The literary life of EDWARD JAMES, author,reviewer, occasional poet and former pension adviser to the government of Kyrgyzstan
‘Hello, is that Mr James? My name is Ed Thomas of the State Social Assistance Department. I believe you’re due to join us next week as a consultant in our Social Policy Unit, here in Olympia.’
‘Yes, I’m looking forward to it.’
‘Well, I’m afraid I’ve got disappointing news. I’m phoning to say that we had a Budget Review this week and the Social Policy Unit has been disbanded, so we won’t be needing you in Olympia.’
‘ But the good news is that we’ve found you another job – as a Senior Social Worker in our Bremerton office.’
‘A Senior Social Worker?’
‘Yes – I know it won’t pay as much as the fee we offered as a consultant, but it’s the best we can do.’
It wasn’t the money that worried me. I just wasn’t a social worker and never had been, Senior or otherwise, and Bremerton did not seem a good place to start. It was an old dockyard town across Puget Sound from Seattle, that had seen great days in the Second World War and had never looked forward since.
Its main claim to fame was that it was the berth of the mothballed battleship USS Missouri, ‘Mighty Mo’. The Second World War had ended on her foredeck with the Japanese surrender in Tokyo Bay. The ship was open to the public but few people visited this remote location, The lonely guide spent much of his time telling his rare guests about his adventures in Vietnam.
‘What am I expected to do?’
‘I’ll give you the name and number of the manager. She’s expecting a call from you.’ And with that he gave me the details and rang off.
I was in America as a Visiting Professor on a two-year Fulbright Travel Scholarship. That sounds very grand, but I was only an Assistant Professor, the equivalent of a junior lecturer in England, although paid a lot more. I was always flattered when one of my students called me ‘professor’: I never reached the rank in England for a British student to call me that.
The Travel Scholarship paid my fare to America and back and I sold the family car to take my wife and two young children with me. Once in America I had to find my own living. I taught for a year at a university in Florida and then moved to Seattle in the Pacific North-West.
Like most junior academics I was employed for only nine months in the year. For the other three I was free to work elsewhere or not, as I pleased. In our first summer we followed a gypsy life, living in our camper-trailer, camping in State Parks and wandering across the United States from corner to corner. In my second summer I decided that I had to earn some money, before returning to the relative penury of England.
Which is how I came to win and lose my consultancy at the state capital, Olympia, and how I came to be on the morning ferry across Puget Sound, surely the most beautiful journey to work in the world.
The manager of the Bremerton office was a large, brisk woman.
‘Hi, Edward, welcome aboard. I gather the people in Olympia didn’t tell you much about why they sent you here?’
‘They said I was redundant.’
‘We asked for somebody to take charge of our Federal Demonstration Program for social work aides. You’ve probably heard of it.’
I had. The Federal Government had offered the States some money for a summer programme to hire teenagers from families on Welfare to work as social work assistants. It was basically a youth employment programme, although underpinned by the theory that these youngsters could form a bridge between the college-educated social workers and the families they served, bringing fresh insights and understanding.
‘Well’, she continued, ‘our State got enough money to take on 400 aides at the State Minimum Wage, which is more than they could get fruit picking, which isn’t covered by the Minimum Wage. The money was shared out among the local offices roughly according to population and we were allocated 16 places. We filled them last week.’
‘How did you select your aides?’
‘They are all 16-year olds, straight from High School. Some will be going back after the summer. We hope you’ll persuade more to do so.
We took most of them from families above the cut-off for welfare payments.
The maximum payment for one household in this state is the rate for six children –
however many more children there are there’s no more money.’
‘So most of them each have at least six brothers or sisters?’
‘Or half-brothers and sisters, or whatever.’
‘And they are all from single parent families?’
‘Yes. We don’t have a program for two-parent households in this state.’
‘And they are all below the poverty-line?’
‘Yes, that’s why we tried to give them some extra help.’
‘Have you anything in mind as to what they’ll do?’
‘We heard about the program only two weeks ago and we’ve been too busy working out the money and hiring the aides to think about that. We’ve found them a room but we didn’t have anybody to supervise them, which is why they sent you.’
‘So I’m free to do what I want?’
‘Absolutely. They’re all yours.’
They were gathered in a side room, sullen and bored, a cross-section of America’s poor. Some were white, more were Hispanic (I learned that most of them were of Philippine descent, although they had Spanish names), others were black and there were four Native Americans (American Indians).
We introduced ourselves and I asked them what they had done last week.
‘They took us to this room’, said a white girl, ‘and gave us a talk about how important it was to come to work on time and then they gave us some hand-outs to read until it was time to go home. They sent some of the boys to be lifeguards at the pool in the park. They said that when you came you would tell us what to do.’
‘I’m not going to tell you what to do’, I said. ‘My job is to listen to what you want to do and to try to make it happen. Your job is to tell me what you can do best to help families like your own.’
They looked unconvinced, but they began to talk.
Some of my new social work colleagues were even more sceptical when I told them how we were working.
‘This is a work experience programme’, said one. ‘In the real world they won’t begin the day with a group meeting and nobody is going to ask them what they want to do. They’re here to learn to get to work on time and do as they’re told until it’s time to go home.’
Nor were they enthusiastic about allowing the social work aides to share their coffee break. ‘They’ve got a room of their own. Suppose they overheard us talking about one of their families?’
‘But the idea is’, I insisted, ‘that we improve understanding between social workers and clients and we can’t do that if we shut them away in a room of their own.’
The manager backed me and from then on we shared coffee breaks. Towards the end of the programme one of the social workers remarked ‘I never knew what nice kids they were. We only know about them through their mothers, telling us how difficult they are.’ I think the aides grew to like the social workers – they weren’t such difficult people as their mothers had told them.
I soon found that ethnicity matters. I was able to relate to the white youths almost at once, then came the hispanics and then the black youths and I never really related to the Native Americans. One was a persisted absentee who had joined under parental pressure. One of the social workers went out the reservation to bring him by car.
‘Why don’t we just let him go?’ I asked. ‘He’s demoralising the others and they’re getting resentful.’
‘It’s the hard-to-reach that we most need to reach’, she replied. Indeed this was true from a casework viewpoint, but I didn’t see my group as cases. We let him go.
I’m not saying that Native Americans in general are hard to reach, merely that I failed to reach them. Had we had some reservation-based activities it might have been different, but they never proposed any.
My next discovery was that nearly everything costs money and we had no budget except for our own wages. We needed money or donated goods for children’s books, toys and writing materials for our playgroup, brushes and paints to renovate the premises for it, for material for our dressmaking class (one of the girls provided her own sewing machine) and to hire buses for outings. We obtained some money from a local charity but most of it we raised ourselves. One of the girls was chosen as Treasurer for the group and she drafted letters to local firms asked for help in cash or kind (e.g. remaindered books or left-over dressmaking materials).
The first draft letter which she submitted for the group’s approval began ‘we are a group of young people who have gotten together to help people less fortunate than ourselves.’ My mind boggled at the idea of a young person less fortunate than herself – I had read her case file, one of the thickest in the file room – and she had been in and out of most of the foster homes in the county. She was rated ‘unmanageable’; she was an excellent manager.
So what did we do? ‘I’ll tell you what they won’t want to’, said a social work colleague. ‘They won’t want to do anything to do with kids. They’ve had enough of their own kid brothers and sisters.’
There were two problems with this advice. Firstly is was illegal, since the Federal grant was part of the AFDC (Aid to Families with Dependent Children) programme and should not be spent on services to other clients and secondly the aides all wanted to work with children – that was what they were good at. Some of the boys did do some work with elderly clients, helping with heavy work such as digging the garden which the normal Homemaker service could not provide, but this was exceptional.
At first we sent out our people to help with other people’s activities, both in the Social Assistance office and elsewhere, to gain experience before launching our own projects. Two of the aides (not the same two each day, as this was a prestige task) worked at the reception desk, filing, typing and baby-sitting children while their mothers were being seen by the social workers. Others worked as daytime baby sitters while the mothers attended literacy classes at the Community College. One girl herself acted as a Home Tutor. They discovered there was a dearth of toys in the homes they visited so we built up a toy bank, which we enlarged to include books, craft materials, sports equipment and fishing tackle. Most of this came from the aides own homes and from the social workers but we bought some items and others were donated by local businesses. This became the core of the stock we used in our playgroup when it started operating.
Two girls were sent out to work with a local Head Start group and one went to be a cook at a local day nursery. When they were experienced and when we had our play room ready, we withdrew them and started our own group. We used the same room for our dressmaking group for 8 year olds, using material donated by a local store. The boys who had renovated the room went on to renovate a group home for adolescents.
A lot of the child minding took place out-of-doors and eventually we set aside each Friday for a group visit for children from AFDC families. We started by going to the local State Park and gradually grew more ambitious. We persuaded the Fire Department to lay on an open-day for us and then the Police Department. One of the aides was very reluctant to take part in this as he was known to the police, but he came back a changed young man. They had given him a ride in a squad car and showed him all the equipment and he decided he wanted to be a policeman.
One Friday we took a group across Puget Sound to see Seattle, the first time many of them had ever crossed the Sound, and to visit a community festival. The festival was in the black district which had suffered serious damage in the summer riots (this was 1968) and I wanted demonstrate to them and to the local press that this was not a no-go area.
Such was the self-confidence that our group built up and the confidence we won from the rest of the office that we paid a visit to one of the other offices in the state to give a presentation on our work. One of the local aides said that it was useless proposing their own activities as nobody listened to them. ‘Then nag them until they do’, was the advice.
All the aides were earning more money than they had ever earned in their lives (and I was earning more than I could expect in England), so what did they do with it? The most dramatic consequence came after the third pay-day when one young man failed to come to work. Instead the others passed me a note from him saying that he had left for another city, that he had found work and would never be returning to our city or his family again. They confessed that they had known he was planning this from the beginning ‘but we couldn’t tell you, Edward, because you would have had to have told the social workers.’ ‘It was the best thing that could happen to him’, they said, ‘that family was no good to him.’ They sent him a Good Wishes card and I didn’t try to find the address. The social workers were taken by surprise, for they had rated him the most reliable member of the group.
The standard of dress improved markedly after the first pay-day but otherwise most of the money was passed on to their mothers. They seldom spoke well of their parents but on the whole they were dutiful children.
When the programme came to an end they laid on a surprise party for me. The cake was decorated with the stars and stripes, with apologies that they could not find a Union Jack. Among the gifts was a set of men’s toiletries which I have never used and which still stand as a memento on my bathroom shelf.
I was never again a social worker although I did have a lot of experience with social action programmes later in my career, including working in an Albanian mountain village persuading the farmers to pay their social insurance contributions. I am writing this now partly as a memoir and partly to ask whether anybody reading this knows is their was any follow-up to this demonstration programme and if similar activities still take place in America.