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From the President

Debt of Gratitude Owed Pioneers

I would be remiss if I let February, which is African American History Month, and March, which is Women's History Month, pass without taking the time to remember and express my heartfelt thanks to the social work pioneers, both women and people of color, who first explored and defined the profession of social work.

African American social work pioneers were guided and influenced by the traditions of their communities and by their shared experiences. During the 1990s, the African saying "It takes a village to raise a child" became a popular catchphrase. The knowledge that no one is alone that we are all part of a larger community, that our actions influence and have an impact on the lives of others is a cornerstone of the African American helping tradition. Social workers who emerged during the 20th century strongly believed in this essential truth and used it to shape the profession of social work, communities and the nation.

It is no secret that Whitney Young Jr., the first African American to be elected president of NASW, has always been one of my heroes. When I was elected president of NASW, it was he who came to my mind as one whose shoes I felt challenged to fill, whose memory buoys me during times of doubt and times of celebration. As one of the social work profession's most recognized leaders, Whitney Young fought for social justice, civil rights and an end to segregation.

A veteran of World War II and graduate of the University of Minnesota School of Social Work (after having been denied admission to the University of Kentucky because of his race), Young was appointed dean of the School of Social Work at Atlanta University in 1954, and in 1961 was named executive director of the National Urban League. He is credited with being one of the key architects of the War on Poverty. In 1969, Young was awarded the Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian award in the country, by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Mark Battle, NASW's first African American executive director, was, like Young, a veteran of World War II. In 1948, he helped organize the nation's first-ever interracial camp for children. Battle's accomplishments cannot be adequately described in just a paragraph or two, but following are a few highlights that emphasize the inspiring work of this tireless advocate.

Battle was a consultant to the U.S. Department of Labor on youth employment and led a successful effort to implement social work as a legitimate profession in the department's work force. For two years, he served as principal investigator of a project to help the state of Maryland develop and implement its HIV prevention program the first plan approved and funded by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Mark Battle has worked tirelessly on behalf of the social work profession, both in the U.S. and internationally, resulting in the profession's increased power.

Women, particularly women of color, have often been the unsung heroes of the social work profession. The women's club movement, as an example, played a major role in helping create service networks throughout communities nationwide. And beyond the service aspects of social work, women have always been highly active in political advocacy as well.

Dorothy Irene Height received the Congressional Gold Medal in 2003 from the U.S. House of Representatives in recognition of her lifelong commitment helping the African American community, was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1994 and was awarded the Citizens Medal Award for distinguished service by President Ronald Reagan in 1989. She is perhaps best known for her roles with the YWCA and the National Council of Negro Women.

Dorothy Height has been acknowledged for her leadership and vision by every president since Franklin D. Roosevelt. She worked closely with Whitney Young Jr., Martin Luther King Jr. and Mark Battle and participated in almost every major human rights and civil rights event during the past several decades. Her extraordinary leadership skills and capacity for selfless dedication continue to inspire me every day.

Josephine R. Lambert, one of my mentors at Boston University School of Social Work, where I received my degree, was the first African American woman tenured there. She received her master's degree in social work from B.U., and went on to direct youth programs at Cooper Community Center in Roxbury, Mass.

Lambert moved to Washington, D.C., in 1956 to work for the U.S. Department of Health, Education and Welfare as a social science analyst and community organization specialist. She worked primarily with youth at risk before returning to teach at B.U. Her contributions to education for students of color, her passion for fostering understanding across racial lines and her efforts to create services for communities of color were, and still are, a source of inspiration.

In listing just a few of the pioneers in our profession whose work encourages and motivates me, I know I have failed to mention the work of the hundreds of other groundbreaking social workers who came before. This does not mean, however, that they are forgotten. As professional social workers, we rededicate ourselves to their efforts on a daily basis, honoring their memories and paying tribute to their work, their struggles and their successes. I encourage each of you to take a few moments this month to think about those whose courage opened doors for you and for this great profession and to honor the memory of the social work pioneers whose stories touch your heart and move your soul.

To contact Gary Bailey: president@naswdc.org

 
 
 
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