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We’re Not in Kansas Anymore, Toto
Social Workers as Allies When the Going Gets Tough

By J. Scott Janssen, MSW, LCSW

When I was a boy, watching The Wizard of Oz was a yearly event anticipated with as much enthusiasm as a birthday party or the Fourth of July. There was something magical about the strange cast of characters—a singing scarecrow, a mysterious wizard, talking trees, and flying monkeys—and something comforting about the way everything worked out in the end.

I especially loved the way Dorothy was assisted along the way by unexpected allies she never could have imagined while traveling the dusty roads and cornfields of Kansas, each one appearing at just the right time. People of my generation will instantly remember the Munchkins, the Scarecrow, the Tin Man, the Cowardly Lion, Glenda the Good Witch of the East and, of course, the great and powerful Oz. But there were other allies, like Dorothy’s faithful dog, Toto; the doorman who took pity on her and let her into the Emerald City; the palace guards who, once their trance was broken, lowered their weapons and gave Dorothy what she was seeking and the charlatan masquerading as a wizard.

For those interested in mythic themes, The Wizard of Oz has it all. A young heroine who finds herself in the midst of a crisis pulled against her will into a life-changing adventure, as if by destiny, and crossing the threshold (to use Joseph Campbell’s phrase) from ordinary reality into a new and strange land where old maps no longer work and challenges abound. A journey where dangers are faced, hardships endured, and insights emerge. And, of course, there are those timely helpers who arrive as our heroine makes her way past one obstacle after another, encouraging, motivating, counseling, and fortifying her resolve as she slowly finds her way.

Allies in the Real World
When I think about such allies these days and how they relate to the real world, I think of social workers. Are they not perfectly positioned to offer aide, counsel, and assistance for those struggling to find their way along paths as frightening and overwhelming as anything Dorothy faced? And do they not try their best on a daily basis to help others find in themselves the same gifts Dorothy gathered winding along the Yellow Brick Road or in the dark forests and mazelike palace of the Wicked Witch of the West?

Think about it. The Munchkins, her first allies, shared the gift of a supportive community ready to help. Although Dorothy landed in Oz alone and friendless, they rallied behind her, helping her get oriented and started in the right direction. How many times each day do social workers encounter others like Dorothy who are feeling alone, lost, frightened, overwhelmed, unsure to whom they can turn, and uncertain which way to head?

Whether a refugee displaced from a far off place alone in a big city or a young mother and father struggling to navigate the maze of red tape as they try to get services for a child with special needs, social workers routinely enter the lives of people in need, helping them build a community of care and support. Social workers know the right agencies and support groups to call. They know the ins and outs of how to apply for practical assistance and how to enroll in specialized programs. They know how to connect people with support and resources (external and internal), pointing them in the right direction of what may turn out to be a long, difficult journey.

A Brain
The Scarecrow, another of Dorothy’s allies, could find no better brainpower than that exemplified by social workers. Whether it be the brainpower shown day in and day out by social work professors sharing knowledge and encouraging students committed to hard work and study or the social and emotional intelligence required to defuse a crisis or assist a teenager feeling overwhelmed and alone as she faces another day at school, behind in her classes, anxious, bullied, and thinking about suicide, social workers have ways of showing up with the right knowledge at the right time

A Heart
And as for heart, the Tin Man could have no better model than social workers, whose profession calls them on a daily basis to hone their empathy and compassion, placing their own needs aside while attuning to the needs and concerns of others. How many families and individuals can attest to the value of such gifts when they’ve been delivered in the midst of a seemingly intractable conflict, bringing communication to a deeper, heart-felt level and helping those involved get unstuck from entrenched emotional and transactional patterns?

The Nerve
Given the intensity that often goes with social work, the practice of such compassion and heart wisdom requires the kind of courage that would brace even the most cowardly lion for any challenge. Whether counseling someone lost in the forest of depression or meeting with a family in crisis as they fidget in the waiting room of the local alcohol and addictions center, social workers have abounding courage.

One of my favorite scenes in The Wizard of Oz was when Toto pulled back the curtain, revealing the great wizard to be a sham. Having allies like Toto is critical if social workers are to honestly identify and address issues that some would rather remove from sight. Here again, social workers have long been at the forefront, advocating for those who might otherwise be forgotten. What profession has consistently pulled back the curtain to remind others not to look away from its poor, aging, people with mental illness, or homeless? What profession has more steadfastly refused to be intimidated by the curtain of authority and convention, refused to be silent when others in need are being marginalized or shunted into the shadows?

At the end of her journey, Dorothy realizes that she always had within her the power, wisdom, and inner vision to find her way. Isn’t such wisdom and trust what social workers strive to foster in those they serve? Take, for example, the social worker serving as a private practice psychotherapist gently pushing a client to disentangle herself from a personal story of failure and shame to see the strength, creativity, and resilience at her core. Or the protective services social worker who, despite the doubts of others, supports an isolated widow in her decision to stay at home rather than go to an assisted-living facility, respecting her right to determine her own path and make her own choices even when there is risk.

Support Along the Journey
More than any profession I can think of, social work awaits those who are lost in the woods facing life’s severest tests. It’s a foundation stone of the profession that social workers enter the dark woods and haunted glens of human experience to assist the weary, frightened traveler. They may show up only briefly, like the Emerald City’s empathetic doorman, or walk the entire journey to its end, as did the Scarecrow. And the gifts social workers offer—encouragement, knowledge, connection, understanding, heart, courage, patience, compassion, nonjudgmental acceptance, and skillful counsel—can be as transformative.

When she finds herself back in Kansas, we see that Dorothy’s allies were familiar faces all along. They were friends and family living without fanfare in the same little wind-blown prairie town. Isn’t it the same with social workers? They may be found in settings as diverse as police departments, military bases, hospitals, nursing homes, and domestic violence shelters. They may work on international community building, national policy issues, or on the local level at small nonprofits. But social workers are our mothers and fathers, our aunts and uncles, our sisters, next-door neighbors, or the friendly stranger who stops to lend a hand.

In childhood, my fear when things got rough for Dorothy was mollified by the comforting knowledge that all would work out in the end. Sadly, as any social worker knows, this isn’t always the case in real life. People don’t always find their way out of the forests. Sometimes they remain lost in destructive thoughts and behaviors; sometimes the trauma is not healed, the addiction not kicked, the sadness not abated.

When the Scarecrow, Tin Man, and Cowardly Lion scaled the walls of the Wicked Witch’s castle with the intention of lending aid and serving Dorothy on her journey, the outcome was uncertain. They did so not because they knew things were going to work out, but because it was the right thing to do. And when they crossed over the parapets, they did so with no guarantee of a happy ending—but they did it anyway. Someone needed help, someone needed an ally. They had the knowledge, the heart, and the courage, and they were in the right place at the right time—just like social workers.

— J. Scott Janssen, MSW, LCSW, has been a hospice social worker for 20 years and currently works for Duke Hospice in Durham, NC. He authored the book The Dawn Is Never Far Away: Stories of Loss, Resilience, and the Human Journey.