This Thursday afternoon I was in the school lounge, working on my report for my supervisor at my internship. As I was about to be done with it, a power surge occurred with all the computers connected to the network and all the computer in the student lounge rebooted themselves. What a relief I wasn’t working on my midterm papers at least. Anyway, a student sitting next to me also was affected by this. This technical disaster event got us quite upset so instead of continuing to work, we ended up chatting a bit about the challenges of being a social work intern at a high school.

I was extremely inspired by this first-year MSW student. She told me that when she began her internship at the alternate high school (this is a type of school a student would be mandated to go to after being suspended), she found that many of the kids were not eating school lunch. The teachers at the school, and the intern herself recognized this to be a serious issue because when kids didn’t eat lunch, they’d be tired and distracted at the later part of the day and the only thing on their minds would be the intense hunger they felt.

So the interns started speaking to the kids. “How come you guys are not eating the school lunch here?” she would have asked. Many of the high school students said they didn’t like the cold lunch the school offered. They wanted a hot lunch like they were used to in their middle schools. Learning this, the intern decided to address this issue by bringing a toaster oven and allowing the kids to heat up their lunches in the oven.

This is when I looked at the intern, my mouth wide open in amazement. I said to her, “Do you realize that you actually did something incredible?”

She shook her head, a bit puzzled, and said that she didn’t really know what I was getting at.

So I continued, “What I mean is, you just did a very social work thing, I would say, macro-level social work. You asked the students themselves and found why they weren’t eating school lunch. And then finding that out, you changed the environment, gave them a reason to like school lunch more. See, the thing is, some clinically focused social workers might want to talk with the kids and convince the kids with motivational interviewing and CBT and whatnot to want to eat the cold lunch. But you were able to recognize that sometimes it’s not only the kids – the clients – that needs to change, but the environment itself!”

I had quite a lovely conversation with her. We talked about a lot of powerful topics, particularly the issue of feeling helpless as social workers. We both talked about days when we go home from doing one-on-one counseling and group therapy with high school students, and then come to ask ourselves, “is what I’m doing actually helping these kids?” Just listening to their problems, talking to them, a few hours hers and there in school, what good is that actually doing that for kids in poverty, kids with unstable family situations, kids who have to work for to provide money to their family? She said the words I ended up saying when I was a first-year MSW student, “Yes, the kids like me, but them liking me doesn’t mean their lives are any better.”

That’s the frustration I had felt so strongly when I was in a high school, working alongside two other school social workers and another social work intern. I didn’t want to just impact the minds and the motivations of the students, I wanted to do more. I wanted these kids have better opportunities, better resources, better support. I also knew that kids spend a minority of time within schools. Majority of time they were not in schools, but with friends, in their homes, and other places, and way past school hours. The social worker in me wanted to reach them there, see what their relationships with family members were really like, what their relationships with their friends were really like, what their living situations were like, so that I could help improve all that and thereby really positively impact the kids’ lives.

I remember a time I was doing one-on-one counseling with a high school student boy who was a lot older than most of the other kids at the school. He found school boring so he often didn’t come to school. I asked him what social workers refer to as a “miracle question.” I asked him what it would be like if one day everything that was taught and provided in the school was fun. What would that be like? He said his teachers would teach the subjects that he cared about and they would come up with fun activities for him and his classmates to engage in. He said there would be no homework and no tests but teachers and students would work together and actually discuss important real-life things and learn. Then he would come to school everyday, he would actually love learning things, and he won’t feel tired when he gets home from school. This is to say that this student could be motivated, and I agree with any clinician that says that a lot of it is up to the student himself. He must recognize his potential for change and growth. At the same time, consider his answer. The miracle that he wants, for teachers to engage more with the students, for there to be more real-life examples and fun activities, why is it that I as a social work student desiring for social justice can’t advocate for these changes to occur in the school? I come back to this notion that it’s not only the client that must change, but the environment itself. Because otherwise, I feel helpless, and I’m sure the client – a student in this case – feels frustrated, and the stakeholders – teachers and parents in this case – don’t understand why social workers can’t just fix all the problems.

But changing the environment is a tricky, tricky thing. It’s very easy, all too easy to change the environment so that it becomes even worse, that it causes more harms than before. The change I believe must be bottom-up as much as possible, as grassroots as much as possible, rather than top-down. A city council member that just decides that school lunches should all be vegetarian because that’s going to be healthier for the kids may have the best of intentions but that legislative policy he decides must – and this is so important – it must reflect the actual needs of the people he wishes to help. If the kids don’t eat school lunches at all because they don’t like vegetables, then this decision just made the situation much worse because at least before students were eating something. The vegetarian lunches might be healthier but if no one eats them, them students are getting no nutrients at all.

The first step, it’s so obvious, but it’s so important and it’s surprising how many times policy makers overlook this step. The first step is to always ask the client, “what do you want?” What is the actual need, the actual problem? What is a way for people to buy into the solutions? Maybe the people needing help could be empowered to come up with the solutions themselves? How can we as social workers support them to do so? That I think is a much better question than simply “what can we do to make their lives better?” Because the danger in macro social work without micro considerations is that we might think we’re making an awesome difference in people’s lives, only to realize upon implementation (hopefully we realize it if this happens) that we made a huge, disastrous mistake.