As I rode into work today, I had a serious thought session on some recent events in my life. For several years, we have battled with the keepers of the keys over an issue pertaining to our child. The people who were supposed to help her instead looked at her, made their assessment and dismissed her.
No one heard what we had to say, no matter how urgently, earnestly, or repeatedly we said it. This left me feeling hopeless, frustrated, bitter, and angry- all because no one would listen. This week, someone finally listened. It was like the clouds parting, light shining down, and angels singing all at once. This personal issue, as usual, brought me around to thinking about our customers, low-income individuals and families. I thought about some of the experiences they must face, particularly when looking for someone to help.
I have several thoughts here. First, working in human services is no picnic. Days can be long when you witness adversity on a periodic basis; when you witness it on a day-to-day basis, it can be exhausting. Eventually, you learn to cope by either becoming cynical or by leaving the field. If not careful, you can become skeptical of every situation, which can easily be conveyed in our day-to-day transactions with the people we are trying to help.
The second is the pathology behind seeking help. Every person seeking help has a story. Chances are that “story” greatly differs from the one we have written in our mind. We, as service providers cannot, with absolute certainty, know what it is that brought the person into this situation. Especially as we try to fit the reasons into neat little categories such as “lost job”, “husband moved out”, “lack of money management”. Usually, our categories are really just symptoms of the real problem and any realist knows that life rarely fits into neat little categories. Our customers come in and we want to assess, or diagnose them, based on what we see, or based on our little questions. Make no mistake; the assessment is crucial to laying a plan. However, we need to be careful not to layer the objective assessment with our personal assessment.
This leads to the final thought. We cannot throw a job or throw an energy payment at poverty and expect it to be solved. These are just temporary solutions to a lingering issue. Every person, every individual, has the right to have their voice heard. To be able to express their concerns, needs, fears, and hopes. This means wiping away the preconceived notions and actively listening to what that person has to say. This is important because poverty cannot be addressed through a one-size fits all approach. Each solution should be as individual as each customer is. And we cannot know who the customer is until we listen.