Academic journal article Generations

Stories from Rural Elderly African Americans

Academic journal article Generations

Stories from Rural Elderly African Americans

Article excerpt

Social workers continue to advocate the strengths perspective in our work with individuals, families, and communities. The strengths perspective is based on the observation that it is easier to help people achieve positive and lasting changes by building on their strengths than by focusing on elimination of their problems. Yet many social work practitioners, educators, and students fail to actually utilize the strengths perspective and instead rely on the problem-reduction model. For example, the editor-in-chief of Social Work, Jeanne Marsh (2003), wrote in a recent issue of that journal that in a group of second-year students at the University of Chicago School of Social Service Administration, only one-third said that they routinely assess family strengths in their work. The students described important gaps in their practice knowledge in the area of family strengths as an explanation for the disparity between the values that the profession promulgates and practice behavior.

Social work scholars, educators, and practitioners must close the knowledge gap that inhibits effective strengths-based practice. One important strategy is to document core processes and relationships that people use as resources, and there are numerous ways to do so. One often ignored or undervalued mechanism is listening to family stories.

Studying African American family stories is essential for understanding African American culture, and understanding culture is essential to identify and build on strengths. The following family stories, presented here as vignettes, were told by a small group of African American elders who lived in rural southeastern North Carolina and worked as farmers in a community of kinfolk. The stories are a rich source of information and perspective.

The first of the eight stories, which we have entitled "Phlox in Early Spring," focuses on the sense of community and shared existence among elderly rural women. The following seven tell of resilience, family commitment, health and sickness, stoicism and pride, humor, and tradition and lifestyle. Furthermore, the stories allow the listener or reader to have a better understanding of what services might be needed and accepted and to identify strengths upon which services, programs, and policies can be hinged. These life-defining and lifestyle stories help us to see their tellers more clearly. Once we look at them from this perspective, they are no longer just clients or patients, but whole people with full lives, histories, resources, and ways of coping. Moreover, these types of stories can illuminate for social workers, policy makers, and others the unique collective family patterns, relationships, and history of accepting and adapting to massive changes that characterize these elderly men and women.

Patterson (2003) notes that as social workers, we must be aware of our own role in co-constructing people's life-defining stories. She further indicates that researchers must listen carefully and self-consciously to the other's experiences and voices if we arc to nurture sources of strength.


The Crosspoint Home Demonstration Club had a community beautification project. They decided to plant flowers in the fork down the road by the mailbox where the dirt roads intersect, forming a near perfect triangle section of land that was covered with weeds and sand spires.

One day early in the spring, the club members, Mama and the other women in the neighborhood, all met at the triangle in the road with their hoes, flower seeds, and determined spirit to complete their beautification project. They chopped the triangle mound clean, turning the soil over just so, then planted, pink, white, and violet phlox seeds.

The flowers bloomed beautifully that spring and every spring thereafter, covering the triangle mound like a colorful blanket. In the bright sun and the well-drained sandy soil of southeastern North Carolina, the phlox thrived. …

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