The South Bronx Experience by Michelle Holzapfel
I’d never felt like more of a fish out of water (or a Canadian out of her element) than the first day at work in the South Bronx.
At the time I had been enrolled in the MSW program approximately three weeks and could not have felt more unprepared for what was about to come. Anxiety filled each of my classrooms as fellow students’ worries mirrored my own. How was I supposed to help other people when I knew nothing about how to practice social work? What if I caused more harm than good to my clients? Self-doubt, concern, and worry flooded my mind.
My knowledge of the South Bronx up to that moment was limited to what I had learnt from TV shows, over-exaggerated events. The only news about that would make its way to Toronto would revolve around violence and trauma. Yet with nerves still making its way throughout my body, I managed to leave for my first day of internship. Travelling north, from the Upper West Side of Manhattan to the South Bronx, with my phone working as a GPS in a death grip in my hand, I began my journey.
There is no delicate way to put this; I was uncomfortable, even scared. My expectations of the kind of people I would interact with were wild. I was a white woman, had a privileged and sheltered upbringing, and with that cosy life in a quiet suburban community, came exaggerated fears of what could happen to me (based off of my TV knowledge). I took a stranger speaking to me on the street as a threat; if the same person were to have approached me back in my cushy neighbourhood, I would not have thought twice about responding. I speed-walked with my head-down, pretending to not hear anyone, as I followed the little blue arrow on my phone, which led me to the middle school I was assigned to for my internship.
Over 97% of this schools population was Hispanic or African American students. On top of all my ‘what if’ thoughts, one fear stuck out the most:
What if these students don’t want help from me because I’m white? I absolutely can’t relate to their problems and issues, because we are completely different people!
But that’s where I think I had it most wrong. The problem here was that I was making assumptions about what these children were struggling with, and who they were. I was stereotyping them without even realizing.
Throughout my time, one of the greatest lessons I have learnt was that there is great strength in differences between the client and the clinician. For through our differences, comes further exploration. Since my experiences are so vastly different from those at this school, I made fewer assumptions and asked more.
If a student told me about:
“Struggles in the projects, you know?”
I would truthfully reply with:
“No, I don’t know. What struggles and what were they like?”
Rather than saying “yeah sure, I’ve been there, lived through that”, I had these children describe in great detail what they were going through, and together we worked towards finding ways to help them.
Now, obviously there were many kinks in the road throughout the internship period between September and May. There was one entire night I laid on my couch crying because one student described her heartbreak because her mother abandoned her for an abusive boyfriend. I felt fear for a boy who vowed to leave his gang, and compassion for a girl who was having difficulty bullying. I had laughed with, and have seen immense growth in these individuals that I had had the absolute privilege of meeting throughout my year.
After my first day of internship, I walked back to the train towards Manhattan, tears spilling down my face. I won’t forget the uncertainty I felt that afternoon as to whether I made a huge mistake changing fields to go into Social Work.
Similar, but very different tears ran down my cheeks on my last day of internship months later in May on my last day. I already knew the impact these children had on my life, and their growth I had witnessed over the work we had done together.
It without a doubt the most rewarding year of my life.