Social Work Pioneers Paved the Way for Today's Accomplishments in our Profession

Kathryn Conley Wehrmann, PhD, MSW, LCSW

Kathryn Conley Wehrmann

The NASW Social Work Pioneer® program chronicles the many contributions made by the individuals who have been inducted into it—nearly 800 people since the program began in 1994.

The most recent Pioneer event was held Nov. 1 and 2, 2019, and was especially momentous because it was also the 25th birthday of the program’s founding. The theme for the event was “Recognizing Our Past, Moving Towards Our Future.” The theme was appropriate, as the Pioneer program identifies and recognizes individuals whose unique dedication, commitment, and determination have improved social and human conditions and have led to the current accomplishments of our profession.

According to Pioneer program founders Mark G. Battle and Ruth Irelan Knee — and those who continue to move the program forward by planning the annual events and doing the work of reviewing nominations and selecting each year’s new inductees:

Pioneers have prepared the way for thousands of other social workers to make their contributions to human betterment. They form a mosaic of achievement at many levels of society and influence all parts of the United States, from troubled inner-cities to reservations to military hospitals to universities to the board rooms of Fortune 500 companies to state government to Congress and the White House. Some Pioneers are well known; others less famous outside their immediate colleagues and the region where they live and work. But, each has made an important and enduring contribution to the social work profession and to social policies through service, teaching, writing, research, program development, administration or legislation.

In addition to my participation in the Washington, D.C.-based Pioneer celebration, I was honored to help recognize a Pioneer who was not able to attend the festivities. On Nov. 21, 2019, the NASW Iowa Chapter hosted a reception to honor Raygena Curry, the recipient of the Catherine G. Williams Lifetime Diversity Award; and new NASW Pioneer inductee, Ms. Catherine G. Williams herself.

Debra Carr, who nominated Ms. Williams, had traveled to Washington to receive Ms. Williams’ special certificate and was also present for the Des Moines (Ms. Williams’ hometown) recognition of this gifted social worker. It was a wonderful celebration made doubly so, as it was held on Ms. Williams’ 105th birthday. Ms. Williams was honored as a new Pioneer based on accomplishments during her 30-plus year career with the Iowa Department of Human Services.

As noted in her nomination document, she became the deputy commissioner of the department and was the highest ranking African American woman in the largest agency in Iowa state government.

During her time with the DHS, she established the first foster parent resource system in the state and developed the first statewide training program for foster parents of children with intellectual disabilities. She wrote the first foster care parent manual and established the first adoption subsidy program. She also designed the Access, Coordinate and Track (ACT) Unit within the department to ensure the delivery of goal-oriented social services for the benefit of children and families throughout Iowa. Her staff led and served as facilitators for the professional delivery of goal-oriented social services for the Kansas City Region (VII) on behalf of the United States Department of Health and Human Services. Hers was a career that influenced hundreds, perhaps thousands, of lives.

As Ms. Williams and Ms. Curry each shared remarks at the podium, I was filled with professional pride that they are my social work colleagues. I was also filled with gratitude that I am a member of a profession that truly is based on hope and possibility. I was reminded of how far we have come as a profession and how much we have done to improve our communities and organizations — through advocacy for better policy and programs and an abiding belief in a vision of the world where everyone can access what they need to live with dignity.

My thoughts moved on to how much more work we have ahead of us and how we can look to our Pioneers as a source of inspiration, and to our professional association as a powerful vehicle for action. If you are not familiar with the Pioneer website, I strongly encourage you to have a look at NASW Social Work Pioneers.

As we celebrate generations of social work for Social Work Month in March, I would like to challenge you to read about one Pioneer each day. Prepare to be impressed and inspired. You won’t be disappointed!

Contact Kathryn Wehrmann at