By RHEEA MUKHERJEE
At 33, I have been able to rebrand myself, for all practical purposes, as a writer. I guess I always liked the written word, but with a history of moderate dyslexia, I never thought it was something I’d do full time.
It started out very differently. I was what friends called a ‘bleeding heart’. My future was lit with purpose: to create change, to make that ‘difference’. That’s why I decided to study social work for my bachelor’s degree in Colorado.
I realise today that my career experiences are exceptionally rare and this is because I had a hard time sticking to one thing. In the last decade I’ve worked as a counsellor, a behavioural health advocate, a social worker at a domestic shelter for women, a coffee barista, an ESL teacher, a theatre performer/teacher, a fiction writer, and finally, today co-running a design and content laboratory that focuses on branding.
Once I finished my degree in social work I worked as a residential counsellor at a step-down from jail facility in Denver. Here boys aged 11-18 with past records of vandalisation, drugs, gang violence, and sexual assault lived a specific ‘term’ until the state could either place them back with their families, find foster care, or transfer them to an adult facility.
I was trained to give out medication the state had prescribed to the kids through a collection of different therapists and medical practitioners. These drugs were high doses of antidepressants and antipsychotics. 90% of the entire unit of boys were on some kind of medication.
While I know how potently necessary medication can be for mental illness, I always felt uncomfortable handing out these drugs to the boys every night.
I worked the evening shift from 1pm-11pm. The main goal was to keep the unit of about 20 resident teenagers out of fights, which entailed policing them and making sure they weren’t sneaking in smokes or drugs when their families came to visit. In the evenings, I was setting ‘life goals’ with them, trying to prep them for a future sans violence and drugs.
The reality though was us counsellors watched them play video games, ate ridiculously unhealthy state-funded dinners with them at the cafeteria, and checked their beds and rooms for drugs and pornography. The boys were clever, they tucked pages of pornography and single cigarettes into pillow cases and even folded them right into their boxers.
Some of their parents could not come to visit them, because the parents had failed their own urine drug test. What future do you make for a child who has crimes on their record? And how do they begin to find hope when their parents are struggling with crime records and drug addictions themselves?
If I had to blanket stereotype my experience there, I’d say most of the boys took to me with affection, approaching me like I was family. The reason for this was blunt: I was brown-skinned, and most the staff was white. Another great indicator of power structures in America, one that can be extended to the world. A certain sense of cultural affinity grew between the boys and I as they were mostly African American and Latino. In fact only 1 per cent were Caucasian – so tiny that any white kid joining the centre was often bullied.
Here talent and bright futures had no bearing. The boys were angry, and rightly so. Society had failed them. I once had a chair flung at me. I had to break up many fights with boys that were at least 70 pounds heavier than me. But through all my time there, I realised that what I was doing was the antithesis of change.
Here I was with a degree that was all about making impact. Here I was having a full-time job that was supposed to do nothing but ‘help people’. The truth was that I was a state nanny, one that controlled a milieu of kids labeled ‘delinquents’.
I ran groups talking about goals. But their goals were hazy, most of them just wanted to stay clear of trouble, but trouble was already built into their ecosystem. It was built into their socio-economics and broken families, the gaps in their education and exposure to the world. And I was numbing it. With drugs, pat-downs, and superficial goal-setting.
Every time I used a metal detector wand on a kid who had just returned from a therapist approved home visit, my soul died a little. Every time I asked a 14- year-old to open his mouth to check if he had swallowed his medication, my heart sunk a little more.
It’s no easy work to be a residential counsellor. Some of my peers had worked there for years, one even 25+ years. And nothing changed except for new boys entering a glorified jail house while older ones stumbled out into a world that was not equipped to be kind to them.
Yet, I had privileges other counsellors did not have. The ability to move on, a family that would support me while I tried something new. I worked as a counsellor at a psychiatric hospital next, and then I went on to do an MFA in creative writing.
That’s where I found the channel that would start to clot my bleeding heart. I found that writing about things, coming to terms with systemic issues and chronicling the very paradigms that built violence, abuse, and other social oppressions was more empowering.
That said, I knew that fieldwork was where the blood was, and I still think that the unsung heroes are the ones on the battlefield, working with people, seeing things from ground up.
My experience though has taught me that sometimes ‘change’ work can be more about keeping things in check. It can mean doing things for the sake of doing them. It can mean maintaining a status quo. Until we really change society by knocking down oppressive systems, change work can also mean keeping social issues subdued and in a coma.
Doesn’t sound very optimistic does it? But what’s exciting is that people change, over decades, over centuries, our general consciousness shifts. The age of the internet has raised the standard when it comes to deconstructing why things are the way they are. And one honest truth shines through: if you practice your life with ideals and values that keep evolving, no matter what you do, then you are contributing to a better world. If you keep learning, thinking, and reassessing old beliefs we are automatically making way for equality and compassion to thrive.
I find so many similarities in the way oppression works here in India as it does around the rest of the world. Some answers are profoundly simple. We must use our social privilege and let it evolve. The small things matter. Our social privilege must be productive.
So if you can give money, give. If you can tighten a community with compassion, do it. If you can write to change minds, then write till your fingers bleed. If you can be on field working hands-on, do it. If you can make yourself uncomfortable with your own personal growth, then you are doing something right. Only then will we be truly giving a chance to the millions of people who are on the ground hoping to see trackable change.
- Find causes you care about here, to give your time, money or skills.