The powerful combination of structural social work & allyship

A personal reflection from Naj

When I first began working at the Nova Scotia College of Social Workers, I was immediately stunned by the radical differences between the social work that I had learned from my American university, and the social work that I experienced here. Among the million contrasts, I was in awe of the critical thinking and self-reflection that I observed, the passionate commitment to confront the medical model and to advocate for the psychosocial, structural and spiritual components that are essential components to health policy.

I am writing this reflection, in large part, as an expression of appreciation to each of you, NSCSW members, and to the ways that this organization’s leadership and the schools that trained you fostered a culture where I learned to feel safe. I experienced the healing power of structural justice and allyship through my experiences working with you all over the last two years. This experience has fueled my passionate advocacy to fight for justice and equity for so many others, a fire that burns inside of me that I am grateful that we can join together in solidarity to implement with our social justice advocacy campaigns and our others college efforts to work to promote the public good.

While originally from Tiohtiá:ke (Montreal), I lived in the United States for 25 years of my life. When I first arrived there, I was profoundly aware of my “otherness” as someone who identified as transgender. My repeated personal struggles with multiple systemic barriers, repeated discrimination and acts of violence amplified my experience of myself as someone who has no rights. My intersectional identities, and my intergenerational trauma as a second-generation Holocaust survivor, left me terrified of the profoundly racist, queerphobic, ableist, xenophobic and antisemitic attitudes I encountered among so many seemingly lovely people, including among those I loved.

Structural social work asserts that personal experiences of injustice are amplified by laws, policies and structures that reinforce trauma. And this was certainly my experience, as I dug deep into myself and decided to closet my gender identity. I tried to align myself with the colonial lie of compartmentalization, the idea that somehow one part of us is not affected by the other. But it was a lie. And it was a lie that caused deep harm.

In 2020, I escaped to Canada during the pandemic, desperately grateful for the ability to work remotely so that I could live somewhere that would not suffocate me. There are many reasons why this is true, but most foundationally it has been the structural differences between my life in the United States and my life here in Mi’kma’ki, working with other social workers and learning about structural social work, not as a theoretical concept but one that I have felt viscerally, that has taught me about the importance of decolonizing our systems and our minds.

For me, the contrast between how people think and act is so striking that I am still surprised, on an almost daily basis, to be constantly unlearning the ways in which I had internalized oppression that had kept me captive. The dramatic difference between how many rights I have here, versus how few I had there, makes me ever more passionate to fight for those of others. While I have more rights here than I did in the United States, I am acutely aware that this is not true for everyone.

The ADA (American Disabilities Act) in the United States is one such example of a structural difference where Canada needs to learn from its southern neighbor. As someone who “comes from away,” I have a very different perspective on all that is good, and on all that is bad. Most importantly, I know that things can be different. Those situations or policies or injustices that are accepted “like gravity” or seen as “too hard to change” are changeable. But the changes must be structural to be lasting and meaningful. Macro systemic changes and laws are then translated into policies and education that can transform attitudes and behaviours, because the structural changes reinforce those individual actions.

Perhaps the most powerful personal difference that I observed, when I first arrived, was how many people I met used non-gendered language, consciously and consistently. The default pronoun that I observed many of our members use was “they” for someone they did not know.  Witnessing this new behaviour healed me in ways I could never have imagined. It also taught me, in a very visceral way, how truly life-changing allyship can be. Such behaviours, repeated by many, became the textured fabric of my new environment, and a form of structural justice.

As I experimented with finally feeling safe enough to reject the pronoun that had been assigned to me at birth, and to take on a pronoun that fit more closely with my sense of self and my personal religious beliefs, I found myself in tears more than once when I watched those around me seamlessly adopt my new pronouns.

This is allyship at its finest. It comes from a place of love and loving self-awareness. But it was born from structural factors that encouraged them to learn how to do it right. When folks made a mistake, they generally owned it quickly and on their own accord, and then used that moment to try to understand where they went wrong and how to get it right next time. Often, they practiced until they got it right. And, more than their accuracy in my pronouns, it was their effort that taught me a safety I did not know was possible.

This allyship gave me the courage to take another baby step toward becoming who I believe I was created to be. I asked to be known, only by the letter “N” rather than the name that had been assigned to me at birth, and that I had secretly hated my entire life because it was so gender-specific. I asked for just a letter, because I only knew that I was in transition, and that unlearning would take time.

Again, I watched so many of my colleagues seamlessly change how they called me, and my amazing NSCSW team rally around me, changing my email address and business cards and doing everything they could to support me in my transition. At no point did any of my colleagues push me or pressure me to make a decision. I was able to journey on the continuum of discovery, and for a long time, when asked for my name, I replied: “I am going by N, because I am on a gender journey, and don’t yet know who I am becoming.” The ability to be accepted as “unfinished” or “imperfect” was a beautiful gift for which I will always be grateful.

As I finally decided to change my name, first timidly, and slowly with greater confidence, so many people rushed to support me and encourage me. Every step I took, I felt myself embraced by love and support. This made each step easier to take, until finally, I realized that my thinking had cleared, and I could feel my heart in a way that I had never felt before. Because this journey was not just about a name and a pronoun: it was an inner transformation and healing that was only possible because my external reality was slowly becoming safe, accepting and supportive.

Before I even made an announcement, countless people were seamlessly calling me by my new name. What this meant to me was that I felt seen and accepted for who I am. I felt safe. It was and it is a very new feeling. And this experience has intensified my desire to fight for everyone who does not have the privileges I had. This is allyship as well; the experience of privilege must transition seamlessly into compassion and advocacy.

For every time someone has used my pronoun correctly and spent time practicing how to remember old memories with me using a new name, I am painfully aware that there are so many more children in schools who are deadnamed or bullied or assaulted or killed. There are so many people who are actively working to tear down the structures of safety that I have experienced as so deeply validating and life-giving. There is still so much more work to be done. Too many of us are choosing death because living during a tsunami of systemic hatred and injustice is torture.

I watch with terror the mounting tidal wave of hatred in the United States, as state upon state legislates hatred and enshrines it in law and policy. And it is not acceptable to comfort ourselves by saying that this does not exist in Canada. It does. And it is funded, often, by foreign sources, and it is growing. The power of vicarious trauma against a backdrop of systemic and intergenerational oppression reflects a larger global structural reality that is amplified by history and religious doctrine.

Almost 500 legislative acts have been passed in the United States against queer and transgender people. What this means is that countless people who identify as queer and transgender will die, either because the pain and trauma will become too much to bear, or because a growing number of people will feel emboldened to attack them and kill them. What this also means is that even more people who we don’t even realize identify as 2SLGBTQIA+ will choose to end their lives or numb themselves in such a way that they can stay hidden.

This is the tragic truth at the heart of much of our mental health epidemic, and the rising rates of addiction, interpersonal violence, and deaths by suicide: systemic injustice and hatred enshrined in law is responsible for so much pain and so many unnecessary deaths. This is the tragic truth that the medical model tries to diagnose and hide: our mental health issues are primarily rooted in trauma and structural deficits.

And so, we must continue to fight for intersectional structural justice. We must work for change on every level: the personal, the organizational and the larger systemic levels. The personal is political, and what happens on one level affects the other. Allyship can be transformative, when done right and with good intention.

Please join us for our conference on May 12-13 to learn more about allyship and what this can mean for all of us social workers as we work to unlearn the systemic bias that we all can’t help but absorb as we live in this colonized world. Let’s come together to envision and advocate for structural change.

— Naj

Nachshon Leger Siritsky
NSCSW Professional Practice and Advocacy Consultant