I was 23 years old the morning I got on the 1/9 subway line from 235th street station down to Christopher Street and 7th Avenue. I was basking in the calm and quiet that is the West Village in early morning beginning anew and recovering from the rhythms of the previous night. Small Ecuadorian men were washing and sweeping the sidewalks clean, keeping up appearances outside hot spots such as Babbo Ristorante and charming four-story brownstone residences where wealth resides and poverty sleeps overnight on its stoop. The contrast is striking; it always is in major urban playgrounds. The lines of vulnerability are not often blurred and everyone knows their place. 5th avenue and Washington Square north was no exception; until that morning. That morning, everyone was vulnerable.
September 11, 2001 was my first day of classes as a transfer student at New York University’s then Ehrenkranz School of Social Work (NYU). Walking to class that morning I was not consciously thinking how entering the academic and professional world of social work would change my life or how the sense of a plane “flying low” would change thousands of people’s lives. Moments later on the corner of Washington Square North and University place word instantaneously spread that a plane was indeed flying low and hit a building –the world trade center.
In disbelief, a group of us rushed to 5th avenue and Washington Square North and at the crossroads of extreme wealth, sickening poverty, starving artists, underserved domestic workers caring for others’ children, inquiring academics, and international passersby – in that moment, the portrait so often photographed through the outline of the arches with its iconoclastic shapes and romantic visions were awash. Beyond the historical Washington Square Arch I stared in disbelief at an unthinkable an unimaginable sight. A sight so unimaginable my brain could not comprehend the unfolding atrocity that would forever make its mark on our individual and collective histories. Amid the confusion, noise, chaos and unfolding reality that the United States was under attack by terrorists, I clearly heard our school’s faculty members mutter to one another, “this is going to change our profession forever.” Those words felt profound, daring and prophetic, but at that time I couldn’t imagine how.
I have held onto those seemingly prophetic words for nearly a decade, though throughout my academic and clinical career I have only seen glimpses of how I expected those words to manifest. In obvious and direct ways the NYU social work faculty as well as neighboring schools and community social workers participated in provided crisis counseling, assisting with victim services and relief efforts of various sorts. There was no shortage of volunteerism, and I was aware of our faculty and the social work community at large working tirelessly on behalf of the victims, survivors, City of New York and our country. The obvious applications of social work was apparent in providing trauma based therapeutic interventions, concrete social services such as navigating survivor funds in years to come and assistance with benefits, shelter, clothing, food, etc., and shortly in subsequent years research and literature supporting our knowledge base of trauma work. However, I had a sense that this attack, this literal crash would shift perspectives and consciousness as to the environment and global world that we are now living and working in as social workers.