Last school year feels like that was eons ago. I was still a MSW student at NYU, and I was still living here in my apartment in Brooklyn, but I just get the sense that my life was wholly different. That’s the weird thing. Not much has changed with me since the last school year. I’m just a bit older now, and my internship has changed.
It’s quite a big change though. Last year I was at a high school, meeting with students for one-on-one counseling sessions and to co-facilitate group activities and discussions. Much of the paperwork I did was in regards to those interpersonal interactions. The work I did was mostly geared towards the well being of these individual high school students. I came to learn of many of their struggles and challenges, and of course, many of their inspiring strengths and talents. In some ways I struggled like they did, trying to get motivated to wake up early in the morning, and make sure to do my homework when I got back home from internship and my college classes.
This year I’m in a wholly different realm. I have been given an opportunity to direct my energy on the population I’m the most passionate about – the homeless and those at the risk of homelessness in NYC. I suppose that in itself regularly gives me a burst of energy that I felt was lacking within me last school year. While I really enjoyed interacting with and trying to help teenagers, I ultimately couldn’t overcome my discomfort of being in a high school setting. The direct practice work was kind of draining on me as well, because sometimes I felt quite helpless and defeated, questioning myself, is what I’m doing here actually making a difference? Are the lives of these high school students actually better because I’m here? Ugh, even just thinking back to when I asked myself such questions makes me wince.
What’s more of a significant difference this school year is not only that my internship is about serving the homeless, but also that it’s macro policy work. These days I’m not meeting with individual clients or having to do any group facilitation work, nothing like that. I don’t have clients or case loads. Micro practice I did in high school was definitely a lot more fun. Talking with and playing with teenagers was an awesome experience, especially compared to my typical days at the internship now, which is mostly just reading, writing, and attending meetings and conferences in large office rooms. It’s kind of ironic then that the work I’m doing at this internship could impact tens of thousands of homeless people living in NYC. I’m learning about how things work at a larger institutional level, writing things that will be read by policy makers, and meeting with community organizers, representatives, even CEOs of coalitions and large non-profit organizations. I don’t normally meet face-to-face with any of the people I consider as my clients – the homeless people in the shelters and on the streets and living doubled-up – but somehow my understanding (or misunderstanding) and my actions (or inactions) may end up being touching them more powerfully than my actual voice could.
I’ve only been at my new internship for about three weeks at this point and so it’s much too early to have concluding sentiments about macro work, but it seems to me that micro work is fulfilling during; and macro work can be fulfilling afterwards, at the end of the day. I’m a part of an effort to create institutional change. It’s a daunting idea, and actually doing the work is at times boring and dreadful, so unlike the joy of micro work of engaging with clients one-on-one and in groups, but that lingering feeling of helplessness I had last year is completely absent. What’s amazing about this macro work is this sense that the status quo can change, that things can be improved, and moreover, that I can a part of this institutional movement.
Why there is this kind of weird schism between micro work and macro work, I don’t really get it, and I don’t fully understand it. I somehow wish all social work can be both micro and macro work at the same time. The gap between the two modes of practice is undeniable though. I greatly value both, and each has its pros and cons. Micro work without pondering macro implications addresses symptoms but rarely the underlying cause. Macro work without the micro considerations of empathize with each individual client can look like an abuse of power. Though it may too often feel like it’s micro vs macro, the paradigm really should be micro with macro, or vice verse.
I think it’s really valuable that I’ve had one-on-one interactions with homeless people in shelters and on the streets before I started this internship. I recognize the wide-reaching implications of my work at the internship. Hopefully that means I don’t make uninformed mistakes that unintentionally negatively affects thousands. The pressure is on. So this is what being a 2nd year (final year) MSW student feels like.