Mid-year Casework Intern Reflection: What I’ve Learned, by Conor James

An Address given at the Partners Meeting, January 30th, St. Luke’s Episcopal DC

For those of you who I haven’t met before tonight, my name is Conor James and I have been the associate caseworker at Samaritan since August. I will continue in that roll until the end of July as a part of a year of service that I am doing through the Jesuit Volunteer Corps. As we are at the end of January, I am officially hitting the half-way point of my JVC year and I have found myself reflecting at length on the six months behind me.  

The truth of these past six months is that they flew by. This line of work can be hectic and each time someone stands up from the chair next to my desk in the Anacostia office and shakes my hand to say goodbye, I am quick to look into the next room to see who is waiting and what I will be doing next.  

When you’re constantly around the high level of need that the participants in our program experience, it’s hard not to turn from one situation to the next without taking a second to step back and reflect on the issues in front of you. But you’ll get caught in the weeds if you don’t take a moment to understand.   

There have been times in the last few months when I have fallen victim to that — when I have gone from meeting to meeting, thinking only about what the person with me needs right now and what I can do right now because that’s what feels most important. And that is important — so important — and I will continue to do what I can, but in the same way that our Next Step program is not meant to be just a band-aid that is slapped on in the moment, but rather, a long process that puts someone in a new position to pursue a new life, we all should be striving to create a world that is pointed to a future that goes in a new direction and sets the stage for a changed society.  

That starts with the acknowledgement of the problems that we have currently, and it requires us to look and see.   

What I have seen in the DMV area is a level of inequality that has resulted from what I can only understand as a prioritization of certain communities, followed by the propagation of the idea that we live in a meritocracy — that anyone can have power and wealth and those that find themselves in possession of it deserve it because they’re able to accumulate it.  

However, it’s not just that they have this innate ability that people in other communities do not, but it’s that they have never experienced something hindering their abilities. In contrast, others have had opportunities withheld from them, and then labeled ‘unable’ to do the same things. Some people are able to do certain things, able to accomplish certain things, because they have been allowed to do so.   

I have seen this in the people who come through our doors looking to sit down with a caseworker. I see it when I sit down with someone who has been through so, so much more life than I have, regardless of age. As someone recounts what they have been through in the last day, or the last month, or the last 60 years, it is evident that I can learn so much from just one conversation with them. They can teach me things that I never would have thought of on my own and explain life experiences that are so unfamiliar to me, whether it’s because I might not experience these things until much later in life, or I might never experience them at all.  

Despite all of the incredible things that the people we work with can offer, they find themselves in these positions through no fault of their own because they were born into this system that tries to keep them from some traditional ideas of success by limiting their access to the structures, opportunities, and information that help people navigate life. They have a vast amount of wisdom and experience, but it is simply not always the right type of wisdom and experience that would allow them to go forward.  

Now, it’s not as if this idea is foreign to me and that I came into this year thinking that our society was set up perfectly or anything like that. However, you can take any sociology class or any racial capitalism course in school and learn the history and the statistical significance of these issues, but that will not mean you have fully grasped anything.  The significance of the past six months comes from the fact that I have come closer to an understanding through my daily face-to-face interactions.  

My experience thus far has been all about learning, much more from the connection with the people that are a part of our program than the paperwork and research. In fact, I have found a great deal of comradery in it. There’s oftentimes a bit of a hubbub coming out of the waiting room as people, sitting down with their juice and snacks, start chatting with one another, sharing stories, and bringing some laughter into our buildings.  

In the JVC community, we talk about the idea of “survivance.” It’s this word that was first introduced in the context of Native American Studies but it can be found in all sorts of other situations of oppression. It’s generally read as being this combination of survival and resistance or endurance. Survivance involves taking an active role in your day-to-day that perpetuates life and fervor, rather than just surviving, removing a sense of ‘victimry.’  

I recognize this in the people I speak with every day, as jokes are cracked and smiles are shared. Sometimes, when someone has finished asking the questions that they wanted to ask and received the help that they sought, they sit back, relaxed, and ask me if I watched the game or enjoyed the weather, and I am reminded that these people will never be defined by their suffering — simply because they refuse.  

There is so much more to them and the life they lead — they are so much more than the situation they are in or the system that works against them. During these times that I am chatting with them, hiding the awe that they have inspired in me, I am confronted by yet another thing that I can learn from them — their humanity and perseverance.   

So, again, my time as a JV working with Samaritan has been defined by the education I am receiving. It has been all about learning the individual stories of the people we serve, and how best to help them, and I imagine that this is what these next six months will continue to bring. But with the guidance of the absolutely incredible team that we have at Samaritan, and my heaven-sent supervisors, Jane Bishop and Crystal Warren, hopefully I can prioritize taking that step back to really understand what it is that we are addressing and learn from that as well.