Social work shared through generations

Kathy Byers and Dianne StewartKathy Byers, left, and Dianne Stewart, hold framed pictures of their fathers, who both served as president of NASW. Byers’ father, Howard F. Gustafson, was elected NASW president in 1964. Stewart’s father, Robert P. Stewart, was president of NASW from 1983 to1985. Byers and Stewart also are social workers, and examples of social work as a family tradition. — Photo by Paul Pace, NASW News

When Maura Nsonwu was a teenager and her mother, Mary Anne Busch, was working on her master’s degree in social work, her mother called the children into the room to try out a family therapy technique: family sculpture.

It calls for the client and all family members to be physically placed in a way that indicates how close they are, said Nsonwu, BSW, MSW, Ph.D. and associate professor and interim BSW program director at North Carolina Agricultural and Technical University in Greensboro.

“She was learning about Virginia Satir and wanted to position us so it would show how we all relate to each other,” she said. “The four of us were teenagers, and it did not go over well.”

“That really shows you that you can’t do social work with your family. You can have some interesting conversations, but when it comes to family, doing social work doesn’t work out so well.”

The story brought a laugh from her son, Zik Nsonwu, who quipped, “It’s a good way to get locked out of the bathroom the next morning.”

Nsonwu’s sister is a social worker and Zik is working on his BSW with a double major in political science.

The family is one of many for whom social work is a proud family tradition. For some, it links two generations. For others, it’s multiple generations, and brothers and sisters too.

Inspirational Parents

Kathy Byers’ brother, Rick Gustafson, is a retired social worker in Indianapolis, and both of her parents were social workers. Her father, Howard F. Gustafson, was elected NASW president in 1964. He and her mother, Nellie Gustafson, are both NASW Foundation Social Work Pioneers®.

“They met in grad school at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland,” Byers said. “She was interested in group work, he in community organizing.”

They were married, and World War II came along. Her dad was a conscientious objector, which meant you served for the duration of the war, she said.

“For a while, she stayed in Cleveland and he was planting trees in Michigan and doing things like that,” Byers said. “At some point the federal government said ‘Gee, he has a master’s in social work. He can do more than plant trees.’ He was sent to the Virgin Islands to do work there.”

After she was born and the war was over, her father worked as director of the Community Service Council in Houston, then in the same position for the same council in Indianapolis, doing overall planning and working on issues like poverty and housing. Her mother stopped working but was “very involved” with groups, including the League of Women Voters, the Girl Scouts and the PTA, Byers said.

“Dinner table conversations included what was going on in the world and people who were involved in the community and what they were doing to make it a better place,” she said. “I assumed that whatever career I chose, it would involve making the world a better place and helping people.”

She was in high school during the Freedom Summer, also called the Mississippi Summer Project, but realized she wasn’t going south to register voters. Instead, she took local action.

“A friend of mine and I went around and collected canned goods for people who went south to register voters,” Byers said. “My parents were very supportive of those efforts to help on the community level.”

Maura Nsonwu stands with her son, ZikSocial worker Maura Nsonwu, right, stands with her son, Zik, who is working on his BSW with a double major in political science.

She remained active while at Brandeis University in Waltham, Mass., where she was in a program to earn an MSW and go directly into the Ph.D. program.

“When I graduated with my MSW, I realized I had not done any social work,” Byers said. “I did 10 years of practice, then went back for my Ph.D.”

In that interim, she was married and moved to Louisville, Ky., where the Army stationed her husband at Fort Knox during the Vietnam War.

“I ended up finally getting a job as a caseworker for public assistance,” Byers said. “That was a real eye-opening experience. When I went in for the interview, a welfare-rights demonstration was going on at the office.”

During the following several years, she worked with people with disabilities, in children’s services and taught. She earned her Ph.D. in educational psychology at Indiana University, then taught at a few different universities before returning to teach at the Bloomington, Ind., campus.

Byers stayed in Bloomington and is currently associate professor emeritus in the graduate school faculty and a national chairperson with Influencing State Policy, although she said she is “really trying to retire.”

“Issues like civil rights, voting rights, poverty and women’s issues were very much at the forefront and were what my parents and their friends talked about,” Byers said. “When I was into my own work and the teaching, I saw that many issues were the same. Yes, we’ve made some progress, but there’s still a lot of work to be done. My parents, and then I — we worked so hard to build a just and fair society, and now they’re rolling it all back.”

She frequently thinks about her parents and wonders how they would view current events.

“I think,” Byers said, “they would have been out there marching with us.”

Family Footsteps

Dianne Stewart said her father is just one of the reasons she went into social work.

“It was not just my father,” she said. “My mom, Nyla Stewart, was a social worker as well. She got her master’s and was an adoption worker. She was in the forefront in open adoptions in Texas.”

Her dad, Robert P. Stewart, BA, MSW, is a past NASW president and a Social Work Pioneer who focused on integrated services in health and mental health care, and worked with nonprofit groups in all areas — from health care to education to community development.

Robert Stewart said he intended to teach German and had entered a master’s program in that when he heard a presentation from a social worker during a luncheon.

“It was characterized as a profession that helps people help themselves,” he said. “I knew nothing about social work, so I went and talked to several people, including people in a family service agency.”

“The more I learned about social work, the more I saw it as the profession that fit with me. I took the GRE and went from there, and I have never regretted that.”

Dianne Stewart, BA, MSSW, was first drawn to social work for two reasons.

“One of the things I grew up with was not only the dedication to service that was grounded very, very deeply in my parents, but also the deep tradition of social work coming out of social justice,” she said.

Her decision to enter the field resulted from a trip to Germany, where her father had some contacts, to interview women who were social workers during the time of the Nazis — not only to research the history of social work but also to find out what happened to the profession under the Nazi regime.

One of the women she interviewed had worked with disabled children, and one of her jobs was to identify the children who would be sent off to camps, Stewart said.

Carolyn A. HarleyCarolyn A. Harley holds a photo of her mother’s 1930 graduation from what is now South Carolina State University. Her mother, Carrie Mae Stears Harley, was a social worker and charter member of NASW. Caroyln Harley also became a social worker, and graduted with her MSW from Columbia University in 1963

“Originally she thought they actually were camps,” she said. “Over time, she realized what they were. She had to decide whether to stay or not, so she stayed for a while.”

“When she told me she left (her job), she said, ‘Wait a minute. I have something to show you.’ She rummaged around in a closet, then handed me a paper and said ‘Here is my certificate of being an Aryan to certify I was not Jewish.’ All those decades later, she wanted to show me proof she was Aryan.”

Digging into that work was when she applied to the master’s program, Stewart said.

“I didn’t think of becoming a social worker until then,” she said.

But she still didn’t know what her path was within the profession, although she saw there were options. Then an internship with a home health care organization “capped it for me,” Stewart said.

“My job was to go around and check on people,” she said. “What I learned about myself was my brain had a hard time learning about people.”

When she talked to them, her brain “went immediately to system things.” She thought if the agency only had this or that program it would help this person and they wouldn’t have to go through this.

“That made it very clear that my path was in public policy” Stewart said. “My interests were comparable to my father’s — the bigger picture stuff.”

Robert Stewart, an NASW-Texas member, said he “always had a focus on bigger, systemic issues” like organizing, system delivery and policy issues.

That evolved into looking at how systemic change takes place, looking at integration methods that have a role and at the profession’s obligation to see all the other factors involved.

As a Social Work Pioneer, his career highlights and contributions to the profession are listed on the NASW Foundation website at

In spite of his many accomplishments, he said his daughter “far exceeds me in her abilities and what she’s accomplished. I have great pride in what she’s accomplished.”

Dianne Stewart is currently director of the Economic Analysis and Research Network (EARN) and Network Engagement at the Economic Policy Institute in Washington, D.C.

She created the nonprofit Indivisible; created and led Public Works, also a nonprofit; and founded and led the Center for Public Policy Priorities, based in Texas.

Robert Stewart began consulting in 2004, and in April accepted a new job: managing director of coalitions and planning, and coordinator of community services for the Community Council of Greater Dallas.

“It’s three programs, 60 employees and the focus is building relationships in the community and strengthening our mission,” he said.

Dianne Stewart said her father always had a strong belief in the importance of emphasizing public policy in practice, and she’s happy about his new job.

“I hope,” she said, “that I have a quarter of his energy and brain power when I’m at that age.”

Daughter Motivates Mom

As she retires from 38 years of teaching special education in Grand Rapids, Mich., Cathy Langereis is back in school studying to become a social worker at Western Michigan University.

“I’m following in my daughter’s footsteps,” she said. “I’ve been taking classes for the last two years, and now that I’m retiring, I’m starting this fall full time.”

It all began while she was riding in her daughter’s car and started reading some of her textbooks.

“I thought, ‘This is kind of interesting,’” said Langereis, who has a master’s degree in special education. “I saw how interesting her classes were, found out the program was manageable and decided to take a class. I really enjoyed it. It was like a shot in the arm, and I think it made me better at my job.”

Topics in her classes so far — like white privilege and trauma — she’s found “fascinating.”

“It’s put together so differently from education, especially special education,” Langereis said. “I’m like a sponge, and I feel like I’ve been living in a cave the last 25 years.”

Her daughter, Joy Langereis, an NASW-Michigan member who was working on her MSW when her mom read those textbooks in her car, earned her degree this year. She works as a case manager for the Hope Network in Grand Rapids — an integrated-care adult foster care home.

“It’s a unique program,” she said. “I think it’s the only place that does this in Michigan.”

The home houses about 30 people, folks with severe mental illness and other complicated issues like Alzheimer’s.

“It’s like a step down from the hospital,” Langereis said. “In integrated care, one of the biggest challenges is dealing with people who have multiple problems, like schizophrenia and diabetes, or heart disease and dementia or other mental problems. We give them back some of their life that they once had.”

“That’s really hard, and it’s a great gift to be part of their care. This population is generally unseen. The big problem is there is no place for them to step down to. It’s hard to find places for people with multiple problems, and resources are sparse.”

Cathy Langereis hasn’t settled on a focus area yet, but she is interested in a therapy setting possibly like a woman she met who practices from an office in her church.

“That’s where she sees clients,” she said. “She provides support for those in or outside that faith community.”

Cathy Langereis, right, and Joy Langereis,Retired teacher Cathy Langereis, right, decided to follow her daughter, Joy Langereis, into social work. Joy earned her MSW this year, while her mom is still in school.

But, she is keeping her options open at this point.

“If there’s anything I’ve learned in my life, I don’t know where this is going to go,” Langereis said.

She admits not knowing what to expect when she started her coursework and didn’t know how she, as an older student, would be received.

“I wasn’t the only one over 45,” she said.

Challenges include lots of new information, lots of memorization and “writing research papers again after so much time.”

She sometimes does not speak up or ask questions because she’s “not in her comfort zone,” Langereis said.

“I’m not at the top of the game,” she said. “I’m at the bottom, so I’m catching up. My daughter has helped. We’ve always had the ability to talk about hard things, and I know I can be completely honest with her about how I feel. She’s always there when I think ‘What am I doing?’”

She said Joy reminds her she’s doing something she’s good at and says it’s something she should do.

“As a cheerleader, that’s a most helpful role,” Langereis said. “It’s kind of like a reversal of roles.”

Joy Langereis said she talks to her mom about the challenges and rewards involved in social work.

“I’m so glad she’s doing it because we have a lot to share about what we’re doing,” she said. “I think my mom is an exceptional human being. We have friendship as well as mutual respect. I think we make a good sounding board for each other.”

“I think to be exceptional as a social worker you have to understand some things about life and relationships. My mom is good at those things. She’s the best.”

A Life of Service

Ask Carolyn A. Harley about being a social worker, and she will tell you how her social worker mother lived a life of service not only on the job but to her children and the entire neighborhood.

Carrie Mae Stears Harley’s life exemplified social work ideals, and other people looked to her for help and advice, Carolyn Harley said.

Her mother graduated from what is now South Carolina State University in May 1930 and did some graduate work at the Atlanta University School of Social Work. She moved to New York, and married in 1932. She had twin girls and a son, but the marriage didn’t last, and she raised the children by herself while working part time and finishing graduate school, Harley said.

“She was a remarkable woman,” Harley said. “When we were growing up, in order to support us she worked several jobs. She had a day job and she had an evening job. She didn’t sit down and say ‘I can’t do this.’ I think we just went about accomplishing things because we saw what she was doing.”

“She wasn’t always around, but we knew she was busy and we tried to be helpful and not hinder the efforts she made to manage the family. But we never felt alone.”

Carolyn Harley wrote a memorial for her sister to read at her mother’s funeral that she said explains how well-respected her mother was in the neighborhood they lived in.

Part of it states: “Many of the mothers sought out our mother for advice. They trusted mother ... and she was never too busy to talk to them. She worked part time to go to grad school, and after graduating, she worked three jobs. Consequently, as children, we had the sense nothing was impossible.”

Harley, an NASW-NYC member, said her mother was leader of a parent discussion group at St. Marks Methodist Church, where “she had a lot of influence on a lot of people.”

“Because she was a social worker, we had lots of social workers come to the house,” Harley said. “I saw it as a wonderful profession — helping others.”

Carrie Harley was a charter member of NASW, and Carolyn Harley has the document, dated 1955.

“I think I identified with my mother, and I wanted to be like her,” she said.

She earned her BA in 1958, and graduated from Columbia University with an MSW in 1963. She also holds an LCSW-R and is a board certified diplomate.

“Those of us who went to Columbia then took a clinical sequence, and we were trained to look at ourselves,” Harley said. “How are you going to help someone unless you know what you’re all about? This was the main focus in the clinical sequence.”

She was placed with Michael Schwerner in one of her college working groups. He was one of three civil rights workers killed in Meridian, Miss.

“Because he was involved with voter registration, Micky Schwerner lost his life in a first-year placement,” Harley said.

Her career was varied: She worked with children and with adults. At Windham Child Care, she worked with children in foster care and ran a group for foster parents.

At the Hospital for Special Surgery, she was chief social worker in the cerebral palsy clinic. Then she worked primarily with adults while at the American Red Cross.

Later on, she was director of social services at Marcus Garvey Nursing Home in Brooklyn. Her last job before retiring was from 1988 to 2001 at Greater Harlem Nursing Home, where she was director of social services.

“I worked different jobs as my interests developed,” Harley said. “I think it all boils down to my mother being the most remarkable individual. I identified with her in many ways. By no means could I do all she did, but I like to think that my drive came from her.”

“We learned from her that change is possible. It isn’t easy, but it can come about. When I started social work, I felt like I was doing what my mother had been doing. And I felt satisfied.”

All in the Family

When Maura Nsonwu began college, she started out as “probably the typical college student: I was not going to do what my parents did.”

That meant not going into social work like her mother and not teaching like her dad. She wanted to be an industrial psychologist.

“Every year, my mom said, ‘Why don’t you take just one social work class,” Nsonwu said. “No, no! I want to be an industrial psychologist, I told her.”

Then she realized industrial psychology “wasn’t feeding my soul.”

“I took my first intro to social work class and I absolutely loved it,” said Nsonwu, an NASW-North Carolina member. “In the courses, I could connect what I did in the real world. Then when I was working in the field for an agency I did an internship with, I remember saying to my mother, ‘Mom, I love this job. This is something I want to do the rest of my life.’”

“She said: ‘You really need to get an MSW.’ She really saw that down the road it would be necessary for me. She encouraged me; it was not a ‘you must do.’ She was seeing my potential. Think about the irony. I wasn’t going to be a teacher. I wasn’t going to be a social worker. Now I’m both of those.”

Her sister, Noel Busch Armendariz, earned an MSW, an MPA and a Ph.D. in social work and is a writer and researcher at the University of Texas at Austin. The two have collaborated on several papers.

“We always were very, very close,” Nsonwu said. “Our paths have revolved around one another. It’s such a joy to have my parents and my sister and my son to have those kitchen-table discussions with.”

Zik Nsonwu said it was funny hearing his mother talk about what led her into social work because he remembers “as a kid being dragged to all these things like conferences and someone’s house” in the very same way.

“Both my parents instilled in me a love for service — which is good,” he said. “I was going to start at N.C. State in engineering, but I took a gap year and worked in Northern Ireland doing peace and reconciliation.”

He went to Corrymeela, a community in Ballycastle, where his grandparents had worked in the 1980s.

“Academically, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I wanted to do: peace/conflict studies, political science, social justice?” Zik said. “As a kid, I didn’t understand what social work was. Later it solidified for me as a vocation. I saw social work as a way to do it all.”

“I think it was working in Northern Ireland that changed my view. I was able to take a year out and emerge myself in service. That really pushed me to it.”

Along the way, he learned a lot of skills that his mother has used in some of her classes.

“When Zik worked as a facilitator, he used a lot of games and activities that bring out discussions,” Marua Nsonwu said. “I’ve had him come in and help facilitate a group project with my classes, where he’s done a number of exercises with them. It’s been great to be able to have him as a resource.”

Zik said everyone in his family is incredible.

“They talk to me, tell me what to expect and tell me about all the agencies that are out there and the different things agencies do,” he said.

When asked about any challenges, he said one of the agencies he was considering, a refugee resettlement, was fairly esteemed.

“My grandmother was interview coordinator there,” Nsonwu said as his sense of humor kicked in. “If anything, the challenge would be bumping into a relative working there.”

Maura Nsonwu said her son has a lot of skills.

“He has the skill set that I’ve been able to utilize with my classes and groups I work with,” she said. “To be a mom and witness that is really nice. I learned from Zik. Not all parents get to do that in their professions.”


NASW Social Work Pioneer Program