Mary-Margaret Sweeney

Mary-Margaret Sweeney

Social Justice Solutions | Staff Writer
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Chronicling an MSW Internship: “Benefits”

My husband was recently offered a new job. As he traversed the negotiation and counter offer process, I was reminded of the inner workings of the business world. As the new company plied him with benefits and he weighed them against those at his current company, I thought about the agency where I’ve been interning since October. A couple of weeks ago, we had a bed bug scare in the office. We all rushed to inspect the plethora of winter wear piled in our offices and the fabric of our office chairs.

As my husband weighed benefits like daily catered lunch, a monthly stipend for a gym membership, and health insurance completely covered by his employer,  my colleagues and I shook out scarves and mittens as discreetly as possible so as not to offend our clients. Our Executive Director was on her hands and knes checking the carpet.

I remembered my corporate days and asked myself if trading bonuses and holiday parties for this was the right choice. Even if I rise to the top in my new profession, I’ll still be under desks searching for bugs, and making the coffee in the morning.

The day after the bug scare, I had to take four kids, all under the age of 10, to a dental appointment. We met at my office and then set out for our ten minute walk to the dentist. We were quit a sight: me, a small white girl in her late twenties; an elderly Somali grandmother in hijab wearing a baby in a sling; and three school age Somali girls all in hijab, all trying to hold my hands as we crossed the street. We walk through a sketchy intersection to reach the dentist, an I am always on alert as I shepherd kids through. As I waited nervously for the light to change, a man exited the nearby community mental health center and I watched him take our group in. He approached us, and I put on my usual Chicago street face, bracing for the interaction.

“Are these all your babies?!” he exclaimed. I just smiled, hoping to avoid the conversation. We were running late, and I had four kids and a grandmother, with varying levels of English and awareness of pedestrian rules with me. But the sight was too much for him.

“One of these is not like the other!” the man sang. The three girls knew this song, and began to sing along. Great, I thought.

The man looked at the oldest girl and said, “Is this white lady your mama?” He cackled with delight.

The girl released my hand, threw her hands on her hips and said, “She’s not our mom! She’s our friend!” Except, it was more like “frieeeeeeeend!” Imagine Oprah granting her audience new caaaaaaaars!

The light changed and my funny little group made its way across the street and safely into the dentist office. After the shuffling of medical cards and the signing of forms and the oldest child interpreting for her grandmother, I had four kids in four dental chairs. I sat in the waiting area, catching my breath and organizing my paperwork. My cell phone rang. It was my husband, telling me he had chosen the new job offer, and outlined the benefits offered. After I congratulated him, I sat and thought about all of the things he had been offered, and I realized how easy it would be to say he had the better deal. But then, I realized how easily I could say that I had the better deal.

How easy it would be to say that what I did all day “made a difference” in a way that the corporate workday just doesn’t. But, how easy it is for me to critique capitalism when I reap its benefits! Afterall, I enjoy a much more comfortable standard of living than the salary of social worker normally provides, because I enjoy my husband’s benefits by proxy. And that allows me to take on graduate school debt, work for lower wages in a job that inspires me. It allows me to “make a difference.” It allows three little Somali girls to think of me as their friend.

I still believe our system is broken. I believe it should change, and I’ll work to change it. But I also feel thankful for what it allows me to do, and what it asks of me as an activist and advocate. I am thankful when one of my clients benefits from it for the first time in their lives. And until we change it, I look at my tiny clients and hope they avoid its evils but take its rewards.

Written by Mary-Margaret Sweeney
SJS Student Liaison

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One Response

  1. Barbara Neilson December 7, 2013

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