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Seven women who changed social work forever

We celebrate National Professional Social Work Month each March. The theme for Social Work Month in 2020 is Generations Strong. This is a great opportunity to look at the lives of pivotal figures in the history of social work and social welfare. The seven women discussed below made important contributions to people’s lives and to social work as a profession. Their lives also reflect environmental assaults, such as socioeconomic disenfranchisement, racism, sexism, classism, and other toxic issues that continue to plague vulnerable communities.

The following biographical sketches represent the coming of age of social work from an international perspective and shows the positive impact of social workers, social justice advocates, and other helping professionals over the last century.

  1. Mary Ellen Richmond (1861 – 1928) was an organizer, researcher, and administrator. She was sometimes referred to as the Mother of Social Work. Richmond fought for the standardization and professionalization of social work . She implored schools of social work to train social workers due to her concerns about frequent failures of clients to respond to services offered by the Friendly Visitors. Richmond believed that this response on the part of the clients was due to workers lack of perquisite knowledge, skill and understanding about the problems confronting impoverished families and children. Her first publication in 1899, Friendly Visiting Among the Poor, provided practical guidelines for working with such cases. She cared deeply about the needs of families and children and became their advocate on the national stage. She lobbied for legislation to address housing, health, education and labor.  Overall, Richmond’s work demonstrated the importance of the education of the social work field, but also recognizing the need to advocate for as well as the need to design programs and services that effectively meet the needs of a diverse, expanding population.
  2. Grace Longwell Coyle (1892 – 1962) made a major contribution to the profession through her scholarly writing and speeches championing the integration of group work and casework. Coyle had an expansive vision of social work. In her view, case work, group work, and community organizing were based on a common factor, the conscious use of social relations. In addition to an expansive writing on group work practice, Coyle was the first to develop a scientific approach to group work practice through the provision of a systemic, organized series of steps to helps ensure objectivity and consistency in group work practice.
  3. Insoo Kim Berg (1934 – 2007) was a gifted solution focused brief therapy clinician who championed the approach that clients had within themselves their own answers for lasting change. Her emphasis on clients’ strengths provided a new and exciting way of engaging with different client systems.
  4. Shirley Chisholm (1924 – 2008) described herself as “unbought and unbossed.” In 1964 she successfully ran for and was elected to the New York State Assembly. Chisholm later ran for and was elected to the US House of Representatives, serving from 1968 to 1980. In 1972 Chisholm was the first African American to make a bid for the United Sates Presidential nomination by the Democratic Party. She gained 10% of the share of total delegates. She was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, the US judicial system, specifically as it relates to police brutality, prison reform, gun control, and substance abuse policies. Chisholm was also an advocate for early childhood education and a proponent of the Head Start Program. Chisholm shattered gender and racial barriers as a social justice advocate and activist for the poor and vulnerable populations.
  5. Wilma Mankiller (1945 – 2010) was an activist, community organizer, and principal chief of the Cherokee Nation. She worked for the Cherokee Nation as a tribal planner and program developer, founding the community development department for the Cherokee Nation. She developed lasting sustainability projects such as rural water systems and rehabilitated and revitalized the Cherokee Nation’s education, health, and housing for approximately 300,000 tribal members. Mankiller brought the Cherokee Nation back to a traditional understanding of leadership in which women were in positions of authority and power and were revered for their understanding and wisdom.
  6.  W. Gertrude Brown (1888 – 1930) was an organizer and advocate for racial, social, and environmental justice. Brown recognized and fought against environmental racism in the form of redlining and housing discrimination. Through her role as Head Resident of Phyliss Wheatly Settlement House in Minneapolis, she utilized a revitalization project to fight against blighted communities where people of color and marginalized groups lived. She also fought against discrimination in housing and public accommodation.
  7. Irena Sendler (1910 – 2008),was a social worker in Warsaw, Poland, during its occupation by Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union. She was a senior administrator in the Warsaw Social Welfare Department which operated “canteen” in every district in Warsaw. Sendler saved 2,500 Jewish children from starvation, disease, and eventual death between 1942 and 1943 by smuggling them out of Warsaw ghetto and placing them with non-Jewish families.

Though Sendler was arrested and subjected to extreme brutal treatment by the Germans, she was always helped and saved from imprisonment and death, once by a German officer who accepted a bribe from the Zaguta, a Polish underground group, and once by a Jewish woman.

The extraordinary services exemplified by these seven social workers and their allies serve as examples of what it means to uplift humanity, and to serve others. Their work demonstrates our connectedness as humans and the importance of standing for something larger than oneself.

Featured Image Credit: by Mary Ellen RichmondIrena SendlerShirley Chisholm, and Wilma Mankiller via Wikimedia Commons.

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