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Q & A: Field Education Director Walks in the Shoes of a Client

LIFTopolis: Challenging Assumptions, Challenging Perceptions

AUGUST 12, 2014

LIFTopolis is a unique event sponsored by LIFT, a non-profit organization devoted to establishing "a new standard for holistic and enduring solutions in our country's fight against poverty."

During the course of two days, LIFTopolis attendees (including social workers, social work educators, and students) engage in an interactive simulation where they're asked to "navigate the complex process of obtaining stable housing, employment, and other basic needs when living in poverty." In short, participants spend time walking in the shoes of the men, women, and children they provide, or will provide, services to.

This year, BC Social Work Director of Field Education Sue Coleman took part in LIFTopolis for the first time, an event which she says was an "eye-opening experience that could serve as a great resource for many in the field of social work."

Here, Coleman speaks about what it was like to assume the identity of "Clarisse," a 78-year-old widow forced into selling her home to pay off her bills, how the experience has changed her views on providing services despite a long career in the field, and how LIFTopolis could help to play a role in educating future social workers moving forward.

This was your first experience at LIFTopolis. Tell us, Sue, or should I say Clarisse, what it was like to "become" someone else, and to attempt to address some of the serious issues that she was facing in her life.

Well, the first thing I should say is that this was of course a simulation. We weren't under any kind of real life stress. Also, I began my own career as a social worker when I was 22, so I have a lot of experience in the field, and I was equipped with the tools to think about how to solve some of the problems I was presented with.

That said, it was still incredibly stressful and frustrating! Clarisse's identity was based on a real life client of LIFT, a recent widow forced to sell her house to make ends meet, and whose monthly budget to live on was only $1,000 per month. Throughout the course of the event, I had to figure out how to secure needed services by visiting various departments, such as City Hall and the Housing Authority, and then find a way to eat and keep a roof over my head all for this tiny sum of money. Lines at "City Hall" were long — everyone needed to go there to secure proof of identity, residence, income and the like, and then return to other service providers to solve specific problems.

I eventually determined that my best living option was to rent an apartment for $700 a month, and then try to find a way to live on $300 per month. This, of course, required that I seek out other services such as food pantries. And I faced new hurdles at every turn. At the end of the day, I was exhausted trying to figure everything out.

It sounds incredibly draining. What were some other emotions you felt throughout the experience?

I did my best to imagine myself in Clarisse's place, and I felt confused and frightened. A couple of times I just shut down, as I was at a loss after exhausting option after option. It was a real struggle — they did a nice job!

What were your takeaways from the experience?

Again, it's important to say that it's impossible to simulate what it feels like to be living in poverty. But LIFTopolis does help you to see some of the issues that those living at the margins of society encounter in their daily lives. There were all sorts of simulations: I met a homeless single mother with children, people in wheelchairs and with various chronic conditions, a young disabled father struggling to provide for his family. As we came together as a community of social workers at the end of the event to discuss each of these individual experiences, it became clear that the system isn't designed for the people receiving services, but instead, it's built by, and for, providers. We can do better to reach the needs of our clients.

Did LIFTopolis offer any perspective on your current role, and new opportunities for field education at Boston College?

Absolutely. It was great to be able to get back to my social worker roots — I started off back in my twenties working with children and families. So it reminded me what it was like to be out in a field that it still facing some of the same issues today. While it's sad to think that many of the societal problems I worked on during my career are still eminent in 2014, it's also encouraging to see so many young people who want to be a part of finding solutions. There were quite a few Americorps members at LIFTopolis.

And we have great, dynamic students at BC. I hope that, in the future, a majority of our students will be able to attend LIFTopolis, or to take part in a similar activity. Even a single experience simulating what it's like to be a recipient of services, I think, can build more compassionate providers, and it reminds us that understanding practice should be a primary emphasis for all of us in the field, from clinicians to big thinkers.

First and foremost, we need to come up with the best solutions to ensuring that people's basic needs are provided for; gaining empathy and understanding represents a critical first step toward finding such novel solutions, and connecting with the people we will work with, and serve.

Field Education is the cornerstone of the Boston College Graduate School of Social Work curriculum and where the integration of learning happens. We invite you to learn more about Field Education at BC Social Work.