Polly Clare-Rothe is from Oakland, CA, attended Weslyan University and works as the Legal Clinic Coordinator at Bread for the City.
Ri Turner attended Cornell University and works as a Medical Clinic Coordinator at Bread for the City, which provides vulnerable residents of Washington, DC with comprehensive services, including food, clothing, medical care, and legal and social services, in an atmosphere of dignity and respect.
As a group, Corps members visit each others’ work sites as part of AVODAH programming. They learn about the work of each organization and its role in the broader anti-poverty movement. Here, Corps members write about these site visit experiences.
Because Polly and Ri work in different departments within the same organization, we chose to collaborate on one big Bread for the City Site Visit extravaganza.
Our first task as site visit leaders was herding all the Avodahniks to the conference room; with the new expansion, newcomers can get lost inside the building. “Let’s all move our offices into this building,” said one Corps member. With two AVODAH placements and five different departments to cover, the Bread for the City Site Visit schedule was jam-packed and we were eager to begin on time.
While presenting, we had to shout to be heard. As the new conference room doesn’t yet have doors, we could hear clients greeting each other as they came to get their monthly three-day supply of groceries. Though the doorlessness is temporary, it gave Avodahniks a sense of the Bread atmosphere—transparency is a value that is intended to come across in the layout of the building as well as our services.
While we clearly exuded pride for the work Bread for the City does, we also wanted to take some time to question the power dynamics inherent in our jobs and those of other AVODAH Corps members. We were joined by Bread for the City Advocacy Coordinator Joni Podschun for a discussion about gatekeeping. In our entry level roles in social service agencies, many AVODAHniks, including both of us, are working as gatekeepers — in other words, we play the primary role in deciding who gets let in through the “gate” to access the services that our organization provides.
In the Shulchan Aruch (Yoreh De’ah 336:1, AJWS translation), we read, “The Torah gave permission to the doctor to heal, and it is even a commandment. Even more so, it is [the commandment] of saving a life. One who prevents himself from doing so is considered to have shed blood.” Does this mean a doctor can never ethically turn away a prospective patient, regardless of the circumstances? Do the same considerations apply to a lawyer, or a social worker? Does this injunction apply to those of us working as gatekeepers, who are constantly in the position of saying “No, we can’t help you here”?
We reflected on this text and on the uncomfortable experience of having the power to turn clients away, especially given the additional power imbalances inherent in our roles as white middle-class and wealthy folks working in low-income communities of color. We considered the following questions:
- What are the circumstances, histories, and structures that placed us behind the front desk, and our clients in front of it, instead of the other way around?
- Who decreed that we as employees hold the power to decide which services are available, and whether or not specific clients receive services on a given day? What would it look like if clients held that power instead?
- Who benefits most from our jobs as gatekeepers? (For example, we get to build our resumes and we get extensive on-the-job training. On the other hand, our placement organizations get full-time employees at a low cost, and can thus devote more resources to clients. Yet, the clients we are serving have to adjust to new staff every year, outsiders who are unfamiliar with their cases, as well as with their neighborhoods, communities, and even languages. And clients don’t get access to the jobs that we’re holding, or the training that we receive.)
- Are there ever good reasons to turn clients away? (For example, should we serve fewer clients or fewer types of clients so that we can devote ourselves more extensively to the clients we do serve? How do we keep our organizations sustainable, and prevent employees from burning out, especially those who are most deeply involved with clients, such as doctors, lawyers, and social workers?)
- Do we have an ethical commitment to clients (it is incumbent on us to do anything within our capacity to serve them) or just a professional commitment (we have to show up for 8 hours and answer the phone when it rings, but aside from that we’re off the hook)? Are these types of commitments mutually exclusive?
- What elements of organizational structure embed our “no’s” into our daily practice in apparently neutral ways? (For example, ideas like areas of specialty, professional boundaries, and malpractice.)
- What kind of power do we have as gatekeepers? How do our roles create power relationships? (For example, these are our jobs, but our clients’ lives. They can’t “shut it off” at 5PM.) Is the power imbalance greater in this situation than in a private doctor’s or lawyer’s office? (For example, does getting services for free make clients feel “beholden” in a different way? What is the impact on power relations when staff are primarily white English speakers, while clients are primarily non-white, including many non-English speakers?)
- What potential structural changes could help decrease the imbalance of power between employees and clients? (For example, Bread for the City is developing an Advisory Board made up of clients.) How do organizations change when more staff of color and bilingual staff are hired? How would AVODAH placement organizations change if, instead of training new service corps members each year, they set up internship programs to train individuals from local neighborhoods to become long-term employees?
We invite you to join with us in reflecting on these questions. If you want more inspiration, you can check out the three articles we sent out to the DC AVODAHniks in preparation for our site visit:
Flipping the Script: White Privilege and Community Building (especially check out Chapter 7: “How Does White Privilege Show Up in Foundation and Community Initiatives?”, which has a subsection entitled “Gatekeeping”)
Points for Visiting Activists to Consider
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