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Coming of age.

This meeting here in Washington, D.C., on the occasion of the 41st year in the life of this organization, has as its theme "Coming of Age." We can most certainly see this coming of age manifested in an expanding, developing organization, one which is undergoing major transisions and entering into the process of redefining its mandate.

In joining this gathering of my colleagues and friends from all over the country, it would indeed be pleasant to simply reflect on and meander through our journey together. But since the program says we have come of age, I think it important to celebrate that rite of passage by assuming we have arrived at a significant juncture. If we have, then it is time to measure our present against the challenge of our past. My own journey has been as complex as yours, as complex as this field of professional endeavor we share. So having come of age, I shall try to state it as simply as possible.

I am a social worker. I was educated in the concepts and practices of casework. This was in the early 1950s. Then I went forth to practice, only to learn I was not yet trained. My first job was in a child guidance clinic where I worked for four years. When families came in with troubled kids, we social workers met with the parents, and psychiatrists treated the child/patient.

Other family members were not included. Psychologists gave tests and made evaluations. I remember thinking this arrangement was rather cumbersome, that it tended to split people and did not seem to afford anyone a wide range of vision for understanding the presenting problems. But then it was explained to me that psychiatrists deal with deeper issues and social workers with contextual issues--and so my doubts were abated. It might have been somewhere in those first four years that I began to realize that "deeper" meant more important, and "context" or "social" meant less important. There were other things that got this message across--like the pay differential between those dealing with deeper issues (sometimes called the unconscious) and those dealing with social issues (sometimes called the conscious; or on a good day, preconscious!). I was vaguely aware that all the folks dealing with the deeper issues were men, and the folks dealing with social issues were women. This might have been the beginning of some vague association between less important and social work, and between power and gender. But these associations were just vague stirrings.

In 1960 my first child was born. Within the next four years there were two more. I began the exhilarating journey of being mother to three daughters. We moved to Ithaca where my husband was on the faculty at Cornell. I did some part-time work with various research projects in the child development/mental health field. I never thought of us as a dual-career family; only that i worked--also. Remember, this was over 20 years ago. We did not even have terms that described equity in martial couples.

The 1960s and early 1970s brought enermous social and political upheaval and change. Our family moved again--this time to Washington, D.C. It was a decade that saw a President's Commission on Juvenile Delinquency, the struggle for welfare rights, anti-poverty legislation, legal aid, the civil rights movement, Project Head Start, New Careers, the Mobilization for Youth, and the great explosion of health- and welfare-service delivery systems. Mental health services were federally mandated and community mental health centers spread throughout the country. Of course, there was also a terrible war. And an impassioned peace movement. Now it was okay to be socially concerned and politically active. It was fine to tie your professional life to larger social issues. Maybe it was even important.

I was active in civil rights and was hired by the National Association of Social Workers to set up a day-care center at Resurrection City--an encampment of the poor designed to highlight the War on Poverty. I later became part of a New Careers project aimed at recruiting and training members of the client population to become service providers. Now it was no longer acceptable for one social class to provide service to another social class. It became clear to most of us that if you were not part of the solution, you were part of the problem. It felt important to be a social worker again. Yet, I couldn't help but notice that most of the leadership, the directors and executives of even these new community-based and populist institutions, were men. Except perhaps in the day-care centers. This seemed odd. But so much was happening we could hardly afford to quibble.

Our family moved to Philadelphia in 1969 and I became part of a six-year, federally funded project, at the Philadelphia Child Guidance Clinic, to train minority and poor people, people who had no access to traditional professional education, in the techniques of family therapy. I had never heard of family therapy when i was asked to join this project. It was my experience in New Careers that brought me into it.

At the Child Guidance Clinic, I found an evolving theory and treatment methodology that fit both my worldview and my personality: a theory and a practice that looked at people in context, that utilized knowledge of the structure of systems as a way to create change, that actively engaged the therapist with his or her client, and that understood that interpersonal transactions within small systems, such as the family, are embedded in larger systems which organize and perpetuate those transactions. It was a theory and a practice thoroughly committed to the here and now, to problem-solving, and to the demystification of therapy. Power relationships among people were connected to social and economic realities. Change was the name of the game and enhancing competency the goal. Treatment was to be brief and pathology minimized.

So I became a family therapist. We were, at that time, creating a methodology that was a radical departure from traditional schools of thought and clinical practice. Like marriage counseling before it, family therapy pioneered new directions for helping people. And it democratized the mental health field, breaking down the hierarchical structures of clinical practice, and the artificial boundaries of professional discipline.

Thus I took on a new professional identity--even though I suspected that social work had occupied the family field, and taken a contextual view of people, from its very inception. Never mind. Labeled neither deep nor important when it belonged to social work, and being a profession largely populated by women, it had not been within our power to transform clinical practice. And so wha if the pay differentials remained the same, and the leadership and executive level of functioning within this new lead remained mostly in the hands of men? I was too busy learning!

Then a new social trend emerged in the 1970s which transformed my personal and professional life. The women's movement provided a consciousness and a theory which gave credence and structure to all those faint stirrings and vague questions which had plagued me in my professional journey.

The world of women began to change; their role and function, both within families and in society, was radically transformed. And of course the structure of family relationships, the rules of marriage, the access to power, and the relationship to work, were profoundly altered for both men and women. Yet family therapists--those very colleagues who had forged a practice based on systems theory, and on the interrelatedness of the parts to the whole--seemed not to notice. Where were the mental health pioneers who had challenged the establishment?

I began to explore my own practice in relation to te changing role of women, and to question some of our theory from a feminist perspective. In 1980 three collagues joined with me in presenting the first conference in the field devoted to addressing these issues. It was attended almost exclusively by women, as if women's issues, their changing role in society, were not of clinical or professional interest to men, even family-systems men. At this first conference, one of the few men who attended, and then only briefly, commented, "but we're all human beings aren't we?" This from someone who understood that role and function within a system organize consciousness and behavior. I was stunned. From this conference came the Women's Project in Family Therapy.

Three years ago, I came to Washington and set up a family therapy training center and clinic. I am happy to say it is flourishing. It is one of only three such institutes, among the over 200 which exist in this country, that are directed by women.

And so, let us return to our coming of age. How do we define ourselves now that we have grown up? Let's take a look at your journey in this conference these last few days: on Thursday evening, at the opening session, Mr. Tom Clark convened the conference; Mr. Sidney Johnson gave the welcoming address, followed by Mr. Jay Haley, who delivered the keynote address. On Friday, at the lunch session, Mr. Vincent Foley introduced Mr. Sam Donaldson who was our guest speaker. That evening at the Awards Ceremony, Mr. Craig Everett presided; while Mr. William Nichols and Mr. Lyman Wynn presented awards to Mr. David Reiss and Mr. Clifford Sager. On Friday night, at the Presidential Banquet, Mr. Thomas Clark welcomed our guest speaker, Mr. George Miller. Today, Mr. Craig Everett served as convenor of this general session where talks have been or will be delivered by Mr. Fred Duhl, Mr. Augustis Napier, and--myself.

Clearly all of these presenters are most worthy of the positions they hold and the leadership they provide this organization. They are respected colleagues and among them are some of my good friends. But that is not the issue. The issue is one of self-definition in our coming of age.

As members of an organization concerned with marriage and the family, and one which--from the look of our workshop titles, panel discussions, and papers--takes a systemic viewpoint, can we be unaware of the implicit message in the structure of this conference? Who is assigned leadership? How do the roles and rules of our participation in this larger system impact on our attitudes and behaviors in the smaller therapeutic system within which we work? Do the role models presented here serve well to enhance the power and sense of competence of both men and women practitioners? And what can be said of the scarcity of minority colleagues participating in this conference? Is this accidental toward, and understanding of, the social context in which black and Hispanic families live?

In this time of diminishing resources, lack of public support for social and mental health services, reduced funding, and increased competition for slices of a smaller pie, the natural tendency is to withdraw into that which is known, comfortable, and provides an established system of support. We can become concerned with only the internal issues of our trade, the particular techniques of one methodology as opposed to another. The many ways to do the same thing. The intricacies of each small move, maneuver, strategy, and intervention. Whether three is more complex than two, or how to word a paradox. Obviously, this organization must serve the needs of professional development and technological excellence. Part of our self-definition is to identify and to improve on what we do.

But can the definition of our technology flourish without reference to the larger social issues and the context within which it is applied? Do we, for example, think that there is a relationship between unemployment and family violence? Do we believe that sexism and racism have a deleterious effect on family life? Do we believe that children in single parent homes are at risk? Should we try to save marriages or facilitate divorces? Do we think that the threat of war is harmful to a child's view of his or her world? Do we think marriages are enhanced by or suffer from dual careers?

And so, in our coming of age we need to engage in the social arena, to debate and dialogue around the issues affecting the lives of the families we work with, to begin to define our own belief systems, and yes, to be willing to take some positions that reflect our awareness of the interrelatedness of social and familial roles, rules, values, and structures.

In coming of age we have a choice: we can assume the parameters of a guild, focusing our interest on the skills of our trade, on protecting our own professional position, on issues of licensure and reimbursements, or we can reclaim our heritage, and define our own self-interest and professional expertise by reference to the larger social issues which influence and organize our theory, our practice, and our commitment. I hope I leave you with a clear message as to where my choice lies.
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Title Annotation:human services
Author:Walters, Marianne
Publication:Monthly Review
Date:Mar 1, 1984
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