Right now I'm a graduate student in social work. The textbook definition of "social work" would have to encompass aspects of psychology, therapeutic services, case management, community organizing, and advocacy. There's a bunch of stuff I could crib from a textbook, but the one commonality that attracts me is a chance to balance power by assisting those with little power gain more, be it gained from inside oneself or taken by force from others who have abused their power. This definition is applicable inside any school, jail, shelter, political system, or family. The proof is in The Zero, if not in the school syllabus.
In one class, my partners and I chose to research human trafficking for a mandatory group project. The following week, the teaching assistant, a Ph.D. from Latvia, thoughtfully handed us printouts from The Zero's resource section.
"I know The Zero. My dog's on there," I said. "How do you like the site?"
As English was a (distant) second language for the TA, she nodded, smiled, and went back to her seat near the professor. I tried to explain The Zero to my partners who noted my momentary excitement, but it's hard to explain a site that honors our dogs and provides academic research on human trafficking.
I've gone along for the ride on the Chicago stints of Andrew Vachss' book tours over the years and rare were the signings that didn't quickly become interactive events with the audience. I've seen people thank the man, present him with paintings and mix tapes, challenge him, and, finally, ask, "What can I do?"
Most visitors, I assume, come to The Zero as Vachss fans, but, once here, they have access to an education that should be mandatory in any social work program. As the public consciousness has been properly raised over the past 25 years regarding the abuse of children, to not have a direction to effectively channel a desire to act will cheat those who have been motivated to action. Herein is the chance to participate, a chance to join the fight.
I came to learn of Andrew Vachss through his writing and, soon after, learned of his "other" work, defending children. I came to writing in a similarly sideways manner, skipping class to read Nelson Algren in the school library. They were the first writers I ever saw with a sense of social justice. (This was a revelation in art school where people kept stuffing William Burroughs and Baudelaire at me. At the age of 18, I couldn't make head nor tail of either.)
Before I knew much of anything about reading or writing, I tore through Jack Olsen's books because they were a good read and I was interested in crime. Years later I found Olsen again in The Zero and, in this context, I understood why he measured far above the rest of the field as a master writer and a criminologist. I understood the implications his work holds for the rest of us; Olsen was showing us how society creates its own monsters and how we are culpable if we don't participate to change this: We know Behavior is the Truth.
I get sidelined easily in The Zero precisely because the site is not a series of links and pop-up screens regarding one person, but a tapestry of creative work, research, current events, advocacy, journalism, and social science. This, I also suspect, is purposeful. We come in with our own interests, but find (for example) that fiction can be topically linked to journalism and journalism to political action—we can follow the lines from Judith Moore's memoir to Alice Miller's lectures to Protect's political action.
The Zero has become too comprehensive to plainly tell a new visitor to "Check it out...." Go to the Guest Dispatches for a start. Listen to the voices of Grier Weeks, the National Director of Protect, Mike McNamara, founder of Licensed for Life, Dr. Joel Dvoskin, Rabbi Yahudah Fine, and Frank Ascione.... There are too many others to list here, but the writing of Alice Miller continues to unravel human behavior. There's Alice Vachss—who needs no introduction here—and Julie Bindel, a wonderful troublemaker who carves hypocrisy from the public debate like a surgeon.
The Zero provides an opportunity to participate in the world, be it through a pit bull adoption or the chance to threaten a state senator's job security. What the contributors to The Zero have consistently done over the years is inform us: "Here's what's wrong." And then: "Here's an opportunity to change that...."
These fights on the frontlines opened the way for the rest of us. The Zero is showing us how and why. It'd be a crime to not participate.
The Zero's 10th Anniversary Gallery