25 Jan The Watusi Girls: A Legacy of Inspiration
BY CAROL IRIZARRY
The following is an excerpt from a new book edited by our Executive Director, Andrew Malekoff, called Group Work Stories Celebrating Diversity. To learn more about the book or to purchase it, click here. This story was written by Carol Irizarry.
Edie was only 12 years old and had the deepest, most delicate brown eyes that I had ever seen. We sat by the pool on the last day that I would spend with my group, both of us feeling sad and not speaking. I felt tears on my arm and realized that she was crying. Her voice was hesitant and soft but it cut directly into my heart. “Please Carol, just don’t forget us.”
How could this beautiful young Puerto Rican girl possibly know that during all the years since that moment I could not think of this scene without tears coming to my eyes? Forget her, forget the Watusi girls? Never. They changed me forever.
I had just graduated with my MSW in group work and this was my first job, my first pay check, my first professional role, my first apartment with friends in New York City and my first group. Preadolescent girls, from Hispanic and African-American backgrounds, asking for help from the settlement house to form a club, which they wanted to call the “Watusi” girls.
They were suspicious when I was “assigned” to them and with good reason. I was green. Naive about New York City life and the issues which these girls encountered on a daily basis. Naïve also about myself and my role as a social group worker. So they went to work on me – imitating my every gesture – my walk, my talk and my gestures. Mocking Carol was their favourite game. “It’s only a joke,” the president reassured me. “We do that with everyone.”
I took the turn towards humour and instead of reprimand l laughed with them at my silly self. It broke the ice.
Subway rides were a nightmare as the girls made rude comments to the other passengers. They were kicked off and I left with them. Then the rebukes started as we walked back in disappointment at the missed trip. “You should have stopped us from being bad on the subway.” I replied, “You hate people who tell you what to do and I am not a teacher after all. I am a social worker.” Confusion emerged but now they listened seeing me in a different light. This was how talking together began. Boys were top conversational subjects but school, jobs, parental controls, sex and fear of pregnancies all spilled out.
Their insights into their situations were amazing. They taught me how they survived with talents such as reading people’s real intentions and trusting their own instincts. They showed me their resilience, which was often based on getting up again after being knocked down, literally or symbolically.
Above all I discovered how the girls relied on each other for protection and emotional well-being. They displayed a loyalty to their Watusi club that surprised me in its commitment and depth. The fought each other with the same intensity and punished those who did not remain loyal but they looked out for each other in all situations – another major component of their resilience. And they never tired of teaching me something more about groups and my interactions.
They challenged me to be more real, not to evade, not to hide behind professional language, not to hedge my opinions and most importantly to integrate my professional and personal roles. They could see through any phony response in five seconds flat. Their questions were incessant. Did I like really them? Would I lend them money? Where did l learn Spanish? Would I take a girl home if her mother died? Did I have a boyfriend? Did I have Puerto Rican friends? Did I have Black friends? And eventually – best of all, what did a social worker do anyway?
I struggled with answering their concerns while staying within my professional role. Each question challenged me to stay true to my reason for being a social group worker and at the same time to give them an answer that displayed my genuineness, revealing myself as a real person. It was only in answering these questions directly that they began to move into more threatening subjects and raise their encounters around race and prejudice which they had all experienced. My immediate reactions were always crucial – the pain I felt at their stories – the anger at their hurts. They needed those emotions and it helped them to view my unadulterated reactions. They also felt conflicted since it was so easy to see “white crackers” as alien and feared, while liking me placed them in peril. The taboo subject of race emerged more frequently and I needed to help them sort out the conflict rather than suggest solutions and I needed to avoid being defensive when I was labelled as one of the white oppressors. I kept reminding myself to focus on their needs not mine, on why they had wanted to form a group and what it meant to their lives.
As for the individual Watusi girls, I stood in awe of their strength and their ability to find ways to live creative lives within their environment. They were powerful girls – rich in character, energy, humour and resolve. I shared in their adventures and challenges. And I fell in love with them.
I learned social work. I learned group work. I learned about myself and I gave myself to these girls with whom I walked the streets of New York. These were the same girls who teased me mercilessly until the day I left, who cried on my shoulder about family problems and fights with friends, who called me “white cracker” and then threw their arms around me when I came back from a holiday. They were the same girls who all slept touching me, with every single girl holding onto a part of me when we camped on Bear Mountain and slept outside. Tough on the streets of East Harlem, but afraid of a dark night without streetlights.
I see their faces clearly and vividly. Edie, Elba, Cuni, Maria, Norma, Shirley, Brenda, Naomi and Miranda. I mix up their real names with the code names that I gave them in writing and talking about them over the decades but their faces remain young, vibrant and distinct before me now – years after they would have grown to be mothers and grandmothers.
“No Edie” I replied, “I will never forget you. And I never have. You showed me strength and vulnerability – and gave me trust and affection. You came with the other girls to my wedding. Still a group but with your new worker and I saw your beaming faces as a precious part of that celebration – a gift of lasting influence, frozen in the picture frames.
You and your friends moulded me and sculptured me into the social worker that I became and remained. It was through working with you and the other Watusi girls that the words I had read in textbooks transformed in actions in the real world. And I learned that all the social work theories, skills, techniques, ideas and insights however relevant, must be carried out through a genuineness of self and a feeling of true affection. The most challenging skill of all is to be real and professional at the same time and to hold that delicate balance.
I close my eyes and I can feel again Edie’s tears on my arm as she sits by the pool. I wish I could tell her and the other Watusi girls of their effect on my development and my gratitude for the social group work they taught me. “No Edie I have never forgotten you and I never will.”