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Commemorating the Lives of Italian-American, Non-Traditional Social Workers, From East Harlem

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The social work profession has a history in the United States for promoting the dignity, diversity, inclusion, and equality for those individuals, families, and communities who have experienced oppression, discrimination, and injustice. My experiences with poverty, homophobia, ethnic prejudice, and stigma were the reasons why I choose to become a social worker with the hope of effecting positive change in people's lives. In recent years, having transitioned from being a practitioner to an educator, I have been drawn to teaching students about the value and significance of personal narratives. Generally, I select stories of people who are overlooked by the majority because their lives demonstrate ways in which to inspire others through their advocacy, compassion, respect, and commitment. Hence, I would like to commemorate two Italian Americans for their relentless contribution to the East Harlem community: Michael "Pete" and Rose Pascale, both of whom were born, raised, and lived in the East Harlem neighborhood of New York City. LuLu LoLo, their daughter, who is a fabulous and brilliant artist, actor, writer, and a life-long resident of East Harlem, gave me a brief history of her parents' lives and contributions.

Pete and Rose Pascale were first-generation Italian Americans whose parents emigrated from Italy to New York City for a better life. Like most Italians who left their beloved country due to famine and economic issues, they began to re-create their ethnic communities on these new lands. As LuLu informed me, her grandparents decided to move to East Harlem because it was cheaper with renovated apartments, and Greenwich Village was already more expensive and saturated with Italians. Pete and Rose were raised in homes that valued the Italian ethnicity where they learned about the importance of food, family, work, and the community -- all of which served them well in their future work in the settlement house.

Both Pete and Rose worked ceaselessly at a settlement house, LaGuardia Memorial House, formerly known as Harlem House, where they provided education, social support, skills and job training, and organized community activities. This time in U.S. history is known as the settlement house movement and it is also considered the beginning of the social work profession. The settlement house mission was to offer social support and needed procurements to the local community people who experienced poverty, unemployment, food insecurity, and difficulties with acculturation. During the time period that the Pascales worked at LaGuardia Memorial House, they mainly served immigrant families from Puerto Rico who had immigrated to East Harlem. Like the Italian immigrants who experienced deplorable conditions, economic issues, and social discrimination, the incoming Puerto Rico immigrants were subject to the same challenges. Another oppressed group they served included African Americans who lived in the neighborhood.

The Pascales made it their life's work to ensure -- irrespective of any difference -- that these people had the best opportunity to succeed in America. They had been children of immigrants who had contended with similar challenges, and this was their way of giving back to the community that they loved so much. Their ethnic values were imbued in helping people; they did not believe in the separation between "theirs" and "mine," but what is "ours" in terms of the community. And no problem was too big or small for them to manage. LuLu said her father did not care if he mopped the floors, or coached kids for basketball, because of his indifference to prescribed roles. LuLu said her parents showed one of the truest forms of altruism through their empathy and compassion for others. Her father eventually became the Director of LaGuardia Memorial House despite his lack of a Master of Social Work degree. Both LuLu's parents were not formally educated, but that did not stop them from making an impact on people's lives.

Personal narratives, like the Pascales, need to be recognized and taught because they are empowering and introduce themes of resiliency, hope, possibility, personal strength, compassion, and empathy. The Pascales are the few people who can light that flame of hope through their beautiful and touching stories, especially during this grim time of capitalism that overshadows individuals' basic rights and needs. But when an individual does not possess power in every sense of the word, he/she will be forgotten by our civilization. This is where each of us can seek out personal narratives that teach us about humanity; this is what will help us to grow and think and progress and evolve.

The Pascales have passed, but their memories live on -- and we social workers in academia need to teach their stories. People who were born, raised, and live in East Harlem continue to be displaced due to "gentrification" with all of its purported benefits; it allows rich developers to come in and literally erect poorly constructed residential buildings for affluent white people and price out those natives who cannot afford their neighborhood. I believe if the Pascales were alive, they would be enraged by this phenomenon. They would fight fiercely to prevent capitalism from once again exploiting an impoverished and oppressed people.

LuLu reported that her father was commemorated by the community when they added a street sign on East 116 between 1st and 2nd Avenues, labeled Pete Pascale Place. And now, my recommendation to the schools of social work in New York City is to please create a field scholarship devoted to the memories of these people's contributions, so that burgeoning social workers can continue the good work and carry on their spirit in the East Harlem community.