Reclaiming Inner Strength

In honor of Black History Month and as part of the Spring 2014 Dean’s Colloquium, the NYU Silver School of Social Work hosted the talk “Reclaiming Inner Strength: Reflections on African American Families” on February 26. The event—featuring a keynote address by Sadye Logan, a distinguished professor emerita at the University of South Carolina College of Social Work, and reflections from students Amanda Mays, MSW ’15, and Margaret Woods, MSW ’15—highlighted the importance of preserving a narrative tradition in African American families to strengthen individual and family identity, and promoting a paradigm shift in the Black American family experience.

In her opening remarks, Dean Lynn Videka spoke of the decision made during the School’s strategic planning process by the School’s student and faculty diversity committee to rededicate the NYU Silver to social justice and diversity “through curriculum, our community, the composition of our community, and extracurricular activities, such as this evening’s event.”

Logan focused her talk on the importance of heritage in black families and the need to maintain family/cultural rituals and the oral tradition of sharing ancestors’ stories. Acknowledging the trite connotations that Black History Month often evokes, Logan culled lesser-known historical figures and facts for her lecture. She cited author Carter Godwin Woodson, whose 1933 book The Mis-Education of the Negro boldly stated: “If you can control a man's thinking, you do not have to worry about his action. When you determine what a man shall think, you do not have to concern yourself about what he will do. If you make a man feel that he is inferior, you do not have to compel him to accept an inferior status, for he will seek it himself.” Changing this perpetuation of inferiority requires a re-working of narrative, Logan argued, and remembering “what we have so long ago forgotten about who we are... the intent is to help begin the daunting task of remembering the inherent strength within us, and then move forward.” While many positive signs suggest a recovery of inner strength is possible and underway in the African American community, Logan stressed that a great deal of work remains to be done in both the individual and collective recovery process. By re-learning how to tap into one’s inner strengths, she posited, it will become possible to harness and nurture the development of that resilience.

To create this paradigm shift in African American families and the social work practitioners that serve them, Logan stated that a new professional mindset must be cultivated. She has developed some simple but powerful strategies that she believes are significant in reconnecting with our inner strengths. These include externalizing problems and concerns to help families separate themselves from life’s stressors and move out of the world of problems and into the world of experiences; and teaching families to respond, not react, to life circumstances. Another of Logan’s strategies employs the use of seven healing sayings (“I am loved/I love you,” “I’m grateful/thank you,” “I care/I’m sorry,” etc.) to “help families connect with these thoughts and become comfortable saying them and accepting them as part of who they are.” Logan’s final strategy postulates that clinicians can work to restore families’ lives by helping them change the aspects of their lives that are not working.

Following Logan’s keynote, MSW student Amanda Mays shared her experience as an intern at a Harlem elementary school. As an international adoptee and member of the foster care system, Mays experienced an early awareness of and longing forthe larger African American community of extended family and friends that comes together to raise a child when the biological parents are unable. Through her work at the Harlem school, Mays has experienced the joy of being a part of a community of caregivers and attaining her childhood goal.

MSW student Margaret Woods echoed Mays’ statements of the intricate and extended web of the African American family system. Woods was sent to the South at a young age to live with her grandmother and great-grandmother, and credits this inter-generational upbringing with instilling the importance of keeping family history alive and inspiring her to work towards a career in social work with older adults. At her current field placement, Woods is implementing a video memoir program for her Planning, Organization, and Provision of Services project, and says that the remembrance and nostalgia evoked by telling their life stories “keeps my clients alive and happy; they welcome their memories into their lives.”

Logan lauded Woods’ work, and furthered: “As helpers, it has to begin with us. We have to come from that unconditional place, that place of non-judgment. And it’s through our modeling that we will help families to evolve. I’m giving you a framework, a perspective, and then you use that as your guide as you move in your arena of helping families to reconnect to what I’m defining as ‘the inner strength.’”