Thursz Investiture Ceremony: Shdaimah

On Wednesday, November 13, 2019, an investiture ceremony was held on the UMB campus, Corey Shdaimah, LL.M., PhD, was installed as the University of Maryland School of Social Work’s Daniel Thursz Distinguished Professor for Social Justice.  Just the second person to hold this prestigious position, Shdaimah joined the School of Social Work as an assistant professor in 2006.  With degrees from Bryn Mawr College Graduate School of Social Work, the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, and the University of Tel Aviv School of Law, Shdaimah is a national expert in court-affiliated prostitution diversion programs, national childcare policy, and issues surrounding sex work and human trafficking.

Corey Shdaimah, LL.M., PhD Thursz Investiture Talk: 

Corey Shdaimah Investiture Ceremony Group Photo Many of you know or have heard of Professor Thursz’ formidable accomplishments as a scholar, a mentor, a leader, and a visionary who worked to make the world better. I am humbled to be given the opportunity and the honor of coming into the role of this the Daniel Thursz Distinguished Professor for Social Justice. I am also somewhat intimidated by the idea of what it means to be a professor of social justice.  In learning more about Professor Thursz, it seems that we share some deep roots in Jewish values and ideas that provide guidance which make me feel even more connected to Professor Thursz’s legacy.

I came across a list of the 10 commandments of leadership developed by Professor Thursz for the Weinberg Center. The first begins with the exhortation: “Know thyself as a human being”. So it seems appropriate for me to share some reflections about what grounds my work.  A number of Jewish texts highlight the obligation of treating others with justice and sharing with others- particularly those who are vulnerable and oppressed. One of the most common reasons given for this obligation is the knowledge of suffering and oppression that we gain from experience: experience that can be personal but may also be communal or historical. Complacency once our own needs for food or freedom from fear and oppression are met is not ethical.  Social justice demands that we relate our experiences to those of others. This requirement of empathy asks us to view each other as connected through our humanity and to open ourselves to the experience of suffering so that we feel compelled to act. The word that is often translated from the Hebrew as “charity” in fact comes from the word for “justice”, and thus is not considered optional or something “nice to do” but rather obligatory. What exactly does this mean in our lives that are so busy and where there is so much suffering around us? How do we open ourselves up, care for others, and care for ourselves? This is a central question for social work and a central question for those of us trying to understand, foster, and act in accordance with the often elusive principles of social justice.

Shdaimah and Barth at Ceremony Another story that is part of my own “social scientist creation myth” comes from a class I took with medical anthropologist Ilse Schuster in the mid-1980s. While I may misremember some of the details, the way that I internalized this story is that a very well-intentioned (or guilt-ridden) former colonial power built state-of-the-art hospitals in a rural African country. These had all of the then-current technological innovations to improve the health outcomes for the country’s residents, in part by providing places where women could safely give birth and where any complications could be attended to. However, something puzzling happened. Once the hospitals were built, birthing women did not come. When I say that this was puzzling- I mean that it was puzzling to be people who built and funded the hospitals. It was not at all puzzling to the women who were supposedly the intended beneficiaries of these hospitals. Once the medical anthropologists had at it, it became clear that the laboring women from the primarily dispersed rural populations who did not have access to transportation were not about to walk or to bicycle great distances to receive what some outsider had decided was “better care”. There are many, many problems with this story. The one that planted a seed and stuck with me as a guiding value in thinking about justice is that our understanding of social justice must always be centered on the idea that people experiencing something are usually the best experts on what it is that troubles or oppresses them, on what they desire or need in order to be better off, and what options might be most (and least) likely to get them to where they want to be.

The lessons I learned from these two stories might appear contradictory. But taken together they represent my current thinking on ideals for figuring out what is a socially just approach or response.  The first tells us that it is an obligation to be empathetic and to put ourselves in someone else’s place as if it is, was, or could be ourselves.  The second tells us that everyone should be respected and valued, and that no one should substitute their decision and knowledge for someone else’s. Taken together these seem to be a good combination for social workers engaged in practice, research, and policymaking to keep in mind. It is a cautionary that reminds us that in the rush to do good, we must be open not just to helping others but to recognize their strengths, expertise, and self-determination.  We may be experts in techniques, therapies, interventions, or analysis, but we are not experts in others’ lives or experiences, hopes or dreams. Whatever we do should be in dialogue with the people who are impacted by whatever it is we are hoping to help with. We should actively think of how best to involve people in ways that make sense to them. This includes recognizing time burdens and potential dangers or harms, and that avoiding using people as a means to an end- even a socially just one. That may mean getting creative and spending more time than we might otherwise want to. It might also mean thinking about our priorities in the academy around the kinds of research we do and what we ascribe value to. 

As I look around this room and think about my colleagues at the School of Social Work, I am heartened by our collective efforts toward social justice. I hope that we can constructively and kindly keep each other honest. Difficult dialogue about what is just and right has -and should continue to be - part our teaching and attempted curricular reforms, part of our research agendas, and part of our interactions with each other. These core values ground our profession.

Part of that dialogue should include folks from outside of the academy. One of my hopes for the Thursz social justice lecture series is to use it as an opportunity to include more community voices. This is both so that we can actually learn from and collaborate with community members, but also so that we send a stronger signal that we believe that members of the broader community have expertise and are welcome here.

I would like to end on thank yous. Shout out to my husband Amichai and my son Elad, both of whom are here with us tonight, and to my other children Cliel and Sagi for their love and their patience. My parents Sue and Alan Silberstein, and my brother and his family were unable to join us but are extremely proud and supportive. I am grateful to you Rick for your always making me feel appreciated. I am also lucky to be on a campus with a president- President Perman -who actively supports community engagement. Finally, I would like to thank the faculty and staff at this school. My wonderful colleagues know how to agree and disagree while remaining collegial, and an example of how to create a supportive environment where people can flourish. This should be our vision for broader society.