles to the solution. What I have learned about others is that it is quite easy to give up hope if one is not somewhat naïve, as when you start to understand what you are up against, systemically and in entrenched custom, it can feel futile. What I have learned about society is that it is powerfully tilted in favor of capital. These three lessons combined result in my conviction that we are in a time in which those who can stand up must stand up, and keep on standing up even in the face of odds that are stacked against what is right. In this case, I must push the Housing Task Force to serve as more than a Band-Aid, a pacifier for noisy housing activists. I must keep on attending the planning committee meetings of the DRI grant even though it is a committee led by patronizing businessmen who don’t like to have the status quo challenged and are very ready to dismiss someone such as myself, a middle-aged woman who is coming to this process with a minimum of experience but a strong sense of what the community wants and needs.
- The [ ] MSW program offers a single concentration: clinical social work, which prepares students to address the biopsychosocial needs of individuals, families, couples, and groups affected by life changes and challenges. Why do you believe that the [ ] MSW program is a good fit for you? What skills and attributes do you bring to clinical social work?
I believe strongly in the durational efficacy of therapeutic interaction, its ability to bring about new or latent understandings and processes that can aid a person or group of persons in making changes in their own attitudes toward themselves and others, their consequent behavior toward themselves and others. Over my lifetime I have felt the effects of patient, skilled, compassionate and truthful therapeutic measures in the psychotherapy context. I have benefited from a variety of different methodologies, from classical psychoanalytic talk therapy to energy healing to a cognitive-behavioral approach to body work to a relational psychological approach.
My desire is to learn ideas, methodologies, and techniques that support people in pursuit of mental health. The biopsychosocial model makes sense to me as it presents a holistic approach to the person and their context, their experiences in the past and in the world, and represents actually a commonsense apprehension of the factors and variables in what may be presenting as problematic in a person’s emotional life. A clear analogy might be found in the whole foods approach to diet, which has guided my eating and cooking choices throughout my life. There is a larger structure that holds each element of the animal and vegetable (and mineral) world, and to isolate, say, a protein from one source, in order to obtain the benefits of that protein for, say, muscle building, is to lose out on synergistic elements of that protein as it is found in its complete system, which may in fact be extremely difficult to isolate and for good reasons.
I am a calm person who brings a strong, fairly direct presence to my interactions with people. I feel certain that I could be a positive and effective presence in a clinical setting. Additionally I bring an understanding of what it is to suffer emotional difficulty, and to move through it. I have lived most of my life with an anxiety disorder and clinical depressions, including severe postpartum depressions after the birth of both my children. I have also had to develop some fairly advanced interpersonal skills to better respond to the significant behavioral and emotional challenges presented by my teenaged son’s autism. I have been through a long marriage and an unhappy divorce and legal battle over custody. I feel I have a wealth of experiential resources to draw from in working directly with people in emotional distress. In studying clinical social work I aim to obtain bodies of knowledge and practice that will give me the chops to address the needs of people facing these kinds of challenges as well as others that I have not personally faced, such as severe mental and physical illness, addiction, poverty, and abusive relationships.
In general I find that this is a very difficult time for many people and in all different social and economic strata. Systemic conditions are producing major changes at an atmospheric and comprehensive level. I find hopefulness in working to understand these systems and conditions. To work at building a patient’s capacity for emotional relief and strength is, it seems to me, an excellent use of one’s time and life. When I consider what might be most hopeful about our current time it is the continuing glory and resourcefulness of each person, and their potential for recoveries from the hardships we encounter.
* Only after pressing “submit” did the author understand that she had misunderstood the online application’s instructions and produced eight single-spaced pages rather than the requested double-spaced pages.