The human and social problems that social workers contend with every day often have their roots in the past: political upheavals that led to the marginalization of one group within the society, for example, or a wave of immigration to a new social setting.
A travel-study academic exchange program at the School of Social Work encourages UConn students to explore the Holocaust and its ongoing effects in Germany, while students from the University of Merseburg, Germany, learn about the history of race in the U.S. and its legacy in the present.
A vibrant dialogue spawned by the 10-day travel study program, offering differing perspectives of social work practice in the two countries, took place recently at UConn’s Greater Hartford campus, as social work students grappled with the complex moral issues that result from structural oppression, discrimination, and human rights violations.
Following a week’s visit that included seminars; a day-long interactive discussion with a child refugee of the Holocaust; and a field trip to York, the women’s correctional facility in Niantic, to learn about social work practice in U.S. prisons, 18 German students joined their UConn counterparts for a day-long conference called “Learning From Each Other.”
“As social workers, it’s crucial to understand the history, theory, and multiple perspectives of previous and current social systems, in order to effect change,” said associate professor Lisa Werkmeister-Rozas, chair of the School of Social Work’s Human Oppression curriculum unit and coordinator of the exchange program, which is now in its third year.
“The program gives students an opportunity to reflect comparatively about similar cases and patterns of conflict,” she said. “My students learn they can’t just take their models and say ‘this is what you have to do,’ because the systemic inequities their German peers struggle with are different. And this makes my students re-examine what they’re doing and question whether it’s right.”
Learning from each other
In back-to-back presentations, UConn students reported on research they conducted in Germany, while their visitors discussed social work systems in their once ethnically homogenous country, which is now dealing with the legacy of that massive social and demographic transformation that has taken place since the end of World War II.
Merseburg master’s student Marcel Pytka supervises a speech therapy program for 226 preschool children in Halle, a town in the German state of Saxony-Anhalt near Merseburg that was once part of socialist East Germany. German reunification in 1989, which ended the Cold War division of the communist East and capitalist West, has improved living standards there, but has also generated waves of immigrants from Eastern Europe and the Middle East, giving rise to new political and social tensions, he said.
More than 40 percent of the children he works with do not speak or write German, said Pytka, noting that Saxony-Anhalt has invested heavily in child-care facilities and employs many social workers in an effort to help integrate these children into German society.
“We demonstrate that these speech support investments are worthwhile,” he said, stressing that fluency in German is a prerequisite to the ‘good health’ of society. “This preschool program will have important economic payoffs in terms of quality of later opportunities in life for these children. The state must do this.”
As social workers, it’s crucial to understand the history, theory, and multiple perspectives of previous and current social systems, in order to effect change. — Lisa Werkmeister-Rozas, associate professor of social work
Going beyond the war-movie Nazi stereotypes that are familiar in the U.S., Lisa Vallee, a UConn social work master’s student, is studying how present-day Germans – taught by law about Nazi horrors in school – manage feelings of complicity or responsibility for the Holocaust. Vallee, who traveled to Germany earlier this year with the third group of UConn students participating in the exchange program, conducted interviews with German students and their parents.
“A common theme in the responses is shock, fear, shared guilt, and sadness that so many lost their lives,” said Vallee, as she presented her findings. Many younger Germans who grew up after Germany’s reunification, have difficulty discussing the Holocaust with their parents: “These aren’t pleasant stories,” one person told her.
A majority of the Germans she interviewed emphasized their ethical commitment to righting the injustice of the Holocaust. In the words of one interviewee, “We are all responsible as people to make sure it does not happen again.”
Understanding the social context
The exchange program was developed by Werkmeister-Rozas following a three-month teaching sabbatical at Hochschule (University) Merseburg, where she met her collaborator, Johannes Herwig-Lempp, a professor of systemic social work, who was seeking ways to enhance his students’ international experience.
Herwig-Lempp said that despite the Nazi legacy of racism and prejudice, Germany today has a “more generous social safety net than the United States.”
He added that many German social workers now work with immigrants from various foreign countries, and that in order to treat them with dignity and respect, it is necessary to understand their identity, as well as society’s attitude towards them. “Bringing my students abroad,” he said, “helps them develop a foreigner’s perspective and insight into concepts of power, privilege, and prejudice in Germany.”
Werkmeister-Rozas said that in order to work effectively with clients, social workers must understand the social context. Investigating the Holocaust and its effect on people is a meaningful way to examine the past, present, and future social and cultural dynamic in Germany.
“When we visit Germany, it’s not as simple as the Nazis are bad and the Jews are victims,” she said. “It is much more complex. We examine factors that impacted a person’s response to the Holocaust – not to say what they did was right – but to understand the situation that led to their decision, and that someone else in that situation might have made a similar decision.
“It’s really about all of us living life from the positions we find ourselves in and learning about the human condition,” she said, “in the end, human behavior and how we can change it.”