Social Work Leaders Honor Legacy of Past NASW President Mit Joyner

By Paul R. Pace

montage of Mit Joyner speaking, with members, at a social justice rally

Mildred "Mit" Joyner, president of NASW from July 2020 through June 2023, is remembered as once-in-a-generation leader in the social work profession.

“Mit was a go-getter,” says Sandra Edmonds Crewe, PhD, ACSW, dean and professor at the Howard University School of Social Work. “She was a social worker always on the move and she engaged others to get involved in her causes.”

Joyner, DPS, MSW, LCSW, who lived in West Chester, Pa., died earlier this year at age 73.

The NASW Social Work Pioneer® was an alumna of Howard and was appointed by the university’s School of Social Work as the inaugural John E. & Barbara S. Jacob Distinguished Endowed Professor in 2021. Joyner developed the first cohort of Howard University Social Work Social Justice fellows.

“Howard is proud to claim Mit Joyner as one of our own,” Crewe says. “Indeed, she was bold about Howard being prepared and believed in our guiding philosophy: the Black perspective in social work practice. Her service as the Jacob professor was one example of how she gave back of her talents and treasures.”

Over a remarkable career, Joyner led every large social work association and mentored thousands of professionals. In addition to NASW, Joyner served in leadership positions at the Council on Social Work Education (CSWE), the Association of Baccalaureate Social Work Program Directors (BPD), the International Association of Schools of Social Work (IASSW), and the International Federation of Social Workers (IFSW).

Right Leader, Right Time

As president of NASW, Joyner raised the voices of diverse members of the profession, including younger social workers, social workers of color, and social workers who are LGBTQIA2S+.

Former NASW President Gary Bailey, MSW, ACSW, said NASW was fortunate to have Joyner serve as president during a perilous time in the nation’s history.

“The racial reckoning, the pandemic, and economic downturn, the attempt to strip people of their rights and turn the country back was a place where Mit made a commitment to social justice,” said Bailey, assistant dean for Community Engagement and Social Justice at Simmons University.

“She could not be silent. She was the right leader at the right time for the profession.”

Helping others came naturally for her, Bailey noted.

“Mit came out of a family and faith that believed in service. I think it really started at home.”

“She gave the last ounce of her being to NASW and the profession,” he said.

In addition to her accomplishments in social work, Bailey said he wanted people to know that Joyner had a fantastic ability to have a good time as well.

“She never missed an opportunity to experience joy,” he said. “Spending time with her family, she maximized having joy in her life. That is probably the most important lesson: not to put off having joy. That’s the lesson I take away from Mit’s life.”

“I have lost a dear friend and colleague,” Bailey added. “She would often say she was my sister from another mother. We connected in a way that was real and deep. I feel her loss deeply. I feel equally deeply about her commitment and dedication and how she became a role model.”

Looking Back

Joyner was a proud Howard University and Central State University HBCU graduate. She established scholarship funds for social work students of color, highlighted emerging leaders in the profession, and celebrated the many unsung pioneers in social work.

Her career started as a child welfare worker at the Chester County Children, Youth, and Families Agency. She then held leadership positions at West Chester University School of Social Work for more than 25 years, launching the first MSW program in the Pennsylvania state system of higher education. She also served as board chair of Living Beyond Breast Cancer, a national education and support organization, and as board chair of the Chester County Food Bank. She served on the boards of the NASW Foundation and NASW Assurance Services, Inc., and was the first Black woman to serve on the board of directors for DNBFIRST, a community bank.

One of the many social workers Joyner influenced during her life is Chad Dion Lassiter, MSW, a nationally recognized expert in American race relations and executive director of the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission. He got to know Joyner when she asked him to teach at West Chester 15 years ago.

“She supported me as a young scholar,” he said. “I am humbled to have had time with such a tremendous social justice agent.”

He described Joyner as pledging her very being to the calling and the science of social work. When Joyner asked him to teach a death and dying course at the school, he was hesitant at first. He later found the experience rewarding.

“Mit taught me in that class that we all go from the cradle to the grave,” Lassiter said. “We all have an ending. It’s not the day you’re born or the day you die, it’s the dash in between. Mit did a lot with her dash.”

Joyner could see the potential in people, he noted.

“Make no mistake, Mit pushed you,” he said.

When it came to leading the profession through difficult times, Joyner never wavered.

“I thought Mit was integral to the conversations we have in our democracy,” Lassiter said. “Mit was unapologetic in calling out the challenges in our democracy. One thing I will take away from Mit is never run from speaking truth to power. And to never apologize and hide behind the identity of being a social worker.”

Joyner will be remembered for mentoring countless colleagues, agencies, students, and everyday individuals, he said.

“Because of Mit Joyner, I will continue to fight for justice for all people — (on) every side of the color line and gender line. That’s how I will honor her memory.”