Thank you Miss Mary – What do MG & IDS know?

I made good ole Suthin Biscuits this morning for breakfast. I haven’t eaten any for years, and it has been even longer since I made any. For all you folks not from the Deep South (and I’m not talking about SE England), Suthin is how to properly say Southern. Biscuits from that fantastic part of the world are not sweet twice baked confections. Rather, they are savoury, fluffy, light and can be served with breakfast, lunch or dinner. They are a truly gorgeous, simple and versatile foodstuff. If Moses had been lost in the pine forest in my home state of Georgia for all those years, I’m sure biscuits would have rained down instead of manna.

I’m not sure what put the notion of biscuits in my head, but as I thought of making them I was transported back to the late 1980s when I was running day programmes for mentally ill older people based on the psychosocial clubhouse model. This is where Miss Mary taught me to make biscuits. I spent this morning thinking back about this client (that’s the term we used back then instead of service user). Miss Mary was the child of slaves and lived through all the Jim Crow laws. Her entire life was marked by extreme racism, sexism and oppressive poverty. She worked at one of the few jobs available to her – as a domestic in someone’s home: low pay, no benefits and no taxes. As an older person she developed a chronic mental illness and was unable to work to support herself. Miss Mary became dependent on the state that had sanctioned oppressive systems that caused her dependency.

Recently Michael Gove attacked social work education again and suggested that university lecturers are teaching idealistic students to blame society rather than teaching them to make people take responsibility for their own actions. Gove’s comments rubbish C. Wright Mills’ concept of private troubles and public issues and the rather large evidence base regarding the negative impact of social inequalities on the lives of individuals. I thought of Gove’s comments while making the biscuits this morning and wondered what Gove would think of the woman who taught me to make them. Would it be wrong to consider that the very difficulties she was experiencing as an older ‘negro’ woman were perhaps caused by the society in which she lived? Would it be wrong to teach students to help Mary while also working to bring about social change?

I also thought of Mary again when reading the article in the Observer this morning about Iain Duncan Smith’s latest cuts . I also thought of the thousands of disabled people I have worked with over my career, who like Mary required support from the state. Many of the disabled people I have worked with have faced a lifetime of oppression, harsh social systems and dehumanising treatment. The messages coming from IDS continue to add to the dehumanising experiences of disabled people. These messages are often couched in terms of savings through individualism, privatisation, and the evils of public services. The messages I hear from the Westminster government suggest that people who are poor, disabled, ill, old and fragile, unemployed, experiencing difficulties in living or facing stressful life conditions are responsible for their own lot in life and therefore need to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. People who fall into these categories are a drain on society and have little value – people like Mary.

And yet, here I am nearly 30 years later still thinking about and reflecting on what Mary taught me. This women who was a daughter of slaves, poor, ill, disabled, had no economic ‘value’ and was a total drain on society. Yet, she taught me to bake biscuits despite being psychotic, delusional and demented. More importantly she also taught me how to be a better social worker. That second lesson I took with me into all the work I have done since. So in many ways Mary has influenced and touched thousands of people because of what she taught me…..and the biscuits are pretty darn good too!

I think the coalition knows the cost of many things, but the value of little.