Slaying the dragon

When I was in school for my bachelor's in social work, I had a wonderful professor who also happened to be the first Hmong American to earn a MSW. After a lengthy career as a child protection worker, he had gone back to school and studied law and earned a PhD in Education. I was fortunate to learn so much from Professor Thao.

I clearly remember the day in a Social Work Policy class when Prof. Thao shared with us this folk tale he had learned from his elders.

Once upon a time there was a village settled next to a flowing river. The people of this village were kind and brave. One day, one of the villagers saw a man in the river, being carried downstream by the rough currents. The villager called for help from his fellow friends and neighbors and together they managed to pull the man out of the river and saved his life.

The next day, to the surprise of the villagers, another man was spotted in the river, being pulled down stream. Again the villagers rallied together and pulled the second man out of the river. The next day, there were three people in the river, this time two women and a man. Again, the villagers worked together to save the lives of these people.

Every day for the next several weeks, the villagers found themselves pulling people out of the river. It was exhausting work and they met to try and figure out strategies for faster and safer ways of pulling people out of the river. It was hard for the villagers to get their work done when every day they were pulling people out of the river. Each of the villagers had different ideas. Each idea was attempted but still, each day, more and more people were being carried down the river. Sometimes there were too many people in the river and the villagers could not save them all.

Finally, one of the villagers said, "what's going on upstream?" The elders sent a band of villagers up to the mountains, to the source of the river. To their horror, they found a dragon at the mountain top. This dragon was taking people from the village at the top of the mountain and throwing them in the river. The villagers then realized that until they slayed the dragon, they would never be able to save all the people drowning in the river.

 I've never forgotten this story, and to say that it's been the paradigm for my view of the purpose of social work is pretty obvious. We cannot continue to only look at the person drowning in the river. Of course, that is where we act because it is immediate and it is critical. But if we are not able to focus as much of our attention to the dragon at the top of the mountain, then we will always be merely reacting to the immediate crisis instead of preventing the crisis from happening in the first place.

Prof. Thao used this folk tale to demonstrate how social workers must spend their focus on both the immediate needs of people but also to look at eliminating the causes (oppression, poverty, etc.).

In adoption, we have been way too focused on pulling people out of the river. In fact, we form committees on how best to pull people out of the river, faster and easier ways to pull people out of the river, and provide books and therapeutic services to address the aftermath for the victims that were pulled out of the river. We go to other rivers to look for ways to better pull people out of the river. We create laws about how to pull people out of the river.

When are we going to focus on slaying the dragon?