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The Individual Approach: 1915

The Individual Approach

A 1915 Presentation by Mrs. Mary Wilcox Glenn, President National Conference of Charities and Correction at the Annual Meeting of the
State Board of Charities of Indiana

Editior’s Note: As a young woman, Mrs. Glenn became a friendly visitor in the Baltimore, Maryland Charity Organization Society, (COS) and later a member of its board.  In that capacity she developed a professional interest in social work that was just emerging from the era in which philanthropies relied on voluntary non-professional workers and leaders. Within the next few years Mrs. Glenn became general secretary of the Charity Organization Society of Baltimore.  In this latter position she was the successor of Mary Richmond who stands out as a pioneer in laying a foundation for modern social case work, and whose book “Social Diagnosis” remains a classic in the field.

Mrs. Glenn moved to New York in 1908 just at the time a newer conception of social responsibility was beginning to form. Advocates and supporters of philanthropies  were beginning to question whether it was enough to just organize charity. Some began to think that greater effort should be directed toward society itself in order to discover the reasons why large groups of persons were in need of charity. During this time Glenn was active as a volunteer worker in the Charity Organization Society of New York. She also took part in discussions about the possibilities of a larger movement, national in its scope, which would bind together local charity groups in their efforts  to understand social conditions as they influence family life. The outcome of these discussions led to the formation in 1911 of the present Family Welfare Association of America, known originally as the National Association of Societies for Organizing Charity.

Let us get quite away from the thought of case work as a business, quite away from any contention as to whether there is or is not a tendency on the part of case workers to be dwarfed by undue reliance on system and come with a free mind to consider some of the principles that underlie and some of the steps that lead to the shaping of the art of getting into right relations with such of our fellows as need, in order to regain poise, the intervention of clear headed, resourceful and disinterested mediators.

There are certain principles, whose acceptance should serve as a ground work of the effort made in behalf of the individual, our client. The first principle is that the individual has to make himself by his reactions to the circumstances of life. The use made of bettered opportunity, the effect of improved environment, it is a commonplace to say, depend on how he sees and wills to use the fresh opportunity, how he shapes his living to draw strength from the new environment. He, the man, must “put his disposition into action.” He makes or loses himself through the rectitude or the obliquity of his choice. It may seem a long way to travel from Belmont and from Portia’s asking her eager suitors to prove themselves by their choice of one of the three caskets, to a charitable office in which a social worker puts up to a man out of a job the choice between work in a strange place under new conditions, an uncongenial job and lowered wages at home, and mere drifting until something turns up. But the making or marring of suitor or jobless man lies in the choice made. It is through failure to grasp this first underlying principle that so many of us are betrayed into trying to serve as a special providence to those whom we find to be in want.

The second principle, which leads me to shift from a consideration of the individual to be helped to consider the preparedness of the social worker to render aid is that we must have come very close to human life, if we are to realize individual human needs, and, I might add, if we are to recognize what makes for worth in any particular person.

Sir Edward Cook in his life of Florence Nightingale gives extracts from her letters and her diary which show how she, constrained as a young woman to live at home and to postpone definite preparing of herself for her vocation, did probe beneath the factitious surface of life and from her sheltered homes. Lea Hurst in Derbyshire and Embley Park near the New Forest did get a knowledge of how life is lived by the simple, which served as a definite part of the preparation for her future work. When she was twenty-six years of age, Florence Nightingale wrote in her diary—”O happy six weeks at the Hurst where (from July 15th to September 1st) I had found my business in this world. My heart was filled, my soul was at home. I wanted no other heaven. May God be thanked as He never has been thanked for that glimpse of what it is to live.” In a letter to a friend she wrote in September of the same year, 1846, “I am almost heartbroken to leave Len Hurst * * * I have left so many poor friends there whom I shall never see again, and so much might have been done for them. * * * The things which interest me interest them; we are alike in expecting little from life, much from God.” When she was traveling in Egypt in 1850, her biographer says she “was fond of escaping from the dahabeah in order to wander about the desert ‘poking my own nose’ as she wrote home ‘into all the villages’ and seeing for herself how ‘these poor people’ lived.” In the diary one finds an entry made after Florence Nightingale has sat by the sick bed of her nurse—”The old lady’s spirit was in her pillow cases and one night when she thought she was dying and I was sitting up with her she said, ‘Now, Miss Florence, mind you have two new cases made, for this bed, for I think whoever sleeps here next year will find them comfortable.'” One tastes there the saving salt of humor!

The third principle, I wish to emphasize, which brings us again face to face with the individual, is one that we often are too hurried to observe in practice. It is, stated in the words of Prof. Sigmund Freud, that “The former value of the person should not be overlooked in the disease.” Whether one, as a pathologist or as a charity worker, be dealing with the problem of the sub-normal or the non-normal, individual, the search for the source of the strength that characterized the days when life was normal should be made as the guide to action during the period of attempted rehabilitation.

It is easy to see the relation of these principles each to the other. The worker’s effort is futile unless the individual to be aided become first a co-worker and then pass on to take the lead in carrying through any plan made in his behalf. The worker, whose aim is to rehabilitate men, must be one whose preparation for the task has carried him deep in a considering of human life lived in simplicity and in close relation to those who earn their daily bread. The study of recuperative power must lead the worker back to gauge the mainsprings of strength that lie hid in the individual’s past. But there must be more than the harking back, there must be the readiness to take a forward leap, He is not what he may become, is the attitude of mind which gives the power to stir men to be twice made, and it is faith in one’s fellow which gives the power to make men make themselves. An intense desire to see life well lived makes a worker, with tender, with restrained devotion, care to see the “downmost man” come through his wracking experience actually on top.

In considering the individual, however, we must never lose sight of the fact that lonely as he may be when we find him, his natural setting is in some place, and at some time he has definitely belonged somewhere. It is of the essence of his personality that somewhere he has had affiliations, that with someone he has been affiliated. His measure may be taken, the measure of his past experiences, his present situation, his potential worth, by a reckoning of the sum of his relationships. The task of the social worker face to face, to use a recurrent phrase, with those who are slipping away from old ties, recklessly abusing those of the present, throwing away the chance of establishing new ones, lies centred in the need of averting the danger of the individual’s falling into isolation. The homeless man will be steadied to live the life of the good citizen only through someone’s success in re-establishing his old affiliations or in creating new and better ones for him. The child in a demoralized home, whose fondness gives no promise of real care, needs to be placed where new affiliations will create permanent, steady relationships. What one as social worker succeeds in doing for the child in clinic, school, court, institution has its basis in the recognition of the child’s future value being depended on the right, the enduring affiliations being made for him, by a strengthening of the sense of family responsibility when it is present, awakening it, when it is dormant, creating a substitute when it is absent. When, because of mental incapacity, new or old relationships can maintain no grip, there is the recognized duty of withdrawing the non-affiliable from the world of established, normal relationships into the seclusion of the protecting institution.

Because of this belief that each client should be considered an affiliable being, and that in making affiliations for him we should not be hampered or frustrated by having placed him in any special category, I have consistently resisted the tendency to place the widow and her children, for purposes of relief, in a class to themselves. I do recognize that the widow and her fatherless should receive our solicitous care, our self-sacrificing devotion, but in recognizing the gravity of their claim, I realize that if we hold them in a class apart to be peculiarly dependent on charitable or state aid, we tend to block the effort successfully to call in their behalf on the natural sources of rehabilitation. The help that private charitable agents and public officials have been prepared to give in the past has been too meagre. They have been too ready to take the line of easy action. But the weakness of past or present work does not lessen my appreciation of what I take to be a fact that we shall conserve the interests of the widow and the fatherless more certainly if we do not withdraw her and her children from being considered as a part of the general problem of the dependent that devolves on outdoor relief officials and private charitable agents to meet. The efforts of each should be enriched and sustained so that the public may get assurance that the work of rehabilitation is gradually being raised to the point where each family group is being brought as far as is possible into right relations with its world.

We have passed on from considering the individual as one to be helped to help himself, to recognize that the source of recuperation lies in normal family life and that the measure of our service can be taken by our ability to secure affiliations. Now we should pass on to consider how prepared we are as case workers to meet the mute challenge of these affiliable clients, that we, acting in their behalf, do increase the number of self-directing, self-supporting families in our communities and do withdraw from society those non-affiliable members who threaten the integrity of family life. During the winter that is upon us we shall be faced over and over again with the necessity of making the hard choice: Shall we help our clients by thought-taking effort to recover their position in their several communities using our minds to apprehend their actual powers of recovery, our purses to further some mutually agreed on plan; or shall we devote our energies of mind and purse towards meeting the obvious and pressing need of making quick provision for them in forms of odd jobs, shelter, fuel, food, clothing? Without stopping here to enlarge on the comment that in many instances the alternatives cannot be so precisely stated, let us consider what steps we should take in our effort not to let the hard necessities of the time wreck our case work methods, lower our case work Ideals. They are the old steps, the well worn steps. I was looking recently at the picture of a flight of steps which were carried along a supporting wall to lead from an old close into the side door of a Gothic church and then on into a chapter house or vestry. The low well worn steps with the sweep, scarcely discernible, to the right and the gradual mount to the left, seemed to carry a long flight of patient, eager, devoted worshippers and students, who side by side had mounted, wearing the stones by slow attrition and making their easy digression to right or to left at the point where the treads were worn most deeply.

No matter what agency we serve or whether we make our initial effort from the standpoint of a child or adult, individual or family, sick or defective, delinquent or dependent, as case workers we have to begin to mount by taking the same steps. May we not together agree that our client is an affiliable being and make that fact our motto for the start. May we not, also, agree to accept the principles of relationship to our client that have been stated?

As we picture a group of thoughtful case workers commonly agreed to reach conclusion as to what is the responsibility of each, we see a group that stops to council each one with the other before decision is made as to the next turn to take. By a generous exchange of findings at a parting of the ways of specialized effort, do we get a measure of the scope of the work that each stands prepared to undertake. There is no reason to fear the overlapping of the work of medical social service worker, child helping agent, Charity Organization Society secretary, probation officer, church visitor, if each knows what the other is doing and for whom, and if each recognizes that what is to be conserved are not agreements as to definitions of duties but the welfare of human beings, of affiliable members of our common society. As from the angle of our client’s need of expert attention we consider each other’s scope, we shall learn as good practitioners to draw copiously on the socialized knowledge that anyone within our field has acquired. Our ingenuity will be directed then towards fathoming and extending each the scope of the other, our energies will not be sapped by arguing as to each other’s limitations. The development of such co-operation brings an enrichment of force. At a time when the demand for expert service grows insistent the husbanding of force becomes, in a measure, a test of our loyalty to our task.

There is a refrain to which we shall move this winter, the disheartening refrain of failure to meet increased need. To any of us who have worked during a “panic” winter, the call to face such a period of financial depression as the present comes as a knell, threatening to overthrow the standards of our work. But such a winter is a challenge, viewed broadly it may be made an opportunity. I cannot enlarge on this aspect, but to make suggestion may be more fruitful than to elaborate. I wish, however, to make my meaning clear by saying, first, that though we do and must recognize that our material relief has in the past been inadequate in amount, our tendency has been unconsciously to shield our fundamental weaknesses of treatment by the obvious inadequacy of our material means, and to fall away from or fail to gather the lessons written so plainly in .the experience of Thomas Chalmers, and in our own day in the growth of the co-operative movement in Ireland and on the continent of Europe. Now the challenge is to husband material resources, to get our clients to work with us, to bring them into relation with normal sources of recuperation, lavish of our thought in their behalf. Second, there is a further challenge; and it is that, we do not weaken any man or woman’s resistance to the economic depression of the times by a careless advertising of our readiness to give aid. There is at this time of general financial depression a peculiar responsibility placed on us of conserving the will to be independent of as many members of our communities as we can. But there is a third, a. deeper challenge, and in it lies our opportunity. We do not need less money, we need more. We must bring home to those who may now become donors to our several charitable societies that the sufferings of this present time must be shared. Their sacrifices and ours must be made proportionate to the burden of loss which we see to be falling most heavily on those who live close to the margin of dependency. At a time when we are confused, confounded by the magnitude of the disaster which has overtaken our world, we can call others, we can bring ourselves to realize the world old need that we be our brothers’ keeper. If there be purpose, if there lie unity in an effort, to gather strength to aid those who are stunned, who are made defenseless by the horror of the times, there may be set in motion springs of recuperation which may revive not only them but us. In mutual sacrifice we may find the means to bridge the gulf of class antagonism.

Such an aim means an identifying of one with another, and such effort towards identification of interests means to let fall superficial judgments of persons whose past experience has been widely different from our own. We shall find ourselves inclined neither to blame nor to pity, nor yet to group in classes, those whom we have been led, as Prof. Hocking says, “to place”.

What a glorious ambition, to do one’s part in a period of hard necessity towards helping to place one’s fellow so that he may find himself anew. The conception loads us up one last step—on that top step we must stand to make our chief demand. It is there that we face the supreme need of. our field, the need for a growing force. The call is for men and women to enlist for service. We are learning what it means to be a soldier in an army which is fulfilling its primordial aim to kill men—merely to kill men. Because great forces are being brought face to face for this purpose of killing men, the task lies on us to set in motion a great counter movement, on whose line shall stand in disciplined array the forces that shall have as their prime aim to help men to live, and if (God give them grace, to save men alive. It is the challenge of our day to the social worker that we now enlist the many, that we bring sharply home the lesson that is being bitten into our minds by successful warfare, namely, that those who enlist for service put themselves under discipline, accept direction, meet all the exigencies of the call.

To make the individual approach is, of course, but to further one part of the general social advance; but really to make the approach to the individual is to supply a foundation for broader efforts. When the demand for lives is ruthlessly made, the value of the individual life is seen to he immeasurably enhanced. At no time of lesser urgency of claims can the worth of the individual to or the drag of the individual on the community be so accurately measured. At no time of lesser peril to our civilization can we as distinctly hear the call to drop no fraction of well planned, collective effort made or being made in behalf of our fellows. In reading the life of Florence Nightingale which has been cited, one leaves the incidents of the early days at Lea Hurst and Embley Park to see how more definite preparation was got at Kainesworth and at the Maison de la Providence in Paris, and then to learn how the experiences were gathered to shape the hospital life at Scutari and in the Crimea and to finish the corner stone for modern nursing service.

The opportunity and the genuis for service is ours in no such measure. Ours, is the humbler task of adding but a stone, perhaps, to the foundation of ordered charity. We can, however, see our task simply, see it largely if we will, because the times are stripping us of much that is superficial, of much that merely clogs.

It may be given us now to get to the heart of charity, in M. Peguy’s “I,e Mystere de la Charite de Jeanne d’Arc” the little Jeanne tells her girl friend how she gave all her bread to two children who cried that they were hungry, and who as they left her rejoiced like mere animals in the satisfying of their hunger. There came to her as she watched and listened to the children a vision of all those in France who were suffering and who in the desolation despaired even of the goodness of God. In those first reports that came to us of the shattering of the Cathedral at Rheims, we were told that the maid of Orleans, La Pucelle. still sat with face uplifted on her horse in front of the lamentable ruin. May it not be that we shall be enabled to apprehend the mystery of charity as never before. Oh, may it be that we will sit our mount, face forward, no matter what background of desolation the cruelty of the times imposes!

Source: Indiana Bulletin (March 1915), a quarterly publication of the State Board of Charities of Indiana.  pp.235-239.

How to Cite this Article (APA Format): Glenn, M.W. (1915, March). The individual approach. Indiana Bulletin, 235-239. Retrieved [date accessed] from /?p=8456.

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