NASW-Georgia Executive Director Cheryl Bonneau grew up in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, watching her parents — and all her neighbors — regularly give back to the community.
She said that was how things were done in her neighborhood when she was a kid, and those early values of community organization are ingrained in her today.
“It was very community oriented, and there were always meetings in the community regarding everything, from basic stuff to having activities,” Bonneau said. “My mom was very politically active, and one of those people who would go and hear people like Malcolm X speak. It was stressed to be involved in the community, and I got that sense of community activism and caring from my parents.”
Even before she graduated from New York University with a BSW, Bonneau knew she wanted to give back. But it was while working at her first job after graduation as a preventive service manager that she really connected with the social work profession.
“Part of my role was to prevent children from being taken from their families and placed into the foster care system,” she said. “The continuing education courses I took at the time enhanced my understanding of what I was trained to do, but that level of education isn’t comparable to an MSW.”
Law school would be Bonneau’s next stop, however, before earning an MSW from the Hunter College School of Social Work in New York. She said her work in preventive services required frequent court visits, and she felt lacking in her knowledge of how public systems worked within the court of law.
Bonneau said pursuing her Juris Doctor at City University at the New York School of Law helped deepen her understanding of the legal jargon and procedures that can accompany many social work roles.
“I felt like it was essential for me, and it prepared me to be a better advocate,” Bonneau said. “As a social worker with a law degree, even in my current position, I can read and understand contracts, policies and jargon and it’s made me a stronger advocate.”
Although a native New Yorker, Bonneau is no stranger to the South. She spent some childhood summers in South Carolina, where her father is originally from. She’s also no stranger to being an executive director, as her previous position was as ED of NASW’s Alabama Chapter. She also has been a faculty member at the Metropolitan College of New York, where she served as a career coordinator for students.
Bonneau said she felt the ED role at the Georgia Chapter would offer her different challenges and an opportunity to expand her skills. Every state and chapter office has a different culture, she said, and NASW-Georgia has a fairly large membership — about 2,500 members — in a bigger state than Alabama.
“Since I’ve been here in March, I’ve been proud of many accomplishments,” Bonneau said. “We have reconnected with legislators; had more continuing education opportunities for our members; and had our 26th annual conference in October, based on the theme ‘All People Matter.’”
Members had the opportunity to gain up to 20 CEs during the conference, she said, and topics included substance abuse, professional development, and the ethics of safety and social work practice.
NASW-Georgia has also established a Political Action for Candidate Election (PACE) committee and a legislative workgroup, which will look at putting expert witnesses from various social work practice areas in place as required for legal court proceedings.
The chapter will continue its focus on recruiting and retaining student members, Bonneau said. The chapter brought back a mentorship program and offers resume writing services and career development to educate and help social workers just graduating, or those who have been out of school a couple of years.
“Our primary focus is growing our student membership as other members age out,” she said. “The students are the future.”
Bonneau said she enjoys her work as an executive director at NASW and the challenges keep her fresh — it’s never boring.
“I’ve learned an awful lot here and I think that’s important,” she said. “It’s always a challenge. Some people may not like that, but it’s the challenges that keep it interesting.”
Get more information: NASW-Georgia.