The Social Worker and Educator Grasping at Joy Wherever She Finds It

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Photo: Denise Davison / W+G Creative

In these diaries, we’ll look at how those working in this current climate and protesting for the rights of Black Lives are getting by—what self-care rituals they do, what they don’t, and how they take time for their mental health.

Here we have Denise McLane-Davison, PhD, 57, an associate professor of social work at Morgan State University. She is also an active member of the National Association of Black Social Workers (NABSW), and has been working in the field of behavioral health and education for over 25 years. After COVID-19 turned what would have been a brief visit with her daughters in Atlanta to a three months-long stay, Dr. Davison is now grappling with the intense (and long overdue) reckoning with racial justice in her field—and actively working to find moments of joy amid the stress and sorrow. Below is a recounting of a recent day in her life in June:

HOW DO YOU DEFINE SELF-CARE?: Selfish, unapologetic me time where I can fully occupy peace.

DO YOU THINK YOUR SELF-CARE HAS BEEN LACKING BECAUSE OF CURRENT EVENTS?: Yes. We are bombarded with images, media, and formal or casual discussions of the threat of death. This is partly because of COVID-19—with the news of cases rising combined with constant reminders of the pandemic with mask wearing, temperature checks, and not standing too close to each other—but also because of the elevated discussion of structural racism. These thoughts consistently invade my peace even when I’m engaging in self-care. There are triggers all around that pick at my soul wounds.

WHAT’S YOUR MOST OFTEN USED FORM OF SELF-CARE?: I rely upon a variety of self-care methods for my well-being, including:

  • Outdoor walking, dancing, and listening to music. I also love nature.
  • I use an eye mask to sleep. I also have a weighted blanket to help with anxiety and Fibromyalgia. I also use a mouthguard to limit the teeth grinding. I have had to insist on the mouthguard and eye mask over the past several months as I was waking up out of my sleep with migraines and mysofacial pain.
  • Meditation, stretching, and prayers to reduce stress.
  • Setting boundaries with others and myself, especially with the media I consume. I will not watch people who look like me being harmed. This is not entertainment. I don’t want to hear people arguing on tv as part of reality tv.
  • I use the well-being function on my phone to set time limits on my use of Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. My phone display turns to grayscale from 10 p.m. to 7 a.m. so I remember to put it down.
  • Ordering from Zoe’s Kitchen, Chipotle, and family-owned Greek restaurants in my area occasionally just for a change of pace and to not have to cook and clean.

I look for value in what I give my time to. Is it necessary? Does it add or subtract? I find myself having to constantly redirect my energy.

2 A.M. My 31-year-old daughter and I are working on a 1,000 piece puzzle. (I’ve been living with her and her family in Atlanta since March, when the pandemic hit.) We are listening to Beyonce, Jay-Z, and Solange while drinking margaritas we made with seltzer water, fresh lime juice, and light lemonade. We talk about how our puzzle has become the new “social activity” of COVID-19. We sing and talk some about the protest and upcoming rallies, but mostly about past vacation trips and where we want to go when COVID lifts. Every now and then, we break into dance steps and pretend like we are on stage. It reminds me of how much fun we had seeing the OTR concert in Barcelona a few years ago together.

2:30 A.M. We realize how long we have been up and laugh about how tired we are going to be during the day. Neither one of us wants to stop doing the puzzle. We are so proud of how much we have accomplished. We are totally relaxed. Our brains are no longer consumed by the outside world. Finally, I go to bed by 3 A.M.

10:30 A.M.: I wake up listening to my grandchildren running up and down the hall. I grab my phone and begin the day monitoring Twitter posts. I retweet and make mental notes about what is happening across the nation, including raising awareness about Breonna Taylor’s death, Sister Song celebrating the defeat of a $23 million proposal to expand the Fulton County Jail in Atlanta, the death of the trans man Tony McCade in Tallahassee, Florida, and a group of non-Muslims surrounding a group of Muslim protestors in Brooklyn, New York to protect them while they prayed.

11:15 A.M.: I emerge from the bedroom for coffee and to make breakfast—a cheese omelet with onions and turkey sausage, and coffee with hazelnut creamer. I also take a vitamin D chewable supplement and drink some ginger-flavored kombucha.

My daughter is working from home and has CNN on. We talk about what’s happening today. My granddaughter is playing a virtual game with a friend on her tablet. My other 33-year-old daughter is on the phone in her bedroom. My grandson is watching videos on his tablet and drawing pictures of whales and squids.

12 P.M.: I hop on a call with a social work administrator asking for my opinion about a recent Facebook post from the Council on Social Work Education (which is the accrediting body for all schools of social work) about the recent uprisings and death of George Floyd. I tell them that I thought the post was generic, unauthentic, and inaccurate. It tried too hard to maintain neutrality and thus wasn't especially helpful to the Black students and faculty, nor our communities.

Mid conversation, my phone buzzes. I’ll call you back, I think. And I do, a few minutes later—another social worker friend who wants to know what I think that we should be doing as social workers. I say that for far too long, many of the Black faculty have been marginalized and discredited for speaking up about structural racism and inequities. I add that the curriculum at our universities needs to reflect the accurate contributions of Black Americans and not be erased through discussions around inclusion and diversity. This seems like a moment in time for us as university educators and social workers to speak up and stop playing politics.

1 P.M.: I take a call from a friend who is a social work educator and NABSW member. During the call I walk outside from the driveway to the mailbox to get some steps in. My pedometer counts 360 steps roundtrip. The symbolism of the number of steps feels significant; full circle.

My friend and I talk about the focus and concern of the NABSW, particularly in this moment. How should we be caring for our elder members and selves? How does an organization that was formed out of the Black Power Movement reassert its voice in this current place? How do we set healthy boundaries for our families, organizations, employers, and others? How do we build fortitude as we move through this season with others who don’t seem to be marching to the same cadence? We don’t have answers to everything, but it feels good to talk about these questions with someone close to me.

She also updates me on the state of affairs in Maryland, where she lives and where I normally live—but when COVID-19 hit, I stayed with my daughters in Atlanta after visiting for a conference in March. I want to know when she thinks it will be okay to return to Baltimore, and if it’s safe to drive back or if I should take my chances on a plane. Seems like it’s safer to stay put for now.

We then talk about how COVID will impact the fall enrollment at our universities where we work and what may be the fallout for our small HBCUs. We are both so exhausted with Zoom calls, emails, and lack of understanding from our employers about the mental load we feel right now. We, the Black mamas of the world, are in mourning right now!

denise davison photo taken at a protest
Photo: Denise Davison / W+G Creative

2 P.M.: A long-time friend who is also a member of the NABSW as well as a former church member calls to check on me and my family. She and her husband are caring for her elder mother-in-law. I share how my 81-year-old mom is not allowing visitation because of COVID-19, and I am worried about her being at home alone. I thank her for calling to check on me and not really having an agenda, just my well-being.

3 P.M.: My mom calls to make sure I am watching the memorial for George Floyd. She mentions that Reverend Al Sharpton is teaching a history lesson on structural racism. My daughter and I tune in. She is on her computer working. I stand with the people at the memorial for 8 minutes and 46 seconds.

5 P.M.: Mom calls and we talk a lot about the remarks from Al Sharpton. His statement that “you’ve had your knee on our neck” leads us to talk about my mom’s life growing up in Chicago in segregation, but at an integrated high school. She remembers how teachers mandated that papers would be typed, knowing that Black students often didn’t have typewriters, “so your paper would be marked down a letter grade,” my mom said. There have been so many stolen dreams of her generation due to racism. I always believed my uncles would have been multi-millionaires by now. They were in the heating and air condition business and electricians. They had big ideas about solar paneling back in the 1970’s but couldn’t get financial backing from banks.

I also text a bit with some social worker friends who live in Israel, who express their shock and horror at the American police brutality they see on the news. After an exchange about how myself and another colleague were just in Tel Aviv this time last year (what a difference a year makes), we talk about how it feels to be in this moment. I reply, “It’s overwhelming! The emotional pain of seeing so much destruction and having to relive this agony in the midst of a pandemic.”

6 P.M.: I participate in the GirlTrek walk, where I walk two miles every day as part of the #DaughtersOf “21 Days of Walking in the Footsteps of Our Foremothers” initiative, which provides daily walking meditations that honor Black women freedom fighters. As I walk, I listen to Black Coffee, a South African DJ who specializes in House music. I take pictures of flowers and the sky as I jog and walk through the neighborhood. I dance and wave my hands in the air when I hear parts of the songs I like. For a moment it transports me to happy times dancing with friends on the Chicago lakefront at the annual Chosen Few House Music Festival. I feel free as I run down one of the long streets with a big hill.

7:30 P.M.: Social work friends from Boston have set up a Zoom call. We are talking about the turbulent current events and my friends’ podcasts for their work “The Trigger Project” that addresses healing from childhood trauma. I expected it to be mostly a work-related call.

“We love you. We hadn’t seen your face and were missing you. No NABSW conference this year. We wanted to see how you were doing,” my friends tell me. This is the second call I got today where people just want to check in on me. This means the world to me. I don’t have to solve anything, just talk and listen.

9 P.M.: A curfew alert for the entire city of Atlanta tonight at 9 p.m. through sunrise. [Editor’s note: Many cities enacted curfews in attempts to shut down protests in the first weeks of June. Most curfews have since been lifted, while protests continue.] We’re encouraged to stay home, with exceptions for people seeking medical help, working, first responders, or who are homeless. This message appeared after the curfew started and didn’t appear the first night of curfews, when many protestors were tear gassed, tased, and assaulted by police for being out past curfew.

10 P.M. The house is pretty quiet. I pull out several journal articles on Black feminism and womanist activism and pedagogy. I am making notes on them for an upcoming manuscript proposal and edited paper. I think about how we can best guide the next generation of social work professionals, and how we can shape the curriculum so that it speaks to Black and brown communities fighting for their humanity and liberation. Currently mainstream social workers are more focused on diagnoses of the individuals and have forgotten about the structural vulnerabilities of those that occupy these spaces. Being Black and proud is discouraged.

For a moment, [walking] transports me to happy times dancing with friends... I feel free as I run down one of the long streets with a big hill.

11:39 P.M.: Some members of Sistah Circle, a peer group I started for some of my fellow academics, text me to alert that there have been reports of an unidentifiable military force mixed in with the police at protests. It is being reported on MSNBC and we are directed to tune in. I already said I wasn’t watching any more news for the day—my boundary for myself. There is a discussion about creating a safety plan for our families in anticipation of re-election of the current administration. Someone else mentions seeing an increase in confederate flags. Another person talks about how a social work friend conducting a foster care home visit had her car attacked by a Klansmen—even though she had a police escort. As a Black woman, I often felt vulnerable going into communities that weren't familiar. I fear that will only get worse if President Trump is re-elected.

We switch to a discussion on the 75-year-old man in Buffalo who was pushed to the ground by police over the weekend and was hospitalized. Then someone describes how their heart is racing, jaws clenching and how this is so stressful. We vow to start putting together a safety plan and placing items in our cars. We agree to pray for peace.

12:43 A.M.: I am watching the TV show Parenthood to relax and escape. This is one of my go-to shows that I love to rewatch. There will be no Black people dying on this show.

2:30 A.M.: I finally drift off to sleep after a hot shower.

As a woman you are socialized to prioritize the care, nurturing, and support of everyone from family to your networks. As a social worker, educator, and researcher who focuses on uplifting the Black community, there is a melding of the professional and personal for me. Each day someone or something nibbles at my attention and well-being. As a Black woman, I am on high alert in the work environment and for my family and friends. I can’t afford to “get caught slipping” because that could cost me or someone I love harm. My emotional bandwidth is consistently tested as I move throughout the day.

So I find myself grasping for joy. I look for value in what I give my time to. Is it necessary? Does it add or subtract? I find myself having to constantly redirect my energy. No to the news after a certain amount of time. No to opening every inbox message someone wants to forward me. No to scrolling through endless images of misery and anger. No to TV programs that have excessive images of people who look like me being hurt or verbal violence.

This has been a hard day with an abundance of stimuli. My activities that “normalize” my day are walking outside, writing and reading research, taking pictures of nature, sitting outside on the deck, music, watching specific tv shows, taking a drive just to get a change of scenery and listening to music in the car, being with my children and grandchildren, and having friends check on me and laughing. It helps me get through the hard times and have the hope and strength to take on another day.

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