Interview with feminist-identified Social Worker Robyn Ekenstedt

Interview by Emilie Egger

What brought you to a career in social work? How do your training and personal experiences shape your work?

A variety of personal experiences led me to my career in social work. Initially, a trip to volunteer in India after graduation from high school sparked my interest in the field. After being exposed to immense poverty and violence, I felt a desire to help underprivileged and marginalized communities in my own home country. After returning to the United States, I volunteered with the International Rescue Committee as a mentor and tutor to teenage refugees from Myanmar, Somalia, and other countries.This experience reinforced my love for helping those in my own community facing numerous struggles. I learned so much from the youth that I worked with, and my own worldview and perspectives changed in many ways.

Finally, another significant personal experience that influenced my decision to enter a career in social work was my personal experience with mental illness. After experiencing a temporary psychotic break at 19 years old, followed by a period of severe depression, I felt a strong desire to use my experience facing and overcoming mental illness to help others who are in the midst of their own battle.

My personal experiences heavily influence my professional work, I believe, in a positive way. Experiencing my own struggles, and helping others overcome theirs, has provided me with insight and understanding on how to help others facing many social, environmental, and psychological problems through therapy and case management. Sometimes when I lose motivation or become overwhelmed by the challenges that arise during my work, I reflect on the strength, determination, and hope of the refugees and many families that I have encountered facing great obstacles, and this helps me to overcome the burnout that often accompanies social work.

How do you identify as a feminist? How does your feminist identity add to your work?71doehKgjsL._SL500_SY300_

There are many definitions of feminist, but to me it has always meant to be a believer and advocate of equal rights and treatment of women. Even though I consider myself a feminist, I am still in the process of learning about the many inequalities we as women face. My role as a feminist is very important in my role as a social worker and therapist. In my current position, one role that I hold is to work with depressed mothers, and the other is to work with children with behavioral issues with their parents in family therapy. In both roles, I regularly encounter social and structural inequalities, prejudices, and gender roles that negatively impact the family system and the women in the family.

Part of my work is to assist families and parents in recognizing dynamics that may be unhealthy, including traditional gender roles that make many of the depressed mothers feel “trapped.” Many of the depressed women I see are in unhealthy relationships with their spouses/partners, which often includes forms of emotional and physical abuse.  Additionally, I often find myself supporting mothers and women in trusting in their strength as a woman and empowering them to challenge the social systems in their life that may be contributing to their oppression. When working with families, I find myself assisting parents in challenging their perspectives of the roles of women and men within the family in order to create a more healthy family system. This might include helping parents challenge their beliefs in order to allow the mother to contribute equally in decision making or disciplining the children, while supporting the father in stepping back and supporting the needs of the wife by providing equal support in household chores and childcare.

How is your work with women the same as or different than your work with men?

In my position I often encounter more women than men since much of my work is exclusively with mothers. Additionally, when I work with families, many of the males are at work during the day and do not participate in the therapy sessions. However, I try to incorporate the fathers of the children in therapy as much as possible and express my belief in the importance of their participation. When I work with both parents, I often teach parenting skills to both at the same time and practice with them in session. This work is more educational and looks very similar with women/men. However, as previously mentioned, when working with families I tend to encounter many ingrained systems of belief that do not value equal rights/treatment of women, and often part of my work is to advocate for women within this context and support their needs within the family. Additionally, when working with depressed mothers, I encounter a variety of issues that are related more uniquely to women, including symptoms of depression/anxiety due to negative beliefs re: self-image, multi-generational family systems based on a dominant male figure/submissive female figure, the feeling of being unable to express themselves in the way that they want because they need to conform to traditional gender roles, and much more.

How does your feminism influence how you work with families?

Feminism is very influential in my work with families. Mainly, many family systems are based on gender roles that can be unhealthy or non-supportive of both a woman’s needs/wants/desires. Many of these roles are so ingrained in our culture and in the belief system of my clients that they are unaware of its possible negative influence. When working with families, it is very common that I encounter women and men with the belief system that the father is the “head of the household,” the main disciplinarian, and has the final say in family decisions.

The voice of women and children is often overlooked and ignored. Many mothers that I see believe that they will be disrespectful to their husbands if they disagree with them, and I often work with them to create a different definition of “respect” that incorporates their rights and value while respecting their culture and religion.

Also, domestic violence is very common in the families that I work with, and often is connected to a belief system that a man is dominant and a wife should be submissive.  When working with families, I try to help all members find their voice to express their wants/needs and assist both parents in providing equal  amount of both discipline and affection for their children. Often, my work inevitably consists of helping many women make plans to try to escape from a violent and/or controlling relationship. In these cases, I also incorporate feminism by trying to help empower these women to understand their significant value and strength as a woman and person.

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